Community leaders in France had been sounding the alarm about rising anti-Muslim sentiment since the Charlie Hebdo satirical magazine massacre in Paris on Jan. 7. Now new figures compiled by a watchdog group suggest anti-Muslim incidents have spiked to never before seen proportions. In the two weeks following attacks that saw three Kalashnikov-wielding Islamist terrorists kill 17 people, including Charlie Hebdo cartoonists, three police officers, and four Jewish hostages in a kosher supermarket, nearly as many anti-Muslim incidents were reported as throughout all of 2014.
The National Observatory Against Islamophobia says there were 128 anti-Muslim incidents reported in France between the Charlie Hebdo killings and Jan. 20, compared to 133 last year. The Islamophobia monitoring group, linked to the French Council of the Muslim Faith, notes the figure only takes into account incidents reported to law enforcement. It leaves aside victims who haven’t bothered out of fear or resignation. It also leaves out numbers not yet available for Paris and its immediate suburbs, where a disproportionate number of the nation’s Muslims live and work. The 128 incidents cited are said to include 33 acts, including attacks on mosques, and 95 threats.
“Islamophobic acts have reached a peak of hate toward French people of the Muslim confession never before recorded,” Abdallah Zekri, the observatory’s president, told Agence France-Presse, noting the incidents for the first time included lobbed grenades and shots fired. “These acts against one part of the national community, provoked by little Nazi pretenders who spend their days decorating the walls of our mosques with Nazi slogans, recall a sad past and are reprehensible,” he said.
Indeed, in the days following the Charlie Hebdo attacks, perpetrated by three terrorists claiming ties to both ISIS and Al-Qaeda in Yemen, local French press was littered with stories of violent prejudice against Muslims. A plaster grenade hit a mosque in Le Mans and shots were reported fired at several mosques across the country. Arson badly damaged a mosque in Aix-les-Bains. Several mosques were vandalized with spray-painted slogans ranging from “Arabs Get Out” to swastikas and an ominous “Ich Bin Charlie.” In Corsica, intestines and the head of a wild boar were reportedly found hooked to the door of a Muslim prayer room.
Amid the wave of vigilante vandalism, the brother of murdered policeman Ahmed Merabet, a Muslim officer of Algerian descent gunned down by the Charlie Hebdo attackers, made a desperate press-conference plea, asking that those angered by the killings not confuse Muslims with extremists. “I’m addressing all the racists, Islamophobes, and anti-Semites: stop lumping everything together, sparking wars, burning down mosques or synagogues,” Malek Merabet said. “You attack people; it won’t bring back our dead and it won’t soothe our families.”
In a wide-ranging and impassioned speech before France’s National Assembly the week after the attacks, Prime Minister Manuel Valls called protecting the nation’s Muslims urgent. “They, too, are worried. Unacceptable, intolerable anti-Muslim acts have taken place again these past few days. There again, attacking a mosque, a church, a place of prayer, desecrating a cemetery is an affront to our values,” he said, pledging to ensure the protection of places of worship across the country. “Islam is France’s second religion. It has its rightful place in France.”
In an earlier condemnation of this month’s anti-Muslim incidents, Zekri had released a statement condemning acts against French Muslims “who, in their immense majority, respect the values of the [French] Republic and secularism, contrary to what some would have you believe, individuals who take advantage of their media celebrity to make their hatred of Muslims and Islam their stock in trade.”
Zekri had in fact condemned in similar terms the likes of French author Michel Houellebecq, who released a controversial novel imagining France voting for Islamic rule in 2022, and the right-wing polemicist Eric Zemmour, who appeared to condone the deportation of millions of French Muslims in a December interview. Houellebecq’s “Soumission” (Submission) happens to have been released on the day of the Charlie Hebdo attack.
France is home to Europe’s largest Muslim population, with estimates as high as five million people who would identify as Muslims (although precise figures are unknown as census-takers may not ask the question under French law). According to the National Observatory Against Islamophobia’s figures, 2014 had been a relatively peaceful year in the recent history of anti-Muslim incidents in France, down 41 percent compared to 2013 after at least three years on the rise.