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Paris heroes prove extremism cannot be confused with Islam

The actions of Lassana Bathily and Ahmed Merabet have been praised around the world.
Flowers and banners are placed on the ground where the French policeman Ahmed Merabet was killed by two gunmen who attacked the satirical magazine 'Charlie Hebdo' on January 7 in Paris. Marc Piasecki / Getty Images
Flowers and banners are placed on the ground where the French policeman Ahmed Merabet was killed by two gunmen who attacked the satirical magazine 'Charlie Hebdo' on January 7 in Paris. Marc Piasecki / Getty Images

PARIS // He emigrated to France from Mali at age 16, a young Muslim who had difficulty finding work and integrating into French society.

But while security experts warn that such disenfranchisement and alienation can be a recipe for home-grown terrorism in Europe, 24-year-old Lassana Bathily has been hailed as a hero — and proof that these hurdles can be overcome.

Mr Bathily, an employee at the kosher supermarket in Paris seized by a terrorist last Friday, has been praised for his quick thinking in hiding a group of shoppers in a cold storage room to shield them from the gunman.

He took care to turn off the refrigeration and the light, warning them to stay quiet as he slipped out of the store through an emergency exit to find help.

Mr Bathily was met outside by Paris police, who initially handcuffed and interrogated him, mistaking him for a militant. He was eventually able to describe to them the layout of the shop, which helped security forces prepare their assault.

Amedy Coulibaly, the French attacker who had said he was loyal to ISIL and was synchronising his actions with Said and Cherif Kouachi, the brothers behind the attack on French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, was killed by police in a raid on the grocery. But not before he had killed four hostages. The lives of at least 10 hostages were saved.

After the shoot-out, Mr Bathily told a French television station that many of the customers had thanked him for his actions.

“It’s not a question of Jews or Christians or Muslims. We’re all in the same boat,” he told BFMTV.

His account — corroborated by witnesses and authorities — has been widely shared on social media, amid calls for official recognition of his bravery.

“Lassana Bathily is a hero saving lives, proving that ordinary Muslims hate terrorism as much as the rest of us,” tweeted Brian Ingarfield of Surrey, England.

On Sunday, Mr Bathily received a call from French president Francois Hollande, and was thanked by Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a speech at the Paris Grand Synagogue.

Mr Bathily’s actions have been compared to those of another Muslim who played a key role in the three days of violence in France at the hands of extremist militants.

Ahmed Merabet, a French Algerian who was the first police officer at the scene of the Charlie Hebdo attack, was shot dead in the street when he tried to confront the attackers. Speaking at a tribute over the weekend, his brother Malek called the murders an act of barbarity by “false Muslims”.

“One must not confuse extremists with Muslims. Mad people have neither colour or religion,” he said.

The hashtags #JeSuisAhmed and #JeSuisLassana quickly became popular in honour of the two men, following the widespread use of #JeSuisCharlie to express solidarity with the satirical magazine.

“The sacrifice of Ahmed Merabet and Lassana Bathily proved that the Islamophobic backlash against France’s Muslims could not be more misplaced,” tweeted Andri Kusumo, a law student in London.

Paris shopkeeper Genevieve Mercier, 46, said the men’s actions came as no surprise.

“It is a great example of good Muslim citizens of France, of which there are many,” she said. “I have total respect for their courage.”

Fears that the attackers’ terror cell, thought to have been dismantled a decade ago, may have remained active — paired with declarations by right-wing politicians that the country was “at war” with fundamentalism — have caused tensions to continue in France, and left many Muslims fearing reprisals.

Mohammed Shaheen, a 23-year-old Egyptian repairman, said Mr Bathily’s heroism showed that life’s challenges — such as difficulties settling into France — could be, and often were, overcome.

“Terrorism, that is not who we are and does not represent our values,” said Mr Shaheen, who has been in France for nearly two years. “Islam is about peace. Many Muslims make a life in Europe, and succeed, to become the best citizens we can be. This is proof.”

Mr Bathily told France24 that he got his working papers in 2011 and began his job at the grocery store soon after. He is currently applying for French citizenship.

While he often spends time with other Malians and has found some difficulty integrating, he stressed that working at the store made him feel like a “fish in water”, and he described the customers as “like a second family”.

“No one has ever made a remark about my faith,” he said.

foreign.desk@thenational.ae

Updated: January 12, 2015 04:00 AM

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