Q&A: ‘Muslim minorities are first victims of terror’

“Retaliatory” attacks and raids target Muslims in France, says Yasser Louati of the Collective Against Islamophobia.

yasser louati
Mosques have been raided amid an extended state of emergency in France as Muslims report a rise in vigilantism [Yasser Louati]

Yasser Louati, the Paris-based spokesman for Collective Against Islamophobia in France, recently gained internet fame when two news presenters pressed him to explain the Muslim community’s supposed responsibility in regards to the recent attacks in Paris that killed 130 people.

In the five-minute interview titled: “Muslim communities fear backlash after attacks,” CNN anchor Isha Sesay challenged the Frenchman to “step up and take a greater role in speaking out” while her co-anchor concluded the interview with, “I’m yet to hear the condemnation on the Muslim community on this, but we’ll wait and see.”

For his part, Louati said: “We cannot be held responsible for these people, that’s the government’s job when you have criminals running around the country, you do your job and arrest them … those terrorists targeted everybody, including Muslims.”

The interview raised the question of whether or not Muslims should publicly condemn indiscriminate attacks claimed by armed groups such as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) group, which went on to claim responsibility for the deadly violence on November 13.

Here, Al Jazeera interviews Louati, who tracks Islamophobia in France, about the biggest Muslim minority in Europe and their fear of a backlash after the Paris attacks.

Al Jazeera: Are you concerned for the Muslim community after the Paris attacks?

Yasser Louati: Yes, definitely. We’ve already witnessed a wave of violence. If you compare to January 2015, [after the offices of Charlie Hebdo were targeted], there was a buffer time between the incident and when the first attacks were reported against Muslims. But this time around, the first attacks on the Muslim minority was almost immediate. We saw hate speech on social media and in columns carried in right-wing newspapers. Within hours, I saw death threats being posted on sites such as Facebook and Twitter.

Al Jazeera: What else is different about responses to the attack on November 13, compared to that of January?

Louati: Back then, the atmosphere was highly volatile but there was a sense that at least the government took precautions and spoke out against attacks against Muslims.

The new phenomenon is that we are witnessing a complete silence from the government. This time, the government is completely passive. It is further exacerbating attacks on Muslims in France. President [Francois] Hollande has declared a war on terrorism – we thought the war on terrorism was launched in January. But now, we feel that war has been declared on the Muslim minority in France – the wrong enemy.

Related: French Muslim Council asks mosques to decry ‘terror’

Al Jazeera: What measures within the state of emergency have affected Muslims?

Louati: We have seen 793 raids on homes, mosques and private property, including Muslim-owned shops and restaurants. In the most shocking incidents, several mosques were raided at night and thrashed by police.

In Aubervilliers, a mosque was raided at night and police pulled out the ceiling, broke the doors and threw books on the floor – including the Quran. They stained the carpet. It is nonsense – there is no need for it. All mosques are already under surveillance.

We’re questioning the efficiency of the attacks. There has been one imprisonment that we know of from these raids. Is there a need for such brutality for one arrest?

In Nice, the fragment of a police bullet struck a six-year-old girl in the neck and ear, the Nice Matin local newspaper reported as it posted a video of the aftermathThis constitutes police brutality against Muslims, and we have received no reassurance from the government whatsoever.

Al Jazeera: Apart from during the raids, have you been informed of violence elsewhere?

Louati: When it comes to attacks from people, we’ve seen physical attacks on women. Those wearing the headscarf are often targeted when they are alone.

In Marseilles, a woman was punched in the face and attacked with a box cutter. In Givors, in the Carrefour supermarket, a man kicked a woman over and rolled the trolley over her while bystanders failed to act in her defence.

One unlucky young man was beaten into a coma in Pontivy by six people at a march organised by the far-right and attended by about 200 people; some had warned the mayor against letting the march go ahead, but he said it should continue in the name of free speech. Another man was shot in the north of France.

There are several examples of graffiti on mosques, with some writing ‘Death to Muslims’ or ‘Suitcase or coffin’, which implies, ‘You leave or we will kill you’, while others were tagged with crosses.

Overall, there were at least 26 attacks between November 14 and 19, and we are witnessing an average now of around four per day.

OPINION: Stigmatising Muslims in France can only do more harm

Al Jazeera: What are those who are targeted doing about it?

Louati: People don’t want to file charges. Several stores were raided, but the news came to us from neighbours. People are scared of retaliation, or scared of the government itself. There is a violent backlash coming from the government against Muslims. People were expecting sympathy from President Hollande, saying ‘We’re not at war with our Muslim citizens.’ 

I myself expect to be raided at any time… The state of emergency gave such broad power to the minister of interior that any house can be raided, any car can be searched – we’re all just waiting for the moment it happens to us. 

Al Jazeera: How do people from the Muslim minority feel?

Louati: Let’s not forget these people were affected by the attacks too – we are talking about more than 100 people killed in one night. We didn’t even have the right to feel sad about them. I’m heartbroken for the victims and their families. They were of all different backgrounds: Christians, Muslims, Jews, black and white.

The feeling from the Muslim minority is that we are paying for three failures – foreign policy which has turned France into an enemy state, domestic policy which is social and economic and has failed to integrate the Muslim minority, and the failure of the intelligence community – the suspects of November 13 were known to them.

Al Jazeera: What do you mean by ‘social and economic’?

Louati: France has failed to integrate the Muslim minority – the suspects have the same traits: marginalisation, criminality. It’s [France] manufacturing the same kind of monsters over and again.

Al Jazeera: What do you advise people to do when they come to you?

Louati: We are inundated with calls right now. I have 1,700 emails in my inbox. If people approach us after having been attacked, we try to make them feel safe and gain their trust. We encourage them to file charges, to go to police station. But many say they fear that if they complain, they would be raided. They don’t feel safe.


Al Jazeera: How would you characterise the political response to the situation in general?

Louati: The Minister of Interior [Bernard Cazeneuve], speaking in April, said radicalisation does not take place in mosques, making the French public and Muslim community feel safer. Now, he’s saying ‘We are going to shut down radicalised mosques.’ In a way, he’s contradicting himself, and I think it’s because of the pressure applied by the political landscape by the far right ahead of elections. People are trying to position themselves.

Al Jazeera: How do you feel when you hear the term ‘war on terrorism’ being used?

Louati: They have declared a war on terrorism, but they have chosen the wrong enemy. Muslim minorities are the first victims of terrorism throughout the world.

Follow Anealla Safdar on Twitter: @anealla

Source: Al Jazeera