Muslims in France: 'one day they'll ban the beard'

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This is the third in a series of portraits of French Muslims. The men and women interviewed live in La Courneuve, a suburb north of Paris notorious for the difficult living conditions in its huge, high-rise social housing projects. 'Abdel', one of the men sporting 'Islamic' beards at a local mosque, tells how he discovered a faith that saved him from his own "excessive" nature and of his disdain towards "those who don't practice what they say they have in their hearts".

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The French government's move this year to ban the wearing of the burqa or niqhab in public led to passionate debate about multi-culturalism and national identity. Mediapart talked to Muslim men and women of different ages, backgrounds and occupations to learn their views of the issues and what it is to live with their faith in France. All of those featured in this series live in La Courneuve, a suburb north of Paris notorious for the difficult living conditions in its large social housing projects. Abdel was one of the most difficult to convince to be interviewed (see Black Box at bottom of page).

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It took Abdel1 three months to decide that he would devote himself to Islam. That was ten years ago, at the turn of 2000. "There was talk that the world was coming to an end," he explained, and he wanted to change his life-style. Either he would become a true Muslim or he would cut all ties with tradition. Becoming a believer won out.

At 35, he now wears a beard as a sign of his religiosity despite the prejudice he reads on people's faces. Abdel doesn't expand on the subject of his youth. He talks about petty crimes, messing around with girls (only a little, "without toying with their virginity"), drugs (a lot), alcohol, theft. He says he could have done jail time but that he was lucky. He knew when to stop before things went too far. "I was excessive in nature. Fortunately I encountered Islam," he explained.

Islam was familiar to him while being foreign at the same time. Around him he saw "a lot of mates who prayed, yet they were liars, aggressive and thieves," he said. As for himself, he felt a certain "confusion". He didn't pray and more or less followed Ramadan, but "in the end I was pretty coherent with my actions," he added. Nonetheless, he felt a little guilty when his mother told him she didn't understand him.

It's clear that Abdel hasn't always worn the long beard that, today, dangles several centimetres below his chin. "When I would see a man with an ‘Islamic' beard, I didn't find that handsome," he explained, adding, "I thought that person was too committed. I pondered a lot about the terrorist attacks at Saint-Michel in 19952. Without realising it, I adopted the same clichés about bearded Islamists that, today, people adopt concerning me. I understand them. Whenever there's a picture of a terrorist, he's got a long beard like mine".

The turning point arrived in 2000. "I was praying and I felt [God's] mercy. Let's be clear, I didn't see anything, didn't hear anything but I felt the faith, which many people had told me about. Often people find religion when they are in a desperate situation, unemployed, for example. For me, it was more a kind of maturity," Abdel said.

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1: The name has been changed at the request of the interviewee.

2: Terrorist attack in the Parisian RER commuter train. A homemade bomb exploded while the train was stopped at the St. Michel underground station in central Paris in July 1995. Perpetrated by the Algerian Armed Islamic Group (GIA), the attack left eight people dead and 117 others wounded.

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Abdel was, at first, one of the most reluctant among our interviewees. While the bearded followers of the Villon mosque in La Corneuve were quite open upon our first contact with them, they never followed up any of our numerous messages left afterwards. When we ran into Abdel in front of the mosque a second time, he finally accepted to be interviewed, but on the strict condition that neither his true identity, nor any picture of his face, would be published.

This one of ten interview-portraits of Muslims living in La Corneuve, a Paris suburb characterised by high-rise housing estates where half the population is estimated to be Muslim. We spoke to men and women of different ages and backgrounds about their experiences of living with their faith in France today. Once a thriving industrial area, La Corneuve was badly affected as of the 1970s by the displacement of industrial plants situated around the capital. The suburb's public housing schemes, such as the massive cité des Quatre Mille estate, built in 1956, became notorious examples in France of urban decline. The interviews were conducted in May, 2010.