European Muslims on identity, bereavement and loss
Muslims who lost relatives in attacks, stress the difference between their faith and the fighters.
Spaniards like Mohamed Azahaf remember the day, on March 11, 2004, that armed attacks came to Europe. That morning, during Madrid’s rush hour, 10 bombs ripped through four commuter trains. The simultaneous, coordinated blasts killed more than 190 people and wounded some 2,000 more.
Azahaf was employed as a social worker for the Madrid City Hall and had been called to counsel and provide assistance to families who were gathering to learn the fate of their loved ones.
Since then, attackers have killed civilians in London, Paris, Brussels, Manchester, Toulouse, Nice, Barcelona and Berlin. People have been assassinated in offices, shot in restaurants, bombed in nightclubs and run over on pedestrian thoroughfares. All of the attacks were committed in the name of Islam and have led to heightened racial and religious discrimination against European Muslims.
In a pavilion in Madrid’s city centre, Asahaf noticed that some of those killed had Muslim names.
The stress of working around the clock to counsel victims of the violence coincided with the realisation that the attacks might create a backlash against European Muslims like him.
When a friend called him to suggest that the attacks might be linked to groups claiming Islam, he collapsed.
“The tension was too much and I cried,” he told Al Jazeera. “It was the first time of many that I cried
after the attacks.”
As the hours and days wore on, more Muslim names appeared on the lists of the dead and wounded – it was clear that the killing had indiscriminately targeted civilians, irrespective of religion or nationality. The pattern would repeat itself in Paris in 2015 and again in the 2016 truck attacks in Nice, where more than a third of the 86 killed were Muslim.
In the Al Jazeera documentary, Twice a Victim, filmmaker Paula Palacios interviews four main characters – Muslims who lost loved ones only to experience heightened discrimination in the wake of the attacks.
They are people like Mohamed El Bachiri, whose wife Loubna died in the 2016 metro attack in Brussels. El Bachiri went on to give a TEDx talk and write a book in which he pays homage to his late wife and sets out to expose violent attacks on civilians as foreign to the teachings and mainstream observance of Islam.
I needed to tell the whole world the difference between the van driver and my mum and that they are different people. One is a true Muslim and the other talks about Islam, but it's not Islam.
Hanane Charrihi’s mother, a middle-aged woman in traditional Muslim dress, was among the first to be run over in the 2016 truck attack in Nice. Charrihi co-authored a book in which she explores what it means to be French, Muslim and a victim of attacks.
All four characters below offer testimonies about bereavement, identity and loss at a time when armed groups have murdered their loved ones, undermined their faith and threatened their ability to live among their neighbours.
Hanane Charrihi was in Paris the night her mother, Fatima, was run over. The mother of six had been strolling with members of her family after a Bastille Day fireworks display commemorating French independence. Fatima was wearing a hijab and was one of the first people the attacker would have seen through the windshield of his 19-tonne rented truck:
“They really showed they weren’t Muslim because the first person they killed was Muslim,” she says. “For me, that just confirmed their ignorance.”
The attacker was Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel, a Tunisian man living in France. According to French police, he had been “radicalised” extremely quickly, in only a few weeks over the internet. He had a history of assault, drug and alcohol abuse.
When the French press began reporting that the attacker appeared to have been inspired by ISIL propaganda, the angle for her book exploring her experience and identity came into focus.
“The thought occurred to me that I needed to tell the whole world the difference between the van driver and my mum and that they are different people. One is a true Muslim and the other talks about Islam, but it’s not Islam.
“The first time I went to the place my mother died, a man passed behind us and said, ‘We don’t want your kind here, we don’t want your type any more.’ Then, 10 minutes later, a man was waiting for us near a cafe. He said, “Great, you’ve all come out in a herd.’ Herd is used only for animals. In French, you don’t say a ‘herd of people’. We told him, ‘Leave us alone, we’ve just lost our mum.’ He replied, ‘Good. There’s one less of you now’.”
Charrihi co-authored her book, My Motherland, with French journalist Elena Brunet. Passages by Charrihi are excerpted below.
Hanane Charrihi, from My Motherland:
Last night, when the fireman trying to resuscitate my mum said ‘It’s finished’, my father fainted. He lost consciousness for some seconds and when he opened his eyes, our world had changed.
That night, the reaper did not advance slowly. He was neither bony nor dressed in black. He was white, weighed 19 tonnes and was driving 90km per hour.
On the Promenade des Angalis, facing his wife’s body lying on the ground, my father violently beat his fists against his chest as if his heart had stopped beating and he were trying to start it again.
I don’t want to have to choose between my nationality and my religion. Both are part of my identity. I don’t feel out of place with the French republic. I am French and Muslim. Both form an equal part of my identity. I am French and I wear the hijab. These two are not at odds. When secularism is co-opted and misdirected, it impacts my life. France is a free country. People can choose to believe or not to believe. If religion does not factor into political affairs then nothing forbids it from expressing itself in society. That’s what secularism is. I don’t try to impose my religion on others with my hijab just as a Jew would not impose his religion by wearing a kippa. Asking me to take it off is a violation of my freedom.
And if the veil were forbidden in public I still would come out with my head covered perhaps with a hood, a wig or even a hat from Nice. It won’t stop me from living my life.
We must not sacrifice our light to this fear … Do not yield to the dictatorship of terror or let it overtake reason. Let us stand united, which is the key to a rich and powerful nation ready to defend against those who are trying to take it away.
Mohamed El Bachiri
On the morning of March 22, 2016, Mohamed El Bachiri said goodbye to his wife, Loubna. It was the last time he would see her alive.
It was Mohamed’s day off and he was watching the couple’s three children while Loubna went off to work. Loubna died when a suicide bomber detonated an explosive belt on a train in the Brussels metro.
The bombing was one of three coordinated suicide bombings in the Belgian capital, with two more attackers detonating explosive vests at the Brussels airport in Zaventem. In all, 32 civilians were killed and more than 300 were wounded in the attacks. The Islamic State of Iraq in the Levant, (ISIL, also known as ISIS) claimed responsibility.
Loubna Lafquiri was 34, a Belgian Moroccan mother of three and a popular physical education teacher. Mohamed lost the love of his life that day.
“Loubna was an extreme beauty. She was an extraordinary woman with a big heart,” he says in Twice a Victim. “Extremely beautiful. Loubna was my Nefertiti. My Helen of Troy who does not provoke war but responds with love even after her death. Loubna is the love of my life. She is an eternal love.”
El Bachiri is now routinely detained at airport checkpoints.
Loubna was my Nefertiti. My Helen of Troy who does not provoke war but responds with love even after her death. Loubna is the love of my life. She is an eternal love.
He says his Muslim name automatically raises a red flag with authorities, who suspect him of “terrorism”. And they become more suspicious when they learn he is from Molenbeek, a Muslim-majority neighbourhood in Brussels with high unemployment that is known as a haven for foreign fighters returning from Iraq and Syria.
“I take it in context, thinking that it’s just the situation and hoping that one day it will change.”
El Bachiri wrote a book and gave a TEDx talk – both titled, A Jihad for Love – to highlight the difference between his late wife and the attackers. He says he wanted to reveal Islam as it is taught and observed by the vast majority of Muslims, and to restore “jihad” to “its noble meaning … a completely disarmed jihad that does not know about violence but which means ‘right effort’. It’s a word accompanied by love and human values that accepts all kinds of differences and recognises human life as sacred.
“If these things hadn’t happened, I’d still be driving my metro and no one would listen to me. I’d hear people speak about Islam in a negative way. So, if I’m seen as a Muslim and a potential terrorist, I make an appeal to people to gain a real knowledge of what Islam is.”
For El Bachiri, the tragedy of March 22, 2016, left him no option but to write about the teachings and mainstream observance of Islam. In passages from A Jihad for Love, he also pays homage to his wife Loubna and makes a plea to youth at risk of being influenced by armed groups.
Passages in A Jihad for Love are excerpted below:
Homage to Loubna
“My children, Mum has left. But what she leaves behind is imperishable and will disappear only at the end of time. Her message will travel to future generations. It will be stronger and will have more impact than any destructive weapon.”
“A mum who says goodbye, kisses her kids and goes to work, but then there’s no more Mum. They don’t fully understand. They saw their mum in the papers. I told the children that their mum was in heaven that bad people had planted a bomb in the metro that God had wanted to protect her and that was why he’d picked her up and taken her with him to heaven.”
El Bachiri to the attackers
“If you think that taking innocent lives and creating trauma is a form of justice even of God’s justice then you and I don’t belong to the same religion.
“But now you call us to war. With a nihilist ideology and a nihilist purpose. We can be against a system,
and we can disagree. We can criticise capitalism and society and we can be angry, but never through violence or hatred.”
“So you want to get out of Molenbeek? Fine, but don’t go straight to Syria. Go to the four corners of the earth, see how beautiful the world is. Discover other cultures. And if you go to Damascus, the city that Ibn Battuta called a paradise on earth, then don’t go there to destroy it, go there to admire it.”
Abdullah Saadi recalls the night, on November 13, 2015, that his younger sisters, Halima Saadi Endga and Houda Saadi, were shot dead outside La Belle Equipe restaurant in Paris. The sisters had been celebrating Halima’s 35th birthday on the restaurant terrace when armed men drove up and opened fire. Nineteen people died, including Houda and Halima.
Abdullah Saadi, a French citizen who has lived in France for more than 40 years, believes that the attacks have painted Muslims in a bad light. “In France, I think that one out of two people have a negative view towards this religion which is full of love and fraternity,” he says.
He tells his story, below:
“I was born in France, so I have French nationality. My parents are from Tunisia. They’ve lived in France for 44 years. I’m completely Muslim. I don’t practise much but I’m a believer. It’s my religion.
“Since the attacks on Charlie Hebdo and the Mohammed Mehrah attacks it’s not easy for us in France. We don’t feel racism or anti-Muslim sentiment directly, but indirectly.
“I wouldn’t exactly say that Muslims have been marginalised, but two or three days after the attacks I was at La Belle Equipe and a man came up to me. He said, ‘It’s the fault of people like you that this is happening.’
“He told me this after my sisters had been killed. And there were about 12 people I knew quite well who also died in the attacks.
“I do think that some people will jump at a chance to blame Muslims. For me, different issues are at play.
“One is religion, which is very personal and belongs to all of us. The other is terror attacks and those who commit them in the name of religion.
“The Quran is a holy book that goes back to ancient times and has been translated into many languages. So before judging it, it would simply be better to read this great book. People would see there’s nothing calling for violence like this or the attacks we’ve seen in France, Europe and other countries.
“As Muslims, of course, we can say that clearly, we have nothing to do with this. But since we love our religion, I believe we should also defend it. If we had one million Muslims in the streets tomorrow to say that these events have nothing at all to do with our religion I think people would see us differently.”
Mohamed Azahaf was a social worker who assisted grieving families after the 2004 train bombings in Madrid.
He feared that people might associate the attacks with Islam and that life for him, and many European Muslims of mixed identity like him, might never be the same.
The bombings were the first in a long string of attacks on European soil. At a time when discrimination based on race and faith have been on the rise in Europe, Azahaf speaks on the difference between the stated identity of the perpetrators and Muslims like him.
“We’re people just like any other and there is nothing bad or dangerous in our religion. The fact that Muslims were among the victims and killed by terrorists who claimed to be Muslim struck those of us who intervened. There was confusion between the victim and the perpetrator in that their own people were also victims. It occurred to me that this could give us strength – to actually deny the stated identity of the perpetrator. Those killed had been victims of a murderer and that is it.”
“I can’t say that being a Muslim in Europe or Spain is difficult because you can practise your religion.
No one forbids it. But in many ways, it does make people look closer at you and observe what you do or say.
“Before March 11, some were discriminated against for being named Mohamed, for having a different religion or for eating different foods. But after March 11, the discrimination followed a different line: ‘Are you going to plant a bomb’, ‘What kind of belt is that?’, ‘Does it have explosives?’.
“The discrimination was linked to terrorism. I am a Muslim and a Catalan; I am not a terrorist. Islam is peace.”
Azahaf on the Barcelona and Cambrils attackers:
“I think that when someone commits a bad act, he or she is fully liable for the pain they’ve caused. Because that discourages others from doing the same. At the same time, I don’t think that anyone is born bad and that some things can be corrected.
“If I had worked with these children, they wouldn’t have committed this barbarity. And though there is no justification for the act from a criminal point of view, I do believe they must have experienced some injustice that helped turn them from being victims to committing murder.
“It’s difficult to express, because there have been other victims, the innocent people they killed. These cannot be put on the same level. But we need to know that today’s victim can become tomorrow’s terrorist. And we must work to ensure that doesn’t happen.
“When there is an attack from someone in the name of my religion many people say that, as a Muslim, I should come out to condemn it. Because they’re equating me with the terrorist. They’re saying that the terrorist is one of my kind.
“If I protest saying ‘not in my name’ I’m admitting he is one of us. But he isn’t one of us. He doesn’t do it in my name. I work every day to live in harmony and to make the [country] I’m living in a better place.”