After Killings in France, Muslims Fear a Culture of Diversity Is at Risk

TOULOUSE, France — As near to the Spanish border as it is to the Mediterranean, this sunny red-brick city has long been known as a place of welcome and diversity, far removed from the divisive politics of Paris. In contrast to much of the French south, the far right, with its virulent anti-immigrant stance, has little presence here. Nor does radical Islam.

Toulouse is by no means without racism, anti-Semitism, crime or the deep social segregation that marks many French cities, but with a culture shaped by successive waves of immigration, it is described by its inhabitants as a place of particular tolerance.

Hundreds of thousands of Spaniards fled the Franco dictatorship into France after the Spanish Civil War, and many settled here. So, too, did the pieds noirs, the French expelled from newly independent Algeria in 1962, as well as the harkis, the Algerians who had backed the French colonialists, and thousands of Jews.

In addition to a host of universities and research centers, the aerospace giant Airbus is based here, attracting engineers and scientists from around the world.

So while Muslims across France speak of feeling vilified, this city has largely been spared the tensions that surround Islam. “It is true that from time to time we are subjected to hateful political discourse,” said Mohamed Tataï, the imam at the mosque El Nour in Empalot, a poor neighborhood. It is effectively imported from outside the city, though, he said, often around election time. “Afterwards, we’re able to return to calm once again.”

There are concerns, though, that Mohammed Merah may have changed that.

The seven brutal killings carried out this month by Mr. Merah — a 23-year-old son of Toulouse, and a professed jihadi — occurred during a divisive presidential race that had already turned toward questions of immigration and Islam. Even though investigators say Mr. Merah was effectively a lone, self-radicalized extremist, his violent ideology fits closely with some French stereotypes of Islam, and Muslims here fear that the tensions brought on by the murders may prove more lasting.

“All of this does not correspond at all with what Toulouse is,” Pierre Cohen, the mayor, said of the killings. But “we’ve just come out of a very tense period,” he said. “Unfortunately, this risk exists.”

Already, a false rumor has spread through the city, Mr. Cohen said, suggesting that Muslims were organizing a demonstration in defense of Mr. Merah.

“There will be a ‘before’ and an ‘after,’ ” said Yassin Elmu’min, 23, a round-faced young man with blue eyes and short hair slicked into tight curls. Typically, Mr. Elmu’min said, there is “dialogue” between cultures in Toulouse, and Muslims are treated well. But he and other Muslims, many living in the poor suburbs outside downtown Toulouse, said they had already begun to detect nervous gazes that were uncharacteristic of this city.

“Someone had the nerve to ask me, ‘Do you agree with what he did?’ ” Mr. Elmu’min said, exasperated. President Nicolas Sarkozy called for the rejection of “easy falsehoods” about Muslims last week, after Mr. Merah was killed by police commandos, Mr. Elmu’min said. “The ‘easy falsehoods’ are already here,” he lamented.

A friend, Abd’allah, 19, dressed in a cream-colored djellaba beneath a hooded sweatshirt, said, “We’re the victims in the story.” He declined to give his full name, saying he feared trouble from the French authorities.

Despite Mr. Sarkozy’s recent appeals for tolerance, many Muslims say he has done much to stigmatize them, pointing often to a 2010 law banning the Islamic full veil, or niqab, and to a debate on “the national identity.”

Marine Le Pen, the presidential candidate for the far-right National Front, has been vociferous in her response to the killings.

“What happened is not the matter of one man’s madness; what happened is the beginning of the forward march of green fascism in our country,” Ms. Le Pen said on Sunday, referring to radical Islam. “How many Mohammed Merahs are there in the boats, the planes that arrive each day in France, full of immigrants?”

Muslim leaders have denounced such attempts to exploit the killings politically. In a statement shortly after Mr. Merah’s death last week, Mohammed Moussaoui, the president of the French Council for the Muslim Faith, asked that the term “Islamism” be abandoned because it “feeds the confusion between Islam and terrorism and brings suffering to millions of Muslims who feel it important to defend the dignity of their faith and their religion.”

In Toulouse, Mr. Elmu’min and his friend had come from Friday Prayer at the Mosque of Mirail Toulouse, a sprawling makeshift prayer space in a temporary building at the edge of a mall parking lot, beneath the elevated railroad tracks at the terminus of Line A of the Métro.

Mamadou Daffé, the Malian-born imam at the mosque, said he had never been the target of so much as a racist remark in Toulouse.

“None, none at all,” Mr. Daffé said. “Maybe this is surprising, but so be it.”

Mr. Daffé, who makes his living as a pharmacological researcher, describes himself as a moderate Muslim, a proponent of “local Islam” who preaches in French.

But in his address to the hundreds of men who gathered at the mosque on Friday — some in white djellabas, thick beards and skullcaps, but most in jeans, suit coats or leather jackets — he spoke angrily of the “injustices” being wrought against Muslims in France, especially after the killings.

Politicians have called for restraint, Mr. Daffé said, but those same politicians have long stoked the very hate they now say they must smother. He called upon the faithful to be exemplary in their behavior, though.

“We are responsible for the image that’s been given to Islam, this beautiful religion,” he said. With the murders, which Mr. Merah said he committed in the name of Islam, “God has tested us,” Mr. Daffé said.

His fellow cleric, Mr. Tataï, has led a project to build a grand mosque in Toulouse. A decade ago, local authorities were opposed, Mr. Tataï recalled, but gradually warmed to the notion. The domed, multistory ocher building, at the edge of the Empalot neighborhood, adjacent to the highway, is now almost complete. (Uncharacteristically, the mosque will be open to the non-Muslim public, outside hours of prayer.)

“Of course there is the fear that there will be backlash from the black week we’ve just lived through,” Mr. Tataï said.

He added, “This is a test of the good will and wisdom of the wise.” He remains optimistic.


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Source: The New York Times