Don’t blame Islam for the attack on France’s national soccer stadium

Last Friday, as you probably know by now, more than a hundred people were murdered in various coordinated attacks around Paris. And soccer was at the center of it. One of the planned attacks was intended to hit the Stade de France – a stadium in the northern suburb of Saint-Denis, dubbed “France’s national stadium,” that serves as the home of the France’s national soccer and rugby teams.

There, on that Friday, France was facing Germany at a friendly match. Over 60,000 people were in attendance to watch two of the top-ranked teams in the world face each other. Two of those people were Germany’s foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier and France’s president François Hollande.

During the first half, with the score tied at zero, three explosions could be heard outside of the stadium. One of the explosions came across clearly during the broadcast. A widely shared Vine shows Juventus and France defender Patrice Evra, who had control of the ball, startled by the bang and stopping for a second before passing the ball to a teammate.

But since a loud bang at a soccer game could just be people in the crowd up to nonsense, play continued. Inside the stadium, equipped with the poor cell reception of most mass-attended events, very few people seemed to be aware of what was happening outside. Yet, by halftime, Hollande was escorted outside the stadium while local fans cheered for their team’s 1-0 lead.

It was later confirmed that the three explosions were caused by three suicide-bombers, armed with explosive vests, trying to enter the stadium. Security prevented at least one of them from entering, and he decided to blow up his vest outside one of the gates. Another one exploded his vest near a stadium entrance, while the third one did so close to a nearby McDonald’s.

France coach Didier Deschamps and Germany coach Joachim Löw were informed during halftime that something was happening outside and that they were free to tell their players. According to the New York Times, Deschamps considered telling his players, but ultimately decided against it because he didn’t know the extent of what was happening. Löw also preferred to keep the information to himself.

The game continued for the second half and France won 2-0. But by then, few, if any, in France were paying attention to the result. That became almost immediately clear for the fans in attendance as security blocked many of the exits, leaving most people with no choice but to go to the field and wait.

Unsurprisingly, subsequent broadcasts mentioned little about the actual soccer played that night and instead focused on the image of the pitch completely full of confused fans.

Spectators invade the pitch of the Stade de France stadium after the international friendly soccer match between France and Germany in Saint Denis, outside Paris, Friday, Nov. 13, 2015. Hundreds of people spilled onto the field of the Stade de France stadium after explosions were heard nearby during a friendly match between the French and German national soccer teams. French President Francois Hollande says he is closing the country's borders and declaring a state of emergency after several dozen people were killed in a series of unprecedented terrorist attacks.  (AP Photo/Christophe Ena)Christophe Ena/AP

Fans spilled onto the field of the Stade de France stadium after explosions were heard nearby during a friendly match between the French and German national soccer teams.

It was a powerful image. Thousands of living bodies, thousands of lives that could have been lost that day, put together, side-by-side. A metric measurement of the carnage that could have been, but thankfully wasn’t. If the suicide-bombers succeeded that night at the Stade de France, the impact would have been devastating. The shot would have landed right at the center of French national symbolism, all broadcasted on live TV with the president watching.

But, as it happened, the casualty count wasn’t nearly as high as the suicide-bombers at the Stade de France hoped. Instead, the center of the tragedy shifted to the Bataclan club. There, as the U.S. band Eagles of Death Metal were playing a show, three gunmen opened fire on the crowd, then took about 100 patrons hostage. Eventually, two of the gunmen blew up their explosive vests, while another one was shot down by the police. The official death toll there currently stands at 87.

But this information only came later. As the players from France and Germany went back to their locker rooms, they learned of the chaos. But they didn’t know (as most people following around the world knew) exactly what was going on. They stayed overnight at the stadium because security on the streets could not be guaranteed for their buses. Trapped there, players from both teams took to social media to express grief about what was still happening not far from them. Some were more impacted than others.

France and Atlético de Madrid’s Antoine Griezmann tweeted: “God take care of my sister and of the French people.” His sister, Maud, was at the Bataclan club. Griezmann tweeted a few hours later that his sister was able to escape alive. But his teammate Lassana Diarra (who plays for Olympique Marseille) was not so lucky. Diarra’s cousin, Asta Diakite, was murdered in one of the shootings around Paris.

In a message in which Diarra called his cousin “big sister,” he showed his grief for her, but also posted a piece of advice: “In this climate of terror, it is important for all of us who represent our country and its diversity to stay united against a horror which has no colour, no religion. Stand together for love, respect and peace.”

French players celebrate their opening goal while Germany’s goalkeeper Manuel Neuer passes by during the international friendly soccer match between France and Germany at the Stade de France stadium in Saint Denis, outside Paris, France, Friday Nov. 13, 2015 (AP Photo/Christophe Ena)Christophe Ena/AP

French players celebrate their opening goal while Germany’s goalkeeper Manuel Neuer passes by during the international friendly between France and Germany at the Stade de France stadium in Saint Denis, outside Paris, France.

At that point, the identity of the perpetrators was uncertain, but by Saturday, ISIS (which I’ll call Daesh) had claimed that they were behind the bombs around the stadium and the other murders around Paris. The jihadist extremist group also claimed this attack was “the first of the storm,” and mocked France for being “the capital of prostitution and obscenity.”

Still, despite Diarra’s pain, his message remained as one of the most level-headed. Around the world, many showed solidarity with Paris, but often that solidarity devolved into discussion about why some tragedies have more relevance than others on media.

And, sadly, the message of terror and division that the attackers wanted to convey spread quickly. Many since then have reacted with an unfortunate, but predictable anti-Muslim rhetoric. Some even reacted with violence. For example, in Paris, on Saturday, a vigil held for the victims of Friday was interrupted by “anti-Islam” protesters who were shouting “Muslims out!” At least three attacks targeting Muslims happened over the weekend in France.

But, as the world united in solidarity with the people of Paris, the conflation of Islam with the jihadist extremists was also global. In Canada, a mosque was burned “in retaliation” for the Paris attacks. In Texas, people attacked a mosque with feces. Around the United States at least 23 governors said they would not welcome refugees from Syria into their state, out of spurious safety concerns.

It has not only been a matter of opportunist politicians or small xenophobic groups ramping up the rhetoric. Many messages have circulated, on social media and on op-eds, even from writers and journalists I respect and admire, claiming that we are in some sort of “intellectual crusade”: the “West” (whatever that can be defined as) with its “civilization,” its “freedom” and its “progress” on one side, and Islam, with its “violence,” its “fanaticism” and “backwardness” on the other.

This, of course, is absurd. It is undeniable that Daesh and its extremism is linked to Islam (their whole belief system is based on a particularly anachronic, fanatical, and misguided interpretation of the Koran). But Islam does not equate extremism. Islam does not promote violence (and it also does not promote peace, as Reza Aslan very eloquently put it in a CNN interview last year).

Muslims, as you might have heard, are (by far) the main victims of Daesh. Members of the group believe they have the right to execute apostates – other Muslims who don’t “properly” follow Islamic law – but they spare Christians who are willing to accept their subjugation and to pay a tax. Just on Thursday, the day before the dreadful events in Paris, Daesh bombed Beirut, Lebanon, killing about 40 civilians. Though the country is 54 percent Muslim and 41 percent Christian, the bombing happened at Bourj el-Barajneh, a neighborhood that is predominantly Shia Muslim (one of the branches of Islam particularly targeted by Daesh).

Lebanese army soldiers and Hezbollah members gather at the scene of Thursday's twin suicide bombings in Burj al-Barajneh, southern Beirut, Lebanon, Friday, Nov. 13, 2015. Schools and universities across Lebanon were shuttered Friday as the country mourned victims of twin suicide bombings that struck a crowded neighborhood south of the capital. (AP Photo/Bilal Hussein)Bilal Hussein/AP

Schools and universities across Lebanon were shuttered Friday as the country mourned victims of twin suicide bombings that struck a crowded neighborhood south of the Beirut.

And if Daesh has about 250,000 members around the world, as the most alarming estimates say, then they account for about 0.0015 percent of the worldwide Muslim population of 1.6 billion. If you add the 30,000 alleged members of Al-Qaeda, the percentage doesn’t rise that much. That is not representative in any way of Islam.

Despite this, surely the Paris attack, just like other extremist attacks in the past have done, might serve to justify military interventions, not only against Daesh, but also against countries with a Muslim majority. And, as we are led on to fight “for our values,” as we prepare to bomb democracy, equality, and freedom into the people we slaughter, just remember that we are not to let anyone convince us that this is a fight between the West and Islam.

Extremism is a cancer, no doubt, and we should fight it (I couldn’t really say how, here), but this is a fight of extremism against people. And remember that Muslims (99.9 percent of them, at least) are on our same side, the side of people.

If you somehow fall prey to the false dichotomy between the “advanced” West and “violent” Islam, just remember that you are playing Daesh’s game, that they want to divide us between “those with the correct way of thinking” and the others. Yes, Islam is not perfect (what ideology ever is?), but it is also not antonymous with France, Europe, or the “West,” whatever that means. If you need proof, just look back at the planned center of the tragedy, at the Stade de France, where so many national myths were born.

France soccer team star Zinedine Zidane is seen in action during the final game against  Brazil, in Stad de France, Saint-Denis, Paris, on July 12, 1998. France defeated Brazil 3-0 to win the World Cup. (Ap Photo/Carlo Fumagalli)Carlo Fumagalli/AP

Zinedine Zidane in action during the 1998 World Cup final against Brazil, in Stade de France, Saint-Denis, Paris.

It was there where, in 1998, Zinedine Zidane – the son of a Muslim Kabyle from Algeria – kissed the French badge on his shirt after heading in the second goal for France in the World Cup final. It was there where that same Zidane, in 2001, gave a lecture to some Algerians who had invaded the pitch in a France-Algeria friendly. It was there where, on Friday, Muslim players Lass Diarra (the one who lost his cousin) and Bacary Sagna played for France, and Sami Khedira did for Germany.

It was there where France has consistently exemplified why soccer in France is one of the most effective bridges at connecting the country’s often convoluted and complicated multiculturalism. And precisely because of that symbolism of unity in French soccer, it makes sense that a group that advocates division wanted to attack it.

It was also at the Stade de France where one of the suicide-bombers explosions hit Egyptian fan Waleed Abdel Razzak. Razzak’s Egyptian passport was found after one of the bombings and initially it was reported that he was one of the perpetrators. With efforts from his family in France and Egypt, thankfully, that information was corrected.

Razzak was just an average fan arriving late to a match. His friend Gaber said, in disbelief: “He can’t be a terrorist. It’s ludicrous. He likes football too much to blow up people.” His comments revealed what many already know: We are already are losing that war with Daesh if we encounter anyone from the Arab world near a tragedy and immediately assume we’re dealing with a perpetrator.

Hopefully, there will be a turnaround. Soccer, at its core, is just a silly game, I know. But the matches this week might prove decisive in showing that we are not scared, that we are united in enjoying what we love. Around Europe, soccer continued, with full stadiums in Budapest and Dublin for the Euro qualifiers playoffs. And today perhaps the most significant friendly in recent memory is taking place in Wembley Stadium, London, as England receives France.

The French players were given the option, by both the English and the French federations, to opt out of this game, but none did. All English players will also play. Wembley is expecting a full house that will sing together the French national anthem. And while the Belgium-Spain friendly in Brussels has been cancelled due to safety concerns (most of the attackers were either French or Belgian nationals), hopefully the match in Wembley – with players of Muslim and Christian backgrounds, players of African, Caribbean descent, and so on – will show us again that, despite our differences, we can live and play together.