Blog | November 2015

Banlieues and the terrorist enemy within

by Michalis Moutselos


One of the most vivid memories I have from my fieldwork in the poor suburbs North of Paris (the infamous banlieues) is the following: a gathering of high-school kids and their parents from the nearby housing estate to celebrate the end of the school year at the local youth center. Following the obligatory speeches of local association leaders and elected officials the most memorable event was a quiz contest peppered with what an outsider would consider bizarre contradictions. Women wearing the veil and young fathers with beards cheered on black and Arab kids who answered questions like "How many representatives does the National Assembly have?"; "What does the color white of the national flag represent?". The prize was a free trip to a rural area west of Paris, where, I thought in a rather simplifying way, a kid from "the ghetto" would get a taste of la France profonde.

If this was just a show for the town hall representatives, a proof that municipal funding promoted good republican values in the country's most relegated neighborhoods, it did not feel forced. Parents and kids seemed genuinely happy to participate and boasted of their civics knowledge just as they prepared a halal sandwich. Because it was one of the many encounters that would make me suspicious of monolithic accounts of the banlieues, I remembered the scene in the aftermath of the Paris terrorist attacks, as I read facile commentaries equating radical Islam, the poor suburbs and postcolonial immigration.

To me, if there is a rational goal in acts best explained in psycho-pathological terms, it is the sharpening of the boundary between (imagined) Muslims and non-Muslims. This boundary negates the nuances, overlapping identities and allegiances that I observed in my time at the banlieues. Thousands of people are forced to answer questions that seem rather foreign to their everyday concerns: "Have you and your family integrated well or not?"; "Are you a truly devout Muslim or a sell-out?".

Both djihadi terrorists and purist integrationists are wary of a few simple empirical realities on the ground: Muslims in France are not a uniform community (even if we ask them to react to these horrors as one!), nor do they have a spiritual leader, but are rather divided by race, country of origin, class and place of residence. Not to mention the various religious denominations and interpretations of Islam practiced in makeshift places of worship all over the country. In fact, even using the word "divided" might not be appropriate as people find ways to practice their identities in non-mutually-exclusive and intersecting ways in their public and private lives. Nor do beliefs of "Muslims" cluster in neat patterns. Opinion surveys show that the "average French Muslim" might be more conservative in certain beliefs - regarding, for instance, marriage and gender equality-, but is at the same time more attached to the French Republic and the values of democracy. It is not clear which indicator stands for successful integration.

Similar ambiguities render the link between the banlieues tout court and the development of radical Islam very tenuous. To be sure, these places concentrate social handicaps and fuel grievances of young men in search of an all-encompassing ideology that places them as the movers of history. We also know that some of the terrorists were involved in the milieu of petty delinquency of the French cités; and that empty apartments and cellars there sometimes served as hiding places for weapons and perpetrators. But that's the most we can make of any link. Because, of course, we also know that the ranks of radical Islamists are filled with the sons and daughters of upwardly mobile families and, increasingly, native converts, both of whom do not reside in the banlieues. We know from the biographies of these people that radicalization in France occurs not inside mosques or outside entrances of grim social housing towers, but inside prisons or online fora, in the comfort of one`s room. And finally, that the violence most common in the French suburbs, that is gang violence and anti-state rioting has nothing to do with religion.

Since both the banlieues and terrorists serve as the feared, unknown other, they are perfect candidates for what the French call "l'amalgame", the thoughtless equating in the public debate of issues tangentially related. Such mental leaps do not bode well for coming up with effective solutions to distinct problems; they probably serve the interests of terrorists rather well.


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