After a terrifying wave of jihadist killings rocked France last week in a series of attacks that left more than a dozen dead, another rash of less deadly violence has already flared up in the region — this time directed at French Muslims. Following an initial series of attacks on mosques the day after the shootings, there have now been at least 15 assaults on Muslims or Muslim houses of worship in France, according to the watchdog group Tell MAMA UK. Although no deaths have been reported, the attacks are unsettlingly violent: according to reports, the incidents have included explosions, gunfire, fire bombs, assaults on the street, and a severed boar’s head left outside an Islamic prayer center with a note that read, “Next time it will be one of your heads.”
The incidents, which are suspected to be “revenge attacks” against all Muslims for the Charlie Hebdo shootings last Wednesday and the deadly hostage-taking at a kosher supermarket last Friday, are obviously unhelpful. But they are also deeply ironic: not only were non-militant Muslims among victims of the terrorist attacks that shut down Paris, but at least two Muslim men were also among the heroes who defended against the jihadists and helped save lives.
Here are their stories:
The hero of the supermarket
Lassana Bathily is a 24-year-old Muslim shop assistant at the Hyper Cacher kosher supermarket in Porte de Vincennes, Paris. Bathily, who is originally from Mali, was in the store last Friday when terrorist Amedy Coulibaly — who pledged allegiance to ISIS and who officials say was connected to the two Charlie Hebdo shooters — stormed in and opened fire. The militant killed several customers and began taking hostages.
But as chaos and fear gripped the shop, Bathily reacted quickly to help keep people safe. According to French news outlets, he ushered several frightened customers into a cold storage room and closed the door, shielding them from the attacker.
“When they came running down I opened the door of the fridge,” he said, according to The Guardian. “Several came in with me. I turned off the light and the fridge. When I turned off the cold, I put them in. I closed the door. I told them to stay calm and I said ‘you stay quiet there, I’m going back out’.”
Bathily then discretely escaped the shop through the goods lift. He was promptly arrested by the robust police force that had surrounded the store, as he was suspected of being a co-conspirator with the terrorists. He was eventually freed, however, and gave police details about the layout of the store and where people were hiding. He also reportedly gave officers a key to the door, which allowed them to storm the store without having to burst through the shutters.
Later, after the siege ended and the gunman was killed, several of the former hostages Bathily shepherded into the cold storage room approached him and shook his hand, thanking him.
When interviewed about the experience on BFMTV, he calmly rejected the same religious hatred that the terrorists embraced, saying, “We are brothers. It’s not a question of Jews, of Christians or of Muslims. We’re all in the same boat, we have to help each other to get out of this crisis.”
A Muslim police officer, murdered by Islamic terrorists
One of the last victims of the initial attack on Charlie Hebdo was Ahmed Merabet, a police officer who also happened to be Muslim. A horrifying video of his encounter with the terrorists has been seen the world over: in shaky cell-phone footage, Merabet can be seen writhing on the ground after being shot by the gunmen while walking down the street. As one of the terrorists approaches him, he lifts his hands in surrender.
“Do you want to kill me?” the gunman asks.
“No, it’s OK, chief,” Merabet replies, pain in his voice.
The terrorist responds by shooting Merabet in the head at point-blank range, killing him instantly and leaving him dead on the sidewalk.
The cold-blooded murder of 42-year-old Merabet has elicited a passionate response from Muslims the world over. In addition to the other tragic deaths caused by the al-Qaeda and ISIS-linked terrorists, many see his murder as a dark reminder that the most common victim of Islamic extremism isn’t Western Christians or Jews, but other Muslims. Building off the “Je Sius Charlie,” or “I am Charlie,” slogan that many are using to express solidarity with the slain Charlie Hedbo journalists, Muslims on Twitter have begun using the hashtag “#JeSuisAhmed” to signify their commonality with the felled officer.
“I am not Charlie, I am Ahmed the dead cop. Charlie ridiculed my faith and culture and I died defending his right to do so. #JesuisAhmed” one man tweeted.
A similar sentiment was expressed by Merabet’s brother, Malek Merabet, as he spoke to family members and the media on Saturday. Fighting back tears, he drew a clear distinction between his brother, who he sees as a true Muslim, and the terrorists.
“My brother was Muslim and he was killed by two terrorists, by two false Muslims,” he said. “Islam is a religion of peace and love. As far as my brother’s death is concerned it was a waste. He was very proud of the name Ahmed Merabet, proud to represent the police and of defending the values of the Republic – liberty, equality, fraternity.”
Malek went on to address the backlash against Muslims in Paris since the shootings, arguing that people shouldn’t conflate terrorism with Islam or resort to violence in retaliation.
“I address myself now to all the racists, Islamophobes and antisemites,” he said. “One must not confuse extremists with Muslims. Mad people have neither color or religion.”
“I want to make another point: don’t tar everybody with the same brush, don’t burn mosques – or synagogues. You are attacking people. It won’t bring our dead back and it won’t appease the families.”