A story of a community under siege

  • Lahcen, 41, walks past a metro station in Paris. Lahcen is a Moroccan Muslim who immigrated to France and has been living in Paris for the last 10 years. All photos by Youssef Boudlal / Reuters
  • Lahcen, 41, pulls a trolley of vegetables at the market where he works in Paris.
  • Chehrazad, 36, leaves work at a notary's office in Paris. Chehrazad, a Muslim woman of Moroccan origin who is married to a French national, lives and works in the Parisian suburb of Mantes-la-Jolie. She works as a secretary in a notary's office, where she has to remove her headscarf due to a law banning their use in the civil service.
  • A man shops for traditional sweets for Iftar, or breaking of fast, during the Muslim month of Ramadan.
  • Muslims queue to buy traditional sweets for their first Iftar meal, or breaking fast, during the Muslim month of Ramadan.
  • Chehrazad, 36, talks on a mobile phone while looking at clothes in a shop window in Mantes-la-Jolie, a suburb of Paris.
  • Chehrazad, 36, shops for clothes at a shop in Mantes-la-Jolie.
  • Chehrazad (2nd R), 36, talks on a mobile phone, while a man fundraises for a mosque (L) in Mantes-la-Jolie.
  • Muslims pray during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan at a mosque in Paris.
  • Lahcen, 41, prays in his home during Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting, in Paris.
  • Chehrazad, 36, walks as she arrives at the Mantes-la-Jolie mosque, in a suburb of Paris.
  • Lahcen, 41, takes a photograph of himself in Mantes-la-Jolie.
  • Lahcen, 41, waits to cross a street.

August 21, 2013

A French Muslim’s life is one of closed doors. Careers are limited for anyone wearing a veil, Parisians become angry at crowds outside mosques and the community shuts itself off from the outside for fear of further persecution. Photos by Youssef Boudlal

It is the images missing from Youssef Boudlal’s photo essay on life as a Muslim in Paris that speak almost as loudly as those he managed to capture.

The young man from North Africa sitting outside a suburban church who suspected Boudlal was a spy. The woman he spotted shopping at market who seemed ready to participate until the intervention of her father. The Salafists who worshipped in a garage and then took flight from the camera after the arrest of six radical Islamists.

The project, Boudlal recalls in his blog, “rapidly became a story of failed encounters, rejection and disappointment”.

On the one hand, he notes, “the fear of prejudice towards the Muslim world was intense”. On the other “was the worry that clichés about the community could be fuelled or spread by images”.

What emerges is a community under siege. Born out of a revolutionary desire to curb the worst excesses of the Catholic church in the 18th Century, the secularism that underpins French law increasingly targets Muslims today.

Antipathy towards Islam in France finds expression in the ban on full-face veils worn in public, fuelled by incidents such as the murders at a Jewish day school in Toulouse last year by a 23-year-old French Algerian Islamist.

Boudlal, who was born in Morocco, eventually abandoned the banlieues, or suburbs, of Paris, in his search for subjects in the city itself.

He approached his grocer, Lahcen, who explained that practising Islam in France is becoming increasingly difficult. The veil ban law, Lahcen said, was “an attempt to create an Islam that the French can accept”.

For Boudlal, the project was also a reminder that with a camera in his hand, he was no longer first and foremost a Muslim but instead a photographer.

Rejected again, this time by worshippers at a mosque, he reflected: “I am a Muslim. I speak Arabic. I thought this cultural and religious proximity would have made an exchange easier. I was wrong.”

Many feared his images would be used only to fuel prejudice and stereotypes. “I wanted to fight clichés,” he explains. “But how can you start when no one will open their door to you?”

* James Langton