Word that one of its native sons blasted his way into terrorist infamy has brought unwelcome scrutiny to La Grande Borne, a crime-ridden housing project in the gritty southern Paris suburb of Grigny.
“He hasn’t lived here for 15 years,” said Brahim Agouram, president of the Muslim Union of Grigny. “Why should the entire Muslim community have to answer for one person’s crime?”
The person in question is the late Amedy Coulibaly, 32, who was reared in the dreary apartments of La Grande Borne, a 1960s idealist vision of working-class housing quarters turned 21st century dystopia.
Coulibaly, a career criminal who embraced radical Islam while in prison, teamed with a pair of brothers, Cherif and Said Kouachi, to carry out the attacks in Paris this month that left 17 victims dead. All three assailants were killed in shootouts with police on Jan. 9.
Although only an isolated few extremists even contemplate such violent acts, the attacks dramatize how much mayhem a few determined fanatics can wreak. Police have since raided suspected militant cells across Europe, arresting dozens.
The intense public focus on largely Muslim neighborhoods in the banlieues, or suburbs, associated with the three terrorists has angered many dwellers of La Grande Borne and other areas. Many see a case of guilt by association, with a strong hint of anti-Muslim bigotry.
Foreign news crews have stalked the streets of various outlying districts of Paris, seeking local color, backdrops for stand-up satellite TV reports and clues to the killers’ motivations.
“No one here knew him [Coulibaly],” a waiter at a Turkish-style fast-food restaurant in Grigny told a group of visiting reporters. “And no one who knew him will admit to you that they knew him.”
Some residents, many of whom commute to Paris daily to work minimum-wage jobs, say they feel stigmatized because of the unpredictable actions of a few. There’s a lot of resentment here.
The banlieues are a different world from the upscale Paris arrondissements where people waited in predawn lines for hours to purchase the latest run of the first post-massacre edition of the Charlie Hebdo satirical magazine and where “Je suis Charlie” signs are now ubiquitous, meant to demonstrate support for free speech in the face of extremist attacks.
Here in the banlieues, some declare privately, and defiantly, “Je ne suis pas Charlie!” [“I am not Charlie!”]
Many of France’s approximately 5 million Muslims remain furious over the caricatures of Muhammad published by Charlie Hebdo that helped catapult the provocative niche publication into the public spotlight, and ultimately ended in the terrorist strike.
The Muslim outrage took on new dimensions when the magazine’s cover after the attack on its offices, in which 12 were killed, featured a stylized drawing of a sobbing, droopy-nosed Muhammad bearing a “Je suis Charlie” sign. Many were infuriated.
Muslims interviewed in the outlying districts said they reject the terrorist acts, but also deeply resent their religion being mocked. At some schools with large Muslim populations, some students reportedly did not participate in the nationwide minute of silence for the victims of the attack.
“If these guys really did what they said they did and killed those people, then they aren’t true Muslims, and they deserve to rot in hell,” said Abdel, 23, son of North African immigrants who was practicing his break-dance moves in the spacious confines of a former public funeral parlor converted into a community center in the edgy 19th arrondissement in northern Paris.
“But I still don’t believe in caricaturing the prophet like that, any prophet, be it Muhammad or Jesus Christ,” said Abdel, who like many others interviewed declined to give his surname for privacy reasons.
He spoke in roughly the same neighborhood where Cherif Kouachi is first known to have turned to radical Islam. Kouachi and other young Muslims in the 19th fell under the spell of a charismatic Islamist and became part of a cell that funneled fighters to Iraq to fight American troops during the U.S.-led occupation, French authorities say.
In recent years, however, Cherif Kouachi was residing quietly in an apartment across the city line in the northern suburb of Gennevilliers, home to a large population of people of North African heritage. There are not a lot of “Je suis Charlie” posters plastered around Gennevilliers.
“Everyone wants to live in peace here, no one here wants any trouble,” said Ahmed bin Mohammed, counterman at the Sahara kebab shop, just a few doors down Rue Basly from the apartment building that was home to Cherif Kouachi, who was a regular customer. “But we are Muslims. Depicting the prophet like this is insulting.”
He and others said Kouachi gave no outward signs of militancy.
“Some people who look evil are really nice, and others who look nice are evil,” the kebab counterman said. “You never can tell.”
The discussion on a rainy, gray day at the eatery grew more animated when an intense man with short-cropped hair who gave his name only as Sofian declared, “I am not Charlie.”
Sofian, 32, said he recently served more than two years in prison on drug-related charges. He showed an electronic monitoring bracelet he wore on his ankle as a condition of parole. He and other inmates, he said, watched live television feeds as the terrorist attacks in Paris were being reported.
“To be honest, most people [prisoners] were happy about what happened at Charlie Hebdo,” Sofian said. “I felt much worse about the children killed in Gaza, their bodies placed in plastic bags — that made me cry. But no one marched in support of those kids here like they did for those journalists.”
In a frequently heard refrain, he and others interviewed complained that crimes targeting French Jews received greater public attention than attacks on Muslims. The victims included four hostages killed at a kosher market in eastern Paris. It was Coulibaly who seized the shop and shot the hostages, authorities say.
“In France, it’s never the same if you are a Muslim,” Sofian said as a friend nodded in agreement. “They always look at you differently.”
Like the people of La Grande Borne, the residents of Gennevilliers reject what they regard as a kind of collective blame being heaped on the community.
“We didn’t know him [Kouachi], a lot of things could have affected him and turned him that way,” said Ali Heraz, 28, secretary at the Ennour Mosque in Gennevilliers, where Cherif Kouachi regularly attended Friday prayers but did not stand out or participate in mosque-sponsored events, according to mosque officials. “I read in the media where even his wife didn’t know he had turned so militant.... People have a lot of influences now, the Internet, prison, other things they come into contact with.”
The mosque, like others, denounced the attacks. The mosque hosts interfaith events on its grounds and eschews politics and any kind of radicalism, several board members said.
“We were all shocked when we heard this,” Heraz said. “No one could have imagined someone from around here doing something like this.”
Special correspondent Hannane Ferdjani contributed to this report.