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French Muslims Fear Backlash, Increased Islamophobia After Charlie Hebdo Attack

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Muslims across France are fearing a backlash after Wednesday’s attack on the Charlie Hebdo magazine. Several mosques have been attacked. A bomb exploded at a kebab shop in Paris. We speak to Muhammad El Khaoua, a graduate student in international relations at the Paris Institute for Political Science. He grew up in the outskirts of Paris where he was involved with different grassroots associations, including Salaam, a student association dedicated to promoting interfaith dialogue and a better understanding of Islam. Also joining is Lebanese-French academic Gilbert Achcar, professor at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, we continue to look at the breaking news from France. Agence France-Presse is reporting two people died after a gunman took five people hostage at a kosher grocery store. The gunman is reportedly the same man who shot a Paris policewoman dead on Thursday. Meanwhile, French police have surrounded a building in a northern town near Charles de Gaulle Airport as part of a massive manhunt for the two men accused of carrying out the massacre at the Charlie Hebdo magazine. Police say the suspects, Said and Chérif Kouachi, are holed up in a small printing business, where they have taken a hostage. Still with us in London is Gilbert Achcar.

AMY GOODMAN: Also with us here in New York is Muhammad El Khaoua. He is a graduate student in international relations at the Paris Institute for Political Science. He grew up in the outskirts of Paris, where he was involved with different grassroots associations, including Salaam, a student association dedicated to promoting interfaith dialogue and a better understanding of Islam.

Before we go back to Gilbert Achcar, Muhammad, talk about the climate in Paris. And you hear the horror right now. You’ve got the two brothers. They’re holed up near the airport. They’ve got a hostage. Another man, not clear what their connection is, if there’s a direct connection, though they may have been years ago together, is—has killed two hostages, or two hostages have been killed in a Jewish supermarket in Paris.

MUHAMMAD EL KHAOUA: Yeah, I mean, this is a political nightmare for the entire French society, but particularly for the French Muslims, because those who killed those individuals really create a space, create a great opportunity for the most destructive Islamophobic, racist forces in France, which are already using this tragedy, this catastrophe, to justify more repression against the Muslims. So it’s a political suicide that they basically did in the name of Islam. And again, the condemnation has been really clear: This goes against the, really, foundation of Islam.

But I think we have also to be clear on this: We should not always expect Muslims to condemn as Muslims. I think they should condemn as French citizens, or as human beings. When, as Gilbert Achcar mentioned, this Norwegian individual, Breivik, killed those 77 individuals in Norway, he was not portrayed as a Christian, white Christian individual. He was not even portrayed as a terrorist. So it seems like when a Muslim commits a terrorist act, he is referred as a terrorist, but when a non-Muslim does the same, there is a double standard.

And it reminds me that I was watching NBC, and there was a former CIA official who was on the show, and he said that this terrorist attack was the most serious one in France since the—in Europe since the killing of this Norwegian individual by Breivik. But he forget that actually it’s not the case, because he didn’t include the killing of these Norwegian people, as if this individual is not a terrorist. So, there is a kind of identity politics here which is a bit disturbing for me.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And this whole issue of the, for now, for 30, 40 years, the uneasy situation of the Muslim—the growing Muslim population within France vis-à-vis the old established French white citizenry, what do you see—I mean, clearly this is a setback for those relations, but what has been the relationship now over the last several decades?

MUHAMMAD EL KHAOUA: Well, as you may know, France has a largest Muslim population in western Europe, and the history of the Muslim presence in France is deeply connected with the history of French colonialism. Most of the Muslims come from the countries which have been colonized by France, namely North African and West African countries.

AMY GOODMAN: Where is your family originally from?

MUHAMMAD EL KHAOUA: From Morocco and Nigeria. So, to understand the treatment of the French Muslims in today’s French society, we need to look at the colonial legacy, which I believe continues to shape, influence the way France deals with Islam and Muslims.

AMY GOODMAN: Gilbert Achcar, can you comment on what Muhammad is saying?

GILBERT ACHCAR: Yes. I mean, I think—well, I agree with what he is saying. Until now, I can’t see any disagreement. I mean, he is exactly pointing to this problem of the double standard in reacting to such events when they come from Muslims nowadays compared to any other religion, because, after all, this wave of extremism and fundamentalism is affecting everywhere, you know. I mean, we mentioned this Norwegian crazy guy, and you have these appalling demonstrations of the far right in Germany, of all places, that’s really frightening. You had—you have Jewish fundamentalist extremists in Israel killing regularly, actually, and no one is saying Judaism is the source of all these killings. You have Hindu fundamentalists doing all sorts of appalling things, and again, no one is saying this is the problem of Hinduism. But when it comes to Islam, Islam is finger-pointed immediately. And that’s really here an issue of double standard in dealing with that.

And again, I mean, the freedom of speech is something, and I’m fully for the real freedom of speech, actually, which France is not a real country of freedom of speech, where you have a lot of laws hindering the real freedom of speech in France. It’s nothing like the First Amendment in the United States. But even in these limitations to the freedom of speech, you find double standards also.

And as I said, I mean, for instance, France, of course, the sense of guilt—for very good reason, which is actually an awful historical reason—about the Jewish genocide is not equalled by any sense of guilt with regard to the colonial past of France. And Algeria, for instance, is one of the most appalling episodes in the history of colonialism. You know, I mean, there are few worse cases, like the Congo, with the Belgians in the Congo, and such, but the history of French presence in Algeria, which lasted until 1962—that’s not that long ago, you know—is just appalling. And there is no—no real—I mean, at the level of the whole French society and the French media, this is not really integrated. And you have this kind of secularist arrogance towards Islam, which is a continuation of the kind of arrogance and colonial spirit that existed at the time of direct colonialism.

AMY GOODMAN: I’m going to just interrupt to say breaking news: The police have named two suspects wanted in connection with the second siege at the kosher supermarket in Paris: Amédy Coulibaly and Hayat Boumeddiene. Hayat is a woman. I want to turn to an imam of a mosque located in a Paris suburb, Drancy mosque. Imam Hassen Chalghoumi said France’s Muslim community fears a backlash in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attack.

IMAM HASSEN CHALGHOUMI: [translated] We are also afraid of this twisting. That’s not to say we do not do our duty in renouncing this barbarism. No, we renounce it. We are one of the first victims. I am living 24 hours a day under police protection, faced with a minority. Unfortunately, all of the Muslim world are victims of 95 percent of terrorism. Currently, the acts of yesterday, there is also a wave of racism and insults that follow on the networks and on the Internet. We can understand the anger, but we cannot accept the hatred.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Imam Hassen Chalghoumi of the Drancy mosque in Paris, the French Muslim community fearing a major backlash in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attack. In fact, the policeman that has become famous now, who was laying on the ground outside the offices of Charlie Hebdo, named Ahmed Merabet, was Muslim himself, when one of the two assassins came and shot him directly and killed him. And people are not only saying, “Je Suis Charlie,” now, but they are saying, “Je Suis Ahmed.” On Sunday, there will be a mass protest in France, a rally in Paris. But they will not have the National Party, which is Marine Le Pen’s party. If you could comment on this, Muhammad, and the organizing among the youth, people like you, groups like Indigène?

MUHAMMAD EL KHAOUA: Yeah, I would like to say a word about this hashtag, “Je Suis Charlie.” I really understand the compassion, the natural compassion and respect and sentiment which the slogan represent, but I think Charlie—we need also to mention that Charlie Hebdo’s role in fostering this Islamophobic context has been very, very controversial, and especially since the early 2000s. They somehow recuperate—they use some of this rhetoric of the clash of civilization, and they apply it to the Muslims, who were always portrayed in the most degrading ways. So, we are very clear on the condemnation of these attacks, which are not—which cannot be justified in any way, shape or forms. But we also, as citizens, should be entitled to criticize the content of the newspaper and the shift in its editorial line since the early 2000s.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I’d like to ask you about that, because the way it’s been portrayed here, at least in the United States, is that the magazine was an equal opportunity satirist, attacking Christian—the Christian religion, Judaism, as well as Islam. But you think that that’s not quite so.

MUHAMMAD EL KHAOUA: No, I think when you target, you know, the weakest of the weak, when you target a population, a segment of the French population, which is already the target of institutionalized racism, this is not brave. I don’t think it’s courageous. Again, they have the right to do it, and it’s the law, so nobody puts into question the right to do so, but we should be also—without being, you know, afraid of being linked to this attack, question the responsibility of the newspaper and question their ethics in that matter.

AMY GOODMAN: The organizing of young people, like the groups Indigène, Indigenous, how people have been organizing in the past?

MUHAMMAD EL KHAOUA: You know, the Indigenous party, the Party of the Indigenous People of the Republic, as it is called, Parti des Indigènes de la République, has emerged in a very specific context, that which Gilbert Achcar mentioned, the 2005 propositions of law which would make obligatory for the French educational system to emphasize on the positive role of colonization—this law has now been passed—and also the 2005 riots, which have been—which are a very interesting case to understand the way Islam is dealt and perceived in France in the post-9/11 context. So, this is the context under which this movement, which is now a political party, has emerged. Basically, the idea of this movement is to say that, well, France has denied its colonial past, it refused to deal with it, it refused to recognize how this colonial legacy continues to shape its relation with Muslim and Islam. And I believe they make a point in this understanding, in this analysis of French society, which is a very racialized society, which pretends to be colorblind, which is really haunted by its colonial past.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to have to leave it there, but of course we’ll continue to follow this issue. Muhammad El Khaoua is a graduate student in international relations at the Paris Institute for Political Science, grew up in the outskirts of Paris, where he’s been involved with different grassroots associations, including Salaam, a student association dedicated to promoting interfaith dialogue and a better understanding of Islam. He heads back to Paris soon. And Gilbert Achcar, thanks so much for being with us, professor at the School of Oriental and African Studies, or SOAS, at the University of London. His most recent books are Marxism, Orientalism, Cosmopolitanism as well as The People Want: A Radical Exploration of the Arab Uprising.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, a bomb attack in Colorado Springs. Was it a terrorist attack against the NAACP? Stay with us.

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