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Giving French Muslims a Look at the U.S.

For Karim Zéribi, the highlight was shaking the hand of Barack Obama. For Ali Zahi, it was meeting his childhood hero, the basketball star Magic Johnson. And Mohamed Hamidi was surprised to find a mosque in Washington that was bigger than the one in his parents’ village in Algeria.
Mr. Hamidi is a well-known blogger, Mr. Zahi is a mayoral aide in this Paris suburb, and Mr. Zéribi runs an employment agency. All are French, Muslim and under 42. All grew up and work in suburbs that became emblematic of the frustration among second- and third-generation immigrant youths that led to three weeks of riots in France in 2005.
And all three joined the small but growing ranks of influential Muslims in Europe invited to the United States on 21-day trips organized by the State Department as part of its International Visitor Leadership Program.
The longstanding program, which seeks to introduce future leaders from around the world to the United States, has become part of an American effort to reach out to Europe’s Muslims, especially the disaffected young people who American officials fear could fall prey to jihadist talk.
For the three men who participated in the program in recent months, the exposure to America softened views of a superpower generally distrusted and disliked in their communities.
“Many young people think that America is waging a war on Muslims,” said Mr. Zahi, 32, chief of staff for the mayor of Clichy-sous-Bois, where the 2005 rioting started after the deaths of two teenagers of African origin who were being chased by the police.
“I tell them America is many things,” said Mr. Zahi, who is also on his local town council. “It is a country that has a black presidential candidate and a self-confident Muslim community. I tell them the American people are hospitable and generous.”
But recent reports about the State Department program have also stoked something of a backlash, with some in the news media accusing the participants of being seduced by a program meant to spy on the Muslim community.
The International Visitor program started in the 1930s. Alumni include President Nicolas Sarkozy of France and Prime Minister Gordon Brown of Britain.
After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks — and the discovery that they were planned by Islamists who lived in Hamburg, Germany — the State Department made reaching out to Europe’s Muslims a priority, according to James L. Bullock, director of public affairs at the United States Embassy in Paris.
France became one focus because of the size of its Muslim community — the largest in Western Europe, with an estimated five million people — and the anger at discrimination and unemployment that was evidenced in the riots. From 25 to 30 French citizens are chosen each year to go to the United States under the program; since the 2005 riots, about a dozen have been Muslim. (MORE)


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