There are signs that the reaction to Friday's massacre may unite the country, Muslims and non-Muslims alike, in a more lasting way than the Charlie Hebdo attacks did in January.
PARIS — When she had to leave home Saturday morning, Sabah Zouaghi hesitated for a moment. Would the 22-year-old Muslim woman adjust the veil she normally wears to make it look less religious, or would she face the looks from Parisians the day after the deadly terror as herself? Despite memories of "dark looks and even being spit on" after January's Charlie Hebdo attacks, Zouaghi ultimately chose to wear the veil as she always does.
And she didn't regret it. "First thing, the bus driver smiled at me and said in a lively tone, "Bonjour, mademoiselle." I normally don't get such a warm welcome," she says.
Zouaghi comes from the western French city of Le Mans and is living in Paris to study English literature and civilization. The rest of the day did nothing to make her wish she hadn't made her morning decision. "Apart from a few exceptions, I've mostly seen kindly behavior," she says. "It was different from January. I hope that it will continue in the next days."
Others dread a return over the next few days of an air of suspicion, even aggressiveness. "The atmosphere is heavy, and people are scared of the future," says Abdelkader Ounissi, an imam in Bagnolet, near Paris. On Sunday morning, a young man close to him was stopped by a passerby as he was on his way to the gym. The man asked him to reveal the contents of his bag.
"Muslims are now doubly afraid," Ounissi says. "They're scared of being likened to terrorists and of being victims of attacks themselves, just like other French people."
Abdelkader Saïm, a 31-year-old biology teacher and one of the people in charge of the mosque in the northern town of Noyelles-Godault, describes "shocked" Muslims and an atmosphere of fear. "In the north, rumor has it that groups of skinheads are prepared to attack mosques or Muslims," he says. On Sunday, the Arabic classes that are usually held at the mosque were cancelled.
Praying in the Great Mosque of Paris — Photo: Bertrand Hauger
In Tours, in western France, 30-year-old Mounya Sbaï quickly assessed the fear that overtook the parents of children attending the private kindergarten she opened in September, and she brought them together Sunday to discuss the security measures she would be putting in place.
"Muslims are concentrated here," she says. "It's a risk. I'm not sure all the children will be coming on Monday."
But behind these genuine fears, there's also hope that reactions this time around will recognize the stark distinction between terrorists on the one hand and Muslims on the other, that there'll be less stigmatization.
"We're worried, but I think that the Muslims are a bit calmer than in January," explains Hanan Ben Rhouma, editor in chief for a Muslim news website, Saphir News. "First of all, because there's a precedent and because people are better prepared psychologically about what can happen."
Farah Maiza, vice president of the interfaith association Coexister, also feels less aggressiveness, fewer distrustful looks than in January. "This time, it's the French, regardless of their beliefs, who were targeted, and not a symbol like Charlie Hebdo," she says.
They hope the absence of a controversial element in Friday's indiscriminate killings, such as the Charlie Hebdo caricatures of Muhammad, will help prevent potential aggression and backlash toward Muslims. "Compared to Jan. 7, there's a major difference," says Mounya Sbaï. "We don't think that people are going to liken us to terrorists as much.I think this islamophobic hysteria has partly gone away."
Hanan Ben Rhouma says Muslims feel the same way as other French citizens. "Everybody's concerned in this tragedy," she says. "ISIS will have a hard time dividing the French this time around."
Says Imam Abdelkader Ounissi, "It seems to me that through these challenges, worshippers identify more and more with France."