Muslim in France: "we are walking on eggshells"

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Yanik Dumont Baron (access the author's page)

The paint seems very fresh on the walls of the great Averroes mosque. The building stands out against the landscape: a train and bus depot on one side, industrial buildings on the other.

It is the largest mosque in Montpellier, a city of 15 for an estimated population of 50,000 Muslims. The faithful who can no longer pray together because of the health situation.

<q data-attributes = '{"lang": {"value": "fr", "label": "Français"}, "value": {"html": "If there is no COVID , there are 1000people at the bottom, 600 at the top. "," text ":" If there is no COVID, there are 1000 people at the bottom, 600 at the top. "}} 'lang =" en”>If there is no COVID, there are 1,000 people downstairs, 600 upstairs. Lhoussine Tahri, the rector of the mosque, opened his doors to us. This is the house of Allah, he adds. It's more than sad when it is empty.

Lhoussine Tahri is welcoming, but hesitates when it comes time to talk about the place of Islam in France. He weighs his words, questions the journalist.

What are we gonna talk about? And the article, where will it come out? The answers seem to reassure him only halfway. He speaks a little, does not always complete his sentences.

We are going through a very difficult period. If you want, I can give you the phone number of someone who specializes in this stuff … We're walking on eggshells.

Lhoussine Tahri
A palm tree thrones in the courtyard.

The great Averroès mosque, bought from the City of Montpellier by Muslims in the area in 2016.

Photo: Radio-Canada / Yanik Dumont Baron

A period a bit difficult

It's not just the rector of this mosque who is cautious. Within hours, two other prominent Muslims in Montpellier withdrew from interviews they had initially agreed to grant.

It's complicated, Montpellier, one of them justified himself over the phone.

Here, all currents of Islam would coexist. With its share of tensions and contradictions.

There are security concerns related to the recent round of terrorist attacks, as well as the commemoration on Friday of the fifth anniversary of the Bataclan attacks.

Add to this the political debates over the Prophet’s caricatures, freedom of expression and the place of Islam in the country. Debates fueled by the French president, who seeks to better monitor Muslim extremists.

Emmanuel Macron presented the outlines of a bill to frame the training of imams and the financing of mosques, and better monitor community associations where extremists can act.

We are in a somewhat difficult period, concludes Rector Tahri. It is a construction site on all sides.

Muslim women accompany their children to school

Back to school one morning in the La Paillade district of Montpellier, a popular district with a high Muslim concentration.

Photo: Radio-Canada / Yanik Dumont Baron

The more it goes, the more we get hit

Children rush to enter primary school not far from the Averroès mosque. The accompanying persons are above all veiled mothers. They say Hello to the supervisors and often speak Arabic among themselves.

On the other side of the boulevard is the La Paillade public market. It is a popular area in the north-west of Montpellier, with a high Muslim concentration.

A few women wearing the veil line up in front of the halal butcher's shop. Opposite, we find a shopkeeper a little more talkative. <q data-attributes = "{" lang ": {" value ":" fr "," label ":" Français "}," value ": {" html ":" I sell aromatic herbs, explains Mohammed, 42years. What we had at home: mint, parsley, coriander. "," text ":" I sell aromatic herbs, explains Mohammed, 42 years old. What we had at home: mint, parsley, coriander. "}}" Lang = "en”>I sell aromatic herbs, explains Mohammed, 42. What we had at home: mint, parsley, coriander.

In the eyes of this Frenchman from Tunisia, Muslims remain poorly known and stigmatized by their fellow citizens, all associated with the terrorists who slaughter their victims.

He takes as an example the speeches of politicians and the discussions broadcast in the French media. Too often, Mohammed laments, the terrorist is described as a Muslim, while it’s some madman who killed someone. He is not a Muslim.

And the government's efforts to distinguish radical extremists who call for defying French rules from the crowd do not convince him.

You can say "Islamist" or whatever. For an average Frenchman, he is a Muslim. Who practices the religion of Islam? These are the Muslims.

Mohammed, trader in Montpellier
He is in front of his merchandise stall.

Mohammed, French of Tunisian origin, runs a shop in the public market of La Paillade, in Montpellier.

Photo: Radio-Canada / Yanik Dumont Baron

According to him, French efforts to enforce secularism mostly mask a campaign anti-islam. A roundabout way of restricting the rights and freedoms of Muslims.

The more it goes, the more we get hit, he laments. We feel weak, in fact. It is because we do not have the same rights, despite being in France.

As if it hadn't shocked enough yet

The community room must remain anonymous. We are invited there to meet young Muslims. To get there, you have to walk along the base of an HLM towards a community garden. On several balconies clothes are hung out to dry.

A young woman and three young men agreed to chat with us. Only two of them will reveal their first name. It won't change anything, explains one of those who refuse to identify himself.

At 18, Bilal is tall and thin. A football fan who does not feel too welcome in this country where he was born.

I feel that she (France) is rejecting us more and more. That Muslims are not French. That they are anything but French.

Bilal, 18 years old

The attacks are for a lot, of course, but also all these debates surrounding secularism, the wearing of the veil in public and the caricatures of the Prophet.

These drawings, offensive to many Muslims, were even projected on the walls of buildings in Montpellier recently, in response to the beheading of teacher Samuel Paty.

Of course, there is freedom of expression, recognizes Bilal. But repeating them, for me, is as if it hasn't shocked Muslims enough yet.

Young people see it as a mark of contempt for those who feel offended by the existence of these drawings. The best would be to do away with these cartoons, launches Bilal.

Soukeina, a student of foreign letters, wishes a peaceful dialogue on this question. It hurts people unnecessarily to publish them again. It recreates debate every time and it just doesn't stop. It's a hell of a cycle, actually.

Soukeina accuses politicians of using questions of Islam to win votes from French people worried about immigration and the risk of terrorist attacks. They are doing political clawback at our expense.

She smiles.

Samira Khouaja, founder of the Jasmin d'Orient association

Photo: Radio-Canada / Yanik Dumont Baron

Talk less about secularism

In Montpellier, we do not find only Muslims skeptical of the government's efforts to remove the most extremists from their ranks.

In mosques, you have to watch, see what's going on, believes Samira Khouaja, director of the Jasmin d'Orient association. It must.

Her organization helps women from the Maghreb to integrate into French society. A learning process that involves respect for secularism, she assures us.

It takes time to explain the rules surrounding secularism, she says, referring to the years lived in another culture, the new cultural codes to master, the language barrier.

Obstacles that are more difficult to overcome when newcomers live together in working-class neighborhoods, far from other French.

Samira Khouaja ​​calls for more diversity in the neighborhoods. If your neighbor instead of saying "hello" she says "salam aleykoum", how do you want these people to fit in?

She shows a big smile

Amel Deira, one of the trainers of the Jasmin d'Orient association.

Photo: Radio-Canada / Yanik Dumont Baron

At his side, trainer Amel Deira puts forward another idea. Let France put a little water in its wine on these delicate questions, such as secularism and integration.

She takes the UK and Canada as an example. They leave people free. In France, religion, the headscarf, we keep talking about it. If we forget this subject for a moment, the problem will recover on its own.

Yanik Dumont Baron is Radio-Canada correspondent in Europe

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