France split over battle for Muslim souls and minds

French intelligence has accused ‘ghetto’ communities of terrorist links – now the estates are fighting back

Whichever way he turns his head, Abdel Hak Eddajibi sees the same horizon: tower blocks. It may as well be a wall. Standing in the car park of his housing estate, he is unmoved by a French intelligence service report that suggests he lives in one of the most dangerous neighbourhoods in the country. ‘First they put us in a ghetto, then they accuse of ghettoising ourselves,’ he said.

Last week, Le Monde leaked an intelligence report by the feared Renseignements Généraux. It said that more than 300 estates in France had become ghettos in which nearly two million people lived on the fringes of Islamic extremism. Schools, workplaces and local associations were identified as hotbeds of antagonism.

‘The French authorities did not put us here by accident when they needed cheap labour in the 1960s,’ said Eddajibi, a 52-year-old teacher who has lived on the Clos Saint-Lazare estate for 18 years. ‘It is too easy to say these huge estates were a mistake of urban planning.

‘This housing was deliberately created because it was cheap to build,’ he said as he looked at the eight 15-storey blocks of the Clos. ‘The residents were deliberately selected for their compliance. We know this because the French authorities went out of their way to select rural immigrants from north Africa. The urban people were too inclined to join trade unions and get into politics.’

Islam / Islamism

Islamism is a totalitarian ideology adhered to by Muslim extremists (e.g. the Taliban, Wahhabis, Hamas and Osama bin Laden). It is considered to be a distortion of Islam. Many Islamists engage in terrorism in pursuit of their goals.

Adherents of Islam are called “Muslims.” The term “Arab” describes an ethnic or cultural identity. Not all Arabs are Muslims, and not all Muslims are Arabs. The terms are not interchangeable.

Moroccan-born Eddajibi, who is married and has three children, is doing just that. Last year, armed with a demographic study of the estate by the respected Insée statistics institute, he recruited members for a new residents’ association. ‘The figures showed that our estate is severely overcrowded and that a third of people are illiterate,’ he said. Of the 17,000 population, the survey found that 28.5 per cent were foreign nationals and half were under 25. Single-parent families and households with more than four children were the norm. Only 40 per cent of adults had jobs.

The findings – especially regarding the low age of the population and the level of illiteracy – give Stains, and especially the Clos Saint-Lazare area, a third-world profile in which Eddajibi comes across as a kind of latter-day village chief.

On his landing, Eddajibi is greeted with the words ‘Salaam aleikum’. On the estate, the boulangerie is run by a north African woman wearing a headscarf. The only grocery store sells 10kg bags of rice and speciality products from Africa. Some African women are dressed in the colourful robes of home and headscarves. The north Africans are veiled or covered entirely in black. As they walk to mosque, they do so several paces behind their robed husbands.

The As Salam mosque, in a stinking tower block basement next to the post office, has attracted the attention of the intelligence services. It is said to be Salafist – a fundamentalist sect supported by the Wahhabis of Saudi Arabia and thus, according to them, a potential recruiting ground for terrorists. The men filing into As Salam refuse to speak to journalists – ‘you just distort what we say’ – but, if appearances can be trusted there is some truth to the intelligence services’ claim: Almost all are men, under 30, bearded and wearing prayer hats and there are hardly any women or children.

The intelligence services claim As Salam runs Saturday morning phone-ins with religious ‘guides’ in Mecca. At these, according to one report, people are invited to ask practical questions about Muslim daily life. One such question, quoted in a French newspaper earlier this year, was: ‘Is it advisable to send our children to nursery school in this infidel country?’ The answer, from Cheik al-Madkali of Medina, was said to be: ‘Muslims are not allowed to abandon that which is dearest to them, their children, to an infidel teacher.’

Last week’s French intelligence report said polygamy was common, anti-semitism was on the rise and Europeans were moving out. ‘These populations preserve their cultural survival mechanisms which leads to a certain degree of endogamy and to the maintaining of traditional ways of life,’ write the authors.

It adds that preachers are operating in more than 200 neighbourhoods and that their ‘fundamentalist proselytising is paying off – notably among the youth and children’. The report says: ‘Young girls face pressure from young males to wear headscarves.’

Samia Adel Karim, aged 16, laughs off the quote from the report. She is more likely to be seen on a skateboard than behind a veil. Besides, dancing to the hip hop music she loves is incompatible with wearing robes. ‘They – the French authorities and the media – want to give us a bad image to encourage us to move out of Le Clos,’ she says to widespread approval from her friends, Aminata, Maimouna and Jessica, all aged 16.

The girls, who are at school in Stains, say they will stay on in the neighbourhood as adults if they can get housing. ‘There are a few drugs, a bit of crime. But people look out for one another and certainly, if you have always lived here, like us, no one will harm anyone from their own estate,’ says Aminata.

Outside the second mosque in Stains, which is housed in a former printworks, the faithful file out from Friday prayers animatedly, children play catch between the adults and women stand in groups laughing. The congregation of Tawba mosque is racially mixed and of all ages. Here, there is suspicion of those who go to As Salam, or ‘over there’ as it is dismissively referred to with great waves of the arms.

‘They are Salafists,’ says one man who will not be named. ‘They come here to pray sometimes and they hang around afterwards. We think they are a bad influence on our children and they give us Muslims the wrong image.’

Eddajibi denies that there are Salafists ‘over there’ and says he has just attended prayers in the controversial mosque. But then Eddajibi – who is a strong critic of the communist-run municipality and attends local council meetings – has other enemies.

‘This place has been run by the communists for 60 years – ever since the first labourers’ housing estates were built here to serve industry in and around Paris. Other areas are dynamiting their tower blocks but in Stains, which is severely over-populated, they are adding more buildings.

‘Other areas have realised that tower-block living leads to problems. Here, all the flats are full because the municipality gets grants from the state for taking in more residents,’ he says, adding that it took the town hall over a year to provide a meeting place for his residents’ association.

As for the intelligence services report, he believes it is exaggerated and merely provides further proof of the yawning gap between the French establishment and France as it is lived. ‘The ghetto is here and they regret it. But they built it in the first place,’ he says.

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(Listed if other than Religion News Blog, or if not shown above)
The Observer, UK
July 11, 2004
Alex Duval Smith in Paris

Religion News Blog posted this on Sunday July 11, 2004.
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