Few residents of Chartres knew Omar Ismail Mostefai. But they are sure he wasn’t radicalised in their midst.
“The Islamic State [of Iraq and the Levant] is nonsense,” said Samia, a resident of Luce, a small town on the outskirts of Chartres near to where Mostefai lived. “That’s not Islam.”
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Still, Samia declined to disclose her last name, fearing the exposure she might receive as a resident of Luce, where 29-year-old Mostefai worshipped at a mosque until 2013, when friends and neighbours say he disappeared.
They hadn’t thought about him much until Chartres Mayor Jean-Pierre Gorges, who is also a member of parliament, first made Mostefai’s name public on his Facebook page a day after the attacks on Saturday – and painted a district, like many around Paris, with the label “a haven of terrorists”.
“I just learned that a suicide bomber lived in Chartres,” Gorges wrote. “This massacre could have taken place at Chartres.”
According to French officials, Mostefai helped stage the attack that killed 89 concertgoers at the Bataclan music hall – shooting people with a machine gun before blowing himself up, leaving behind a finger that police used to identify him.
Who was Omar Ismail Mostefai?
He was convicted of eight petty crimes, including driving without a license, but never served time in jail, and while authorities had indicated that he appeared to be a candidate for “radicalisation”, Paris prosecutor Francois Molins said he had never been “implicated in an investigation or a terrorist association”.
Prosecutors are now trying to determine if he travelled to Syria or elsewhere in the Middle East between 2013 and 2014 to fight with ISIL. Around 1,000 French citizens have gone to fight in Syria and Iraq, according to officials.
But Gorges has suggested that Mostefai didn’t need to go anywhere to join ISIL.
“The terrorists of yesterday, like the ones in January, were fluent in French, without accents,” he wrote.
“They were French, or at least a part of them was, like the three terrorists in January. The problem lies here, beyond the politicians’ debates and ideological quarrels, and the whole world knows it.”
‘We can’t even enter a store’
But Ines, another Luce resident who asked that her surname not be used, said Gorges was a “fascist” who frequently blames French Muslims for homegrown radicalism.
“Here we are raised in families who are careful about everything,” she said. “Nowadays, the children here are alerted – if anyone tried to radicalise them, they would speak up. We were shocked here in Luce. It’s a small community.”
Instead, she points to Belgium, where the attacks are believed to have been planned. “They [the attackers] have a lot of connections with Belgium,” she said. “I say that Belgium is the problem.”
Ines says that, in recent years, and especially since the January attacks on the offices of the weekly satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, she has felt alienated from her non-Muslim countrymen and women.
“We can’t even enter a store,” she said. “Yesterday, I wanted to buy a coat, and I left. People were talking, saying, ‘We open our door, and look what they do to us.'”
She even suggested responding to such discrimination in a characteristically French way – by taking to the streets. “I told my husband, we should take to the streets and say we don’t agree with all of this,” she said.
Fears of retaliation
“Muslims now fear the worst in terms of retaliation,” said Fateh Kimouche, the founder of the prominent French Muslim blog Al Kanz.
Foremost in Kimouche’s mind was the wave of arson, vandalism of mosques, harassment and other violence perpetrated against French Muslim communities after the Charlie Hebdo attacks.
He said he is bracing for anti-immigrant, right-wing politicians to call for a crackdown on Muslims and Islamic practices as well as mainstream politicians calling for an increase in the surveillance of the six million Muslims in France, the largest Islamic community in Europe.
That hysteria reached an embarrassing fever pitch after police in Nice arrested an eight-year-old Muslim boy named Ahmed after he told his teacher he supported the gunmen who perpetrated the attack on the Charlie Hebdo offices because he disagreed with the magazine’s blasphemous cartoons. The incident spawned the Twitter hashtag #Ahmed8ans, which went viral and garnered nationwide attention.
“There should not be another #Ahmed8ans,” said Kimouche. “We hope that politicians will learn from the beginning of the year and not exploit this drama.”
Some Muslim groups are already preparing a public relations campaign to distance their faith from the killers.
On Friday, Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo is appearing with Dalil Boubaker, the rector of the Paris mosque, for a Muslim-led demonstration against the “bloody barbarism” of the recent violence.
“We call on all citizens of the Muslim faith and their friends to come speak, after the Friday prayer, of their deep attachment to Paris, its diversity and the values of the republic,” Boubaker said in a statement.
And, some stress, many French citizens still value the country’s diversity.
Efifi Cherewi, a Malaysian Muslim tourist who was in Paris during the attacks, said on Sunday that he and his wife debated whether she should wear her headscarf in public. They assumed they might experience prejudice, but were pleasantly surprised.
“We went out because we needed to have lunch,” said Cherewi. “We planned to go out without the veil but then we thought we should be okay. At the restaurant, they treated us normally. We didn’t feel targeted.”
In Luce, members of the Muslim community hope that they won’t feel a backlash over the actions of those they feel no connection to.
“We’ve practiced the right Islam since we were little,” said Samia. “Islam doesn’t tell you to kill people. The Quran says ‘If a Muslim kills one person, it’s as if they killed all of humanity.'”