To be and to feel yourself both native French and yet irredeemably foreign and indeed feared: the life of a bearded fundamentalist on the streets of Paris.
As I write this article, I wonder if I can hope to accomplish anything by it. Can an atheist, an agnostic, even a Christian, understand what I am, comprehend my aspirations? Faced with my rapport with God, and with my fellow man, is there still room to for them to say “I don’t approve, but I understand?”
Baudelaire said the devil’s best trick is to persuade you that he does not exist. Myself, I think his greatest feat has been to convince the world that Islam is a religion of barbarians.
The Prophet Muhammad said:
“Islam began as something strange, and will revert to being strange”.
And, indeed, 1,500 years later, this prophecy is fulfilled.
When I walk the streets of Paris, and people mutter at the sight of my beard, I feel like some bootless headsman from yesteryear, whom people could not look upon without experiencing a little shiver of horror. The black glances, the hostile comments that follow me through my days are like some ulcer I have grown too tired to treat.
So here is my own witness: a message in a bottle, a hand held out to whoever will take it. Because it seems to me that words, which break no bones, are no longer enough for those I face; now come the sticks and stones. As a practicing Muslim, Arab, gender: male, I am evil incarnate in France and in the rest of the world.
My name is Faouzi, but I could just as well be Nadia, Claire or Nicolas: all Salafi or Wahhabi Muslims, all products of the French educational system.
What does it mean to be Salafi? Isn’t Muslim enough? you might say. But sects have proliferated in Islam, and it became essential for those who wanted to follow the Quran and the prophetic tradition in a truthful way to distance themselves from the false claims of other sects. I shall come back to this later.
Therefore, to be Wahhabi or Salafi is to be a Muslim as Muslims were during the lifetime of the Prophet. He warned us that only those who followed in his footsteps would be saved, so we look strictly to the Quran, to the word of the messenger of Allah, to that of his Companions and the two generations which followed: the Salaf (predecessors). Only thus do we remain as faithful to the source as possible, and avoid deviation.
Like the ultra-orthodox in the Jewish community, we might instead call ourselves orthodox Muslims rather than Salafis, insofar as we wish to fully live our religious convictions, in our hearts, our speech and our acts, our diet, our clothing – in all our dealings with the world. With us, no schizophrenic split divides the private and the public sphere. Where God dwells not, the Devil does.
I know: in France, for historical reasons linked to the dechristianization of the country after the French revolution, a religious person who displays his faith or voices his opinion ruffles feathers. Catholicism was largely emptied of its substance, with a final blow delivered by Vatican II. All that is left are Nativity scenes, trees and baubles.
The few times I’ve encountered nuns, I felt an immediate affinity with them. In the way they dress, in their relationship to God and their renunciation of this world, they remind me of Muslim women here and elsewhere.
Sadly, the only non-Muslim people able to understand us live in convents and are rarely heard in the media. Catholicism, in France at any rate, has become an empty shell. In other democracies – and not least in the greatest one of all – I observe that the Amish and the Mormons can live their faith without being constantly stigmatized.
Well, they don’t kill innocent people at rock concerts, you say.
This is true. But I said I was a Salafi – an orthodox Muslim – not a Takfiri Kharijite. I began this article stating the importance of distinguishing our faith, and in particular distinguishing it from these murderers. The problem, you see, is that those people too see themselves as Salafis, which is why a new name is needed in my opinion, to avoid confusion. Without the slightest doubt, I too condemn these lunatics of a deviant sect which the Prophet named the “dogs of Hell”.
This evil is not new in Muslim history. The fourth Caliph Ali fought them – they who all too often are driven not by faith but by a thirst for blood, whose only answer to a sound argument is hate.
That said, and because my opinions involve more than a “Like” on Facebook, in the interest of being fair without excusing the inexcusable, I also know that Arab and Sunni populations in Iraq and Syria have been abandoned to Shiite militias who rape, pillage and kill, and the only coalition to protect them are these people.
I thought these freedom fighters were brave when they targeted Bashar el-Assad and his henchmen, at the onset of the revolt at least, before we knew whom we were dealing with. Then the horror exploded in our faces, a blast of horrific, sickening images. The end does not justify the means in Islam, brothers. It was laughable – in a sickening way – to see a parody of French ghetto life acted out on the Syrian stage. I see them there, parading around in videos like gun-wielding gangsta rappers to a soundtrack of religious songs, beheading and burning the innocent.
And do you know what? In the eyes of these lost souls, I deserve to be slaughtered as much as any devil-worshipping alcoholic – I who believe in one God, who pray, who fast, who wear a beard and djellaba. Because I believe that every Muslim owes obedience to his ruler, deviant though he may be, while they hold that there is no legitimate Muslim leader on earth but their Caliph.
I imagine that had I been at the Bataclan and had they known my beliefs, every shot would have targeted me, for it is we who are their most able opponents in matters of ideology, and they hate us.
For those who still have not understood the distinction, perhaps I can inject a touch of humor into this serious subject: we are the Jedi, and they are the Sith, our enemy brotherhood. Our force is virtuous faith; theirs, a deviant drive for murder fueled by emotion alone – and certainly not by study and meditation.
I am not naïve. Explicitly condemning takfiri terrorism, alas, does not make me more likeable to my compatriots. The ill runs deeper in France: people bash niqabs as they once bashed the priest’s cassock. God can be visible, but not too visible. Preaching offends, be it from Muslims or Jehovah’s Witnesses.
This Salafi, this orthodox Muslim, learned the basics in a French classroom. France, home of Descartes, opened my eyes to the difference between an Islam stuffed with folktales and one that is authentic; the Islam of the Prophet and his Companions, the only aim of which is paradise.
Yes, I believe death leads to only one of two places. I am utterly and absolutely sure, and live my life accordingly. Believe me, reading the descriptions of heaven and hell makes one very eager to get to one and avoid the other. Praying five times a day, fasting one month a year and paying Zakat, an obligatory donation, seems a small price to pay.
Initially, it was obvious that there was something dubious about the kind of Islam practiced by mom and dad from the old country. Before finding religion at the age of 20, I grew up in a family that would drink alcohol but wouldn’t eat non-halal meat; which didn’t pray but which fasted strictly during Ramadan; which invoked the saints while proclaiming the oneness of God. In sum, a nice folk religion oozing with honey pastries during Ramadan, in which folklore, polytheism and traditional Islam mixed.
This Islam, imported from back home by uneducated parents, was quickly refuted by the first books I found, the very first of which – the Quran – was a shock to my system. Moses appeared more than Muhammad, and threats and promises left no alternative.
Back then, I smoked joints, I listened to music day and night, my undergrad studies included wild, drunken parties and my religion was atheism. I had never fasted, not even to please my mother, and the education I received at high school and the Sorbonne made me confident and arrogant and slightly disdainful of religion.
When I started reading well-documented books about the beliefs of my ancestors, I quickly understood that religious tokens like the hand of Fatima, the names of so-called saints everyone invoked-these were nothing but traditions, closer to polytheism than Islam. Without a beard or djellaba, I began to pray five times a day, turning my face to Mecca, turning my back to the girlfriends and the weed. People saw me as a normal, modern Muslim, far from extreme.
Irony of ironies, my parents actually perceived certain things I was doing as religious heresies, despite them clearly existing in the Quran and the prophetic tradition. My parents, whose knowledge of Islam was limited to a few brief verses of the Quran, and who thought that their decent grasp of classical Arabic meant they knew their religion, were speechless when told that slitting the throat of a lamb at the tomb of Sidi Abd As-Salam in hope of conceiving a baby was a polytheistic act, far removed from the religion of Muhammad.
My father would say to me:
“This is the Islam you’ve been taught in France! It’s not true Islam!”
Years passed; I continued practicing my religion seriously, listened to music I had carefully selected, smoked now and again, and chatted about marriage with Muslim women in Paris restaurants without a chaperone.
Once in a while I would run into a man with a beard, and I instinctively mistrusted them. Their practice seemed to belittle mine; but deep inside I knew without admitting it to myself that they were on the true path. Taking it myself, however, was too much at the time.
One day, though, I went to a conference in Argenteuil held by two scholars from the Middle East. This was the early 2000s, and it was the first time I heard about the Salafi movement. Their message, in sum, was that only the Quran, the word of the Prophet and his Companions via authentic proofs had any religious importance.
What could be more normal for a Muslim, you are thinking. But there lay the problem: this obvious fact, which no graduate trained in rational thought could counter – better still, which no honest Muslim could question – was being insidiously challenged and dismissed by some of my fellow believers.
During this conference I learned that listening to music was forbidden, which broke my heart. Only a deviant sect, only extremists could think that! I did my research, however, as a trained historian, and proved to myself that this way of thinking was largely validated by Muslim scholars, and abundant proof could be found in the Prophetic tradition.
The same applied to growing a beard and trimming the mustache only. The proof was so clear that I felt only a dishonest person could disagree.
The moment came when my urges and my honesty clashed. I had won the first and most important round: I recognized that Allah alone should be worshipped, and that Muhammad was his Prophet. I prayed, fasted, went to Mecca, and paid Zakat.
The second round aimed at religious perfection and would further cut me off from French society. I would no longer frolic with women and only nod hello to them. I would wear baggy pants above my ankles, even if simpletons thought I looked silly. I would not smoke. “Those are trifles! Just peelings!” said some of my acquaintances. “The Prophet didn’t neglect these peelings, brothers,” I repeated endlessly. “What would this fruit be without its peel?”
Paradise has many levels, so I sought to multiply my pious acts to bask in the well-being which only sincere and boundless adoration can procure. With the help of Allah, I wished to reach the highest peaks of Eden. I had accepted the notion that to please God, one must sometimes displease man. Besides, what were a few years of hell next to an eternity of joy?
It didn’t stop at a beard, music and the way I dressed. It was a return to pure monotheism, to the acts and words of the Prophet, without saints or gurus to deform the original message – all quite reasonable, in sum, for a Muslim, at least. I saw that scholars like Ibn Taymiyya and Muhammad Ibn Abd Al-Wahhab, far from inventing a so-called rigorist doctrine, simply said to follow the Quran and the prophetic tradition of Muhammad as received by his Companions. Who, better than Rimbaud can explain Rimbaud’s poetic opus. And after Rimbaud, could anyone better understand it than his greatest friend, Verlain?
I finally came to understand that what everyone calls the Wahhabism’s strict form of Islam was unfounded. It was the Islam that our Prophet taught which was strict, or at least so it seemed for those of little faith. In a world where entertainment-obsessed souls had no time for reflection, even in the bathroom, of course someone who prayed five times a day and fasted a whole month looked like a fanatic, and big black veils and beards only add to the effect.
I still didn’t feel like an extremist though – I was far from the asceticism of bygone followers. I justified the hostile looks by telling myself that the tough-shelled snail must look like an incredibly solid being to a slug.
Furthermore, I didn’t become an orthodox Muslim overnight. I didn’t view a beard as sign of male perfection, and music was too captivating to let it go straight away. I did, however, recognize the obligatory nature of the former, and the illicit nature of the latter. I understood that Salafism was based on logic and common sense, and that other movements – Sufism for example, where one is linked to a grand master and mystical trances have replaced the pillars of Islam – were far removed from the original faith practiced by the first Companions.
I owe this understanding to the scientific rigor taught by my professors, and to the French education system, which I thank – without irony – from the bottom of my heart.
Another unfounded myth, which certain political figures like to throw around to disguise their ignorance, is that we hate the west and its culture; this one makes me laugh-we were raised here after all. You would have to be flawless to hate the excesses and not the values of the west. As if the liberty prized by Bedouin nomads, the equality among the ranks of worshippers in the mosques, the fraternity felt across the Muslim Umma, were all foreign concepts to Muslims.
As Wahhabis from the four corners of France, who whistle funk tunes in the shower and shamefully know more about movies and music than we do about our religion in many cases, we don’t have the strength to hate what we grew up with. We avoid the sins of alcohol, tobacco, weed and music the way you might avoid an ex-lover in the street who cheated and broke your heart – nothing more, nothing less.
Hate is high-maintenance. It is fuelled by something other than pornography, alcohol or pork sausage – products, by the way, that are nowadays easy to find in the Islamic world and which provoke disgust at best, indifference at worst, but certainly not hate.
The same thing goes for that other imagined scourge: forced conversions.
I wish every person happiness – in other words, Islam. But I only speak to those who want to listen, I try to keep religious discussion light, and I don’t fly off the handle with honest opponents. In my view, Islam is something you earn, not something to hold out like a beggar holds out his hand.
Believe, don’t believe, to each his own. Hell exists, however, and I sometimes feel sorry for certain diehard atheists, who are so generous, sweet and kind, but lack what is essential: faith in almighty God.
I take the same approach with certain North Africans who observe the rules of Islam like they look at the stars – from afar. More often than not, I am talking about one of my own relatives: a mother or father, a sister or cousin. Are you religious? Good for you. Not religious? Your loss. Nothing more, nothing less.
I’m always here and available if you’d like an explanation or an answer. As I said earlier, hate is high-maintenance and I no longer have the energy to feed it – I’m too blasé. I won’t spit in your face or insult you, my false brother – you who turn your back on Islam, stomp on it more aggressively than a flag waver, try to destroy it – despite your efforts they are still going to call you a Arab.
Lastly, I say to Muslims of other stripes:
“If you think I’m wrong, show me your religious proof, not your feelings, and if in fact you are right, I’ll admit that and follow you, for I am always humble in the face of truth, even if you see light where I see shadow.”
To conclude, and I must conclude, though I could write a hundred pages on the subject – me who, in the eyes of some will always be guilty of doublespeak and own a Syrian passport – I repeat, I proclaim, I shout from the rooftops that anyone, atheist or Muslim, who kills innocent people should be tried and condemned.
For myself, I want to live my life in what I consider the orthodox way. Though there are ways to live your religious life within the confines of the law here; for example sending your children to a private Muslim school, my own goal is to leave France to live in a Muslim country.
You will not see me working in a public or private office. I am my own boss; I pray during my work hours and no one stops me. In France, praying at work is more frowned upon than taking a smoking break between filing papers.
The worst part, go figure, is that I love this country. My dirty, grey suburb is more precious to me than Saint Germain des Pres is to a Parisian. I’ll only fit in economically speaking, but isn’t that what matters most for the great capital?
Still, I am not some Bedouin who has wandered into the city. I speak French–I dream in French. I know ins and outs of this place, the bawdiest French jokes.
Imagine: I say good morning to the baker, I am a fan of the French national team and Paris’s biggest soccer club, I help grandmothers carry their shopping bags, I read Gustave Flaubert, eat camembert, and do not want to murder anyone. For all these reasons, I feel like I am doing more for social harmony than any of these people who, while they preach social diversity cannot imagine having an African move into their pretty Parisian apartment building.
Have no fear – until I fly off to other skies, I’ll stay in my beloved banlieue, with those who look like me and don’t tremble at the sight of me. After all, certain orthodox Jews live this way in France and no one is bothered.
Believe me, I’m not looking for sympathy or pity. I wrote this article as a brief glimpse into my beating heart, to show that we too water our flowers; we cry, we laugh. I ask youyou’re your indifference: nothing more, nothing less.
Thank you France, and your classrooms, for introducing me to Zola, and even more so, for the priceless gifts of logic and analytical thought I have used to unmask the obscurantism of folkloric faith and walk toward the pure light of Wahhabism.
Faouzi Translated from French by International Boulevard
29 Jan 2016