Killings put French Muslims under spotlight

The pressure rises with each gruesome attack. After three in five weeks, France's Muslims are feeling squeezed.

The pressure rises with each gruesome attack. After three in five weeks, France’s Muslims are feeling squeezed.

A spotlight of suspicion was trained on them again even before the latest acts of extremist violence, including two beheadings. French President Emmanuel Macron has forged ahead with his effort to rid Islam in France of extremists.

Amid intensifying rhetoric and fresh attacks, including the killings of three people on Thursday at a Catholic church in Nice, Muslims in France have kept their heads down and chins up. But deep down, some feel they are being held responsible.

“It’s worrisome for Muslims,” said Hicham Benaissa, a sociologist who specializes in Islam in the workplace.

Within his network, he said, some “talk about leaving France. The situation is tense. There is fear.”

Islam is the second religion in France, which has the largest Muslim population in Western Europe.

However, the country’s estimated 5 million Muslims have walked a delicate line in search of full acceptance in what for many is their nation of birth. Discrimination casts a shadow over some and is an outright barrier to mainstream life for others.

The rise of Islam into public view was gradual and mostly went unnoticed until the far right seized upon it as a threat to the French identity. Over the years mosques have multiplied, along with Muslim schools.

Muslim men initially came to France to take menial jobs following World War II. In the 1970s, immigrant Muslims working in car factories, construction and other sectors were “absolutely essential to French industry,” Benaissa said.

“Today, when a veiled woman arrives in a company, there is ... a revolt. What happened?” He asked.

Many Muslims, unlike their parents or grandparents, are getting educations, better jobs and erasing the “myth of return,” he said.

Olivier Roy, a top expert, told a parliamentary committee that most Muslims have worked to integrate into French culture.

They “format themselves to the French Republic and complain they don’t get a payback in return, don’t have the benefit of recognition,” he said.

Benaissa doesn’t underestimate the “ideological offensive” of political Islam, but says a ferocious public debate is reducing Islam to a single fear.

“Islam is not Islamism, a Muslim is not an Islamist. An Islamist is not necessarily a jihadi,” he said.

“What I fear is that identities radicalize, with on one side those claiming the Muslim identity and on the other those claiming the identity of France.”

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