NÎMES – When terrorists brutally decapitated French citizen Hervé Gourdel in Algeria on September 22nd, French Muslims were suddenly faced with the need to defend both the name of Islam and their French identities.
The group Jund al-Khilafa group (“Soldiers of the Caliphate”) kidnapped Hervé Gourdel, originally from Nice, who had been on a hiking trip in the mountains near Tizi Ouzou in Algeria. The video of his decapitation soon went viral. Originally part of a larger al-Qaeda network in North Africa, Jund al-Khilafa has now splintered into a new group aligned with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (Daech).
Gourdel was sadly not the first Western citizen to be killed on video by supporters of ISIS, who invoke Islam and the Qur’an as justification for the murders. Yet, this incident particularly stirred the Muslim community in France when, in the video of Gourdel’s killing, the Daech members declared that their duty as Muslims includes killing the “non-believers” and “in particular the evil and dirty French.”
To many French Muslims, these words threatened the duality of their national and religious identities by misusing the name of their religion to target their country. The Muslim community across France responded immediately with demonstrations, public statements from Islamic leaders, and newspaper and magazine articles condemning Daech’s actions and violent defilement of Islam.
“No one can claim for himself the right to speak on our behalf,” Muslim leaders declared in an article jointly written for Le Figaro, “And, to prove our solidarity in these current tragic circumstances, we claim the right to say that ‘we too are dirty French.’”
Dominique Mimoun, the vice-president of the Association Culturelle Islamique at the Mosquée de la Miséricordia in Southern France, helped organize a demonstration outside the Préfecture of Nîmes a few days after Gourdel’s death and elaborated on this idea.
“They are usurping our identity,” she explains. “So yes, if supporting peace in the world and condemning any kind of violence and disapproving the evil actions is being ‘dirty Frenchmen’ then we are all in the same boat. Liberty, equality, and dirty Frenchmen because of fraternity.”
The killing of a French citizen and the words of Daech against the French seemed to hurt more than the name of Islam. It cut deeply into the still relatively nascent identity of French Muslims. Throughout French colonial history, the nation kept Islam at bay: Muslims were told for years that the two cultural identities were incompatible. Naturally, this notion has been aggressively challenged. Throughout the latter half of the 20th century and still today, millions of people living in France have worked tirelessly to break down these barriers so all can live in harmony, which they do for the most part.
But the relationship remains in a rather precarious state. France is not without racist factions and many Muslims and people of North and West African descent are subjected to discrimination in housing and employment. Islam and immigration persist as subjects around which many French people and the government gingerly tiptoe.
And so, by the brutal murder of Hervé Gourdel in the name of Islam, the Daech terrorists also attacked the painstakingly developed identity of millions of French Muslims.
According to Tunisian writer Florence Pescher, what echoed throughout France were cries of “Islam has nothing to do with Daech and terrorism…the Muslims (I don’t say moderate Muslims, but normal Muslims) have nothing to do with these people.”
“For them, and it is legitimate, Daech’s fundamentalists and other bearded men are crazy men who claim to be part of a religion without knowing its fundamentals, twisting its principles, acting against the precepts of their religion, so they feel like they [the normal Muslims, according to Pescher] feel like they have nothing in common with these people. It is true that for non-Muslims who don’t know the reality of this world, it is difficult to understand.”
She cites the contrast with Norwegian Anders Behring Breivik’s Utøya massacre and how the average Christian citizen did not feel the need to defend Christianity in the streets because for the most part, people do not associate Christians with radical violence. If this is the case for Christianity, some Muslims ask, why should Islam and its relationship with the Islamic State be treated any differently? Those opposed to the demonstrations claim that with such public reaction one effectively succumbs to the stereotypes about Islam.
But since many Muslims realize that not all non-Muslims recognize the separation between “normal” Muslims and Islamic terrorists groups, they deem it necessary to speak out about the crucial difference.
These demonstrations in France were not simply to defend Islam for the purity of the religion itself, but to defend the French Muslim identity. In the words of Mimoun, “it is reassuring for them [the French non-Muslims]. We need to live in symbiosis; it is fundamental to be united when faced with such crimes! We need to stick together.”
The movement within the French Muslim community to denounce the killing of Gourdel spread in the hopes of addressing this larger issue of identity and acceptance. They hope to quell anxieties by reaffirming that their belief in the peaceful nature of Islam can and does coexist with their loyalty to the liberty, equality, and fraternity of France.