French Muslims in Perspective: Nationalism, Post-Colonialism and Marginalisation under the Republic

  • Book Title:
 French Muslims In Perspective
  • Book Author:
Joseph Downing
  • Total Pages
295
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FRENCH MUSLIMS IN PERSPECTIVE – Book Sample

‘French Muslims’ and Banality: Beyond Essentialism, Exceptionalism and Salaciousness

On 7 January 2015, two masked men entered the offices of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and, after killing 12 people, declared that they had avenged the prophet Mohamed in the name of Al-Qaida in the Yemen. It transpired that these two men, the Kouachi brothers, were French citizens born in Paris to Algerian parents.

One of them had indeed travelled to Yemen to study Arabic and to train with Al-Qaida affiliated militants. However, this event did more than simply illustrate the inter-national nature of Islamist inspired terror attacks, it also placed France’s Muslim population even more firmly in the spotlight that it had been subjected to repeatedly over recent decades.

Here, the symbolic importance of an attack on a satirical magazine by two French citizens claiming to defend the legacy of a holy man over 1300 years dead, on behalf of a fundamentalist religious organisation based in the Arabian Peninsula, is hard to overstate. Indeed, while Charlie Hebdo had hardly been popular in France up to this point, having nearly folded several times, it suddenly became the symbol of all that was right about liberal values. On the flip side, the attack then became epitomic of all that is wrong with fundamentalist religion.

 Such an attack on a satirical magazine only in existence to test the boundaries of free speech was too neat a fit with the ‘clash of civilisations’ paradigm not to add fuel to the already raging fire of anti-Islam rhetoric both in France and in Europe more widely. By the time this attack happened, the so-called ‘failure of multiculturalism’ was already old news (Kimlicka, 2010), and bordered on being a political and intellectual tenet of unquestionable truth. However, it would be wrong to think that the focus created by this inci-dent draws on debates that discuss ‘religion’ and ‘cultural’ problems in Europe in abstract and universal terms. Rather, it has become clear that Muslims are the focus of constructions of the securitised ‘other’ within this discourse (Cesari, 2013).

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Here, Muslims are constructed as present-ing European states with ‘communities of fear’, portrayed as outside the remit of European values that require integration and regulation (Kaya, 2009). Thus, Muslims have become the threatening internal other par excellence, who present not only an existential threat to physical security through terror attacks, but also a far wider and diffuse threat to the liberal democratic order of things in a Europe that still struggles with home- grown, nativist fascism.

However, what has been obscured by the horrific violence and blood-shed of recent terror attacks in France has been how exceptional individuals such as the Kouachi brothers actually are. It is hard to comprehend, given the disproportionate space dedicated to Muslims as threats to security and liberal values in discursive realms such as the mass media (Brown, 2006), just how fringe such individuals and acts are to the daily Muslim experience.

The number of French Muslims is estimated to be nearly 6 million, with violent extremists estimated to be only in the few thou-sands at most (Dell’Oro, 2015). At 11:30 that morning, while gunshots rang out in the Charlie Hebdo offices, the rest of this community of 6  million individuals from a diverse set of ethnic, racial, cultural and doctrinal backgrounds would have been getting on with far less exceptional, but sociologically important, daily lives.

Whether working in banks, or in the case of Ahmed Marabet, who was killed outside the offices by the gunmen, patrolling the streets of Paris as a French police-man, defending with his life the values of freedom, democracy and security so dear to European democracies. On a more banal level, the staff in the many excellent couscous restaurants of my adopted home city of Marseille would have been frantically preparing for the lunchtime rush, where they would warmly serve French customers of all religious, politi-cal and cultural backgrounds the tasty, simple meal of grain, vegetables and slow cooked meat that has become a French favourite. In many of these establishments in Marseille and across France an extensive wine list is offered, with the Muslim waiting staff refilling the glasses of their cus-tomers as they clear away the dirty plates. Indeed, many other French Muslims would be in the process of fulfilling a large variety of social roles explicitly condemned by the religious extremists bringing a premature end to the lives of satirists in Paris.

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No doubt some French Muslims would have been making rap music, selling drugs in the open air drug markets of the large French housing estates, and even playing roles in the production of the adult movies openly and enthusiastically advertised and sold in the kiosks dotted around French streets. Magazines that would have carried erotic depictions of French Muslims, interviews with French rappers of Muslim origin and exposés about the state of the sub-urbs would have jostled for shelf space alongside the very issue of Charlie Hebdo which contained cartoons depicting the prophet Mohamed that triggered the hostility.

The paradoxes, nuances and diversity of the French Muslims’ experience highlighted by this ‘rogues gallery’ of magazine publications should not be dismissed lightly as polemic. Rather, they set the tone for the basis of this book’s attempts to draw a broad narrative arc across a diverse panorama of the multitude of ways in which French Muslims exist in French society.

Thus, these opening paragraphs are not simply an idle wander through my musings on more than a decade of living, working and holidaying in various parts of the hexagon, and indeed eating a lot of couscous. Rather, they make a fundamentally important, yet in these times of dramatic events, neglected, sociological point—that the presence of Muslims in France has been, and remains to be, marked by overwhelmingly banal forms of existence across all social domains and functions of French society.

Banal here should not be interpreted as ‘boring’ or unimportant, as there are indeed many important sociological insights to be made by taking this banal approach, if indeed this book does justice to them.

Paradoxically, adopting this problematic and mis-deployed socio-political category of ‘Muslim’ and connecting it to a thorough investigation of the numerous and often banal ways that it interacts with French politics, norms, culture and social relations is actually an important and contrary stance to take. This is because of the plethora of voices across all shades of politics, and indeed even within the academy, that seem to be convinced that the terms ‘French’ and ‘Muslim’ are somehow destined to never be reconciled.

 Here, they are juxtaposed like two English neighbours that have fallen out over a boundary fence or ill executed loft extension. However, while Nicolas Sarkozy was preoccupied with creating the min-istry of national identity to formalise what Frenchness actually means, Marine Le Pen was lambasting praying in the streets as akin to Nazi occu-pation and Andrew Hussey was busy writing about a ‘long war between France and its Arabs’ (Hussey, 2014), the lived experience on the streets of Paris, Lyon, Marseille and across towns, cities and villages across France tells a very different story.

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This brief and woefully incomplete sketch of the daily lives of French Muslims and the importance of narratives of banality within it is not simply included to entice readers to dip further into this book, which I hope it does, but to make a very serious sociological point that will be one key thread that will weave through what will be an interdisciplinary and mixed methods account of a social grouping. This is the all too often neglected empirical reality that French Muslims and their historical, cultural and social realities are extremely diverse and require a nuanced treatment.

This approach enables both understanding from a scholarly perspective and also for this understanding to be disseminated into the public realm, where in France and overseas this realm often gets to peak only into the dark, exceptional and salacious aspects of the French Muslim experience. Within this, it is important to look beyond the overtly and obviously ‘Muslim’ issues such as the regulation of religious symbols or women’s dress. While these are undoubtedly important facets of under-standing the French Muslim experience, and extremely worthy of scholarship, they can only illuminate small parts of a much bigger story. Reuters made a very valid journalistic point during the 2005 riots where, regardless of pressure from some of their readership to label the riots as ‘Muslim’ riots, the lack of any overtly ‘Muslim’ claims from the Muslims

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