A Seat at the Table: French Muslims Fight for Recognition and Respect

By Stefan Simons

After generations of living in France, Europe’s largest Muslim community is still struggling for recognition amid widespread stereotypes and suspicions. Despite the presence of some Muslim ministers in the French cabinet, most Muslims in France have to fight discrimination daily.

Finding their voice and their vote: France has Europe's biggest Muslim community of 5 million.
DPA

Finding their voice and their vote: France has Europe's biggest Muslim community of 5 million.

The piercing sound of screeching metal in the Rue Linné startles the neighbors when Moheddine Raies raises his corrugated iron shutters every morning at 10:00 a.m., and again, 14 hours later, when he closes his shop after midnight.

Every day, Raies, 48, stands behind the cash register, between the water bottles and the ice cream freezer, as the radio drones at his side. Canned goods, biscuits and toilet paper are piled up as high as the ceiling. The thin shopkeeper squeezes through his tiny crammed shop, packs fruit and vegetables into shopping bags for his elderly customers, and gives the neighborhood children the occasional sweet. Raies, who covers his balding head with a woolen hat during the cold winters, has been an integral part of the Parisian quarter near the Jussieu metro station for the past 20 years.

His daily routine only changes on Fridays, when he has someone stand in for him at the shop. That’s when Raies takes time off to attend prayers. The father of two teenage children -- who feels more at home in Paris than in Tunis -- has retained his religion and still adheres to its practices, such as the fasting month of Ramadan. The shop owner is a shining example of successful integration -- especially in the eyes of his fellow citizens.

Contributing to France's Multicultural Image

At least five million Muslims -- over 8 percent of the French population, and one-third of all the Muslims in Europe -- have left their mark on the demographic spectrum across France, from Lille to Cannes and Strasbourg to Biarritz. French Muslims include street hawkers, cab drivers, restaurant owners, researchers and managers. Muslim clergymen work in prisons, hospitals and the armed forces.

A minority of this minority has even managed to reach the upper echelons of power. The Minister of Justice is called Rachida Dati, the Secretary of State for Urban Policies is Fadela Amara, and her cabinet colleague for human rights is Rama Yade. Although critics might argue that they serve as figureheads in the government of President Nicolas Sarkozy, they also act as strong role models for Muslim women and girls in France.

Islam has long been a part of everyday life -- even if only 10 percent of France’s Muslims still practice their faith. In large cities like Paris, Lyon and Marseille, their restaurants, butcher shops and bookstores make a major contribution to the multicultural image of France, and across the country, a Muslim infrastructure meets the demand for food, headscarves and other articles of clothing that are in accordance with Islamic traditions. Radio stations broadcast Koran lessons, halal chansons and Islamic rap. French businesses have also targeted the country’s rising number of well-heeled Muslim consumers: Manufacturers of gourmet foods produce foie gras according to ritual slaughtering practices and travel agencies organize pilgrimages to Mecca.

France has 1,685 Muslim houses of worship. The Great Mosque of Paris was inaugurated in 1926 and ranks among the leading attractions in the city. Paris is also home to one of leading Islamic museums and research centers in the world -- the Arab World Institute. And Paris Mayor Bertrand Delanoe is just one of many city leaders across the country who invite prominent members of the Muslim community to large annual banquets to mark the end of Ramadan. In Paris alone this event draws crowds of over 5,000 people.

Nevertheless, the veneer of cultural harmony across the French political landscape is extremely thin. In October, 2005, when two youths aged 15 and 17 were accidentally killed by electrocution in a power substation while reportedly fleeing from police, angry protests erupted within hours in Clichy-sous-Bois, near Paris. Three days later, after security forces had been sent into the area, a tear gas grenade exploded in a mosque, further fueling tensions, and unrest spread from the Parisian suburbs to the entire country. Over 9,000 cars and a large number of schools, businesses and warehouses went up in flames.

The troublemakers were quickly branded as “anti-democratic” rabble who were “primarily black or Arab with a Muslim identity”. The French weekly news magazine Le Point went on to write that these were youth “with an uncontrolled immigrant background” that allowed them “to operate far beyond the boundaries of our religion, our rules of conduct and our laws.” Many French see their country’s social consensus threatened by religious infiltration and suspect that the unrest represents a calculated attack on the secular principles of French society, which have guaranteed the separation of church and state since 1905.

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