The attacks on the offices of Charlie Hebdo and on a Jewish grocery store last week in Paris revealed the racial and religious tensions in France to many people across the world. The country with the largest Muslim population in Western Europe and the third largest Jewish population in the world has struggled for some time with the problems that arise from the diverse nature of their population. Some (maybe most) of these are problems that have (France’s former) colonialism at its core; many of the members of Muslim and Jewish communities in France, for example, come from North African countries where France was once the colonial ruler, such as Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia. Often times these communities are isolated in some way from the rest of France (the phrase “disaffected Algerian youths” comes up a lot in reports out of Paris, especially when poverty and unemployment is high or football matches go wrong). The BBC, CNN and the New York Times have also all recently published stories about French Jews (“disaffected Algerian youths” are always Muslims; Jewish communities are rarely referred to by their national origin) facing increasing anti-Semitic attacks and wanting to emigrate from France to Israel in increasing numbers.
Religious and racial tensions are not new to France (or, I might add, to most other former imperial powers). But the opposite attitude of tolerance and equality are not new to France either. The French people chanting “Je suis Charlie” and “Je suis juif” in large numbers and the Muslim employee of the kosher grocery store who protected a group of several hostages during last week’s incident are the other, better side of France’s attitude toward minority groups within its borders. However, it is typical that it took a tragic event to showcase these better angels. Historically, it took the Dreyfus Affair, in which the Jewish army captain Alfred Dreyfus was falsely accused of selling state secrets, to help bring about the 1905 law separating church and state affairs in France; and it took the death of 30,000 Muslim North African soldiers at the Battle of Verdun during World War I to get the French government to finance the construction of Paris’s Grande Mosquée in 1926. Both these events are prelude to another tragedy—and triumph—of French racial and religious relations discussed in a children’s book by Karen Gray Ruelle and Deborah Durland DeSaix, The Grand Mosque of Paris (Holiday House: 2009).
The subtitle of the book, “A Story of How Muslims Rescued Jews During the Holocaust,” struck me for a couple of reasons. The first was that it occurred to me I had never considered the plight of Muslims in Europe during the Second World War. The second was that it made me wonder how and why Muslims escaped the wrath of Nazism (at least enough that they could be rescuing Jewish people). After all, one of the purported reasons for Nazis to imprison and murder Jews (not to mention other groups, including Catholics, communists and homosexuals) was that they did not believe in (the Nazi version of) Christianity and Christian values.
The answer to both “how did the Muslims escape victimization by the Nazis?” and “how did they manage to hide Jewish people?” are explained, or at least addressed, in Ruelle and DeSaix’s book—and, looked at from a certain angle, “colonialism” could be the answer to both questions.
Hitler was certainly no supporter of Islam. He once referred to the entire population of the Middle East as “half-apes” (see the Projet Aladin website, http://www.projetaladin.org/holocaust/en/40-questions-40-answers/the-nazis-the-holocaust-and-muslims.html, for more on the Holocaust and Muslims). But Hitler was, in the end, a pragmatist, and he saw cultivation of a relationship between his Nazi government and the Arab countries of the Middle East and North Africa as one path to defeating the Allied Powers, particularly Britain and France (who at the beginning of World War II were still heavily invested in and reliant on their colonial “possessions” in the region). To placate Arab leaders such as Ibn Saud and Mufti Haj Amin, Hitler did not round up Muslims as he did other “non-Christian” groups.
In France at the start of World War II, the Muslim population was almost exclusively North African. The Jewish population was more mixed, thanks to anti-Semitic attitudes in Russia and Eastern Europe, but a number of the Jews in Paris were part of the Algerian community. Algerians had been declared French citizens in the Crémieux Decree of 1870, and many had migrated to the metropole. It was these Jews, largely, that were hidden by the Parisian Muslim community.
The Grand Mosque of Paris certainly simplifies both these histories. Regarding the Nazi tolerance of Muslims, Ruelle and DeSaix state, “The Nazis were reluctant to target Muslims. They feared a Muslim uprising in North Africa, where they were already fighting the Allies” (18). This statement sidesteps the anti-Semitic attitudes of some of the Arab leaders who Hitler was courting. But to admit to Arab sympathy with Hitler’s anti-Jewish aims would complicate the book’s focus on Muslim-Jewish harmony. The authors spend a bit more time on the relationship between Paris Jewish and Muslim communities, emphasizing the unity and connections within the groups. “Jewish or Muslim, the people of North Africa lived as neighbors and shared similar cultures. Through the centuries, they referred to each other as brothers. They also looked very much alike” (12). In other words, it was the lack of what Nazis believed to be typical Jewish “racial” features that allowed North African Muslims to save North African Jews. Ruelle and DeSaix add that “only people who . . . could pass as North African Muslims could stay at the mosque for more than a few days” (16). The indirectly-offered message of The Grand Mosque of Paris is that the Muslim community succeeded in rescuing Jews by using the German racial (and racist) “theories” against them. During a time when it was dangerous to be Jewish, French Muslims helped at least a few of them to say, “Je suis musulman” instead.