Muslim Youth in Paris: Navigating Identity

Two women in hijabs look up at the Arc de Triomphe, one of France’s most iconic symbols. It is estimated France is now home to over 5 million Muslims, making the last few decades an evolutionary period for what it means to ‘be French’. Image by Charlotte Bellomy. France, 2015.

Two young women enter the Grand Mosque of Paris at prayer time. French youth have grown up in a decade filled with questions like “Are you Charlie?” and "Should Muslim veils be allowed in schools?" Image by Charlotte Bellomy. France, 2015.

The crescent moon and star which adorn the top of the Grand Mosque of Paris are visible through the place of worship’s courtyard. France is home to over 2,000 mosques, though some question if that number needs to grow to accommodate France’s Muslim population and its right to worship. Image by Charlotte Bellomy. France, 2015.

Noura Jaballah, pictured here, has spent three decades advocating for Muslim and women’s rights on the French and European scale. “We are in the process of working for society in general, not just the Muslim population,” says Jaballah. “Because a society which loses its values, values of tolerance, values of liberty, values of openness is a society which loses its roots.” Image by Charlotte Bellomy. France, 2015.

"Charlie Hebdo," a political satirical magazine, lines newsstand shelves the same as ever in France. Indeed, the magazine’s "Survivor’s issue," the first issue to be published following the January attacks, depicted Muhammad on its cover and sold in such numbers that 5 million copies were printed rather than the usual 60,000. Image by Charlotte Bellomy. France, 2015.

Adolescents at a Paris high school play basketball. Some wonder if the attacks on Charlie Hebdo encouraged public school students to engage in open and meaningful discussion about religion, no longer shunning the subject as taboo. Others wonder if the opposite may be the case, with young Muslims tired of justifying themselves and their religion each time an act of terrorism is committed. Image by Charlotte Bellomy. France, 2015.

Graffiti on the walls of a Paris subway reads “I know what I need.” Some suggest that any unrest or resentment among young people of different backgrounds may be far from religious. Instead, socioeconomic tension may be rising as many young people worry about a competitive job market and youth unemployment surpassing 24 percent. Image by Charlotte Bellomy. France, 2015.

On the Wall of Peace, erected near the base of the Eiffel Tower in 2000, the word ‘peace’ is inscribed in 49 different languages. The monument and its inscriptions are a call for action towards meaningful inclusion and a more peaceful reality. Image by Charlotte Bellomy. France, 2015.

Nearly a full year after the January attacks on French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo that had published cartoons depicting Mohammed, France still struggles with religious inclusion and national identity. The attacks led to many rallying behind slogans of "Je Suis Charlie" ["I am Charlie"], "Je Suis Juif ["I am a Jew"], and "Je Suis Ahmed ["I am Ahmed"—the name of the Muslim police officer killed in the attacks]. But some wonder whether a European country with over 5 million Muslims can consolidate its identity so neatly.

As Muslims in some areas struggle with being perceived as foreigners, one begins to question: What does it mean to be French? For young Muslims, this is part of the atmosphere in which they’ve grown up. But they’ve also had to consider complex issues such as whether or not veils should be allowed in French public schools (currently illegal), or whether women feel pressured to remove Islamic veils to find a job. They’ve had to confront an increasingly competitive job market, in which youth unemployment has surpassed 24 percent and resentment may exist towards anyone viewed as "foreign" competition.

While the answers remain unclear, the call for open discussion grows ever louder, with some stressing the need for open, inclusive inter-religious dialogue. In this slideshow: Some of the faces and stories behind that issue.