French Muslims battle internal, external strife

Sunday, May 29, 2005

Editors note: To find out what governments and courts are doing to stop the growing threat of Islamic terrorist groups in Europe, reporter Mark Houser visited Europe in March and April on a journalism fellowship from the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

PARIS — Waiting for his train in a metro station named for the battle of Stalingrad, Moun R'Quibe spoke with pride of the men he considers heroes fighting in another bloody conflict — Iraq.

R'Quibe, 20, born in France of Moroccan parents, supports fellow Muslims willing to give their lives for jihad against the Americans.

“I would like to do it, God willing. I would like to do it, but my parents don't want me to,” he said.

The high-rises here in Paris' 19th arrondissement, a residential district in the city's northeast where tourists rarely venture, are crowded with North African immigrants and their descendants along with native French. On narrow Rue de Tanger, across from a drab, concrete Catholic church, is the drab, concrete Addawa mosque.

French officials say it was in this mosque, and at later meetings in an apartment, that a jihad recruiter met with a group of young Muslims and convinced them to fly to Syria, sneak across the border, join the insurgency and pursue glory.

Three of them are dead — two were killed in battle and one blew himself up in an October car bomb attack that injured two American soldiers and two Iraqi soldiers. Three more were captured and are being held by the U.S. military.

In January, French police arrested their alleged recruiter, Farid Benyettou, and two other young men who were preparing to follow in their friends' footsteps.

Attorney Vincent Ollivier said his client, Cherif Kouachi, was having second thoughts and was relieved to be arrested, even grateful.

Kouachi, 22, lived his entire life in France and was not particularly religious, Ollivier said. He drank, smoked pot, slept with his girlfriend and delivered pizzas for a living. His parents, Algerian immigrants, are dead.

“I think in Mr. Benyettou he found someone who could tell him what to do, like an older brother,” Ollivier said.

Ollivier admitted that his client told other militants they should attack Jewish interests in France. But he said that was a front Kouachi put up to look brave.

Besides, he said, what Kouachi was planning was no different than what many in the West did in the 1930s, when they joined the international brigades to fight Gen. Francisco Franco in the Spanish Civil War.

Ollivier decorates his office with art he makes from painted plywood and found objects. In one piece, black plastic crocodiles creep out of a pond and advance on a crucifix. It represents the end of Western Civilization and Christianity, he said.

“I'm like everybody else,” Ollivier said. “I'm worrying about it and waiting for it, for Armageddon. But ... we can't avoid all our democratic laws. The way we are fighting terrorists is very dangerous because we are forgetting all our rules.”

Worried that more young men like Kouachi could be coaxed into terrorist acts abroad or at home, Jacques Chirac's government is cracking down on radicalism.

Imams accused of pushing extremist views are deported. New prayer leaders from abroad will have to take state-run orientation classes in French.

Three-quarters of France's estimated 1,200 imams are not French, and many don't speak the language.

France last year banned religious garb, including Muslim headscarves, in public schools. Many Muslims took to the streets in protest.

Citizens but different

Opposition to the U.S. invasion of Iraq is not an unusual political stance in Paris and is certainly not confined to Muslims.

France has Europe's largest Islamic community, with 5 million Muslims, or 8 percent of the population. Most are from the country's former colonies in North Africa and live concentrated in and around Paris and Lyon. About half are French citizens.

France lost Algeria after a guerrilla war 50 years ago that saw waves of terrorist attacks in both countries, committed by both sides. Bitter memories still smolder, and even French citizenship is no guarantee of easy integration for the Arabs, whom the native French derisively call “beurs.”

R'Quibe said French racism thwarts him and other young Muslims from getting a job, so it should not be a shock that some find a purpose in violent jihad.

“If you can't make money, what are you going to do?” he said.

The history of Muslim-French relations is not all bleak. The French National Assembly built the ornate Mosque of Paris in the 1920s to honor French Arab soldiers who died on the Western Front in World War I.

Despite a long-standing and strict separation of church and state, the current government is contributing 2 million euros toward renovating the mosque, a spokesman said.

In another break with tradition, the state created a new foundation this year as a conduit for money sent from overseas to build new mosques.

Dalil Boubaker, the leader of the Mosque of Paris, was hand-picked by the government in 2003 to head the new French Council for the Muslim Religion. Similar to existing organizations for Catholics and other faiths, the council consults with authorities on building new mosques, training imams and dietary regulations.

Boubaker, a former doctor who left Algeria as a teenager, is a moderate who says Muslims can fit in without sacrificing their spiritual beliefs. He ridicules those who wear traditional Arabic dress in public, saying they “impose ... the spectacle of (their) originality” on others.

More hard-line Muslims dominate the council's membership, and Boubaker's post is at risk in elections next month.

But even if Boubaker is pushed out, the council is still succeeding in its primary aim, said Olivier Roy, a French expert on Muslim integration in Europe and the author of “Globalized Islam.”

The council has given conservative Muslims a stake in the political process, which they will guard jealously, Roy predicted. That will leave little leeway for even tacit support of armed jihad.

“These guys, they want to become notables. They want to be respected. They want to speak to a minister,” Roy said.

Whether such politicians can effectively counter the radicals on the fringes remains to be seen.

The West should not underestimate the danger from militant Muslims, Boubaker said. But he also believes they are not a permanent fixture in Europe, the product of a rocky process of assimilation in a free, and sometimes confusing, society.

“Yesterday it was the hippies, today the Islamists, and tomorrow another kind of these strange creatures,” Boubaker said.

R'Quibe said he opposes the killing of innocents, and he opposes Osama bin Laden. He also said Americans, not al-Qaida, were behind 9/11, and that George Bush and bin Laden are “best friends” serving each other's interests.

In the end, R'Quibe confessed that he probably is not fierce enough to become a jihad warrior. He said he knows a man who went to fight and came back “crazy,” a thought that scares him.

“If you go to Iraq, you'll go crazy or die,” said R'Quibe.

“Crazy is not good, but dying is good.”

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