“Yo no soy Charlie”: Spanish Muslims react to the Paris attacks

Malia Politzer

January 2015 \MP-16

 

PARIS, France Earlier this month, France experienced its worst terrorist attack in 50 years. It started the morning on the 7th of January, at approximately 11:30am, when two men wearing balaclavas and bulletproofed vests, and armed with Kalashnikovs, forced their way into the editorial meeting of the Paris-based satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo shouting ”Allahu Akbar,” God is Great, and opened fire. After killing 12 people, they hijacked a car at gunpoint, informing the vehicle’s owner “You can tell the media that it’s al-Qaeda in Yemen,”[i] before fleeing the scene. The next day, a policewoman was gunned down. On the third and final day in eastern Paris, another heavily armed man rushed into a kosher grocery store and took the 15 people inside hostage. He killed four of the Jewish customers in “defense” of Palestinians, and revenge against Western coalition actions in Mali, Iraq and Afghanistan, before police officers shot him, ending the bloody siege.[ii]

Paris’s three days of terror resulted in 20 deaths: five cartoonists, two columnists, a copy editor, two policemen, a security guard, a former mayoral chief of staff, a maintenance worker, four Jewish victims from the Kosher grocer store, and the three shooters.[iii] The larger impact of the attack, however, has touched all corners of the globe, provoking both anti-Islamic protests and “Je-sui Charlie” demonstrations in support of free speech throughout Europe, and raising questions about Muslim immigration, and their successful integration into Western societies.

In Granada, Spain, the imam’s phone at the main mosque started ringing less than an hour after the attacks, and it didn’t stop for days. “Our first response is always to condemn,” Ahmed Bermejo, the young imam, said in a weary voice, sinking into a cushioned office chair with a heavy sigh. It was early in the morning, a little over a week after the attacks, and we were in his chilly office in the administrative wing of the mosque, where I’d come to speak to him about his opinions about the attacks, the demonstrations they provoked, and the long-term impact they might have on European Muslims.

According to Ahmed, Granada’s Muslim community has seen very little anti-Muslim backlash after the attacks — to the contrary, some Catholic neighbors actually stopped by the mosque to personally assure the imam “we know you aren’t those kinds of Muslims.” Still, Ahmed tensed visibly when I asked him about the Paris massacre. “There will be a long-term impact,” he said with grim certainty. “Right now in Europe, the water is at boiling point. This attack has generated a lot of hatred towards Islam — and it will only get worse.”

His concern is justified. In the weeks following the attacks, countries across Europe have seen a sharp spike in the number of Islamophobic incidents. In the 48-hour period following the Charlie Hebdo massacre, 16 mosques in France were graffitied, attacked by firebombs, shot at, or had severed pigs heads thrown into them.[iv] In the two weeks directly following the attacks, the French Council for Muslim Religion recorded 128 distinct anti-Muslim incidents and threats throughout the country — including the harassment of women wearing headscarves, and the vandalism of Muslim-owned shops and mosques — roughly the same number they’d recorded over the last year.[v] In one particularly grisly attack, a French man of Moroccan origin was murdered in front of his wife in his own home, after a neighbor forced his way through the front door, shouting “I am your god, I am your Islam,” before stabbing him 17 times — once for each of the Paris victims.[vi]

Anti-Islamic sentiment is on the rise in other countries as well. Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West (PEGIDA), an anti-Muslim group with German origins, has staged mass demonstrations in Dresden and Austria, and opened new chapters in the United Kingdom, Denmark, Austria, the Balkans and Spain following the attack. Even Spain, which has a reputation of relative tolerance towards its Muslim population, has not been completely immune from backlash. Mosques in Madrid, Jaen, and Burgos and Jerez de la Frontera have been graffitied with anti-Islamic messages such as “Go back to your country,” and “Fuck Islam.” On the door to one mosque in Jaen, someone spray-painted a message in bold red scrawl that read, “Assassins are raised here.”[vii]

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A young, relatively new religious leader, Ahmed has lost sleep thinking about what might be behind the growing number of Islamic radicals willing to kill themselves to harm European and American targets.

He’s come up with a few theories, and he is frank about the responsibility that Muslims have in preventing Islamic terrorist acts, starting with Muslim immigrant parents. “Many of these parents came to Europe with nothing — they are survivors. They spend their entire lives working to give their children what they need, but they aren’t a significant physical or spiritual presence in their lives,” he explains. Ahmed believes that this unintentional neglect translates to the second generation, who end up Muslim by default, but often lack a proper spiritual grounding and religious education, and don’t feel secure in their Muslim identities. “When you have confidence, you can brush off an insult,” he explains. “But when you are not clear on who you are, and do not understand what it means to be a European Muslim. If you do not feel secure and take pride in that identity, and then experience rejection at school, or from society — that is when you will react.”

Mosque in Jaen, which was graffitied with anti-Muslim slogans in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks. Credit Tomas Conde Kemme

Mosque in Jaen, which was graffitied with anti-Muslim slogans in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks. Credit Tomas Conde Kemme

Ahmed also strongly believes that immigrants to Europe from Muslim countries should make an effort to integrate, although he is sensitive about the challenges that entails. “Many immigrants from Muslim countries really struggle to differentiate Islam, the religion, from their cultural practices,” he said. “They believe that in order to stay faithful, they need to keep all of their customs, and really struggle to adapt.”

According to Ahmed, some new immigrant have trouble integrating into their host society because they make the mistake of believing that their culture is Islam, and that by embracing Western customs, they are rejecting their religion, or somehow undermining their religious purity. “This is an error,” he said. “They need to adapt to being here, and respect European customs, without losing the essence of what it is to be Muslim. Muslim immigrants need to have the strength to really question what the difference is between true Islam and what is culture. Because while the culture of their home country may be strongly influenced by Islam, is not the religion. Then, they have to have the strength to make the changes necessary to integrate into European society.”

Prior to the attacks in France, Ahmed had not seen the provocative cartoons published in Charlie Hebdo that the terrorists used to justify the January massacre. He looked up the images on Google directly after the first journalist called. The most innocent image, published in the wake of the tragedy at the newspaper, depicted the prophet holding a sign ”Je suis Charlie.” The worst, published before the attack, was essentially pornographic — a drawing of the kneeling, naked prophet from behind, all parts on display, a yellow star covering his anus.

”The images make me angry,” he admitted. ”Who wouldn’t be angry? It’s blatent disrespect of my religion, and the prophet I love. But it’s not something I would ever want anyone to be killed over. I’ve been trying to put myself in the postion of the men who did it — to understand them, and I can’t. It’s not something that a sane person would do. I can’t understand what would drive someone to do something like that.”

I ask him if he believes that Charlie Hebdo had the right to publish the pictures. He hesitated before answering. “Freedom of expression is important, but it can also be a trap,” he said. “Because it’s one thing to have freedom of expression, it’s another to deride an entire group of people because of their religion. That sort of ‘freedom of speech’ provokes hatred and separation. It provokes the rejection of Muslims in European society, and that is dangerous. If we want to live in a Europe with values with friendship, where everyone lives together peacefully, unified as Europeans, we need to control the incitement of hatred.”

Although Ahmed blames European leaders and journalists for their roles in provoking intolerance and greater Islamophobia in Europe, he believes that Muslims bear the brunt of the responsibility in controlling the spread of Islamic radicalism. “We always speak about those around us — but it is important to look inside ourselves,” he said “For example, when someone comes to me with matrimonial problems, and immediately tells me what their spouse did — I always say no, look first at yourself, and what you need to change. Then you can start talking about what you want your spouse to do differently. We Muslims are the same. We do need to wage jihad — but an internal jihad, within ourselves, because the more radical we are with ourselves, the less we are in the outside world. What does that mean? For example, there are five prayers — and the first starts at six in the morning —to complete all five, every day, you need to be radical with yourself. Islam mandates us to help the poor, to invite travelers into our homes. This is what Islam asks of us. We need to be secure in our identities, and strong in our faith — and only then will the world around us begin to change.”

Ahmed admits that he does not have all the answers. The vulnerability of young European Muslims to radicalization is not something that he has had any direct experience with, so his suppositions are only theories. But he strongly rejects the notion that Islam is somehow fundamentally incompatible with Western society. The son of Spanish and American convert to Islam, Ahmed was born and raised in Granada, and feels entirely Spanish — his very existence is a testament to the fact that Islam and Spanish culture can comfortably coexist. Ahmed realizes that, in this respect, he occupies a privileged position amongst Muslims in Europe. “I am Muslim, and I am European — and I think that this combination is key. We need to create a space for European Muslims — where we take pride in our European identity, even as we take pride in our religious identity. We have to stop thinking of ourselves as other.”

***

While discussing the Charlie Hebdo massacre with Spanish Muslims over the past several weeks, I’ve noticed a stark difference between the reactions of Spanish European converts, and of immigrant Muslims of Arab and North African descent. When I spoke to Muslims of European origin, like Ahmed, about the attacks, most reacted with horror and incomprehension. They couldn’t understand how a true Muslim would react so radically to mere images — however provocative or insulting — and their reactions were generally to write the terrorists off as “insane,” and “not real Muslims.”

Immigrants, on the other hand, while still quick to condemn the attacks, were more understanding of the anger that might have motivated them.

Zakarias Maza is the imam of a second Granada mosque in Albaicin, where the majority of the congregation are North African and sub-saharan immigrants. The mosque itself is tucked away down a small side street in the labyrinth of Albaicin’s old town, behind the long line of shops on the touristic street, of La Calderia where Moroccan immigrants sell North African handicrafts to Western tourists.

Zakarias’s mosque is more traditional than the larger Granada mosque in upper Albaicin. The imam requested that I cover my head before I even enter the building, and shook my hand, but refrained from kissing me on either cheek — the standard Spanish greeting. When I asked him about his thoughts on the Charlie Hebdo attacks, his immediate response was simple and direct. “They shouldn’t have published the images,” he said. “They are insulting Muslims around the world. It is like playing with fire.” Having said that, he quickly assured me that he did not approve of the attacks: he condemned them wholly and unequivocally, and said he did not believe that any Muslim should react to an insult with murder. But he also understood that not all Muslims think the same way.

“Within the Muslim world, there are some who are more sensitive to insult than others,” he explained. “I’m occidental; I grew up here, and I understand that in Western society the press can say horrible things about me. It hurts me, I feel ridiculed, but I understand because I am Spanish. But the majority of Muslims are not from here — they are not prepared for these sorts of images. In a way, it has to do with culture, and what is considered appropriate in different countries. Pakistan, Egypt, Morocco and Algeria — these are distinct cultures, where people react from the heart first, not the head. You can’t expect them to act like Westerners.”

“But the terrorists were French,” I pointed out. “They were of Algerian descent, but they were born and raised in France. They weren’t immigrants.”

Zakarias nodded, as though expecting my response. “It’s not so simple, Malia,” he said. “This is not just an immigration issue, or a religious issue — there’s also the history of colonialism. Algeria was a French colony, and while Algerian immigrants may live in France, and their children might grow up there, that doesn’t mean that they are accepted as French. It doesn’t mean they feel French.”

The problem with the Western media, and Western politicians, he continued, is they divorce terrorist acts from the larger context of Europe’s colonial history, and the current American-instigated wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. For many Muslims, that colonial legacy is still an active part of their lives. On television and via the Internet, Arabic news organizations regularly show footage of Muslim children being blown up by American drones, or the wreckages of homes in Palestine destroyed by Israeli rockets. Confronted with these sorts of images, and with the memories of European colonialism that, in some cases, are still passed down through oral histories from one generation to the next, many Muslims see the West, not as the global center of freedom and liberty, but of hypocrisy and despotism, he contended. “The Western media talks about extremism and fanatics as though they are all Muslims— but I think that the President Bush was one of the worst fanatics when he invaded Iraq for weapons of mass destruction that didn’t even exist. He destroyed an entire country for a lie. Isn’t that also terrorism?”

***

A few days after the attacks, I visited a Moroccan friend named Nordine. A shopkeeper in Albaicin who sells North African handicrafts to Western tourists, Nordine has been living in Spain for nearly 20 years. A devout Muslim who religiously observes the five daily prayers, he is also fully integrated: he is married to a Spanish woman who is Muslim only “when she wants to be” — meaning she doesn’t always go to the mosque, wears a hijab when she feels like it, and sometimes even drinks wine. He has seven children — most of who were born in Spain. He speaks fluent Spanish, and has made a conscious effort to adapt to Spanish society.

He is also dark-skinned, and looks distinctly Arab. A few days after the attacks, a Spanish woman entered his shop, and began screaming at him — blaming “his kind” for the attacks, and demanding that he return to his country. He was so surprised by this unexpected attack that at first, he just stared at her. Eventually he managed to defend himself, and pointed out that just because he was Muslim, doesn’t mean that the terrorists were “his kind” — and that he was just as horrified by the shootings as she was. Eventually, some of the other shopkeepers rallied to his side, and escorted the woman out. Nordine was upset and hurt by her reaction, but was able to put it into perspective. “There are ignorant people everywhere,” he said. “I can’t let myself get angry at every stupid person who walks into my shop — that’s no way to live.”

Nordine’s son, however, was outraged. Weeks later, Nordine tells me that his son is still angry at the woman for her inappropriate outburst, and still upset that such a thing could happen in Spain — particularly to someone like Nordine, who has made so much effort to integrate into Spanish society.

I can understand his son’s feelings. Although I do not think that racism and discrimination cause terrorism, I do see how they might make it difficult for Muslim youth to feel wholly welcome in European societies, and could be a factor contributing to the anger and hatred that push some young European Muslims to embrace more extreme forms of Islam. Fundamentalist and extremist groups create a space where people who feel rejected by society can “belong,” where they are certain and confident in their identities, and give them a justification to take revenge on the people they perceive have hurt them.

It also makes sense to me why it would be even more difficult for second- and third-generation Muslim Europeans to accept racism and discrimination than their parents: Nordine was born in Morocco. Even though he now has official Spanish residency, on some level, he still sees himself as a guest in the country. His son, however, is fully Spanish — and such racist attacks signal to him that because of how he looks, and because he is Muslim, he might never be fully accepted.

Such incidents in Granada are still relatively rare as compared to other parts of Europe. But, according to Nordine, they have become increasingly common over the past decade, to the extent that were it not for his daughter’s health issues, Nordine would prefer moving his family back to Casablanca where “people are more tolerant of all religions.” His observations were echoed by several other immigrant Muslims I spoke to in the wake of the attacks: One Algerian immigrant told me that where he lives in el Zaidin, a neighborhood on the outskirts of Granada populated primarily by working-class Spaniards and immigrants, he experiences some form of minor racism — mostly racial slurs — at least a few times a month. Another Moroccan immigrant in his early twenties told me that a few days after the attacks, a Spanish man called him a “dirty Moor,” and spat at his feet while he was walking to work. While such incidents don’t happen often, “all Moroccans know them,” he said. All of the immigrants I spoke to said that they still considered Spain to be a good place to be Muslim, as compared to other parts of Europe, but such experiences undermine the imam Ahmed’s vision of Granada as an oasis of religious tolerance.

Anger does not translate directly to radicalism, and it’s unlikely for someone like Nordine’s son to join an extremist group just because a stranger insulted his father. Still, I can see how such incidents, repeated over time, could be a contributing factor to the radicalization of some Muslim youth. As the imam Ahmed said repeatedly throughout our conversation, “Hate only breeds more hate.”

***

I recently attended a Zikr — a form of Sufi prayer, through chanting — in the home of a British Muslim convert named Eli. After the prayer finished, we settled into groups according to gender — the men sat on Moroccan rugs, around a tea table in one corner of the room, the women on low couches in another corner — while we waited to share a communal dinner that traditionally followed the prayer.

I settled down next to a young woman named Jasmine, a Sudanese Sufi visiting Granada’s community from her home in Manchester. A petite woman with a colorful purple hijab, she is a psychiatrist, completely bilingual in British English and Arabic, and bicultural. I asked her about her perspective about the Charlie Hebdo attacks and the global response the attacks provoked, and her otherwise cheerful face darkened.

“I feel conflicted about it,” she admitted. “Of course, the attacks were awful. But I’m also really tired of having to always apologize for the actions of terrorists. They don’t represent me. Why do I have to apologize for the actions of others, just because they call themselves Muslims?”

Jasmine echoed Zakarias’s argument about the need to look at the attacks in a larger global context — and pointed out that the Western view on terrorism continues to be shaded by its legacy of colonialism, even today. “Muslims are also afraid of Islamic extremists. The Western media only pays attention when their cities or people are targets — but the vast majority of targets of Islamic terrorists are other Muslims. This isn’t about religion — it’s about fanatics and radicals, and they are a threat to everyone.”

As for the global ‘I am Charlie,” demonstrations in the aftermath of the attacks? “I am not Charlie,” she said scornfully. “How can I identify with a publication that mocks and insults me? You know, one of the police officers who was killed during the attacks was Muslim. He died defending a publication that insulted him. But no one wants to talk about that.”

Following my conversations with Spanish Muslims following the Charlie Hebdo attacks, a continuous theme that emerged was the sharp contrast between the opinions and the experiences of European Muslim converts, as compared to those of Muslim immigrants. I think that Ahmed hit upon something profound when he made the observation that some immigrants struggle to separate their cultural practices, and cultural interpretations of Islam from the religion, and that this struggle may hinder their ability to fully integrate into European societies, or to embrace Western values. To me, acknowledging this struggle and attempting to really understand it may provide a key to helping new arrivals from Muslim countries adapt and integrate.

 

[i] “’Several arrests’ but 2 suspected gunmen at large after Paris massacre,” CBSnews.com, January 8, 2015. http://www.cbsnews.com/news/3-suspects-identified-in-deadly-attack-on-paris-newspaper/

[ii] DOCUMENT RTL — “Quand Coulibaly essaye de se justifier devant ses otages a l’epicerie casher.”RTL, http://www.rtl.fr/actu/societe-faits-divers/document-rtl-quand-coulibaly-essaye-de-se-justifier-devant-ses-otages-a-l-epicerie-casher-7776161788

[iii] Martinez, Michael. “Vignettes: More about the 17 killed in the French terror attacks.” Published 1/11/15, Edition Cnn.com, http://edition.cnn.com/2015/01/10/world/france-paris-who-were-terror-victims/

[iv] Izza Leghtas, “Dispatches: After Charlie Hebdo, Tackling Intolerance Against Jews and Muslims.” Human Rights Watch. January 13, 2015 http://www.hrw.org/news/2015/01/13/dispatches-after-charlie-hebdo-tackling-intolerance-against-jews-and-muslims

[v] “Huge Increase in anti-Muslim acts in France since terror attacks, group says.” AP, via Fox News, January 23, 2015. http://www.foxnews.com/world/2015/01/23/group-says-france-sees-as-many-anti-muslim-acts-since-january-terror-attacks-as/

[vi] Stephanie Linning, “Moroccan man in France brutally stabbed to death by neighbor in ‘horrible Islamophobic attack’.” Daily Mail UK January 17, 2015. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2914616/Moroccan-man-France-brutally-stabbed-death-neighbour-horrible-Islamophobic-attack.html

[vii] “Anti-Islamic graffiti in Cadíz is fourth attack in just a few days,” Spanish News Today. 1/13/2015. http://spanishnewstoday.com/anti_islamic-graffiti-in-cad%C3%ADz-is-fourth-attack-in-just-a-few-days_20806-a.html

About the Author

Based out of the south of Spain, Malia is looking at the primary migration routes via Morocco and the Spanish enclaves in North Africa. She previously worked for Mint, an Indian business and economics news daily paper, where she wrote on a variety of social issues including disability issues, internal migration, gender, social entrepreneurship and development trends. As a fellow at the Village Voice, she wrote primarily about immigration. Malia has won multiple awards for her reporting and published articles in the Wall Street Journal Asia, Far Eastern Economic Review, Foreign Policy Magazine, Reason Magazine, and Migration Policy Institute’s monthly magazine The Source. She has reported from China, the US-Mexico border and South Korea, and speaks fluent Spanish, conversational Mandarin, and intermediate Hindi. Malia holds an M.S. in multimedia and investigative journalism from Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, where she was a Stabile Fellow, and a B.A. in Liberal Arts from Hampshire College.