A Le Monde reporter spoke with a French Salafist and recounted her experience:
His name is Atef, he is a large, bearded man with laughing eyes. At 35, he believes in Allah as he does “Heaven and Earth”. It was during the winter, on the terrace of a bakery in Cannes, facing the beach. He arrived on a motorcycle, in a black leather jacket. He could have been wary, like others before him, and propose a meeting in a private place in the presence of a trusted third party. But he opted instead for the curious looks of early retirees walking their dog under palm trees. He sat at one of the last plastic tables available. Then he spoke loudly and for a long time to explain that yes, he did not like “moderate Islam” because it is “political Islam, it is hypocritical”, and that yes, his Islam to him is “salafiyya “(salafism), because it had cured him of” takfir,” or hatred.
Despite the candidness displayed throughout the meeting, it took many months to reach Atef Oueslati, an imam for more than ten years in “Salafi” circles. Following informal meetings with worshippers at different mosques in Ile-de-France, a contact had finally been established and several interviews conducted. Atef Oueslati is the only one to have accepted to speak face-to-face.
Atef Oueslati is a Salafist imam on Friday, works in the food service industry during the week, and is a father to four children on the weekends. His name is known to intelligence services, but thus far his proselytism has escaped the prosecution.
He grew up in the “La Zaïne” neighborhood, located in Vallauris, where his “hatred” (takfir) was born. He was arrested as a teenager and spent time in prison, where he began to organize prayer groups. “I had a lot of takfir, a lot of hate, for the State,” he said. In prison he listened to Radio Gazelle, which translated Arabic radio programs into French. Among the preachers was El Hadi Doudi a Salafist imam, who was recently deported to Algeria.
When he was released from prison in 2005 he began attending Salafist prayer groups and formed a group of followers. Eventually, he replaced another imam to lead Friday prayer at the local mosque.Like all Salafists, Atef Oueslati rejects the amalgamation with those commonly referred to as “takfiris”, who consider non-Muslims as apostates.
But in 2014 his mosque was closed by local authorities, as the situation in Syria became increasingly untenable and many French youths left to fight abroad. This coincided with a longer period of discretion; he and his followers relocated.
He is wary of government attempts to counter extremism: “We do not get rid of takfir with radicalism 911…Takfiris will continue to prey on young people. The Muslim Brotherhood condemns the attacks, warns against takfir, but they are too political, they have no detailed plans.”
Recently, the war of values has shifted. Salafist imams are less solicited. In the past, Atef Oueslati was seen as someone who could attract worshippers. Today, mosque presidents prefer to avoid any risk of administrative closure. Salafist imams, however, remain valued speakers at ceremonies, from burials to circumcisions to weddings. They are even regularly invited to play matchmakers for religious unions.
By necessity, Atef Oueslati and other Salafists have become ubiquitous at funerals, organizing pilgrimages, in the lucrative halal sector, from production to catering: slaughterhouses, butchers, sandwich shops, pizzerias, even sushi and traditional French cuisine. “If an address is held by a ‘brother,’ the clientele follows. It’s a type of label. This is part of the evolution of a kind of Muslim social class,” he said.
After spending half of his life in Vallauris, much of it at the head of a kebab shop, Atef Oueslati eventually moved. In 2017, he took over a stand located across the street from the sea and the old port of Cannes. Although the change has led him to “frequent the mosque less often,” he has not renounced his beliefs and continues to preach when the opportunity arises.