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Muslims in Paris suburbs fear and loathe ISIS, too: Keith Boag

The CBC's Keith Boag writes from Saint-Ouen, just outside Paris. A suburb that is home to many immigrants, Muslim residents here describe the shock of the latest attacks, along with concern that France's declaration of war could make things much worse.

Banlieue has become a pejorative for drab, low-income housing projects associated with poverty and crime

'This isn't the Qur'an. This has nothing to do with the Qur'an,' says the young man behind the counter of a bakery in a northern suburb of Paris. Two of the man's friends were killed in one of the Paris cafés hit in last Friday's attacks. (Keith Boag/CBC)

The young man working the counter at a small bakery in Saint-Ouen was understandably worked up. Two of his dear friends had been murdered along with the scores of others Friday night, he said.

He poked in the air with a baguette, of all things, to punctuate the torrent of thoughts that gushed out of him like water from a burst pipe.

His friends had been at one of the Paris cafés hit in the attacks. Utterly innocent people, he said.

The shock of losing them was still written across his face. 

"It scares me. I know the Qur'an," he said. "This isn't the Qur'an. This has nothing to do with the Qur'an."

He said his friends were like him: Muslim, from Tunisia.  

Banlieue as a pejorative

That could describe many people in Saint-Ouen — one of the last stops on a Metro line that reaches out from Paris to the northern suburbs — banlieues.

It's near Saint-Denis, where on Wednesday police tracked down some of the alleged conspirators from Friday's massacre.
Low-income housing projects cluster in Saint-Ouen, north of Paris. (Keith Boag/CBC)

Banlieue is more than just a French word for suburb; it has become a pejorative for drab, low-income housing projects that are home to immigrants and the descendants of immigrants.

It's a word associated with poverty, crime and drugs. 

The banlieues have produced some radical jihadists, but so have bourgeois environments in Paris. So far, there hasn't been enough reason to make a particular connection between the banlieues and ISIS.

'Can't go back'

My guide through town is a woman who moved here from Toronto a few years ago. Her name is Brigitte. Her two young children keep her plugged into the local culture through the neighbourhood network of moms. 

As a Canadian, she is an immigrant in France, as are many of her friends. The difference is that she is white and could easily go back to living where she came from if that's what she wants.

Her friends can't.

"They didn't come here to sit in a café with an espresso and a baguette," says Brigitte. "They came from war-torn places and can't go back."

Some Muslim immigrants who have settled in France from places such as Algeria also feel that France owes them a kind of debt for its actions in their home countries during colonial times.

Brigitte's husband, who is French, suggests it is Muslims who might owe France something right now. He'd like to see a million Muslims in the streets protesting against Friday's horror.

The religious spectrum

Something like that might happen, but it won't mean Muslims see themselves as a religious collectivity the way that others seem to see them. 

I don't care about religion. I don't care about politics. Not at all.- Ben Harouda Noureddine

Some live near the fundamentalist end of their religious spectrum; others are closer to where Ben Harouda Noureddine is.

Noureddine has lived in France for 30 years and operates a convenience store in Saint-Ouen.

"I don't care about religion. I don't care about politics," he told us, "Not at all."

To show he was actually fed up with the whole discussion, he repeated the last three words as though each were its own sentence: "Not. At. All."

He gestured at the wine for sale in his shop and cheerfully acknowledged he keeps some for himself. 

He's far from alone in that.

The Qur'an advises Muslims not to drink alcohol. But it also says Muslims shouldn't pray when drunk, which implicitly accepts that many Muslims are as likely to drink as anybody else. 

Muslim, but not very religious

Across the street is a bright and busy pharmacy run by Nesrine Amry. 
Pharmacist Nesrine Amry is a non-observant Muslim from Tunis who has a drugstore in a banlieue north of Paris. (Keith Boag/CBC)

Her style is completely western — pants, no head scarf — in contrast to some of her customers. 

She's Muslim, but she says the radicalized jihadists of ISIS would call her an infidel because she's not particularly religious. 

And as an infidel, she's as likely a target for ISIS as anyone else in France.

When she heard about the attacks on Friday she was shocked. "I couldn't believe something like this was happening here," she said.

She believes the fundamental problem of radicalization is rooted in le crise, the economic crisis of 2008. Jobs became scarce everywhere, but scarcer especially for Muslims in les banlieues.

"Mentally weak people" without jobs are susceptible to the propaganda of radicals, she said.

We talked about the January attack against the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris, where 12 people were killed, and about why that was different from what happened on Friday.

"That was a provocation," she said, referring to the Charlie Hebdo cartoons that repeatedly mocked Islam.

Different values 

She was not justifying the attack or victim blaming. She was saying that, like it or not, there was at least an explanation for why the killers chose the magazine as their target.

But there was no such explanation for what happened Friday. Those people were murdered simply for living lives according to different values.

The day after the Charlie Hebdo attack, France declared an official minute of silence across the country. The gesture of respect was conspicuously ignored in some schools in the banlieues and that did nothing to improve relations between French and Muslims.

There is nothing about Friday's attack that should provoke as divisive a response as that.

Still, French President François Hollande was wrong to say France is now at war, said Amry. That won't help anybody and could make things much worse if it means more attacks here.

About the Author

Keith Boag

Washington Correspondent

One of the CBC's premier political reporters, Keith Boag is currently based in Washington, D.C., following stints in Los Angeles and on Parliament Hill in Ottawa.

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