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9651Islam and Muslims in France: Nice Attack: Final Moments of Muslim Grandmother who was First Victim

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  • Zafar Khan
    Jul 31, 2016


      Fatima Charrihi, 62, was on the Promenade des Anglais with her family last Thursday.

      BY JACK MOORE ON 7/18/16 AT 3:15 PM
      Fatima Charrihi, as with every day, spoke to her only sister and best friend Aicha Aissaoui in Amsterdam on the phone Thursday. At around 7 p.m., Aicha was preparing to take her children for a sushi dinner in the Dutch capital. “Have fun with your daughters, enjoy life while you’re still with them,” Fatima said at the end of the conversation. Four hours later, she was dead.
      Her 22-year-old niece, Amina Aissaoui, speaking from the Charrihi family home in the winding hills of Nice’s La Madeleine district, recalls the conversation from the same evening that the 62-year-old mother-of-seven became Mohamed Lahouaiej Boulhel’s first victim.
      As he began his deadly hurtle down the city’s Promenade des Anglais, Boulhel’s truck threw Fatima, a devout Muslim who recently fasted for Ramadan, 10 meters. Boulhel killed people of his own religion, Islam—which, according to friends and family, he barely adhered to—as well as murdering and maiming Christians, Jews, Tunisians, French and young children, among others. Thursday’s truck attack, claimed by the Islamic State militant group (ISIS), left at least 84 dead and dozens in critical condition.
      “If you are a Muslim, you don’t kill people. He was not a Muslim. He drank alcohol, he ate pork,” Amina says, adding that her aunt and mother had talked at length, worriedly, about the Charlie Hebdo and Paris attacks. “It doesn’t matter if it’s an Arab, a Frenchman or a Dutchman [who carried out the attack]. Innocent people are getting killed. It was cowardly.
      “My aunt said if they really want to be a jihadist they have to be good to other people, go outside every day and help one person, that’s the best jihad you can have in your life,” she adds, referring to another meaning of jihad, the battle to cleanse oneself of sin, rather than fighting disbelievers.
      Fatima spoke of praying that all of her family would find the happiness they deserve, says her 28-year-old niece Saida. In her final hours, Fatima was feverishly planning a trip with her daughters to Amina’s wedding in the Netherlands in September. Bouhlel took away the chance for her to witness her niece’s special day, something Fatima spoke to her sister about during their final conversation.
      “[Fatima] said, ‘Tomorrow, we will book it. It’s so easy and everybody can come,’” Amina says, her eyes welling-up. She immediately cancelled the wedding after Fatima’s death. “I cannot have a party without her, I cannot be happy without her.”
      Fatima loved to walk, be outside and enjoy the simple aspects of life, her nieces say, showing pictures of her with a beaming smile in parks and on the promenade itself. This love of life is what took her and her family into the path of Bouhlel on Thursday evening. She told her 62-year-old husband Ahmed: “We must bring them to the fireworks, it is a holiday, it’s late but let’s bring them together,” says Amina. The others did not want to go, she says, only being brought together by Fatima’s wish to celebrate the holiday.
      On Thursday night, Boulhel initiated his suicide mission at around 10.45 p.m. local time. Fatima was standing with her daughter-in-law, Huria Charrihi, 31, who the truck missed by inches, and Huria’s brother Said Nait, 35, who dived over the six-meter promenade wall with Fatima’s one-year-old grandchild Oumaima in his arms.
      Fatima’s husband Ahmed and their eldest child Ali, 36, had separated from the group. Fatima died instantly just along from the Fondation Lenval hospital where she gave birth to her youngest daughter, Yasmina, now 14 years old.
      Ali witnessed events unfold from afar. After sharing Moroccan pancakes and sharp, mint tea around, he pats me on the back when he is ready to speak about the events four days ago.
      We step outside the family home to find a quiet spot, as two-dozen people have gathered to pay their respects inside. He stands with Said, who was present with Fatima when Bouhlel launched his massacre. Speaking through a translator, Ali offers Newsweek a detailed account of his mother’s death.
      When the Bastille Day fireworks had ended on the promenade, Fatima told Ali, her husband and her 28-year-old son Hamza to put money in the meters for both of their cars to avoid a fine, while she waited where Bouhlel would later strike. Ali took his four-year-old son and moved one car, while Ahmed and Hamza went and moved the other. As Ali walked back to the boulevard, screams of fear suddenly filled the air and he saw people running. Beachfront buildings blocked his view of the refrigerator truck that would bring this family’s world crashing down.
      A woman grabbed Ali and told him not to go back as there had been an attack. “The moment I heard that, I got scared because my child, my mother was still over there.” He pushed the woman aside and ran, dodging corpses on the ground. “I saw disgusting things, in my life I have never seen anything like that. It was a horror scene,” he says, beckoning away Yasmina, who has come to the door, so she does not hear the details of our conversation. “The worst thing I witnessed was a guy holding his child in his arms and he didn’t have a neck anymore, it was open and his head was hanging.”
      In complete shock, he continued moving down the strip and saw his father Ahmed, who was crying without control. “Your mother, your mother, your mother,” he said. Ali saw his mother lying on the ground while a woman attempted to give her CPR. He saw his mother’s hand pumping blood, like a vein was open, so he tried to plug it. He then took off Fatima’s veil and used it to try to stop the bleeding from the back of her head. A male doctor arrived from the hospital across the road.
      “When the doctor came, he tried to give her mouth-to-mouth. The moment he put his mouth on her mouth, and blew, his mouth filled up with blood.” Ali, in hindsight, believes the doctor already knew that Fatima was dead at this point but proceeded to use a defibrillator three times in vain. The doctor then took Ali and said “look at the ears,” gesturing to his own. She was bleeding from them, signalling brain damage, confirming that she had died. Ahmed passed out on the floor in shock. Hamza covered Fatima with a blanket to prevent her from being filmed. Her body laid on the promenade until gone noon the next day.
      Said, the brother of Ali’s wife Huria, has been screaming in his sleep and unable to eat since “the smell of the corpses” he experienced on the night of the attack. Fatima’s body remains with authorities but when it is returned, the entire family is to travel to Morocco for her funeral in the southeastern city of Tinghir, where she wished to be buried next to her mother.
      In the meantime, more than 300 people have visited the Charrihi family home in the last three days of mourning, a sign of her popularity, says Fatima’s niece Saida. Fatima’s positive spirit has seemingly affected all present here; at times, the gathering feels like a celebration of her life, rather than a mourning. Everyone wants to tell her story to the world, and despite their pallid and ghostly faces, her immediate family remains strong, comforted by their faith. Saida smiles, saying that Fatima is in heaven now. “Don’t be sad, I’m in a good place. And we will meet there, Inshallah.”
      For her sons, Fatima is now safe in the hands of God. Ali is focused on looking after his aunt and Fatima’s sister, Aicha, comes to the door to ask that I “make a beautiful story” about her best friend, the only thing she says all evening. Ali points to her and says that she is his “mother now, that’s what I have.”
      Hamza—dressed in a long, emerald Muslim robe—says if he could send one message to his mother he would tell her that, after Bouhlel’s massacre, everything will be OK now that she is in a higher place. “I love you very much. I am happy you are with God. It’s a lot better there.”

      French Army Asks Citizens To Enlist — But No Muslim Headscarves, Please

      July 26, 20162:02 PM ET
      After the July 14 terrorist attack in Nice, the French interior minister called on "all willing French patriots" to help defend the country by volunteering for the military's reserves.
      Two sisters, Majda and Amina Belaroui, French Muslims of Moroccan heritage, heeded the call in the aftermath of the Bastille Day attack, when a Tunisian truck driver mowed down crowds of spectators, killing 84 and wounding hundreds.
      Majda, 21, and Amina, 24, are both university students who live in Nice, on the French Riviera. They pair French fashion with traditional Muslim dress, sporting wide-brimmed sun hat and headscarf ensembles.
      The Monday morning following the attack, the third major terrorist rampage in the past 18 months, young men and high school boys trickled through the gates of Nice's military recruitment center. So did Majda. Wearing a hat and headscarf, she walked past soldiers guarding the gate with weapons across their chests.
      She was there to sign up for the "operational reserves," comprising both former soldiers and civilians with no military background. She wasn't interested in holding a gun. She just wanted to see how she could help, and set an example as a Muslim amid the growing fears over radical Islam.
      "I want to show," she said, "that I am not like that."
      A law against religious displays
      The receptionist told her she must take off her hijab to enter the recruitment center.
      French law prohibits people from displaying their religion in government-run buildings, including public schools, to maintain secularism in the public sphere. It's a fundamental tenet of the country, stretching back more than a century as part of an effort to reduce the influence of the Catholic Church. But the old concept of secularism is now rubbing up against France's new efforts to integrate its Muslim population, the largest in Europe.
      France has succeeded, in many cases. In Nice, Muslims are an integral part of the landscape. They, too, were on the promenade watching fireworks along with their French compatriots on Bastille Day, the most French day of the year, when the crowd came under attack. Nearly a third of the victims of the attack were Muslims, according to a Muslim community group.
      But some Muslims in France believe prohibitions against wearing religious clothing in government venues are actually targeted specifically at them, sending a message that Muslim culture is unwelcome in France.
      "Although France has managed to integrate many immigrants and their descendants, those it has left on the sidelines are more embittered than their British or German peers, and many feel insulted in their Muslim or Arab identity," sociologist Farhad Khosrokhavar wrote recently in The New York Times. "Laïcité, France's staunch version of secularism, is so inflexible it can appear to rob them of dignity."
      It poses a dilemma for people like the Belaroui sisters, who want to stay true to both flag and faith.
      Minutes after entering the recruitment center, Majda walked out, unwilling to remove her hijab when asked.
      "If I weren't Muslim, I think I would be so afraid of these people," she said, referring to Muslims. That's precisely why she came to volunteer, hijab proudly wrapped around her head.
      "For me, it's discouraging. We want to show that we are against this violence," she said, adding, "We are demotivated."
      Her sister faced the same choice
      Her sister, Amina, a third-year engineering student, faced the same difficult decision.
      Amina had already been to the recruitment center a week prior to the Nice attack and went back again, by herself, more determined following the attack.
      Both times, she agreed to take off her hijab in front of the uniformed men, though she really didn't want to. She said it felt like undressing in public.
      "I think the ends justify the means. That's why I took it off," Amina said in her flawless English. "I really want to commit and help people, and also try to give another image of Muslim girls, and Muslims in general."
      Anger is boiling over in Nice, which leans conservative. At the memorial ceremony for the victims, some residents argued with Muslim citizens. In the days after the attack, some in the city voiced their support for the National Front, France's far-right political party, which has used anti-Muslim rhetoric.
      Amina hopes joining the military reserves while she finishes her engineering degree can help change minds in France. Or, at the very least, it can help change the minds of French Muslim girls like her.
      "Maybe it will encourage other girls to do something they didn't think they could do before," she said. "Maybe it will change things."

      Inside the ghettos, Muslims are fed up with being blamed for the violence of others because of a shared religion

      Disaffected young Muslims in Nice insist they share nothing in common with Lahouaiej Bouhlel but they rail against the humiliations they regularly endure because of their religion

      “I knew as soon as it happened that they would blame Muslims, say terrorists are behind it, we are used to that now; we expect nothing else from the authorities here,” declared Rachid, standing at a street corner with a group of young men. “They humiliate us and then they are surprised when there is violence.”
      There were nods and murmurs of agreement among his friends gathered in a circle. Young Frenchmen, Muslims, who see the French state as an enemy,  feel alienated from the rest of French society and see nothing but a bleak future of strife ahead.
      The half-dozen in the group, aged between 18 and 23, were speaking in the Abbatoir district, not far from where Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel drove a 19-tonne truck into a crowd celebrating Bastille Day, killing 84 people, 10 of them children.
      But surely nothing can justify mass murder? “We are not saying that, what he did was very bad. But the police, the media, everyone is saying he did it because he was a Muslim,”  said Rachid throwing his arms up in the air. “No, he did not even go to a mosque, he did it because of whatever problem he had, it wasn’t because he was a Muslim.”
      Yusuf, one of younger members of the group turned to the others. “Did you know that he rehearsed the attack for two days before it happened? I heard that on the news, it shows how professional he was.” Was there a hint of admiration in his voice? Rachid interjected quickly. “This just shows that he was methodical. Bad people can be methodical, it does not prove he was a terrorist or a member of Daesh (Isis).”
      Lahouaiej Bouhlel, a 31-year-old former chauffeur and delivery driver, had rented the refrigerated truck, paying the required deposit, on 11 July. On the following two days, CCTV footage shows that he drove up and down Promenade des Anglais, where he went on to carry out his lethal attack, mowing down families and firing a handgun.
      Police have found a four-word text sent from his mobile: “I have the material”.  This was followed, according to some accounts, by another one saying: “Bring more weapons; bringing in five.” A man and a woman have been arrested. Bouhlel’s estranged wife, Khalfallah, the mother of his three children has, however, been released after being questioned by police for two days.
      The young men shrugged about the texts. “They could mean anything, maybe he was showing off, pretending to be something he was not,” muttered one. An older member of the group, Marouen, wanted to point out “ How are we supposed to know? Look at the problem here, it is lack of money, lack of jobs, no hope for young people, that’s the reason why they are so fed up, so angry. Leave religion aside for a minute, unless the government starts doing something about this, the problems will continue.”
      Abbatoir is run down but not markedly poverty-stricken. But unlike the wretched banlieues around Paris, they are in close proximity to the chic and wealth of the Riviera.  Landmarks close by the Promenade des Anglais, like the iconic Hotel Negresco with its pink dome, Opéra de Nice and the Musée Matisse are but a few tram stops away.
      In the banlieus of Nice one does not see the affluent and often skimpily dressed tourists, but women wearing hijab and men gathered together. There are mosques considered to be mainstream, but also “ Islam du caves”, underground mosques in garages where strangers, it was made clear to me, were not welcome.
      Boubekir Bakri, an imam in north Nice, began to worry about the spread of Islamist extremism six years ago. In December 2014 he organised meetings in his mosque between government officials and Muslim leaders in an attempt to form a common response. Three weeks later came the killings at Charlie Hebdo magazine and a Jewish supermarket in Paris.
      Mr Bakri now talks of extremism creating an “open wound” for Muslims. Unemployment reaching 40 per cent has “ lowered the immunity” of the community, allowing “microbes” of violent jihad to spread. The imam and other Muslim leaders have organised blood donations for hospitals in Nice. “We have to organise and speak out more, the world thinks a criminal like this, a murderer, represents Islam. He does not,” he said.
      Only two of the group of six young men in Abbatoir had jobs. They all complained of having little to occupy them in this urban landscape. One man who had taken advantage of this drift was Omar Diaby, of Senegalese descent, a petty criminal like Lahouaiej Bouhlel. He opened a snack bar and ran a football club, attracting men between 16 and 25 years old. He then began distributing video games and, along with these, jihadist propaganda.
      Two years ago Diaby went off to fight in Syria against the regime for the Jabhat al-Nusra, an al-Qaeda affiliate. Others have followed from Nice, including a family of 11, which included several children

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