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Muslims fear backlash from France magazine attack

[PARIS] Muslims in France were called to pay homage at Friday prayers to the 12 victims of this week's magazine massacre which has stoked fears of Islamophobia in a country that has struggled to integrate its millions-strong Islamic minority.

The French Muslim Council had called on people to gather "in dignity and silence" and urged imams to condemn "violence and terrorism".

But this week's shocks have put the country's Muslims in a difficult position.

"To be a Muslim in this country today is to be stuck between the hammer and the anvil: between these guys who massacre in the name of their religion and growing anti-Muslim racism," Mustafa Amokrane, the well-known singer with band Zebda, said this week.

Shots have been fired at mosques in several towns since Wednesday's massacre, racist slogans daubed on walls and a pig's head hung on the door of a prayer hall in Corsica.

France has long had a combustible relationship with its Muslim minority - the largest in Europe at between 3.5 and 5 million - that dates back to its bloody struggles in its former North African colonies and the legacy of immigrants trapped in some of France's poorest districts.

Long decades of insurgency against French rule in Algeria in the mid-twentieth century, followed by a spate of Algerian terrorist attacks in France in the 1990s created difficulties for communal relations - which reawakened with the rise of global jihadism after 9/11.

A study by the Open Society Institute in 2009 found 57 per cent of French Muslims considered religious discrimination widespread and a majority thought it had worsened in the past five years.

The rise of the far-right National Front and the fact that hundreds of young French Muslims have left to join jihadist brigades in Iraq and Syria has only hardened the barriers.

And a debate still rages over whether Muslims have been integrated or not.

"The very large majority are integrated," said Claude Dargent, a sociology professor at Sciences Po university in Paris.

"And for those who aren't, it's less a question of religion than their social and economic situation." French Muslims are much more represented in the unemployment figures than the wider population - a result of the fact that many immigrants came to fill low-paid jobs during France's postwar boom only for their children to suffer when jobs dried up in the 1970s and after.

Unemployment is seen as one of the key triggers behind the violent riots that broke out in Paris suburbs in November 2005.

"The unrest was both a direct result of the idleness of many youth of immigrant origin and an indirect result of the creation of a vicious cycle in which because these young people have little hope of getting a good job in the future, they have no real incentive to succeed at school," wrote Jonathan Laurence and Justin Vaisse of the Brookings Institute in a recent report.

Even faced with economic difficulties, many argue the problem of integration stems from the cold shoulder they face from politicians and intellectuals.

France's ban on the Muslim face veil and the hostility to mosque building by local authorities has combined with a slew of books that smack of Islamophobia, most recently the novel of Michel Houellebecq imagining a Muslim takeover of the country in 2022.

"When these shapers of public opinion consistently raise criticisms of Muslims... they rarely exhibit any self-awareness that they themselves are standing in the way of (integration)," wrote Jennifer Fredette, author of "Constructing Muslims in France", in the Washington Post recently.

Many were left conflicted by the widespread offence caused by Charlie Hebdo's often crude caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed.

The magazine is "free to say what it wants, but not to touch religion. Are the caricatures of Mohammed humour? No. But you don't have the right to kill people," a Muslim wedding dress shop employee in Paris said.

She fears this week's violence will deepen divisions.

"I'm afraid they'll put everyone in the same bag. Last night, when I was heading home, I got a few remarks from someone. I saw the way he was looking at me - it was frightening." Others have put a darkly humourous spin on the uncomfortable atmosphere.

"If your name is Mohammed or Karim and you have a job interview tomorrow, you might as well stay at home and play Fifa (football game)," tweeted one young Muslim man after the attack on Wednesday.

Influential blogger Fateh Kimouche said it was wrong to argue that Muslims had not done enough.

"We mobilise ourselves all the time. I would recall that Muslims have also been affected: one of the policemen killed was called Ahmed Merabet. We are not spared."

AFP