Sharia-compliant faceless children's toys and restaurant booths

Sharia-compliant faceless children’s toys and restaurant booths to ‘shield’ women from the male gaze: Reporter is forced into hiding by death threats after she dares to tell the truth about a rise of radical Islam in France

Ophelie Meunier is a familiar face on French TV.Former frontwoman of the daytime and evening news on Canal+, she now presents Zone Interdite (Forbidden Zone), a popular documentary series similar to Channel 4’s Dispatches.

Today, Miss Meunier, 34, is under police protection after receiving death threats following her investigation into the growth of Islamist influence in the northern town of Roubaix, near Lille.

Officers from the armed SDLP (Service de la Protection) police unit, which normally provides security for the country’s president, ministers and visiting heads of state, have been assigned to her, after her revelations about Sharia-compliant faceless children’s toys being on sale in Roubaix, as well as restaurant booths to ‘shield’ women from the male gaze.

At one point, Miss Meunier is believed to have been separated from her husband and two children and placed in a ‘safe house’.

‘It’s intolerable for Ophelie to find herself in this situation for having just done her job’, a colleague told the Mail this week.

A contributor to the programme (a Muslim lawyer, incidentally) was also threatened with decapitation.

Today, Miss Meunier, 34, (pictured) is under police protection after receiving death threats following her investigation into the growth of Islamist influence in the northern town of Roubaix, near Lille

In France, where state secularism is supposed to guarantee ‘liberty, equality and fraternity’ for everyone under the law, freedom of speech is being increasingly eroded.

One can’t help but think of parallels with today’s Britain. For example, less than a year ago, there was the teacher from West Yorkshire who was suspended and forced into hiding after receiving death threats for showing his class a cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad.

An independent inquiry later found he had not meant to cause offence when the image was shown in his religious studies class. But the damage was done.

The backlash against Miss Meunier following the Zone Interdite film, broadcast on the M6 channel on January 28 and watched by an audience of more than two million, has only just emerged.

It has thrust Roubaix (pop; around 100,000) into the centre of the presidential election in which immigration is a key — and increasingly toxic — battleground.

Roubaix, which is twinned with Bradford, West Yorkshire, has one of the largest Muslim populations (an estimated 20,000) of any town in a country which itself has the largest Muslim population in Western Europe (an estimated 5.7 million).

A small minority of Muslims believe that depiction of distinct features on any children’s toy is haram — forbidden — in the Hadith, a major source of religious law and moral guidance based on the sayings and actions of the Prophet Muhammad. Pictured: Faceless dolls

Down the years, the town has acquired a reputation, rightly or wrongly, for extremism.

In 2008, the annulment of the marriage of a Muslim couple from Roubaix because the groom found out his bride was not a virgin caused anger across France.

Medical personnel now face jail if they accept requests to issue young women with certificates of virginity before marriage under a battery of measures unveiled by the French government to quell the ‘pernicious ideology of radical Islam’ that President Macron says is undermining France.

More recently, a radical preacher who believes women should be hidden from sight, regularly gave sermons at one of the biggest mosques in Roubaix.

Currently, the mayor of Roubaix is also being prosecuted for approving funding for an association, billed as an organisation to help teach local poorer pupils, but which was later accused of offering Islamic education instead; public bodies are banned from subsidising religious charities.

So it’s not hard to understand why Zone Interdite producers chose to make a film about life in Roubaix.

But how did the town react to the programme?

In the nearby Boulevard Gambetta, is Le Familial (The Family) a restaurant which has curtain-drawn booths (pictured), not unlike the changing rooms in clothes stores, where Muslim women — or anyone else, the management points out — can eat, if they so wish, without being seen by men

One response, at least, is spelled out in giant letters on a brick wall along the canal. The graffiti tag reads: ‘M6depute’, which roughly translates as ‘M6 are whores.’

Visiting Roubaix this week, we were struck by how much this industrial town and its twin city Bradford have in common. Both share history rooted in the highly successful 19th-century textile industry and both have suffered a long period of economic decline.

Rue de Lannoy is the bustling main artery that stretches out for a mile from the centre of Roubaix to the banlieues or suburbs where, typically, the poor, the unemployed and the immigrant population live. It is home to many small businesses, including six halal butchers’ shops.

In the nearby Boulevard Gambetta, is Le Familial (The Family) a restaurant which has curtain-drawn booths, not unlike the changing rooms in clothes stores, where Muslim women — or anyone else, the management points out — can eat, if they so wish, without being seen by men.

Le Familial was featured in the documentary.

The waiter can be heard advising the reporter from Zone Interdite, who had a hidden camera and was posing as a customer, that female diners should come during the week, as weekends are very busy, so they can be sure of getting a cubicle.

Pictured: A veiled woman walks past a soldier patroling in a street of Roubaix, northern France, on January 13, 2015, as France announced an unprecedented deployment of thousands of troops and police to bolster security at ‘sensitive’ sites (file image)

The reporter then asks: ‘It’s good for women with headscarves?’ The waiter replies: ‘That’s what it is for.’

‘There is no law against the booths,’ a relative of the owner Abdellaziz Ould Lazizi told the Mail this week. ‘All sorts of people use them: men, women, families, Christians, Muslims and Jews.’

Critics have suggested that opening up the booths to all customers — when perhaps the real purpose is to cater for Muslim women as the waiter implies on camera — is simply a way of getting round what is known in France as laicite (secularism), the aim of which is to keep religion out of public spaces.

Overtly religious symbols, whether clothes, hats, jewellery, toys or food, are discouraged or even banned from public spaces.

The relative, who asked to be named only as Tafik, denied this.

Two days after the programme aired, the police commissioner, the most senior officer in Roubaix, visited the premises with health and safety officials and shut it down ‘for hygiene reasons’.

But Tafik believes Le Familial was shut for political, not hygiene, reasons.

‘The timing is not a coincidence,’ he said. ‘The government is picking on our restaurant because we appeared in the documentary. They need to be seen to act. It has nothing to do with hygiene.’

A woman wearing a niqab, a type of full veil, as she walks in a street in the center of Roubaix, northern France, on January 9, 2014 (pictured)

Given Emmanuel Macron’s determination to combat creeping Islamification — ‘separatism’ is the word he actually uses — which he says is dividing the nation, it’s hard not to believe this was the case, particularly when far-Right populists like Eric Zemmour, a rival in the upcoming presidential election in April, has cited Roubaix as an example of Macron’s failure to tackle the immigration ‘problem.’

We found a second restaurant with similar booths in the centre of Roubaix — the Spicy Village curry house — which was not part of the Zone Interdite investigation.

It is still open.

Back on Rue de Lannoy, a range of Islamic clothing and religious books are on sale in Tijara Shop. One is called ‘Qui Est Allah?’ (Who Is Allah?) which recounts the adventures of two little boys who set out to find Allah. The book only has a couple of lines of text on each page, in French and Arabic and lots of colourful pictures.

It is no different, in this respect, from most Christian books for small children. Except the two boys, and everyone they encounter, have no faces.

The shop also sells faceless teddy bears.

A small minority of Muslims believe that depiction of distinct features on any children’s toy is haram — forbidden — in the Hadith, a major source of religious law and moral guidance based on the sayings and actions of the Prophet Muhammad.

Back in Roubaix is a bookshop with the shutters pulled down, so it was not possible to go inside to establish whether it was the same bookshop, highlighted in the recent documentary, which sold inflammatory or ‘sulfureux’ Islamic publications (file image)

In Afghanistan, for example, the Taliban recently declared shop mannequins to be haram and ordered that they be ‘beheaded’ to make them ‘Sharia-compliant.’

In 2014, a £25 ‘Sharia-compliant’ faceless doll made headlines when it went on sale in Britain. And yes, you can still buy faceless toys at some shops in the UK.

Back in Roubaix is a bookshop with the shutters pulled down, so it was not possible to go inside to establish whether it was the same bookshop, highlighted in the recent documentary, which sold inflammatory or ‘sulfureux’ Islamic publications. One of the most popular, the shop assistant says, is often given as a present before weddings and explains the duties and rights of wives and husbands.

Among the ‘duties’ of wives, according to the voiceover on the documentary is not to anger their husbands or refuse them sex.

A few minutes’ walk from Rue de Lannoy is the Abou Bakr mosque, an old industrial building, without a minaret, where worshippers practise Salafism, an ultra-conservative, fundamentalist strand of Islam, who believe in a unified Islamic state.

Salafism, it should be stressed, encompasses a wide range of beliefs including non-violent religious devotion.

A few minutes’ walk from Rue de Lannoy is the Abou Bakr mosque, an old industrial building, without a minaret, where worshippers practise Salafism, an ultra-conservative, fundamentalist strand of Islam, who believe in a unified Islamic state (stock image)

The mosque has been the subject of controversy, however. Saudi preacher Mohammed Ramzan Al-Hajiri, who once told an audience ‘that woman are like a sweet that must remain hidden to keep their value’, addressed followers at the mosque in 2013, 2014, and 2015.

In 2016, he spoke, on the telephone, to worshippers to mark the start of Ramadan.

Al-Hajiri was given a ‘TE’ tag by the French authorities, meaning there is official opposition to him entering France until 2050. Officially, however, he is not legally banned from entering. When we tried to speak to someone at the Abou Bakr mosque we were ushered out of the building.

Meanwhile, mosque representatives have denounced Isis in the French press.

The mosque itself is situated on Rue Franklin, around the corner from where the charity called Association Ambitions et Initiatives pour la Reussite or AAIR (Association Ambitions and Initiatives for Success) used to be based — an association now under investigation for illicit Islamic teaching at an after-school club.

The allegation has echoes of Trojan Horse, the scandal that, in 2014, exposed attempts to impose a hardline Islamic ethos on secular schools in Birmingham.

AAIR was founded in 2007 by Nordine Khabzaoui, who was a senior member of the Abou Bakr mosque, the focus of French media coverage in the past. It was AAIR that was given ¤64,640 (more than £50,000) by the local council.

Mayor of Roubaix Guillaume Delbar, who approved the payment, has been charged with breaking the law — ‘by negligence’ — which prohibits public bodies from funding religious charities. He was due to appear in court in Roubaix on Wednesday, but was unable to attend because he had Covid; he has denied the charges, claiming he was tricked.

Three members of AAIR, including Mr Khabzaoui, who are accused of a breach of trust, which they also deny — saying they never offered religious lessons — were present at the hearing.

The court postponed proceedings to give defence lawyers more time to study key documents. A tip-off from lawyer Amine Elbahi led to the criminal investigation of AAIR.

Mr Elbahi, 25, — whose own sister became an Isis bride when she was 19 after converting to radical Salafist Islam in Roubaix — denounced the spread of radical Islam in the Zone Interdite documentary.

This is what happened next: first his mobile number was leaked on instant messaging app SnapChat. Then he received a barrage of insulting calls.

‘The insults turned into threats, then death threats,’ said his lawyer Jean Tamalet, who has represented the victims of terrorism for over a decade.

‘The calls came every two minutes, some in Arabic, some in French. They said things like: ‘We know where you are. I’m going to slice your throat. I’m going to cut your head off.’ ‘

Mr Tamalet contacted a former Special Services officer to protect his client before being given police protection.

‘It took just two days for the state to approve protection,’ Mr Tamalet revealed. ‘This is very rare. It proves how serious the threats were.’

Mr Tamalet contacted a former Special Services officer to protect his client before being given police protection (stock image)

His client, meanwhile, remains under police protection, like journalist Ophelie Meunier, while French investigators trawl through his messages to find the culprits.

A number of groups in Roubaix, Mr Tamalet believes, are being used to groom young people.

‘The men running these outfits are Islamists from Yemen and Pakistan who bring their extreme version of Salafist Islam to France,’ he said.

Radicalism in Roubaix, many believe, is being fuelled by poverty.

Roubaix is consistently rated among the poorest towns in France. Around 43 per cent of the population was living in poverty in 2019, which is 30 per cent higher than the average French city, according to official data from the National Institute of Statistics and Economic studies.

La Condition Publique is a state-funded cultural centre near the Abou Bakr mosque.

‘I think the main problem in Roubaix is poverty and employment,’ said Jean-Christophe Levassor, the director of Condition Publique. ‘Radical Islam is mainly the consequence.’

Prime Minister Jean Castex recently told Le Monde newspaper: ‘The enemy of the republic is a political ideology called radical Islamism, which aims to divide the French among themselves.’

Whatever the cause, for many in France, Roubaix epitomises a much wider problem.’

  • ADDITIONAL reporting: Rory Mulholland.

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