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Muslim Students in Europe Brace for Post-Attack Backlash

Shortly after Islamic extremists killed at least 129 people in Paris, the Association of Muslim Students of France produced a video that went viral under the Twitter hashtag “Nous Sommes Unis,” or “We are United.”

“Shedding the blood of an innocent has no justification—not in Islam, not anywhere,” a voice reads in the video. “My heart is hurting.”

Around two-and-a-half minutes long, the film expressed the students’ grief and determination to uphold the French way of life.

It also reflected how Muslim students felt compelled to tell their countrymen that they didn’t sympathize with terrorism.

“Universities are a place where people are more educated and less keen to discriminate,” said Yanis Khalifa, 25, the association’s spokesman and a recent graduate in marketing from the University of Caen Normandy. “There haven’t been any attacks yet, but some students have reported feeling looks of fear or hostility.”

Muslim student Büsra Delikaya, 20, who studies German and history at Potsdam University, echoed Khalifa.

“There is definitely fear of a backlash among Muslims,” said Delikaya. “As I sat on the train on the first day after the Paris attacks, I was wary of whether people looked at me even more or stared, but luckily I had no negative experience.”

Nevertheless, the European political climate does appear to be more Islamophobic than before the recent round of attacks. Harassment against Muslims has been reported throughout France this week, including instances of non-Muslims telling women in headscarves not to lay flowers at street memorials or participate in public mourning. In Britain, several Islamic student organizations received threats following the attacks. In Germany, thugs made death threats against Youssef Adlah, co-founder of i-Slam, a Muslim poetry group in Berlin.

Delikaya noticed an uptick in spiteful comments on her private blog.

“I get negative feedback every now and again, that’s normal,” said Delikaya. “But after the attacks I got negative comments more often: People call me Mohammedama or Headscarf Mohammed. I have also had comments linking me to the Islamic State. That is very hurtful.”

French President Francois Hollande, while declaring a state of emergency that temporarily suspends civil liberties and strengthens the power of security forces, has explicitly warned against hate crimes and racial profiling against Muslims.

“We must be relentless against all forms of hatred,” Hollande wrote November 18. “No xenophobic, anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim act will be tolerated.”

In Sweden, the situation is shakier. More than seven Arab students were too fearful to talk to a reporter. “No one can guess what will happen, people look afraid of us but I believe we are more afraid  of them,” said a young Syrian refugee who is attending a Swedish language center now after getting his permanent residence.

Last month, a teacher was killed in a sword attack at a school in Trollhättan, and two students were seriously injured. The killings took place in a school with a high proportion of immigrants, raising fears among refugees that the killer’s motives may have been racist.

“Of course, the Paris attack hurt the relationship between the Swedish society and the Arab and Muslim communities who are living here,” said Afrah Nasser, a Yemeni journalist who recently got her master’s degree at the University of Gothenburg. “We feel like we are constantly accused and having to defend  ourselves all the time. The extreme right-wing parties took the opportunity,” she added, “to try to change the immigration laws, which could really hurt thousands of Arab and Muslims who came here to study and work and have a new life far away from the conflicts in their countries.”

In France, the video that went viral was only the latest effort of the French Muslim students’ association to educate the French public about Islam, Khalifa said. The association has organized conferences, debates and other events throughout the country.

As a member of an Islamic student organization based in Germany called Juma, Delikaya and her peers organize similar programs.

“We, as young Muslims, are the next generation here in Europe,” she said. “We must show our position as Muslim Europeans. We should in no way stray from the public sphere, and we must show that we as Muslims are not afraid of any backlash against us, but that we are on the same front as all Europeans and those in Paris. We are one unit.”

The backlash against Muslims in France was much stronger after the attacks on the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo attacks in January, said Michael Prevot of the European Network Against Racism in Belgium, where terror networks are known to have planned attacks in France.

After Charlie Hebdo, secondary-school teachers in France and Belgium struggled to discuss the issue of cartoonists lampooning the Prophet Mohammed. Muslim students who criticized such cartoons, exercising their right to free speech, were also sometimes incorrectly criticized as being apologists for the attacks.

“There is definitely more pressure on Muslim students as they engage in conversations on these issues,” said Prevot, referring to Islam and terror.

On November 18, a high school in Schaerbeek, a neighborhood in Brussels, suspended six students for disturbing a minute of silence for the Paris attack victims. The incident echoed a previous one in which French police detained an eight-year-old boy in the south of France for expressing his support of the Charlie Hebdo attackers.

French universities aren’t necessarily much better, said Dounia Benalla, 23, a political science student at the University of Paris-Sorbonne.

“There is an institutional Islamophobia, like professors not allowing girls with headscarves in their classes or requiring a student ID with a photo without a headscarf,” said Benalla, who is also a member of the Muslim students’ association.

She wants to work to change those attitudes, however, through peaceful, civilized discourse, she said. The outpouring of support from French citizens who have watched the association’s video indicates that plenty of her countrymen are open-minded about Islam, she added.

“We really focus on the positive, and we had a lot of positive reactions on the street,” she said. “In public, citizens have expressed their solidarity with us and understand that equating terrorism and Islam has no place here. Our motto is and remains: the solidarity and unity of the whole nation.”

Contributing: Khaled Esmael in Sweden.
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