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After Paris Attacks, French Muslims Experience Backlash


The search goes on for suspects tied to the terror attacks in Paris. Hundreds of raids in France and Belgium have yielded some clues, but key figures remain at large, including tow men believed to have carried out the attacks last Friday. Overnight, France and Russia launched airstrikes on ISIS in Syria, targeting the group's self-proclaimed capital, Raqqah. And French leaders have called on the other 27 European Union countries to support that fight. In a moment, we'll hear how teachers in Paris are talking with their students about these events.


First, to our colleague, Robert Siegel. He's in Paris talking to people in different pockets of the city. And Robert, who'd you meet today?


I spoke with some French Muslims today. I was interested in hearing how they processed Friday's attacks. And interestingly, the people I heard from were more likely to link the events to the experiences of Muslims in France than to what's going on in Syria. Specifically, they saw this as being connected to the frustrations and alienation that some young Muslim men feel growing up in France, feelings that make them prime prospects for extremist recruiters.

CORNISH: In fact, you actually talked to someone I met earlier in the year, a young French Muslims who lived in the suburbs - right? - a student.

SIEGEL: I did. I'm grateful for the introduction. Ismael Medjoub is 22-years-old. When you met him, he was studying history at the Sorbonne. He's now transferred. He's studying at an Arab-language institute of the University of Paris and hoping to specialize in international commerce. When you met him, he was living with his mother in a suburb north of Paris. He's now moved in with his sister and her family in another suburb north of Paris a little bit closer to the city. It's called Colombe, and I went there to meet him this morning.

Ismael Medjoub's sister lives in a complex of 20-story high rises. Three buildings share a small patch of grass. Think public housing project with one notable difference. Our housing projects went up in the inner cities. The French projects went up in the suburbs. Many families with roots in North African live here. Ismael's sister, Fatima Zohra, wears a hijab. She has three kids. Her husband drives a taxi in Paris.

FATIMA ZOHRA: Hello (laughter).

SIEGEL: Hello.


SIEGEL: Both Ismael and his sister were shaken by the attacks last Friday night. He's been active in interfaith work, bringing together people of different faiths, as well as agnostics and atheists. It's with a group called Coexist.

ISMAEL MEDJOUB: I was like, it's useless. I mean, we were working, like, four years, every day, every day. I spent a year around the world to see people who are involving into interfaith. And to see all your efforts coming to nothing because of those people with one and - I don't know - four or five guns - they just destroy anything.

SIEGEL: The interfaith group that he works with launched a program just a few days ago called Parisian United Neighbors, and it uses the hashtag #NousSommesUnies - we are united.

MEDJOUB: It was very simple. You just have to knock on the door of your neighbor and say, hello, do you want to have a cup of tea and speak about what happened? And we got - I don't know - maybe a hundred of like on Facebook. The same movement that we mentioned, Nous Sommes Unis - it's the same on Twitter and Facebook for just like and share what we do.

SIEGEL: In the end, he says he and a friend went to a cafe and had a drink - his was nonalcoholic - to indulge in the very sort of innocent pleasure that so many of last Friday's victims were engaged in.

Like her younger brother, Fatima Zohra says the violence of the self-styled Islamic State bears no relation to the Islam she knows and follows. For her, though, the attacks posed an additional challenge. Her oldest child is 8, old enough to know that something terrible had happened, old enough to ask her to explain it.

ZOHRA: (Through interpreter) And I think the hardest for us Muslims is to explain to our kids what happened because I had a hard time finding words to explain it. I'm still very moved, you see. What happened profoundly shocked us. And so I told my kids that these people aren't Muslims. I'm not accustomed to judging others or saying such things, but for me, they are inhuman. It's inhuman to be able to do this and especially to associate such acts with Islam. It completely dishonors us. We are completely destroyed. I mean, there are no words. We are really dismayed by what happened.

SIEGEL: Both Fatima Zohra and her brother expressed concern that France might overreact. There could be a backlash against Muslims who in no way sympathize with terrorism, people like them. And at the Place de La Republique, where Parisians have been leaving flowers at the foot of one of the city's great monuments in memory of Friday night's victims, today, that fear was briefly worn out.

SAMIRA: (Crying) Just a woman wearing a scarf.

SIEGEL: A young Muslim woman named Samira [last name removed on May 5, 2016; see editor's note below] was distraught. She'd just seen a woman in a headscarf leaving flowers and being told to go away by a non-Muslim man.

SAMIRA: (Crying) He was so mean. And then other people came and said that it was - that we had to go back to our countries.

SIEGEL: She was comforted by a man and woman, neither one a Muslim, something that Samira noted. She said the rude treatment of the woman wearing the scarf was a kind of racism she is not accustomed to in real-life interactions.

SAMIRA: Usually those things you can see on Facebook, on Twitter. But someone who would talk to you like this - it's unusually.

SIEGEL: France has Western Europe's largest Muslim population. Complaints that they suffer from economic and social inequality are common. Seeham Asbague is a Muslim civil rights activist who also speaks about vile Islamaphobia in social media, also on television talk shows and in political discourse even if she doesn't encounter it in everyday life.

SEEHAM ASBAGUE: I'm not wearing the veil, so I'm not considered for people as a direct target. For me, it happens, but it's in the social medias, you know, on Twitter, on Facebook. We received a lot of death threats and a lot of people saying - making the confusing between us and Daesh or saying that it's our fight, it's our struggle for civil rights which is responsible for that.

SIEGEL: Daesh is Arabic. It's what the French call ISIS. Seeham Asbague sees French jihadis as people who had been primed for recruitment by the disappointments of life in a France that disrespects their difference. I asked her, even if extremism does feed on French society's unaccepting attitude towards Muslims, is there also a Muslim problem, a problem of extremism that's in need of solving?



ASBAGUE: I mean, obviously there's no Muslim problem. There's a French problem. And when I say that, I mean everyone has one kind of responsibility on that problem. But the truth - the fact is that the big, big problem is a French problem.

SIEGEL: Many of the French would certainly disagree with that judgment, and that's one measure of a social gap that only threatens to grow under the pressure of last Friday's attacks. In Paris, this is Robert Siegel.

[Editor's note on May 5, 2016: The last name of the woman identified as Samira has been removed from this page. NPR takes such steps only when serious questions have been raised, such as whether Internet searches of a person's name might put their safety at risk.] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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