“Will you work for Gaddafi?”
The question was popped at me point blank by a young North African man. Not used to this kind of questioning I was taken aback for a moment. The year was 1986. My wife and I had taken a ferry ride across the Mediterranean for a holiday in Europe. I a 29 year old Army captain was deployed overseas with a Pakistani armored brigade in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and was visiting my family in Algiers, where my father was serving as Pakistan’s Ambassador.
When this question was thrown at me, we had landed in Marseilles, the port city of France – home to hundred and thousands of North African Muslims from across the Mediterranean Ocean. We were hungry and just wanted something to eat. In those days before Halal became a standard description for Muslim food, just avoiding pork was enough to preserve one’s Muslim identity. I had just located a food cart, whose owner seemed Muslim and therefore a safe bet. My knowledge of French wasn’t enough to make intelligent conversation. Only way I could make sure my food preference were accurately conveyed was by using an assortment of widely off the mark mimicry. I had never been a good actor any way. I just wanted a burger that was kosher (the word was politically correct for that time). The cart vendor took me aside and asked in a hushed stage whisper, if I was willing to get recruited for the Libyan potentate, known for his penchant for harboring terrorists. I wasn’t quite prepared for this uncalled for job offer. I was honorably employed and I was certainly not interested in any mission that Mr Gaddafi had in mind for wandering Muslim tourists. I would learn later that the Lockerbie bombing was the handiwork of one of his henchmen. No thanks I just wanted a Muslim sandwich, if he could please make me one. I would pay him in Francs (the currency of France before Euro) and I would go my way.
After the attack on Charlie Hebdo newspaper, the Parisian newspaper that publishes sacrilegious cartoons, I was reminded of the indecent proposal made in a seedy French alley in the Arab quarters of Marseilles, nearly thirty years ago.
France was and is a very polarized society. The North African Muslims, despite being second or third generation immigrants have not been accepted as French nationals in the strictest sense of the word. Economically they stagnate at the very bottom. Low wages and lesser expectations from life has turned the North African youth into angry young people, unhappy and dissatisfied with their existing environment. They are perhaps not even practicing Muslims but violence in the name of religion is their way of seeking revenge, I think it is time that French initiated long term solutions to prevent such incidents. Anti immigration laws is certainly not the best option. Integration and assimilation are notions that can prepare the French society to face the future in a balanced and confident manner. Otherwise times will change, names will change but methods to bring about violent change will remain the same.