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Muslims in the Suburbs of Paris Fear a Backlash

7 minute read

With their austere high-rise housing blocks and concrete highway overpasses, the suburbs of Paris feel like a world away from the capital’s glittering boulevards, lush green parks and riverside cafés. But the attacks on Friday that left 129 people dead have reverberated from the city’s core to its periphery, where residents of the banlieues—or the suburbs—are also chilled by the warning by ISIS militants that the attacks are simply the “first of a storm.”

The fear of being terrorized also comes with a fear of being scapegoated. French Muslims have found themselves under an uncomfortable spotlight for the second time in just ten months, especially those in the long-neglected banlieues often portrayed as breeding grounds for radical Islam and homegrown terrorism.

That picture isn’t always accurate. France has seen more of its citizens join ISIS and other jihadist groups than any other European country, but many of those 1,500 foreign fighters came from middle-class, educated families. Nevertheless, at least two of the eight attackers on Friday were French nationals who emerged from the banlieues: Omar Ismail Mostefai, who blew himself up at the Bataclan concert hall, grew up in the southern suburb of Courcouronnes while Samy Amimour, another attacker at the Bataclan, lived in the northeastern suburb of Drancy before he reportedly left for Syria two years ago.

Leaders in the banlieues have often sounded the alarm that growing numbers of young Muslims in their communities are drifting towards radical groups who see the French state and its people as an enemy to be destroyed. “We have told the police so many times about the dangers here and they have done nothing. I want to know why,” says Jaafar Rebaa, vice-president of the Drancy Mosque, well-known in France because of its famously moderate imam, Hassen Chalghoumi, who supports the country’s ban on the burqa and speaks out against the dangers of extremism.

Rebaa, who moved to Paris from Tunisia thirty years ago, says that in the past five years he and other Muslim community leaders have alerted local authorities to the presence of numerous “basement mosques” in the neighborhood – underground prayer rooms where radical Salafists gather. Rebaa says they lure in disenfranchised youth by offering them not just luxuries like free meal vouchers but also a purpose, something many young people in the banlieues lack. “If these people had jobs or studies, they wouldn’t get drawn in, they wouldn’t get brainwashed,” he says.

A lack of opportunities for the young here is nothing new. High-rise cités, housing estates thrown up after the Second World War to house an influx of immigrant workers, like those in Drancy are marked out by the government as “sensitive urban zones,” problem areas with high levels of unemployment and relatively low numbers of high-school graduates. That’s been the case since before 2005, when riots broke out in the surrounding areas and spread to other parts of the country, and it’s the same now; in a recent poll, the most common adjectives used to describe the banlieues were “poor”, “dangerous,” “badly maintained” and “divided by community.”

Outside the cité des 4000 estate in La Courneuve, another banlieue just north of Paris, a group of young men are rolling cigarettes and chatting in the soft November sunshine. They were only children when the 2005 riots broke out. The cité des 4000, sometimes nicknamed the Bronx of Paris, became well-known in 2005 after Nicolas Sarkozy made a pledge while running for president to “wash down [the housing projects] with a hose.” Belgium’s interior minister Jan Jambon made a similar promise on Sunday to “clean up Molenbeek,” a Brussels suburb that also appears to have become an incubator for extremism.

I ask if anything has changed in the neighborhoods in the decade since the 2005 riots. “Not much,” says Amedou, 20, who is unemployed and dropped out of high school. “They fixed some of the buildings. But there are no jobs, no good schools, nothing to do.” His friends nod in agreement, describing the various barriers they face when applying for jobs. Studies have shown that having an ethnically Arab or African name, as well as a zip code signaling that you live in the banlieues, makes it much more difficult to get a job interview. One of the men adds: “There’s no hope here.”

After three gunmen launched attacks on the Charlie Hebdo offices and a kosher supermarket in January, I visited these banlieues and spoke to many Muslims who feared their community would further stigmatize them. And despite the millions who marched for unity in January, those fears have been proven justified. France’s National Observatory Against Islamophobia reported that violence towards Muslims skyrocketed after the Charlie attacks: there were three times as many attacks between January and September of this year than for the same period in 2014. The attacks ranged from vandalism on Muslim-owned stores to attacks on mosques. For the first time since the Observatory was established in 2011, it reported the use of grenades and firearms.

“The last thing we need right now is more xenophobia here,” says Sofiane Bouarif, 19, a soft-spoken French student of Algerian origin, who was born in the suburb of Montreuil. The rise of the extreme right poses a greater threat than ISIS in terms of deepening the fault lines of French society, he says. Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Front party is expected to make significant gains in regional elections in December.

“What we need is solidarity and unity instead of turning on each other,” says Djemoui Bennaceur, 54, who runs a small transportation business in Paris. He moved to the banlieues from Algeria in 1989 and has been actively involved with the Socialist Party in La Courneuve for many years. “We all knew that there might be more terrorist attacks but never on this scale. Yet it’s not the first test France has faced and if we do not keep our senses, Daesh will have achieved its goal,” he says — referring to ISIS by an Arabic acronym considered a pejorative by the group.

While Muslim leaders across France and around the world have been quick to denounce ISIS, not everyone in the French Muslim community is eager to risk association by condemnation. “I don’t see the attackers as Muslims,” says Ibrahim Doucoure, 25, waiting for a streetcar at Porte de la Villette station. He was born and raised by Malian parents in the banlieue of Aubervilliers and now works as an Uber driver in Paris. “They are savages, a tiny minority who stain all the others for whom Islam is only a religion of peace,” he says firmly, speaking in the accented slang of the banlieues. “To denounce them as a Muslim suggests there is a link between my faith and what these people are doing.”

An elderly man overhears and turns to us, his dark eyes suddenly filling with tears. “If they are committing these acts in the name of Islam, then it is our duty to condemn them as Muslims too,” he says softly. “They have sold their soul to hell.”

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Write to Naina Bajekal / Paris at naina.bajekal@time.com