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Fear of Terror raises Tensions among French-ruled island of Corsica’s Muslims

Muslims and non-Muslims attacked each other with fists and weapons that reports said included machetes and a harpoon

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Terrorism. Image source: Wikimedia Commons

AJACCIO, CORSICA, September 03, 2016: Some referred to the attacks in France as the summer of terror. Communities all over the country these days are working to heal the wounds and avert what many French Muslims think could be a backlash against them by politicians and citizens angry over extremists’ attacks.

Inter-communal tensions have boiled over on the French-ruled island of Corsica. Muslims and non-Muslims clashed on a beach in August, after reports that a tourist had taken a photo of a Muslim woman bathing on a beach in the town of Sisco touched off a riot.

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Muslims and non-Muslims attacked each other with fists and weapons that reports said included machetes and a harpoon.

Fear has risen further after the island’s militant separatists, in defiance of the Paris government, said they are ready to take matters into their own hands if the Islamic State group carries out an attack on the island.

There have been no specific terrorism warnings on Corsica, but, as summer winds down, the island’s beaches became a focal point in France’s battle of cultures – marked by attacks on the French mainland, such as the truck attack in Nice that killed 86 people in July and the murder, also in July, of an elderly Catholic priest during Mass in Normandy. The Islamic State group claimed responsibility for both attacks.
Dolls and teddy bears are placed at a memorial in a gazebo on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice, southern France on July 20, 2016.

Who defends Corsica?

Corsica’s isolation and its fierce separatist drive have many feeling like Paris is not doing enough to protect them. After the bloodshed in France, the Corsican National Liberation Front warned the Islamic State that any attack against the Corsican people would precipitate a “determined response,” without hesitation or guilt.

“Beyond that statement, I think Corsica’s entire population is asking, ‘who is going to defend us. Are we obliged to defend ourselves? And by what means?’” asked Francis Nadizi, regional secretary of the far-right National Front party headed by Marine Le Pen.

Corsica has one of France’s highest ratio of firearms per capita – one more reason why officials are taking the separatists’ statement seriously. They also are not ignoring the possibility of a terrorist attack on their soil.

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“There is real concern because unfortunately the events of recent months have shown that no one is safe, and there are elements specific to Corsica that make us fear a rising risk,” said Gilles Simeoni, the island’s top elected official, told VOA.

In remarks published recently, Simeoni warned there has been a breakdown of the “integration machine” – a reference to questions about the local Muslim population’s willingness to integrate into Corsican society.

Mosques hit by arson

Even before this summer’s beach riot, there have been confrontations. Attacks have included arson fires at Muslim places of prayer.

Signs of the tensions are less than subtle. In public restrooms and fences, graffiti demand: “Arabi Fora,” Corsican for “Arabs Out.”

Dolls and teddy bears are placed at a memorial in a gazebo on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice, southern France on July 20, 2016. Image source: VOA
Dolls and teddy bears are placed at a memorial in a gazebo on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice, southern France on July 20, 2016. Image source: VOA

In December, a mob smashed windows and ransacked a prayer hall in the island’s main city, Ajaccio. The incident happened after Muslim youths ambushed firefighters and police who were responding to reports of illegal bonfires.

The prayer hall’s director, Abdel-Mounim el Khalfioui, said the tensions – including those surrounding the controversy over burkinis – have intensified the conversation about what it means to be Muslim in Corsica.

“Integrating into a society does not mean rejecting one’s culture of origin in order to adopt another. That for me is not integration,” el Khalfioui said. “Integration is respecting the laws, respecting the land that welcomes you, respecting its traditions, respecting people, but at the same time holding on to your culture of origin.”’

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Islamic garments an issue

But some Corsicans disagree. Like many people on the French mainland, they say Islamic vestments drive a wedge between Muslims and the rest of the population.

“I think, quite sincerely, that it is a provocation,” said the National Front’s Nadizi. “They will begin by the visual aspect of their vestments, before staking their communitarian claims.”

“It could be that people will see it as a provocation, like if a man sees a naked woman walking on the street. She is going to tell him, ‘I am free,’ but he sees it as a provocation,” said Sabri Merdaci, a 24-year-old building maintenance worker born on Corsica to Algerian and Tunisian parents. Merdaci wears a beard and sometimes a galabiyya, or tunic. “We see it as a choice that one makes in regard to religion, to identity, as it relates to Islam,” he said.

Merdaci said he avoids beaches where French women often sunbathe topless.

Given the hostility already shown to their community, some of Corsica’s Muslims worry any retaliation against Islamic State could spill into retaliation against them.

In a meeting last week, a group gathered to vent their concerns about the Corsican separatists’ warning to the Islamic State. “We took this as a provocation for those who may want to carry out an attack in Corsica, and so it is us who would have to pay,” said Mohamed Jouablia, head of an association of Tunisian immigrants.

“It means someone does something wrong and the group reacts, goes after the other. It is collective punishment, and that is disgusting. It is unacceptable. It is that which worries us,” said another member, Zerdalia Dahoun, a native of Algeria. “The concept of justice is dangerous. Inciting people to do justice themselves has roused the extreme on both sides,” she said. (VOA)

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After 9/11, America Still In A Never-Ending War To Ensure Safety

For the past 18 years, there is one question that has rarely strayed for long from the minds of a majority of people living in the US: Are we safe?

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Covered in dust, ash and falling debris on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, New York City Transit's express coach #2185 could have been written off and sent off to scrap. It was decided, however, to rebuild her as a symbol of NYC Transit’s resiliency and a rolling example of the dedication of the agency’s employees. Wikimedia Commons

For the past 18 years, there is one question that has rarely strayed for long from the minds of a majority of people living in the US: Are we safe?  Question of safety was etched into the American psyche following the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, when terrorists flew two planes into New York’s World Trade Center and another into the Pentagon, while a fourth crashed in a field in Pennsylvania.

“I looked out the window and I could see a mountain of concrete and steel just falling past the window, almost like in slow motion, like a curtain going down at a theater,” said Frank Razzano, who witnessed the collapse of the World Trade Center’s South Tower from his New York hotel room.

“I ran to the opposite side of the room and pressed myself against the wall and thought that those were the last few minutes that I was going to have on Earth,” he told VOA in 2013.

Since that day, the need to keep the U.S. safe from attack has been a constant for Americans, no matter their personal politics.

empire, state, building, us, 9/11, terrorism, safety
U.S. Department of Homeland Security election security workers monitor screens in Arlington, Virginia, Nov. 6, 2018. VOA

Top priority: protection from terrorism

According to a Pew Research Center survey, from 2002 through 2018, at least 7 in 10 U.S. adults said protecting the country from terrorism should be a top priority for both the president and lawmakers.

Eighteen years after the 9/11 attacks, the officials responsible for keeping the country safe say progress has been made.

“If you were to step back and think where we were … we are so much better off than we were on 9/12,” Frank Cilluffo, who worked in what was initially known as the Office of Homeland Security, told VOA.

“I think, by and large, the career civil servants and I think the 22 legacy agencies have recalibrated quite well to it to meet today’s demands and threats,” said Cilluffo, who now heads Auburn University’s McCrary Institute for Cyber and Critical Infrastructure Security.

But Cilluffo and other veteran officials called upon to make sure the U.S. would not again fall victim to a 9/11-type attack admit getting there was not easy.

empire, state, building, us, 9/11, terrorism, safety
Empire State Building, NYC. Wikimedia Commons

One of the first steps was to create the Department of Homeland Security, which brought together key agencies such as the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the U.S. Coast Guard and the U.S. Secret Service.

It was the first step in an effort to correct what some experts and lawmakers had identified as a key weakness that allowed the 19 terrorists behind the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks to succeed — a failure of government agencies, some of which had vital bits of information about the plot, to communicate critical information and connect the dots.

Still, it wasn’t enough.

Determining mission

“Even then there was a challenge associated with trying to figure out what our mission profile really needed to be and the priorities within that mission profile,” said retired Admiral James Loy, who served as the new department’s first deputy secretary. “What was the business of this new department and how were we going to set about pulling it off?”

They settled on five words: awareness, prevention, protection, response and recovery.

“Those five words became the license, if you will, for all of us to continue doing what we were doing and begin the process of trying to do other things collaboratively that had never been done perhaps by this particular gathering,” Loy recalled at a gathering of former DHS deputy secretaries Wednesday.

There were also adjustments that had to be made by the many officials who came to DHS either from the military or the intelligence community.

“I found out that everything I thought I knew about the role of the federal government in dealing with security was wrong,” said Jane Holl Lute, who served as a DHS deputy secretary under U.S. President Barack Obama.

“Your relationship between the public, government and fear is very different,” she said.

empire, state, building, us, 9/11, terrorism, safety
The 9/11 attacks. Wikimedia Commons

Instead of concentrating on carefully gathered information from well-placed spies or sources, DHS had to learn to partner with civilians.

“The men and women of this country know an enormous amount about what’s happening,” Lute said. “We actually found out that streetcar vendors in Times Square in New York have pretty valuable information.”

Lute and other former and current officials are confident that the government has been able to find ways to reach out to civilians and even to private businesses.

Still, as the threats have evolved to include disinformation campaigns and cyber attacks, they say more will need to be done.

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‘Woefully inadequate’

Some officials also see shortcomings despite yearly budgets that have more than doubled since Congress set aside $19.5 billion for Homeland Security in 2002.

“If you look at the infrastructure of the department, it is woefully inadequate,” said Paul Schneider, another former deputy secretary. He added that so much money is tied up in mandatory programs, such as disaster relief, that there is little left to make needed improvements.

“There’s CBP [Customs and Border Patrol] Border Patrol stations that look like, you know, a 1950s cowboy movie of the Pony Express,” he said.

But one of the biggest challenges for homeland security officials may be overcoming the language that so many in the U.S. have come to associate with the department — the war on terror.

“Our war on terror begins with al-Qaida, but it does not end there,” former President George W. Bush told a joint session of Congress nine days after the 2001 attacks. “It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated.”

It was a powerful message in the wake of tragedy. But former officials, like Cilluffo, admit it is a war that can never really be won.

“The reality is there’s never an end state,” Cilluffo said. “It’s something that we have to continually adapt, continually prioritize and continually get the job done.” (VOA)