Fewzi Benhabib has lived in Saint-Denis for 21 years.

In 1994, the engineering professor and researcher moved from Oran, Algeria, after his colleague, Professor Abderrahmane Fardeheb had been assassinated by radical extremists. Fardeheb’s teenage daughter saw everything. He was taking her to her secondary school that morning.

At the time Benhabib had been working at the University of Oran for 20 years. In France, he was a professor at l’Université d’Orsay between 1994 and 1998. He was also a professor at l’École Nationale Supérieure de Cachan during those years. He then served as a research engineer at l’Université de Cergy-Pontoise until 2013. He now works for organisations supporting secularism and democracy and has been a member of l’Observatoire de la laïcité de Saint-Denis since 2009.

He wrote about Saint-Denis for the French newsweekly Marianne (16-26 November 2015, pp. 42-47). Excerpts and a summary follow, emphases and translation mine.

At first …

Although Benhabib was reluctant to leave Oran in 1994, he believed Algeria to be too dangerous. After the murder of his colleague, he feared he might be next.

When he applied for asylum and settled in Saint-Denis, he felt comfortable living there. It was (p. 42):

welcoming, tolerant; I could finally settle there with my family, sheltered from the islamist threats that accumulated in my letterbox. I was 48 years old …

I fled Algeria with sadness, but also with a deep conviction that in France I would never again be in the throes of political Islam.

Now …

In recent years, Benhabib does not like what he sees daily. Anxiety:

has taken hold of me once again. Saint-Denis no longer resembles what it was when I first arrived, and the tradition of human rights seem to be somewhere else.

He says that a socio-political division exists, one that reminds him of Algeria in the 1990s. He sees it in the streets and at the market, lamenting that the local politicians cannot see the rise of:

the project of an alternative society, one which is obscurantist and communitarian, breaking up the democratic cement of a pluralistic society …

it is a danger not just to my scientific mind but also for humanity in general, so much so that it is urgent to point it out — before it’s too late.

Women’s clothes

Benhabib is taken aback by the female attire in the streets, which is drab, uniform and fundamentalist:

On this unseasonably warm Sunday in November, where are the tank tops or short skirts? Everywhere I look, and I’m not dreaming this, there are veils, veils and more veils. Here, to my left, in front, behind me, they range from small ‘simple’ scarves from the old days to veils that cover the forehead or huge black veils from mullah country that cover the entire body, head to toe.

He asks:

Am I the only one to ask if the free choice of women to show their hair represents progress for humanity … ?

He describes the recent trend of fundamentalist women’s clothes shops, hardly the type of clothing

styled in the fashion houses of Paris, Milan or Miami.

Even very young girls are attired like this. Veils for little ones sell well at the local market.

He explains the danger (p. 43):

The fundamentalists are advancing, crab-like, yesterday in Algeria, today to a world away in Saint-Denis. The habit makes the monk, of course, and the political message of Islamically-correct clothes is underlined by the presence of books, between the niquabs and keffiehs — and not just any books. Between the ‘Wahhabite fashion’ and this literature, there’s a common point: proselytism by a politicised Islamist fringe which some, by ignorance or weakness, continue to confuse with the true message of the Koran. The goal of these two businesses is to keep ‘Muslims’ in the Islamist orbit to dominate the community and accentuate community fracture. This development separating cultures is at the heart of the practice of the Muslim Brotherhood in the West and they have the upper hand of the Dionysians [residents of Saint-Denis].

Women’s hair

Benhabib takes issue with the hairdressing salon —  mixte, notionally offering services to men and women, but, in reality, offering a room in the back for veiled women. The sign in the window reads (p. 44):

Separate room for the veiled woman.

He looked at the sign for some time, not quite believing his eyes. The owner, also from Oran, came out of the salon and told him:

When I opened this salon nine years ago, I wanted to call it ‘mixed’ because I like the word. But, here, it’s mixed because there is a special room for veiled women, where no one can see them.

He replied:

How did you get the idea to do the hair of veiled women in another room? I’ve never seen that, even in Oran.

The hairdresser said:

Surely, you’re not comparing Oran with Saint-Denis? Here, there are veiled women who don’t want to mix with others. That’s how I got the idea.

She doesn’t wear a veil:

They can take my head off. That’s just how I am.

Going out

Benhabib says that his friends visiting Saint-Denis from Alger or Sétif are shocked to see how women are boxed in socially and how little they enjoy themselves.

One said that even in Algerian marketplaces:

couples walk hand-in-hand.

Another said that it is normal for women in Algeria to go out with each other for a cup of tea or a soft drink. In Saint-Denis, that would be unusual.

Benhabib asks:

Saint-Denis outdoes Oran — this is normal?

Fast food

There is a halal fast-food restaurant called Mak d’Hal which not only sounds like the first two syllables of ‘McDonald’s’ but has also borrowed quite a few of their graphics. It has 100% halal burgers.

The ‘Greek’ restaurants are all halal, featuring kebabs.

Benhabib is agnostic when it comes to eating non-halal and pork. He and his family eat anything and everything:

My identity is pluralistic because the culture is mixed.

The school canteen questionnaire

Having no dietary requirements, however, does not always go down well with officialdom.

Benhabib’s daughter-in-law recently enrolled her son in first year of state primary school. She had to complete a form concerning school lunch. She ticked the box which said ‘everything’; he could and does eat all foods.

Soon after school started in September, a member of the school administration stopped her one day to express concern about ‘everything’. Did the mother realise that her son might be eating non-halal food?

A frustrated Benhabib asks (p. 45):

Why this question? Did he think she had misunderstood the question, as some illiterate mothers do, or was he implicitly reminding her of her Muslim duty? And are these people within their remit, these administrators, who also come out with ‘Greek’ sandwiches for Muslim children on days when pork is served? I dare to hope that the hierarchy — principal and the rest of the senior administration — ignores this initiative. I dare to hope this is not financed with public money. But, lately, my community has taught me to be distrustful. I thought I left all of these things behind 21 years ago.

The prayer room

The carefree and audacious way men gather for prayer at the Tawhid Centre also shocks Benhabib. The men arrange their prayer rugs in the road, obstructing vehicle traffic.

It was at this centre that the fundamentalist preacher Tariq Ramadan — darling of the Left and of university professors around the world (I know a few of them!) — started his

offensive on France at the beginning of this century.

This prayer room that some take for an ordinary mosque is the principal vector for the ideologisation of Islam and proselytism by the Muslim Brotherhood.

On paper, he explains, it looks as if they are only offering courses in Arabic. However, the course is supplemented by lessons in ‘Islamic sciences’ and an obligatory memorisation of the Koran.

The courses are also aimed at children. Benhabib surmises that the goal is to make the Arabic language first and foremost in their minds and to get them to follow a political agenda.

The fees are from €250 to €350 per student per year. The courses, he says, are created and further financed by North African countries.

Those who wish to earn a ‘diploma’ must pay between €1,000 and €1,500. Benhabib is aghast (p. 46):

I ask myself again: where do these notionally ‘poor’ families find the money to pay for these courses for their youngsters? Why this financial sacrifice, facilitated by scaled instalment payments, without any hope of proper professional qualifications at the end of it?

He warns that this type of ‘schooling’ deprives children and adolescents of learning critical thinking. In fact, they will learn instead to adopt the dogmatic thinking which runs contrary to that of the French republic.

The bookshop

One of the most fundamentalist bookshops, Samy, is located in rue du Jambon — Ham Street. The name has not yet changed!

Samy has no novels, no award-winning Arabic non-fiction, no volumes of poetry, no ancient Arab classics.

It features only fundamentalist literature which advocates narrow perspectives on family, society and politics. Here, Benhabib says:

the shutters on freedom of thought have come down with a bang.

He fears for the future. It is just this type of thing that caused him to leave Algeria:

This situation reminds me of Oran in the 1990s, when one of the first actions of the extremist mayor’s office was to close the conservatory of music, forbid music and dance, encourage the defacing of works of art, calling all of these outside influences brought in from elsewhere.

He notes that the newly-famous imam of Brest (Brittany), known for replying to hundreds of questions from young people online and in video, shares the same obscurantist views, saying:

music was made for monkeys and pigs.

Odd political alliances

The movers and shakers in Saint-Denis work with conservatives and leftists when the cause suits them.

Benhabib tells us that in 2013, the conservative organisation Civitas organised a conference in Saint-Denis opposing gender theory. He remembers who gladly provided security on the day (p. 47):

I could see it wasn’t conservative Catholics but bearded men from the Tawhid Centre.

At the city’s Institut Universitaire de Technologie, classes are now scheduled around prayer times.

When the Institute’s director, Samuel Mayol, dared to remind students of France’s values as a republic:

he became the object of a campaign of particularly violent intimidation, menacing letters, a vandalised car, then an assault, first in 2014, with a second during the past few weeks.

Police were slow to act or non-existent, Benhabib says. Left-wing councillors made no comment.

Many council offices — Socialist or Communist — in the larger borough of Seine-Saint-Denis no longer schedule meetings on Fridays, the Muslim day of prayer.

Conclusion

Benhabib is desperately trying to organise people to counter-act this militant tendency. He had held a meeting recently, but fundamentalists disturbed it, so it had to be abandoned. He will try again on December 3.

What he said is useful for non-Muslims to remember:

In the 1990s I saw my fellow Algerians similarly helpless against the redoubtable fundamentalist machine. Islamism progressed in a low voice, with tiny audacious steps, at first, fearful of offending anyone, before tumbling one day into terrorism and barbarity.

 

 

 

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