War raises tension of French Muslims who were already finding life difficult WAR IN THE GULF

February 12, 1991|By Diana Jean Schemo | Diana Jean Schemo,Paris Bureau of The Sun

PARIS -- The voices calling the Muslim radio shows each night are suggestive of insecurity, suspicion and fear.

"We have the impression that Israel is not giving the Palestinians in the West Bank gas masks as insurance against a chemical attack there, while Saddam Hussein is using captured Westerners as human shields," said Bruno, a caller to Radio Maghreb. "My question is, what is the difference between them?"

"The problem is, we feel this war as an attack by the rich on the poor," said Aisha, another caller.

"We just wish the media would tell us the truth," said Fatima, asserting that news of massive Iraqi civilian casualties had been kept secret to discourage anti-war activism.

Although sympathy for an Arab leader under siege by vastly superior Western firepower certainly strikes a chord among French Muslims, the 4 million or so people of North African and Arab origin here have not embraced Iraqi President Hussein's call for a jihad, or holy war, against the West.

They have spent too much of their lives trying to succeed in their adopted country to reject it wholesale suddenly. These days, they are far too busy trying to complete their studies, earn their livings and raise their children to battle a country in which they make up only 8 percent of the population.

But sociologists and community leaders fear that if the war drags on for several more months, the brief disturbance in Muslim communities that the Persian Gulf war has represented will become a source of profound alienation and unrest.

They especially worry about the effects a protracted war may have on young Algerians and Tunisians, who already face several forms of rejection: high unemployment, difficulty finding a place in French society and strict controls by police.

The frustration of rejection by French society, bound to sharpen as French casualties mount in the coming land offensive, could also encourage Muslim youths to retreat to their origins and begin supporting Mr. Hussein, said Georges Aboud Sada, a sociologist.

"We're in the middle of a process of assimilation that hasn't been going on very long and that isn't complete yet," said Mr. Aboud Sada, who studies Muslim communities for the National Center for Scientific Research. "A part of the youth lives this war as an injustice."

According to a recent survey published in the Figaro newspaper, the war has divided opinion among France's Muslims. About 54 percent of the Muslims surveyed felt close "neither to Iraq nor to the allies;" 56 percent said they had a "bad opinion" of Mr. Hussein personally, and only 22 percent said they had personal sympathy for him.

The gulf war has come at a difficult moment for French Muslims. First, the community was shaken by the uproar over Salman Rushdie's book "Satanic Verses" and the Iranian death sentence against him.

Then, for several weeks last year it seemed all of France took part in a debate over whether the school system ought to allow Muslim girls from traditional families to attend class in head scarves.

At the same time, racial and religiously motivated attacks appear to be on the rise, along with the advancement of the extreme right-wing National Front Party of Jean-Marie Le Pen.

"The climate is tense from both sides," said Mr. Aboud Sada.

Hosts on call-in shows at Radio Maghreb, Radio Soleil and Radio Beur, the main stations for French Muslims and immigrants of North African origin, try to keep the nightly debates from getting too heated.

At the mosques, the imams who lead the prayers for the most part have avoided discussing the gulf war.

Tempers have cooled since the war's first angry days. Those who have spent much of their lives forging relations between Westerners and Muslims hope -- and predict -- that the gulf war will not leave too deep a scar and that tolerance will prevail.

"These are tense moments. But Islam in France is a fact," said Francis Lamand, a lawyer who heads the Association of Islam and the West and has worked for 30 years in Muslim countries. "These are waves that cannot keep the boat [of integration] from advancing."

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