My most recent trip took me to Paris where I met a group of young Arab migrants. My intention was to see Paris through their eyes, and to feel the Paris feeling they feel in their Banlieues. During my visit, I met Abid, a Moroccan-French taxi driver.
Abid is very friendly and warmhearted young man. He has worked as a taxi driver since he came to Paris in the 90s. During my visit I asked him several questions about the last attacks: What did they change? How did they affect Muslim communities? And where has he been at the day of the attack, (something he had been asked many times before)?
He condemned the attacks and told me that the attacks affected his community in a hugely negative way. More polarization, more alienation. “With your black hair and an Arabic name you are always going to be put into a certain corner. With the events it’s even going worse,” he said.
I found out that he worked at the evening of the attack. After he dropped a client at the Stade de Paris and drove for a minute he heard that several terrorist attacks took place in Paris. Through the radio he got the information that many of his colleagues were quitting for the evening. Because attacks took place in different areas of the city, the situation was unpredictable and dangerous, not least for a taxi driver. However, after a moment of thinking he refused to go home and stayed there and the whole night he picked up many scared people and brought them to their families at home. While listening to his story, I said to him: “So you are an unknown hero. Aren’t you?” He shrugged his shoulders and did not respond. But to me it was clear: He was a hero.
Like Abid, the majority of heroes from the migrant community are mostly unknown. They’re certainly less well known than the terrorist with similar Arabic names. Take Latifa Ibn Ziaten, the brave mother of a killed soldier who is very active in the field of giving young people assistance and opportunities, but who is less well known than Salah Abdesalam. Or Lassana Bathily, the supermarket hero, who during a terror attack, saved Jewish citizens by hiding them in a refrigerator – unfortunately less famous than Abdelhamid Abaaoud. At least these two are known to some extent. But the list of the unknown is even longer.
The fact that they are unknown is a sad part of the story. In the Second World War, many brave Muslim and Arab soldiers fought in the ranks of the European armies against European fascist regimes. Their graves, which lay under European ground next to their Christian and Jewish mates, are still a unique example of sacrifice in the name of brotherhood and freedom. They made their Jihad on the battlefield for against fascism and they died for France.
Unfortunately, in recent years, several tombs were disgraced: pig heads were placed on them and swastikas drawn on their tombstones. A development worth worrying about. Sadly enough, this kind of crime will be engraved in the minds of young people who are basically told that they can never belong to the society, even if their blood is sacrificed. And this leads to rejection and feeling of marginalization which drives them step by step to extremist groups or at least to hate towards the countries they live in.
If we want to stop this hate and the growing fragmentation of society we have to recognize and respect the achievements that people from different migrant communities contribute to their societies. And the first step would be just by mentioning them. They are teachers, greengrocers, engineers or bus drivers – and they are contributing every day to the societies they live in. Media can play a very unhelpful role here. During terrorist threats they show the images of the young Arabic perpetrators without interruption. This plays into the stereotype that everyone who looks similar must be part of a terrorist conspiracy. There’s little traction for media to cover the good news stories of migrant communities, but scratch the surface, talk to taxi drivers like Abid and they exist.
In a very heated racist debate, Thilo Sarrazin spread hate through Germany by describing the Muslim minority as genetically degenerative. In some of his comments he focused his attacks on the local greengrocer. How dare he! As if the local greengrocer did not contribute to his society, add value to the economy and is, most importantly, a human being with dignity. After attacks, the voice of common sense is especially silent, as Abid correctly identified. Sensationalist reactions after terrorist attacks only worsens this situation. Unwarranted raids in restaurants, mosques and houses are catastrophic and irreparable. Let’s remember: when trust is lost, it takes a long time to recover.
We have to face these debates by showing positive examples and amplifying the silent. The right wing in European countries and the terrorist groups of the Middle East are working together with a common strategy: more polarization more support for hate.
We also have to agree on a common strategy: to share and defend our societies and the world we live in with our common universal values despite our differences and different backgrounds.
My visit to Paris was very short. I promised to come back for a longer stay. At the end, Abid took me to the Arc de Triomphe. In the Arc lies the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. We had our last talk there. He is not changed by the events that took place. But he is worrying about the future. He is worrying about a growing polarization and fragmentation in Europe and the world. Something we can only stop if we work together – extremely together.
Mimoun Berrissoun, Extremely Together