PARIS Amid growing fears of a religious backlash targeting the religious minority following Toulouse killings, hundreds of Muslims headed to the annual Le Bourget Islamic conference, Europe's biggest gathering of Muslims.
Public perceptions about Muslims have been exaggerated, Marwan Muhamad, spokesman for the Committee Against Islamophobia, told Euro News.
Organized by the Union of Islamic Organizations of France (UOIF), Le Bourget opened on Friday, April 6, to discuss several topics of interest for French Muslims.
More than 200 organizations from all over France are taking part in the four-day event which comes just weeks after a Muslim gunman shot dead seven people including three children and three Muslim soldiers.
The whole Muslim community condemns what happened with [Mohamed] Mereh, 22-year-old Sara Taharaoui from a south-eastern Paris suburb told Euro News on Saturday, April 7.
Terrorism isn't part of the Islamic religion and we are here to condemn his acts.
Following the attacks, President Nicolas Sarkozy, who is seeking re-election in the April-May vote, said that Yusuf Al-Qaradawi, the president of the International Union for Muslim Scholars (IUMS), was not welcomed in France.
Sarkozy also announced a crackdown on preachers he says promote radical views in the wake of a spate of killings by an Al-Qaeda-inspired gunman in Toulouse.
A few days later, the French government issued a statement saying Saudi scholars Ayed Bin Abdallah al-Qarni and Abdallah Basfar were banned from entering France to attend the Bourget conference.
Egyptian preacher Safwat al-Hijazi and a former mufti of Jerusalem Akrama Sabri were also banned.
The four scholars were planned to give speeches at the Muslim conference.
Le Bourget has become a fixture in the French calendar, a chance for Muslims to meet, hear speeches from intellectuals and scholars, and buy the latest in Islamic literature and clothes.
Thousands of Muslims came in droves to the annual gala, going through a miscellany of books and items on display, attending lectures and vying in contests for the memorization of the Qur'an.
Every year, tens of thousands of Muslims from across Europe attend the conference's activities, with young women in their unmistakable hijabs and enthusiastic young men making up the bulk of attendees.
France is home to some six to seven million Muslims, the largest Muslim minority in Europe.
Accusing Sarkozy of playing up fears ahead of first-round leadership elections, Muslims attending the conference expressed their disapproval about the current political atmosphere.
"There is always a fear that at every election, Islam and Muslims become a theme in the campaign, the president of the UOIF Ahmed Jaballah told Agence France Presse (AFP) on Saturday.
Unfortunately, there was the tragedy of Toulouse who made that once again Islam and Muslims have settled in the heart of the campaign."
Jaballah also criticized the French government's decision to bar Muslim scholars from attending the conference as fear mongering.
"The UOIF has never given a platform for holding preachers of hate speech or violence," he added. Muhamad, the spokesman for the Committee Against Islamophobia, agreed.
This has now become the main issue in the presidential election, he told Euro News.
It's like there's no unemployment or housing problem in France anymore; no financial crisis, just a problem with Muslims, he added.
At the youth section, French Muslim youth were angry over the stigmatization they are facing following Toulouse attacks.
"I can tell you about my religious values that are sharing, tolerance, but this is not what is shown on television." Pleks, a 29-year-old graffiti artist, told AFP.
Karim, 23, student in Ireland, blamed Elysee hopeful for stigmatizing Muslims in their election campaigns.
"We must believe that it is profitable to tap on the Muslims, as some candidates do, he said.
Merah was a criminal, but was not the entire Muslim community."