Muslims in France
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Europe’s Muslims

In Bleak Projects, Emerging Culture
Arab, African and Muslim roots will be part of France’s next generation

Author: Sebastian Rotella
September 27, 2005
(Copyright (c) 2005 Los Angeles Times)

Abd al Malik rolled back into the projects with his crew on a sunny day, his voice blaring from the car speakers.
It was a track from his latest CD about how the Sept. 11 attacks made him feel ashamed to be Muslim.

"Neither fundamentalism nor extremism," his voice chanted over a stark drumbeat. "Me, I don't mix politics and faith." Malik nodded to the music in the back seat. His gaze lost itself in the landscape where it all began: the Neuhof housing project.

Surrounded by vacant lots, Gypsy shacks and Alsatian farmland on the edge of Strasbourg, Neuhof sprawls in a maze of towers whose dreary design recalls a prison or a hospital. More than 5,000 people live behind the blue and yellow facades streaked with graffiti and dotted with mini-satellite dishes that are often tuned to Arabic- language television networks.

Malik lives in Paris now, as befits an up-and-coming rapper and author who is equally at ease talking about Dr. Dre, Voltaire or Raymond Carver. But his family still lives in Neuhof. So does most of his rap group, the New African Poets (N.A.P.). The founders include his older brother Bilal, 33, who rode along with him during the visit, and Mohamed Achab, 34, who drove the compact Renault sedan.

Youths roared alongside on dust-churning motorcycles and three- wheeled monster scooters, calling Malik's name, placing hands on hearts in a sign of respect. The hard-faced homeboys hanging out by the discount grocery hurried up to welcome him.

Malik got out and straightened to his full height: a rangy 30- year-old in an aviator jacket and crisp, low-slung jeans. His hair was close-cropped above the sleek, dark features of Congolese ancestors. He returned greetings and accolades with a smile and soft words of thanks, bestowing four ritualistic kisses on the cheek.

There was no swagger, no thuggish preening. Malik, the bespectacled Bilal and Achab in his tan sport jacket looked more like streetwise graduate students than hip-hop heroes.

But they are the real thing. With titles such as "Gothic Ghetto" and "The Rabble Cut a Record," their music has been forged by a front-line experience of deprivation, crime and redemption.

Malik pointed out the spot where his friend Fouad was stabbed to death in a brawl. He stopped outside the window where, as a boy, he watched the heroin dealers fleeing police through syringe-filled gangways, the junkies scratching, hustling and dying -- a swirl of faces that would one day populate his lyrics. He saw the ground- floor apartment that once housed the mosque where he worshipped after converting from Catholicism to Islam.

Malik, Bilal and Mohamed are grands frères ("big brothers") now, and use their prestige to set a good example. But they discussed the bad old days dispassionately, recalling how Neuhof homeboys had pioneered the tradition of torching cars en masse. It started in the mid-'90s when cars burned during riots to avenge the deaths of two youths who stole a car, led police on a chase and crashed. Car-burning grew into a New Year's Eve event here, and spread across France, Malik said.

"It was like a symbiotic relationship between the media and the kids," said Achab, a curly-haired Frenchman of Moroccan descent who, in addition to being N.A.P.'s technical ace, has a job as a city social worker.

France is full of tinderbox Neuhofs. Gloomy public housing towers ring urban peripheries like modern-day versions of the walls of medieval cities. Known as cites, some projects resemble isolated city-states with their own laws, language and culture, problematic products of a clash between France's stratified, secular mainstream and immigrant diasporas that are predominantly Arab, African and Muslim.

The French worry that the cites are bastions of the Islamic extremism that is spreading in Europe's biggest Muslim population. Militants from the cites have fought U.S. troops in Iraq, plotted terrorist attacks around the world and landed behind bars from Afghanistan to Guantanamo.

But the larger ethnic and religious ferment also generates some of the richest, most interesting cultural activity in the country. Islam has become a force in the flourishing hip-hop scene in France. Even some gangster-style rappers brandish their Muslim identity. Other artists have become rigorously pious, shunning wind and string instruments that they believe the Koran prohibits.

Malik's chameleonic life story displays the tensions, contradictions and sheer energy of urban hinterlands that are France's future in the making. As a teenager, he was a scholarship honors student at a private school as well as a thief and drug dealer. After converting, he walked a tightrope between a budding musical career and angry itinerant preaching for a fundamentalist sect spreading an anti-Western message. But then he broke ranks with hard-core Muslims.

"I realized that my Islam of the ghetto was just a ghetto of Islam," Malik said. "There's a disconnect, a kind of phantasmagoria of Islam. The so-called reformers are trying to invent something in reaction to the West.... We have to put things in another context. Otherwise, we would be in the Middle Ages."

Last year, Malik published an autobiography titled "Allah Bless France!" It resembles to some extent "The Autobiography of Malcom X," a figure whose journey from crime to extremism to tolerance had a profound effect on Malik. The title offers an unabashedly patriotic response to a notorious extremist pamphlet titled "Allah Curse France."

"I'm black, I'm from the neighborhood, but I am French," Malik said. "And this is the country I love."

His given name is Regis Fayette-Mikano. He was born in France but spent his first six years in the Republic of Congo, where his father was a well-connected government official. Then his father ran into political misfortune and brought the family back to France to settle in a cramped apartment in the Neuhof complex. The population included, in descending numbers, North Africans, Turks, Gypsies, Asians and recent immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa.

"Everybody got along, though," Malik recalled, as a Spanish-language dance tune echoed out of an apartment nearby. "In Paris, you have more conflict among the races, especially black against Arab. But here you had harmony."

N.A.P.'s ethnic mix reflects that reality, which Malik attributes to the influence of nearby Germany. The Protestant tradition here has preserved a stronger role for religion than elsewhere in France, enabling faiths to find common ground, he said. Today, Neuhof's mosque occupies a former wing of a Protestant church.

Wandering the dusty, narrow streets of Neuhof, Malik pointed out an old recreation center decorated by murals of rappers, the place where N.A.P. got its start. Malik acknowledges that he helped finance his early career with cash from a "silent partner": a neighborhood drug lord. And the manager of N.A.P. did prison time for armed robbery.

Hoodlum culture shared space with another force: resurgent Islam. For many Muslim immigrants, religion represented a fading folkloric relic, a habit more than a passion. But their French-born children and grandchildren reclaimed Islam as a defiant badge of identity in uncertain times.

The trend swept up non-Muslims, too. Islam, like rap, gave them a sense of belonging; it had a powerful presence on the street. Bilal converted first and Malik followed suit.

"It's what was going on where I lived," Malik said. "For someone who had spiritual needs, it was much easier and more natural to find an imam than a priest."

In the makeshift apartment-mosque across from his building, Malik encountered recruiters from the Tabligh, a fundamentalist sect of itinerant preachers whose origins date to the 1920s, in India. The Tabligh are a fixture in cites and equivalent neighborhoods across Europe, patiently proselytizing to anyone who will listen.

Islam gave Malik discipline and structure, but it did not quell his rage and restlessness. He joined the Tabligh in 1994, grew a beard, put on a white Pakistani-style tunic and pants and went fishing for faithful. The relentless mission appealed to him: "the Islamization of everything that surrounded us."

The preaching teams of seven rode in beat-up vans and cars, intoning Koranic verses. Their "emir," or leader, liked to recount a well-worn and dubious anecdote about how a venerable cleric visiting from Pakistan had used prayer to keep a van rolling for miles after it had run out of gas.

The sect was nonviolent, but it sometimes opened doors to violence. In 1995, when a wave of attacks linked to Algerian terrorists struck France, two militant "brothers" came to see Malik. They proposed that he join a plot to bomb police headquarters in Strasbourg. Malik says he rejected the idea; he never found out whether they were genuine extremists or police informants setting a trap.

It soon became clear that he could no longer juggle religion and rap. N.A.P.'s first disc in 1996 had cranked up the band's popularity. His emir told him it was time to abandon sinful pursuits; the emir explained that he had once been a Barry White fan himself, but had thrown out all his albums in the name of Islam.

The rapper abandoned the Tabligh instead. He grew interested in the Sufi strain of Islam and the teachings of Sidi Hamza, a spiritual figure based in Morocco. When Malik undertook a pilgrimage to Hamza's remote village six years ago and met the sprightly 80- year-old, he says with characteristic earnestness, he was "transported into an ocean of love."

He joined Hamza's brotherhood, which emphasizes mystical, spiritual concepts. Malik came to regard his previous interpretation of Islam as repressive of women. These days, he shares baby-sitting duties with his wife, Wallen, a singer with whom he has a son.

And although the world he came from seethes with an undercurrent of anti-Semitism, Malik's new awakening spurred him to make a visit with a multi-denominational group to Auschwitz.

Malik's family and hometown remain powerful anchors. He has a gruffly affectionate relationship with Bilal, who led the way in both religion and music.

"He's always the one telling me to 'keep it real,' " Malik said, as Bilal rolled his eyes. Both Bilal and Malik look out for their younger and wilder brother Stephane, who has spent time in prison.

Neuhof has gotten calmer in recent years, shedding the war-zone quality of Malik's youth, but there are still plenty of temptations for a young man who is easily led.

As afternoon shadows darkened the rows of housing towers, Malik ran into Stephane outside the family apartment. The younger brother's sheepish smile suggested he was happy to see Malik, but eager to get going.

They had a brief conversation beside the car. Stephane strode off through the courtyard. Malik smiled narrowly at the retreating figure. And he called out: "You watch yourself now."

Credit: Times Staff Writer


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