France open mosque days hailed but racism fears remain

Non-Muslims visit mosques across the country to foster integration as France marks anniversary of Charlie Hebdo attacks.

A weekend that saw mosques across France fling open their doors in a bid to foster integration and overturn negative stereotypes about Muslims has been hailed as a successful first step. However, fears remain over the well-being of a community which has suffered “retaliatory” violence and increased racism over the past year.

On Saturday morning, visitors of all religious backgrounds walked into some of the approximately 2,400 mosques throughout France during an open-house event for tours, talks, and discussions with Muslims over tea and snacks.

The weekend was organised by the French Council of the Muslim Faith (CFCM), which is supported by the government.

It came as France marks the one-year anniversary of attacks on the Paris-based office of the Charlie Hebdo magazine and a Jewish supermarket, in which 17 people were killed.

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The open-house weekend also fell nearly two months after the November 13 attacks in the French capital that left 130 people dead.

The November attack was claimed by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) group, triggering a backlash against France’s Muslim minority.

“I think at a time when Muslims are the target of the government, but also of the extreme right wing, anti-Muslim sentiment is constantly growing,” Rim-Sarah Alouane, a religious freedom, civil liberties and human rights researcher at the Toulouse 1 University Capitole, told Al Jazeera.

“It’s a very good thing to see that Muslims are willing to reach out and show people they’re part of this country, they are French, they stand for peace and also show that they shouldn’t be afraid.

“This initiative is a first step towards something bigger.”

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There are between 5.5 million and 6.2 million Muslims in France, or roughly 7.6 percent of total population.

Alouane continued: “2016 is going to be a tough year. We should not forget the presidential election is coming soon [in April 2017], and everybody is playing the fear-mongering card.

“The best way to get the votes of the extreme right is to play with those fears.”

She recommended that the government make Muslims “part of the solution, not the problem”.

“I am afraid that Muslims will give up and stay in their own little worlds instead of fighting for their rights. They should show they are here and part of this society,” said the doctorate candidate.

“My only hope is that they will reach out to more associations and reach out to the government even more to fight for their rights.”

Many Muslims, she added, increasingly feel like second-class citizens because under the current state of emergency, launched after the November 13 attacks, Muslim homes and businesses have been raided and mosques have been closed.

“This kind of [open-house] initiative … is a good beginning, but it’s not enough,” said Alouane, explaining that members of the government should do more to encourage unity.

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In December, when the event was announced, Anouar Kbibech, the CFCM president, said that the aim was to address the “current climate of suspicion and distrust” towards Muslims.

Kbibech added that he hoped “that in 2016 , all fellow citizens of all faiths – believers and non-believers – will work together towards unity”.

Yasser Louati, spokesman for the Collective Against Islamophobia (CCIF) in France, said: “I think [the open-house event is a] great initiative and should take place more often in order to break down barriers between people.”

Speaking to Al Jazeera, he added: “In French media, we hear about Muslims, but we don’t hear from Muslims themselves. It’s been a success … it’s a good thing.

“I hope these events can be organised on a regular basis so local mosques can connect with local communities.”

France is witnessing, he said, “a growing polarisation of society”.

Looking ahead, CCIF is working to form a lobby group to protest a constitutional amendment proposal, supported by French President Francois Hollande that would give the government the right to declare a state of emergency and strip citizenship from those with dual nationality who are convicted of “severe crimes against the nation”.

According to Le Monde, some 3.3 million people have dual citizenship in France.

Follow Anealla Safdar on Twitter: @anealla

Source: Al Jazeera