French citizens and people around the world stood in solidarity with the victims of the January Paris attacks, including the twelve presumably killed for their connection with political satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo’s controversial depictions of Muhammad. These supporters were put into categories rather quickly—"Are you Charlie?" "Are you Ahmed?" "Are you ‘Juif’ (Jew)?" "Are you all of the above?"
The question is complex even for an adult, but perhaps even more so for French youth. The press and their community asked students to contemplate issues as various as the protection of freedom of speech, the loyalty of a Muslim police officer to the state, confronting modern-day anti-Semitism, and above all—whether their allegiance ought to privilege one over the other.
“Since the events of Charlie Hebdo I’ve seen unanimous condemnation [of the acts]…but to ask of a 9-year old child, ‘are you Charlie?’ that’s a hard question,” said Mahmoud Bourassi, supervisor of a youth center in largely-Muslim Parisian suburb Bondy.
As the situation in Paris has evolved, Islamophobic hate crimes have multiplied by 10 in 2015, according to the Collective Against Islamophobia in France. Questions introduced in the aftermath of Charlie Hebdo have permeated students’ everyday lives. This is particularly true in the underprivileged Paris suburbs, or banlieues.
“Before, we did not talk about religion,” said Francoise Kirkkisseli, a high school teacher in a largely Muslim banlieue. “But, after Charlie [Hebdo], we talked. There was a dialogue, we were able to exchange, discuss, and change the game. Now, it is less taboo to talk about religion. And [the students] are very receptive.”
While the teachers at the high school where Kirkkisseli works felt the need to clarify what had happened at Charlie Hebdo, they did not do so out of concern for religious inclusion among their students.
“Half of my students, aged 15-18, are Muslim, but there is no problem whatsoever of racism in the high school,” said Kirkkisseli. “They are proud of their roots, and there is no problem of integration…The only change I noticed [after our discussion] was that my Muslim students became more tolerant. They didn’t want to be associated with terrorism, so they are now more open.”
Student pride towards their roots has developed into a new issue for French youth—that of identity. While many young Muslims in France are third or fourth generation French citizens, they are often viewed by their non-Muslim peers as foreigners. Some, particularly in the banlieues, question whether they even feel French themselves.
“In a recent study on French identity, when young, local-born Muslim children were asked what choice they would make if forced to choose between France and their religion, they choose what is secure for them—religion,” said Bourassi.
However, for others, being viewed as an outsider is both socially and psychologically crippling. The source is not merely street-level dialogue; some suggest political discourse is also to blame.
“Certain politicians will say ‘Yes, Muslims have their place in France,’ ‘Yes, Muslims are citizens,’ but that’s all,” says Muslim and women’s rights activist Noura Jaballah. “The rest is filled with Islamophobic discourse," she said. "Because of this some young people in France have a sentiment of not belonging in France. They are looked at as foreigners, as a danger. Yet they are French, and they would like to be recognized as such.”
Closing the gap between being a foreigner and an integrated citizen hits close to home for Jaballah. She first worked on behalf of Muslim women after noticing her school-age children’s Muslim classmates struggled, because their mothers did not have the language or cultural integration skills to follow their children’s education. Since then, Jaballah has seen tremendous strides, and now works to empower women on the European level, through platforms such as the European Forum of Muslim Women.
The gap is not closed yet, however. For Muslim youth in disadvantaged areas, the combined frustration of feeling excluded from their peers, fearing discrimination in the workplace, and having to justify their religion has left some less optimistic about the post-Charlie Hebdo atmosphere.
“What I saw among students [following Charlie Hebdo] was an increase in being fed up with the entire Muslim community being held responsible for the acts of very few,” said Bourassi. “I saw a sentiment of ‘that’s enough of having to justify ourselves,’ even though condemnation [of the acts] is necessary.”
Jaballah suggests that confronting these misinterpretations of religious identity requires a more open approach to knowing one’s peers.
“European citizens, as well as citizens around the world, must form their own opinion regarding Islam,” said Jaballah. “They cannot rely solely on what is reported by the media. They must make an effort to approach and to get to know Muslims, and to know objectively Islam.”
For schoolchildren in a post-Charlie Hebdo reality, it is difficult to predict how difficult the task of objectively familiarizing themselves with Islam may be.
However, groups promoting religious cohesion in France, like Coexister, may pose a solution. Coexister promotes inclusion through 28 clubs based in cities, as well as a few campuses, around France. The relationship-forming gatherings they host, the information sessions they produce, and all of the work they do centers upon several pillars, one of which is "knowing the other." To that extent, they hope the platforms and gatherings will foster open and compassionate inter-religious dialogue, starting with groups as young as students in primary schools.
“Our goal is truly social cohesion. Interfaith dialogue is a means to an end, a platform for communication,” said Sarah Adel, a founding member of Coexister’s branch in the religiously diverse banlieue of Argenteuil.
“I think that there are religious tensions among young people,” echoed Jeanne Vergnaud, rising president of Coexister’s branch at the Paris political science university SciencePo. “Coexister would not exist if all was going well. However, there is not only tensionsin France—several religions can coexist, without it posing a problem. But for that we must learn to know one another.”
Jaballah feels the work of students like those involved in Coexister is not only on the right track, but crucial to preventing extremism and promoting peace.
“I think it is important in a context like France’s, because there is truly a danger for society itself,” said Jaballah. “When we feed fear, we can break society in half.”