Western govts bred terrorists - and blamed it on Muslims - head of Anti-Islamophobic collective

The terrorist attacks on Charlie Hebdo magazine and Kosher shop in France have left the country in shock. But violence breeds violence, and French Muslim communities are fearful, as people put the blame on them. However, these Muslims are French citizens as well and so these reprisals are hardly correct? What breeds terrorism in the country? And what it is like to be blamed for things you have never been involved in?

Leading figure in the French Central Council of Muslims, Abdallah Zekri, is on Sophie&Co today to discuss these issues.

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Sophie Shevarnadze: Mr Zekhri, thank you for coming to this interview. Now, at this moment, many Europeans live in fear, fear of new attacks by Islamist terrorists. Do you think that the attacks could happen again, or were Charlie Hebdo and Hyper Cacher isolated cases?

Abdallah Zekri: I don't think that the attacks will continue. Charlie Hebdo took upon themselves a great responsibility by publishing the caricatures of the prophet, peace be upon him, knowing full well what these caricatures would provoke. They triggered a huge movement of protest, first off by French Muslims, then across the world. So, should they have published these caricatures, in the name of freedom of speech? I agree with the Pope's declaration, which states that we cannot stigmatize the religions of others, but Charlie Hebdo, while denouncing the crimes that were committed against the journalists, has denounced them as French Muslims, denouncing terrorism. Unfortunately Charlie Hebdo was careless and irresponsible, to have published caricatures of the prophet, knowing full well that French Muslims would not accept this.

SS: We will talk about this later, but I will repeat my question: Do you think that the terrorist attacks will continue in France? Because there was not only Charlie Hebdo, but also Hyper Cacher the next day. Are these isolated cases, or do you think that islamist attacks will continue in France ?

AZ: These are not Islamist attacks, these are terrorist attacks that have nothing to do with Islam. Now, I cannot tell you, I don't know the terrorists' calendar, if they will carry out other attacks or not. Since the Merah affair (the shootings in Toulouse and Montauban), it has been three or four years now, there hasn't been any terrorist attacks. We can't forget that these are terrorists who come from inside France, these are French citizens who commit terrorist acts, and this is not imported terrorism. I hope that these acts stop here, unless there are other people who want to carry out terrorist attacks in France, but in any case I hope and I wish that it's not the case.

SS: You always point out the difference and you say that Muslims are in a stuck between those who kill in the name of Islam and those who use this to stigmatize the Muslim religion. But who stands to profit from this, according to you? Who needs this?

AZ: You know, in France, every election period, Muslims are targeted, looking for the culprit. Who stands to profit from this? It is always the extremist parties and, of course, the racist groups who profit from this situation by saying '' This is Islam''. They show images of Iraq and Syria and say ''This is Islam- Islam is violence, Islam is murder''. However, Islam is a religion of peace, a religion of amity. Unfortunately, a few exclusions who speak and who kill in the name of Islam, but for me, have nothing to do with Islam, and the confusion that is carried out in a desired manner by politicians in France, who often speak of Islam, Islamism, and Islamic terrorism. It is these words which do not appeal to French Muslims, and which create confusion.

SS:But nonetheless, people are asking questions. For example, let us imagine that a Muslim comedy magazine publishes a caricature of Jesus Christ, just imagine. We know full well that modern day Christians will not travel the world to look for Arabic consulates and to shoot artists? You, do you know of examples of fanatics from other religions who have carried out terrorist acts in the name of religion?

AZ: Listen, first of all, Muslims would not draw caricatures of Christ because Christ, in Islam, is considered a prophet. So they would never draw caricatures of Christ, and on the other hand, when there was a movie about Christ, “The Temptation of Christ”, which played in a movie theatre in Paris, in the Latin Quarter, and some French Christians did not accept it, they set fire to the movie theatre. So it is not only a matter of Muslims. The Catholics did not accept the movie “The Temptation of Christ”, the movie theatre was burned, and the movie was withdrawn. So you see, it should not only be said that it is Islam and the Muslims, since there are also Catholic fundamentalists who carried out acts.

SS:You say that you have never seen this many attacks against Muslims as after the Charlie Hebdo attack. But doesn't it turn out that the Muslims have provoked this anti-Islam war themselves ? In any case, this is what is being said in France.

AZ: I did not understand very well. I understood the first question and yes, in the last ten days, there have been 116 anti-Muslim acts whereas last year during the whole month of January 2014, there were only 14 acts, in a whole month, in 2014. Whereas now in ten days we had 116 acts, which means a 110% increase in acts that took place in France, be it throwing hand grenades in a mosque, shooting at a mosque.. Imagine if there were devotees praying at the time, there would have been deaths. This is not counting the pigs heads that are thrown into mosques, or pig entrails, or death threats.. and when we read what I call “cyber-hate” on the Internet from the extreme-right groups, who call for murder, and I mean murder, assassination of Muslim leaders in France and the burning down of their mosques, you can understand that the Muslims are worried and cannot accept this.

SS: Quite right, but what I wanted to ask you, in any case this is what can be heard in France, that these terrorists, who carried out these attacks, they themselves provoked the war against French Muslims. Do you agree with this?

AZ: No, I do not agree with this analysis at all, because those who provoked this attack, they were well known by the police force, they were on file, they should have been watched over. So it is easy to say “There, it was the terrorists that triggered this”. I do not agree. Does the fact that we were attacked trigger retaliation on the French people? The problem in France, the problem in France is real, first we must know if the French of Muslim faiths are French in their own right, or a different type of French people. So, we must not look for excuses to seek vengeance for what has been done. Because when there were demonstrations for Charlie, “I am Charlie”, we also were there too. And we hoped that this momentum of demonstrations would bring a sort of balance, bring around peace. Unfortunately the day after the demonstration, Charlie Hebdo continued their provocation against Islam and Muslims, knowing full well, I have said it and I repeat it again, that it would trigger a wave of protests. Was it worth it to make a photo which imploded anti-French demonstrations in the Arab world, burned French flags, and even resulting in deaths and burned churches? I condemn these violent acts against Christians, but also knowing very well that it triggered these events, so I say it again and repeat it – these are irresponsible people who made these caricatures, knowing full well what it was going to generate.

SS:But should French Muslims truly feel insulted by the caricatures from Charlie, knowing that it is France that we are speaking about, which is a secular country? Or should they really not be taken seriously, since Charlie Hebdo also made caricatures of Jesus, of the Pope, and nobody burned anything down?

AZ: That is the problem of others: they know very well that in in the Muslim religion, Muslims do not accept this, they know it very well. And even in the case of the Pope, in the case of Jesus, there have been demonstrations. But that is ignored. It is when the Muslims demonstrate that people don't like it. So secularity- yes, we are in favor of secularity. It is said that Muslims are not secular, which is not true. We are in favor of secularity. We are in favor of living together, and we are in favor of defending of the values of the Republic. But freedom of speech stops where it meets the freedom of others. And what I say is – we must simply listen to what the Pope has said. I am not more important than the Pope. The Pope said that we must stop stigmatizing Muslims and stop provoking the religion of others. So if we want to live in peace, there are things that must be avoided. Look, in England, in the United States, in the Scandinavian countries, they refused to show these caricatures, because they preferred peace with the Muslims that live in their country, instead of confrontation. So in the case of France, where because of secularity all is permitted, I say 'no'.

SS:But tell me – can we really consider the increase of islamophobia in France, which you spoke to us about, separately from the increase of cases of anti-Semitism? Because there has been a fair number of cases of anti-Semitism in France in the last three years.

AZ: Yes, there were cases of anti-Semitism, we never denied that. Each time a state suffered an act of anti-Semitism, we sent messages of support to the council representing Jewish institutions and also to the Consistory (Consistoire). So we have always denounced anti-Semitic acts because you must understand that if the Jews and the Arabs live in peace, they will be strong and nobody will be able to manipulate them. Unfortunately, there is a manipulation of certain countries : we saw in Gaza the CRIF, the Representative Council of Jewish Institutions in France (Conseil Représentatif des Institutions juives en France) demonstrating their support in front of the embassy, with Israeli flags, on the Champs Élysées. And when it is Muslims who demonstrate with the flags of their countries, they are told that no, they do not have the right. Hence there are double standards. Here, in France, Jews and Muslims must live in peace and not import the conflict from the Middle East onto French territory or anywhere else, for that matter.

SS:Mr Zekhri, we have heard that the terrorists cannot be considered real Muslims. And nobody can say otherwise. But, on the other hand, everyone is asking why there are so many followers of such an interpretation of Islam. How do you explain this?

AZ: Listen, I explain this because if we say that terrorists are not Muslims because they kill in the name of Islam, and in Islam there is not a single verse of the Koran that says to kill your neighbor. On the contrary, there is a verse that says: when we kill a human being, we have killed all of humanity, and when we have saved a life, we have saved humanity. The Koran is not a book that sows hatred and that calls for murder. So killing is not Muslim. If there are currently killings in the Arab world or in certain countries, it is to take power. And when there is talk of terrorism, I'm sorry but the terrorism which is currently taking place in Iraq or in Syria, we have to find out who created these conditions of terrorism. When we see what happened in Iraq with the Americans, when we see that they have killed a head of state and destabilized the country, and now there is terrorism. So there is a responsibility of the big powers in the creation of terrorism.

SS: But how can we rid ourselves of the extremists from amidst the Muslim preachers and congregations? If we ask, for example, an official, he could propose wiretapping phones, spying, fiscal inspections... You yourself, as the representative of this community, what method would you use ?

AZ: Listen, I am not the police. Concerning these Salafists, concerning these people who use the Internet, who use cell phones- it is up to the state service, to the security service, to identify them. In any case, what we do, because we are often in contact with youth, we explain to them: be careful, do not slide towards radicalism. But they also reply to us, they reply: there is exclusion, there is unemployment, there is racism, and we are not accepted. So it would be necessary to see how these people can be supported by society. When you take youth that are unemployed, who hang out all day around the neighborhoods, who don't have a future... You know, these are easy prey for extremists and for Salafists, to attract them to their cause, and to ask them to go fight for the jihad in other places. So the state also has to fulfill their mission with regards to these youth and try to better supervise them, and we are obviously here to help. But we do not have all of the solutions, we do not have the keys to all the doors in order to be able to go in and talk.

SS:You say that it is unemployment, but me, for example, I have many French Catholic friends who are also unemployed, so it is really the crisis; I do not think it only concerns Muslims. And I think all the time of one thing -- for example, these Charlie Hebdo terrorists, they are born in France, they grew up in France, they were as much French as those they attacked. Where does this fierce opposition come from? You must have thought about this as well?

AZ: Yes, I thought about this : I am not saying that there are no unemployed French citizens. No, you must not misinterpret what I said. I am saying that unemployment in France, in difficult neighborhoods, where there are these young folks who are born in France, who grew up in France, who do not even know their country of origin, and who do not even speak Arabic.. The unemployment rate reaches 50 to 55 %, whereas for others it is not even 10 to 12%. And the exclusion, I am not saying… It is just one of the factors, but this does not excuse a youth because he is unemployed, to go carry out terrorist acts. I do not agree, I am against this. But I am telling you, the resentment of these young people, what they tell us is: we are excluded, we are not loved, we are frowned upon, we are looked at badly. This is what must change – the image of the other has to change. This is what I am saying. Now it is true that terrorism is not imported from the exterior, the terrorism is in France, it is practiced by young French citizens, who are born in France, and this, this begs the question. We must find solutions so that the young French citizens, born in France and who are Muslim, who, besides, neither know literary Arabic nor the Koran, who are manipulated, who are deceived, we have to figure out how to protect them from these extremists who use them to sow terror or to sow death. And I am against and I condemn any act of violence.

SS:You said earlier, at the beginning of the show, that for example America, Great Britain, or the Nordic countries did not want to publish the caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed, to not infuriate Muslims. But France is a very secular country in which, even compared to America, a great deal of blood has been shed in the name of personal liberty and for the separation of religion and state. Don't you think that trying to impose a particular respect of the feelings of religious people to such a society as France is fighting a losing battle ?

AZ: You know, I will tell you one thing, secularity, as I told you before – I am secular myself, I am secular and I am in favor of secularity. But when secularity touches someone else's dignity, of another religion, we must be careful. Afterwards, of course we can write, but concerning the prophet, they know, even the secularity... France is the country in Europe which best knows Islam. Why? Because it was a colonial power, it colonized Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, so there was close contact with Islam. If there is a country that knows Islam and Muslims, it is France. And so, I say yes to secularity, but I tell you once again – even the Pope, who is the leader of the church, worldwide, denounces these caricatures and says we must not offend the feelings of others and respect their religions. So what can I tell you? I can say yes, I am for the caricatures, but no, I do not agree with them. I condemn the crimes towards Charlie, I condemn the crimes towards the Jews, and I continue to condemn them. And I defend freedom of the press – when the French journalists, 8 years ago, Malbrunot and Chesnot, were captured in Iraq, I went to Iraq with two other Muslims to ask for their freedom and to defend them. So you see, we participate and we want freedom of the press, because without freedom of the press, we would not have any more information. And it would be a dictatorship. So yes to the freedom of the press, but respecting the religions, be they Muslim, Jewish, Catholic, Protestant – the respect of religions. I can also, in my name, claim freedom – me too, I am free to say that I am against these caricatures, it my most absolute right!

SS:But you know, you live in France, you know very well that most French people see this problem a bit differently. They ask themselves why Muslim traditions should have the priority over French traditions. Why should we limit the freedom of speech that is traditional in France with regards to religious questions, in respect of traditions in other parts of the world? What do you tell them?

AZ: Well, Madame, you are wrong, because we received many messages from French people who tell us that they do not agree with these caricatures, who say the Charlie Hebdo overstepped the limits. We have received a declaration from a journalist from Charlie Hebdo named Delfei de Ton, who has denounced Charlie Hebdo. He works for Charlie Hebdo, and he said, this journalist said that they went too far. And why did they fire a journalist at Charlie Hebdo when he spoke of Nicolas Sarkozy's son, when he was President of the Republic? Maurice Sinet, who made caricatures at Charlie Hebdo, he was fired only because he spoke of Nicolas Sarkozy's son. So I say- enough of the double standards. Everyone must be treated in the same way. Why is it that when the Muslims speak, they say: they want to limit freedom of speech, and when it comes to the son of the President of the Republic, a journalist gets fired? So we must live in France to see what happens backstage, as we say.

SS: So your organization follows the number of anti-Islam attacks, but does your organization also follow the extremists, the radicals? Have you already managed to “de-radicalize”, for example, at least one person?

AZ: You know, the French council of the Muslim faith was established by the public authorities, of which I am a member, and I am the president of the National Observatory against Islamophobia, so we will not ourselves look for those who are radicalized, they will not come and tell us. It is the state that must look for them, the intelligence services who should monitor them. It is not up to us to go monitor them, to control them – we are not the police's helpers, we are not the police's informants. On the other hand, if someone wants to commit a terrorist act or leave to Syria and I know of it, I will try to persuade him otherwise, either him or his family, or it is at this moment that I signal it to the authorities: watch out, there is something not right in such and such city or with such and such person. We have met with parents whose children have left, they are in pain, they suffer, they know that their children will get themselves killed. What do they look for, these youth? There are those who are looking for a thrill, others who have gone to Syria to fight and to do the jihad and finally they realized that they made a mistake and want to come back. But the law in France dictates otherwise: if they come back to France, they are taken from the airport to prison. So solutions must be found, remedies must be found, and this will happen by talking with the state, but someone who has become radicalized will not come knock on the door of the French council to say “Hey, I’m Mohamed, I decided to be a radical and I will go to Syria”. Rest assured, they do not come to us nor do they go to the authorities.

SS: So you are saying that there is no solution, that you could not help the French police to ensure that there is no Islamophobia, that there are no people who get radicalized? You truly cannot help the French police in this case?

AZ: We cannot help the French police services. What we do, normally, are conferences on radicalism to call together Muslim officials. We organize these conferences not only among Muslims, we also invite the public authorities, we invite prefects, the elect, the mayors, and we organize conferences, and we call on these young people to not get involved in radicalism. There are conferences everywhere in France on the subject, and in the mosques, the Imams, every Friday, during the Friday sermon, they call upon the youth to be careful, to not listen to the sirens of radicalism, and those who want to take them down sinuous and dangerous paths. So we do something, but we will not go see the precinct to tell them: so and so... as long as I do not have proof. I do not work for the police, however, we are in contact with the police force in the context of certain procedures - but what can you do... Concerning acts of Islamophobia, the people who commit these acts will not come and tell us about it, that they will shoot at a mosque or that we should take precautions at this time. It is like terrorism- when they strike, they won't warn you about their strike. Those who commit anti-Muslim crimes will not warn you about the fact that they will go commit an act. So in consequence, here is the situation. But radicalism - rest assured, Madam, we are fighting it, the Imams are doing their jobs in their mosques to denounce this, and we are trying to take the young people out of certain difficult situations.