NOTE: This essay was submitted as university coursework toward Coventry University’s BA (Hons) programme of Media and Communications on December 1st 2015, to which I was recently awarded a 2:1. Given the nature of the essay firmly reflecting events in November 2015, this essay has only been edited for publication on this blog for formatting. However, there are a number of elements that could be addressed within a revised version, to avoid sweeping statements and a generalisation of the “media narrative”. Other resources exist out there such as Ginette Vincendeau’s 2005 critical text on the film, and recent non-fiction sources on the War of Terror and Islamophobia such as Lawrence Wright’s extraordinary The Looming Tower (Wright 2006) and Arun Kundnani’s wonderful The Muslims are Coming!: Islamophobia, Extremism, and the Domestic War on Terror (Kundnani 2014).
In the intervening time since I wrote this essay, new analyses and recollections of these events have been formed both through critical texts and documentaries. At the same time, a broader exploration could address other films centred on life in the banlieues and the surrounding political context towards zoning and the spatial conception of the city in itself: Girlhood (Sciamma 2014) and Divines (Benyamina 2016), other French cinema about “youth in revolt” dating back to 1968, the colonial unravelling of The Battle of Algiers (Pontecorvo 1966), the terrorists without a cause in Nocturama (Bonello 2016) today, and the monochrome violent excesses of the Belgian film Man Bites Dog (Poeelvorde, Belvaux and Bonzel 1992). At the same time, there’s a broader context surrounding depictions of Muslim identity within film itself. Addressing this today, I would focus more on deconstructive film theory aided by scenes and analysis.
Three weeks ago, three extremists opened fire on an Eagles of Death Metal concert at the Bataclan Theatre. 89 of the 1500 attendees were killed.
Facebook profiles turned red, white and blue. Twitter feeds fill with #PrayForParis. Amazon has declared liberté.
But these marks of respect ignore the real issues.
Because Paris is a city of 1,700,000 Muslims (ADRI 2000, cited in Laurene and Vaisse 2006). Looking at history, from the 1792 revolution, to the 1961 massacre of Algerians and more recent racial attacks and the Charlie Hebdo shooting, these events may seem unconnected, but their roots stem from a culture of repression and violence within France.
Islam is not a racial identity. But it has become a marker of race and class.
The media narrative has focused on Muslim identities in relation to the Middle East. Al Qaeda grew from the Middle East; ISIS grew from Syria. Therefore all terrorists are Middle Eastern. By extension, all Muslims are terrorists. Galonnier argues that this is a “racialization of religion” (Barot and Bird 2001, cited in Galonnier 2015) based on ethnography, phenotypes and cultural characteristics, and a conflation of racial and religious identity. However, the reality is that in France, the majority of Muslims are North African (78%). A similar situation exists with American Muslims, with 42% being African American (Galonnier 2015). In effect, it is essentialising (Hall 97), and also an example of casual racism and Islamophobia (Rana, 2007; Hajjat and Mohammed, 2013, cited in Galonnier 2015).
Race is an inescapable aspect of Muslim identity. There are 100,000 white converts to Islam in France (Galonnier 2015) – a negligible amount compared to the 4,710,000 overall (Pew Research Centre 2010), the 2nd highest in Europe. For white Muslims, “converts discover the world of racial discrimination” that is an even deeper problem for black Muslims (Galonnier 2015). Fears around Ahmad Al Mohammad being a Syrian refugee as perpetuated by the media, and the controversy around this, plays into our racialized ideas and an overall fear and lack of trust of refugees. Yet the majority of suspects were French nationals; Salah Abdeslam was born in Belgium (Farmer 2015).
The media narrative creates a binary paradigm between “us vs. them”. ISIS reinforce this message also – their fight is not only one between the Middle East and the West, but also one between Islam and Christianity. This is an oversimplification. To most French Muslims, the ‘Other’ (Dyer 1977, cited in Hall 1997) are Islamic extremists. But to the majority of French citizens, the ‘Other’ or ‘them’ are Arabs. (Maxwell and Bleich 2014) To those living in Paris, the ‘them’ are the citizens of social housing, the banlieues.
An important aspect of this discussion is the idea of marginalisation. For people of colour and of faith in France, this is compounded by the idea of assimilation, rather than multiculturalism. Social scientist William Kornblum described it as a “republican ethic” which sees no difference between race, however this attitude limits the political organisation of racial minorities and the discussion of these issues (Mabilon and Tsui 2007). To white people living in France, their identity is ‘French’ rather than ‘white’ (Galonnier 2015).
In the Dispatch documentary series France at War, produced by VICE News and uploaded within only 3 days of the attacks, a number of French Muslims were profiled in the streets on their reaction to the events. One interviewee expressed that he felt because of the country’s emphasis on secularism, he feels like a second class citizen. He argues that in France “you have to erase your background in order to fit it.” (VICE News 2015)
Marginalised youth and class
Whilst racial and religious factors influenced the Paris attacks, another aspect is social class. For the French people, race is intrinsically linked to social class.
Since the post-war period of housing, France saw a wave of housing development. According to Jeff Fagan, social housing was centred around impoverished areas and the Parisian suburbs, the areas with the weakest political influence. These banlieues were initially seen as desirable to the middle and working classes, however a lack of government funding to cultural projects, halted by President d’Estaing, saw a segregation and ghettoisation (Mabilon and Tsui 2007). The economic crisis and an influx of North African immigrants during the 1950s and 60s altered the structure of the working class saw the “socialized and spatialized” marginalisation of not just the poor but racial minorities, who are associated with “crime and delinquency” (Galonnier 2015). Within a neoliberal society where the middle class is defined as the “new particular” and the dominant class, both in terms of social positioning and culture, this reinforces the marginalisation of the banlieues and by extension racial and religious minorities. (Skeggs, Wood, and Thumim 2007) Rather than emerging from intent, this racial order has become “normalized” and “rationalised” (Frankberg 1993).
The idea of ‘us vs. them’ between the cités and the banlieue was exemplified in the film La haine (Kassovitz 1995). La haine was part of the 1990s cinéma des banlieues movement, and focused on an issue that had generally been avoided by French filmmakers (Higbee 2001). However, representation creates its own system of power: a symbolic power (Hall 1997). The film sees the social and spatial separation of three disenfranchised youths, Vinz, Hubert and Saïd, who live within a banlieue and travel to Paris, only to find themselves unable to interact with Parisian and middle class culture, and falling into confrontations with the French police. The characters in the film are integrated; Vinz is Jewish, Hubert is French-African and Saïd is Arabian. Higbee argues this representation of multi-ethnic groups is too oversimplified, with the diversity of ethnic groups reduced down to three characters who have to carry the weight of that identity (Higbee 2001).
But these characters’ experience is not so far from reality. Chérif Kouachi, a mastermind of the Charlie Hebdo attack, had grown up in the Gennevilliers banlieue in Paris (Keane 2015), whilst Paris attack suspect Omar Ismail Mostefai had grown up in poverty in the suburb of Courcouronnes.
Although their ages are not given in the film, the actors ranged from 21-28 year olds. Compare this with the identities of the suspected Paris attackers given in the press: Omar Ismail Mostefai (29); Salah and Ibrahim Abdeslam (26 and 31); Bilal Hadfi (20); Samy Amimour (28) and Abdel Hamid Abaaoud (27). There have also been reports of a history of petty crime with both Omar Ismail Mostefai and Salah Abdeslam; the characters of La haine try to steal a car as a way to survive.
Especially in the context of police brutality, a cause of both the 2005 riots and social upheaval amongst youth throughout the 1980s and 90s and the 1993 murder of Makome M’Bowole that inspired the film (Geffroy 2005), was the perceptions of youth and these communities, attributing “normative characteristics” to those in poverty (Haylett 2001). According to Gilman, stereotypes arise when self-integration is threatened, but this structure of ‘us vs. them’ is only an “illusionary binary” (Gilman 1985). The “normative characteristics” of crime and delinquency only encourage radicalisation, police brutality and by extension rioting, further disenfranchisement by youth and further police rioting: in essence, circular violence.
According to a study by Robert Leiken, Muslim extremism in Europe is typically found among the children of migrants, not their parents – but he claims it is present in integrated communities and not just isolated ones (Leiken 2011, cited in Maxwell and Bleich 2014).
That is not to conflate the youth of the banlieue with terrorist. But it helps illustrate that radicalisation and Islamic terrorism is not merely an issue of religious ideology, but these factors all stem from marginalisation.
In a 2014 study on Muslim identity by Maxwell and Bleich, they found that 75% of immigrant Muslims feel French, compared to 98% French natives (Maxwell and Bleich 2014). France has the second-highest Muslim population in Europe (4,710,000, 7.5% of the population), compared to 4.8% in other predominantly white countries like the UK (Pew Research Center 2010).
However, there is no official recognition of religion within the official census, only of race, which means it is difficult to track how this affects identity. This extends to institutions, which have supported Christian and Muslim organisations but not Muslim ones (Maxwell and Bleich 2014). The banning of “religious symbols” such as the veil in 2011 (and previously in schools in 2004) shows a lack of understanding by the government of the cultural identity of religion, and creates a distinction between private and religious identity, a “convenient” symbol of “external and internal dangers”, such as the Iraq War (Bowen, cited in Salem 2013). President Sarkozy argued that a veil is an “attack” on French values, but this only victimises the Muslim identity, and ignores the laicite (separation of church and state) heralded by Jules Ferry during the 1800s (Adrian 2015).
Is it about race or religion?
During the 1970s, Muslim immigrants were unwanted in French society; Immigration Minister Lionel Stoleru attempted to enable deportation (Salem 2013). This perception seems not to carry forward today, with an overwhelming 72% of people interviewed finding them favourable, a greater percentage than most of Europe (Pew Research Center 2014). But to the rest of Europe, Muslims have become are “the Jews of Eastern Europe a century ago” (Zolberg and Woon, cited in Salem 2013).
However, most of France’s Muslims come from former colonies, including Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia (Maxwell and Bleich 2014). White converts to Islam are not merely converting to a religion, but are “traitors”, because of France’s history of antagonism with Algeria (Galonnier 2015). Or perhaps, as Helbling puts it, it is merely a fear of the unknown. (Helbling 2012, cited in Maxwell and Bleich 2014).
- Adrian, M. (2015) ‘Outlawing the Veil, Banning the Muslim? Restricting Religious Freedom in France’. Cross Currents 65 (3), 371-379
- Farmer, B. (2015) ‘Who were the terrorists? Everything we know about the Isil attackers so far’. The Telegraph [online] 18 November. available from <http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/france/11996120/Paris-attack-what-we-know-about-the-suspects.html> [20th November 2015]
- Frankberg, R. (1993) The Social Construction of Whiteness: white woman, race matters. Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press
- Galonnier, J. (2015) ‘The racialization of Muslims in France and the United States: Some insights from white converts to Islam’. Social Compass 62 (4)
- Geffroy, M. (2005) Les 10 Ans de ‘La haine’. in Kassovitz, M. (1995) La haine. [DVD] United Kingdom: Optimum Home Entertainment
- Gilman, S. (1985) ‘The deep structure of stereotypes’. ibid, 285
- Hackett, C. (2015) ‘5 facts about the Muslim population in Europe’ [online] available from <http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2015/11/17/5-facts-about-the-muslim-population-in-europe/> [17 November 2015]
- Hall, S. (1997) ‘Stereotyping as a signifying practice’. in Representation, ed. by Hall. SAGE Publications, 257-290
- Higbee, W. (2001) ‘Screening the ‘other’ Paris: cinematic representations of the French urban periphery in La Haine and Ma 6-T Va Crack-er’. Modern & Contemporary France 9 (2), 197–208
- Kassovitz, M. (1995) La haine. [DVD] United Kingdom: Optimum Home Entertainment
- Keane, F. (2015) ‘Charlie Hebdo attack: The suburbs and the suspects’ BBC News [online] 8 January. available from <http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-30737572>
- Laurene, J. and Vaisse, J. (2006) Integrating Islam: Political and Religious Challenges in Contemporary France. Washington, DC.: Brookings Institution Press
- Mabilon, A. and Tsui, C. (2007) La haine: Social Dynamite. in Kassovitz, M. (1995) La haine. DVD. United States: The Criterion Collection
- Maxwell, R. and Bleich, E. (2014) ‘What Makes Muslims Feel French?’. Social Forces 93 (1), 155-179
- Salem, J. M. (2013) ‘Citizenship and Religious Expression for Muslims in the West’. Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs 33 (1), 77-92
- VICE News (2015) Battling the Backlash: France At War (Dispatch 2) [online], available from <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1vRoAPKaWao> [16th November 2015]
 Kassovitz states in the 2005 commentary to the film that he participated in these riots