(Published on the 27 September 2013)
Do you like slogan T-shirts? The “Keep calm and carry on” genre, the tacky likes of “Little Miss Naughty” or the British singer Jessie J’s trademark T-shirt: “Never ending fun”, a modern version of “Life’s a Beach”? They strike me as such tired, hackneyed messages, best left in the wardrobe.
But I recently stumbled across “I’m a Muslim, Don’t Panic” which defied my slogan-aversion and prompted me to stop and think.
It was written on a T-shirt worn by a boy selling copies of the Koran in his parents’ shop in a small city in northeastern France. I read about 15-year-old Ahmed el-Hadi in an article headed “French city embraces Muslims” reported in the International Herald Tribune last month.
What was Ahmed saying to the world through his T-shirt?
I’m one of you (a Muslim) so chill, I’m proud to be Muslim, deal with it, and get off my case or more sinisterly, I am Muslim and please don’t be afraid? Perhaps he had not given a moment’s thought to what T-shirt he’d thrown on that morning; Ahmed’s simply a dedicated follower-of-fashion. I am no mind reader, but I do believe that whatever prompted him to wear this T-shirt is a result of the post 9/11 climate we live in.
The fact that such a slogan exists at all is testimony to what happened on American soil in 2001, and the ensuing wars waged in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past decade. These events have caused profound unease between Christians and followers of Islam, not just in America, but across the globe.
Granted, France hasn’t exactly ingratiated itself with the Muslim communities living within its borders. The predominantly Catholic country passed a law in 2010 banning Muslims, registering 5 to 6 million (equivalent to 8% of the total French population), from wearing head coverings such as the niqab or burqa. This law appears to be strictly enforced.
Then according to statistics held by the French Interior Ministry, crimes targeting Muslims have increased by 28 percent this year.
And come to think of it, I haven’t seen too many mosques on my travels here either. Only this week I received a flyer in my postbox campaigning against plans to build a mosque in my very bourgeois town on the western outskirts of Paris. The heading, in stark bold type, warned it could be a reality by this summer:
“Une mosquée a Saint GermaIn? Depuis cet été c’est une realite!”
Which makes the city of Roubaix, where Ahmed lives, all the more curious. The city has been careful to ensure its Muslim residents are allowed to simply get on with their lives: “I am comfortable in these clothes here in Roubaix,” said Farid Gacem, the bearded president of Abu Bakr mosque, who was said to be wearing an ankle length loose brown tunic.
He has good reason to be. The mayor’s office has provided its Muslim population, totalling close to 20,000 (20 percent of Roubaix’s total population of 100,000), with six mosques, a Muslim cleric at the city hospital and large areas of the city’s cemetery have been designated for Muslim burials; an apparent “rarity” in France.
Muslim residents interviewed on the streets of Roubaix during Ramadan said that while they faced some of the same problems as other French Muslims — of which, no particular details were given — they felt that “their little city was different”.
Roubaix has one of the largest Muslim populations in France proportionally, it also has an appreciable number of Buddhist immigrants from South-east Asia and presumably a significant number of Christians, although numbers were not listed. The French officials interviewed were reluctant to talk about religion—France being a secular state and officially neutral in matters of religion—and explain why their city is so unique in its harmonizing approach to multiculturalism.
Nevertheless, Roubaix is surely an exemplary model of how other French cities might embrace their Muslim populations; rather than alienating them.
I wonder whether Ahmed knows how lucky he is? I would urge him though to bin the T-shirt. Not because of my strong dislike of slogan T-shirts, but because the current wording ought to be replaced by:
“Keep calm and live in Roubaix”