PARIS — Mahmoud Bourassi speaks softly about tolerance here, about the need for his country to respect his religion and for people of his faith to remember that beyond being Muslim they are also French.
To many of his countrymen, though, Bourassi is someone they should fear. They see him as a terrorist in the making, if not a terrorist already, a young man moving toward a brand of religious extremism responsible for everything from the sexual mutilation of thousands of French Muslim girls to deadly attacks on Western targets around the world.
Their evidence: His age and his attention to Islam. He is 28. He prays five times a day. He does not drink alcohol. He is mildly political. His mother covers her head with a scarf.
“There is no conflict in being French and Muslim at the same time, in my view,” Bourassi. “I’m French in my way of speaking, in my sense of humor, and I look at the world through French eyes.
“But a lot of French don’t want to see me as French. They want me invisible, and if they see me as Muslim, they associate that with violence, terrorism and hate.”
The government and Muslim leaders agree on at least one thing: the number of real fundamentalists is growing.
“There is no question, fundamentalism is growing everywhere, and, of course, we see it more and more in France,” says Jacqueline Costa-Lascoux, a researcher at the prestigious Institute of Political Science and a Paris immigration attorney who advises the government on how to better integrate Muslims into French society.
“All of this can lead to violence,” she says. “It already has.”
In her view, and that of the government, the threat of violence born of religious extremism is here, now, and growing — in the Muslim ghettos that ring Paris and Lyon, in the underground mosques within walking distance of the Louvre.
France is home to about 5 million Muslims — 8 percent of the population — and their numbers are increasing quickly. People such as Bourassi are being tarred as potential terrorists, and more young Muslim men, increasingly feeling isolated, are in turn listening to prayer leaders who talk of the evils of the West.
As one way to protect itself against religious extremism, the French government is clamping down on religious symbolism. This month the French Parliament approved a ban on headscarves in public schools; its passage into law is expected this spring.
The logic of the legislation works like this: For a Muslim to become a religious extremist is to first embrace Muslim symbols — headscarves for women, beards for men.
By eliminating as many of those symbols as possible, the logic continues, this step to extremism is removed.
“France cannot be a playground for fundamentalism and that’s the direction it’s heading,” says Herve Mariton, a member of Parliament who served on a committee that created the headscarf ban. “We are drawing a line to protect French society, to prevent this move toward extremism.”
So far, though, the legislation has backfired.
Tensions between Muslims and non-Muslims — and between Muslims divided by the ban — have increased in a country where integration has been a problem since the influx of North Africans began in the 1950s. Thousands of Muslims — most of them young and many who kept their religion in their homes and mosques, just as the French government preferred it — have taken to the street in protests and have, for the first time, found themselves politically aligned with true extremists.
So high have the tensions risen in France, historically the most adamantly secular country in Europe, that Bourassi is seen as a threat even by people such as Dali Boubakeur, rector of the Paris Mosque, the city’s largest.
A Muslim in France becomes political only because he wants to inflict his religious views on others, Boubakeur says, a move, in the rector’s assessment, toward radicalism.
“The division between the moderates and the fundamentalists is growing, without question, and it’s making life more dangerous,” Boubakeur says. “These fundamentalists prey on the young, and as the young are sucked in, sooner or later they’re asked to fight.”
“The demonstrators? Fundamentalists.”
Said Mahmoud Bourassi, less than a week after protesting against the headscarf ban: “Our challenge, what I am trying to do, is to preserve our faith and practices in a society that doesn’t have our references.
“We’ve almost become resigned to this bad image and we need to change that — but without becoming less-good Muslims.”
The town of Bondy, a suburb north of Paris, is dominated by public housing apartment buildings, some of them 14 stories tall, clustered on lots that are mostly cement and hardened mud.
Bourassi lives here with his mother, father and younger sister, in a well-kept but decidedly utilitarian apartment, with a stairwell that appears not to have been painted in years. It’s across the street from a similar building with trash out front, where a basement is used as a prayer room for Muslims in the neighborhood.
About 70 percent of the 48,000 people in Bondy are the first or second generation in their families to be born in France, like Bourassi, whose parents came from Morocco. Virtually all of them are Muslim.
That so many Muslims live in such ghettos, as they are known here, is an indication of the failures at economic integration. Most Muslims simply cannot afford to live elsewhere; they depend on government subsidies to live here.
The segregation is a major factor in pushing some Muslims to go beyond practicing their faith to using its symbols to be confrontational, says Khalid Mandani, a successful Moroccan-born businessman and nonpracticing Muslim who advises the government on integration issues.
“These are frustrated young men who face racism and discrimination on a daily basis, and as this happens, they reach for somewhere to belong,” Khalid says. “So, they revolt against France, which has never treated them well, and they embrace the fundamentalists.”
Said Dominique Moisi, senior adviser at the French Institute for International Relations: “I think it’s absolutely true that the failure to integrate Muslims is driving many of them to the right.
“For many of them, whether they admit it or not or even realize it, it’s a matter of, `I am Muslim because I cannot be French, I cannot be Moroccan, I cannot be Algerian, and I will show you how Muslim I can be.”‘
Other people maintain that the current tensions in France are not caused by more observant Muslims or even by fundamentalists but by an overzealous attempt by non-Muslims to maintain the secularism called for in the country’s constitution.
Lhaj Thami Breze, president of the Union of Islamic Organizations of France — viewed by the rector of the Paris Mosque as a fundamentalist group — said the symbols are nothing more than an increasing willingness for Muslims to show their faith.
“The customs are a return to religion, not fundamentalism,” says Breze, who, like virtually all the men in the group’s offices on the outskirts of Paris, is bearded. Every woman seen in the building wore a headscarf. Next to the office is a 4,500-square-foot prayer room, where men and women are separated by a fence.
“They should be respected and not denigrated as fundamentalism,” he says of the symbols, “or it is that which will lead to extremism.”
Earlier this month, thousands of Muslims, mostly women and men in their 20s, clogged the streets of Paris in peaceful protests against the ban on headscarves. They played loud Arabic music. They chanted that their religion would not be suppressed.
The most telling scenes of the marches, though, were the women: Their heads were covered with scarves and their bodies were wrapped in French flags.
Banners they carried said, “The headscarf is my modesty,” “No exclusion,” and “I am French AND Muslim.”
The actions of the French government have created a situation in which, on this single issue, moderates share a view with the militants who attacked the United States. The result among many Frenchmen is to lump the moderates with the extremists.
At Bourassi’s apartment, his mother, Saliha Bourassi, explained she began wearing a headscarf after having children, because she had reached a point where she wanted to more tightly embrace Islam.
His sister, Myriam, who is 20, does not wear the scarf at any time. “I hope to feel ready to, someday, when I’m closer to my faith,” she said.
His father, Mostafa Bourassi, said he leaves the choice to his wife and daughter. He praised his son, though, for his willingness to speak out.
“Before his generation, we just took discrimination and said nothing,” the father said. “In France, if you do something good you are French. If you do something bad you are Muslim.”
“It’s up to Muslims to change that image — to exchange ideas and let people know we don’t agree with extremism,” Mahmoud Bourassi said. “But we can’t be expected not to be Muslim.”