As a series of terror attacks ravage Europe in mass and causing panic falsely in the name of Islam, in the poor Nice suburb of Ariane, many Muslims feel their community is being unfairly blamed for the Bastille Day attack that killed 84 people, and fear discrimination and social divisions will grow in its wake.
ISIS claimed the attack and upheld Tunisian-born Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel, who drove a truck through a crowd on the French city’s sea-front promenade last Thursday.
Prime Minister Manuel Valls said at the weekend that the 31-year-old attacker had been “radicalized very quickly”. The Paris prosecutor said on Monday that, while there was no evidence that he had direct links to ISIS, he had recently developed an interest in the extremist movement.
In Ariane, a district with a big Muslim population a few kilometers from the Abbatoirs neighborhood where Bouhlel lived, the imam of the local Al Fourkane mosque said radical groups taragted the weak, and cautioned against focusing on the killer’s faith.
“Because the weak are being exploited doesn’t mean that we should come down hard on their religion. Quite the opposite. We should be uniting together and defending the country,” said Boubekeur Bekri, adding that “a crime is a crime” regardless of faith.
Bouhlel left Tunisia in 2005. His family have painted a picture of a man who suffered “psychiatric troubles” and was prone to depression and violent outbursts. He had several run-ins with the law, including a conviction in March this year for hurling a wooden pallet in a road rage incident.
Relatives and friends of Bouhlel also described a man who at least until recently drank heavily, smoked marijuana and womanized – behavior at odds with a devout Muslim life.
Elabed Lofti, the imam for Antibes and Juan-Les-Pins, is among Muslim leaders in southeastern France who have distanced their community from the attacker.
“The guy didn’t observe Ramadan, the minimum to be considered a good Muslim,” he said, referring to the Muslim fasting month that ended late June.
France is home to Europe’s largest Muslim minority. In a sign of the growing feeling of alienation among many Muslims in Ariane and elsewhere, Younis, a roof-builder born to Moroccan immigrants, said the whole community was blamed “every time something happens in France, in Europe”.
“Once the problem was racial discrimination, now it’s religious discrimination,” said Younis, who declined to give his surname, sitting at the entrance to a dreary eight-storey block of flats opposite the suburb’s small mosque.