French Muslims said Wednesday they feared a backlash and increased inter-religious tensions as police besieged a suspected Islamist militant who killed seven people including three Jewish children.
Police were trying to negotiate the surrender of Mohamed Merah, a 23-year-old Frenchman of Algerian descent suspected of killing three soldiers last week and three children and a teacher at a Jewish school on Monday.
Officials say he has visited Afghanistan and Pakistan, bragged of being an al-Qaeda member and claimed to have acted to avenge the deaths of Palestinian children.
On the streets of Paris and its suburbs, French Muslims denounced his attacks and said they hoped his acts would not spur anti-Islamic feelings in France.
“Killing young Jews to avenge young Palestinians causes nothing but revulsion,” said Abdelhak Eddouk, a Muslim leader in the Paris suburban region of Essonne.
“This type of person hurts everyone,” he said, adding that he feared that “in an election period, some will take advantage of this to stigmatize Islam as a religion and Muslims as citizens.”
Ezdine Ould Mohamed, the head of a local Muslim cultural association in Essonne, urged politicians to “ask the right questions and act responsibly” after the attacks.
Immigration has been a top theme in the campaign for France’s April-May presidential election, with right-wing President Nicolas Sarkozy declaring this month that there were “too many foreigners” in France.
Sarkozy allies and far-right candidate Marine Le Pen have also lashed out against the widespread production of Islamic halal meat.
In Paris’s working-class neighbourhood of Belleville, home to a large North African community, butcher Lassaad Fkiri said he feared the shootings would add fuel to the rhetoric.
“I think politicians will fan the flames, after the halal debate, and some will use these dramatic events to point the finger at Muslims,” the 39-year-old said.
Outside a mosque in the Paris suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois, 31-year-old Mema Camara said she hoped most in France would not link the killer with all Muslims.
“He would not have done this if he were a real Muslim. God forbids us from fighting. I really hope there will be no confusion between this madman and the entire community,” she said.
Nearby, 51-year-old Nasreddine Hanifa said he believed the killer had been “recruited by extremists” and most likely “brainwashed,” but that he needed “to be punished for these horrible crimes.”
The imam of the mosque in Bondy, Mohammed Meniri, said he was particularly shocked by the details that have emerged of how the killer chased down and shot one his victims, seven-year-old Miriam Monsonego, at the Jewish school.
“To have taken a child by the hair and shot her in the head -- he must not be sane,” Meniri said. “He dirties Islam instead of honoring it.”