PARIS – As the three young North African women talked about their Muslim
faith at a cafe here one recent evening, they could not help noticing how
patrons at the next table were reacting.
One French man leaned so far back in his chair to hear the animated
discussion that he almost joined the group. Suspicion and disapproval
darkened his look.
Nadia Mirad, a psychology student who works at a children’s activity
center, knows that look. Last year, she recalled, when she asked for a day
off to celebrate the end of the annual Ramadan fast, her boss exploded.
“She said I was being unprofessional,” Ms. Mirad explained, sipping a Coke.
“She said the world didn’t stop turning just for a Muslim holiday. I’m
French, but I felt I was not a full French citizen at that moment. I really
did not feel at home.”
Her two student friends, both of them also born and raised in France,
nodded in sympathy. “We feel as French as France will let us feel,” said
BouthaÃ¯na Gargouri. “But it’s true, I can’t live my religion fully here.”
None of them, for example, wears a head scarf, though they all say they
would like to do so one day. Making such a visible show of their religion,
however, would make it almost impossible for them to get a job, they agreed.
“I can’t afford to put up barriers to what I want to be,” said LeÃ¯la
BousteÃ¯la, who hopes to become an interpreter for deaf mutes.
Religion’s place in public life has shot to the top of the agenda in
France, and in the rest of Europe, for one reason: Islam, and the growing
millions of people on the Continent who practice it.
Shocked by the discovery of Islamic terrorist networks on their soil,
Europeans have suddenly woken up to the existence of an often marginalized
Muslim minority that takes religion more seriously than they do.
Today, the relationship between native Europeans and their Muslim neighbors
is fraught with tension. Mistrust on both sides threatens to explode into
violence. Late last year, arsonists destroyed two mosques and a Muslim
school in the Netherlands after an Islamic radical there was arrested for
murdering filmmaker Theo van Gogh, who had criticized Muslim treatment of