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Review | French Muslims in Perspective: Nationalism, Post-Colonialism and Marginalisation under the Republic, Joseph Downing | Palgrave Macmillan

The French Muslim community numbers nearly 6 million, according to Joseph Downing, author of French Muslims in Perspective: Nationalism, Post-Colonialism and Marginalisation under the Republic. The largest in Western Europe, it has more often than not been under a harsh spotlight following years of terrorist attacks, national debates over the hijab, the burkini and the right to offend and blaspheme.

Most are modest Muslims leading normal lives, appreciative of laïcité (secularism) and its freedoms, while the number of violent extremists is estimated to be only in the few thousands – “less than 1% of the French Muslim population become jihadists” – though this reality is not that which is portrayed by the mainstream Media. Many are fashioning new Islamic institutions and developing new ways of listening, reasoning and teaching.

Most are keen to resolve the underlying problems of drugs, delinquence and crime – especially since narco-banditism makes it easy to buy arms on the flourishing illegal market trading military weapons that are then used in attacks. “A Kalashnikov in the quartiers nord of Marseille can cost as little as 1500 euros.” 

Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have flagged up the way in which “France’s state of emergency as focusing specifically on Muslim communities and placing individuals under house arrest or detention for sometimes nebulous connections to individuals accused of being radicals” undermines Human Rights and erodes the rule of Law.

The jihadist has become “the new ‘scarecrow’ of the suburbs.”  But Downing cites a report from 2014 which states that 67% of French jihadists have come from middle-class backgrounds and 16% come from deprived backgrounds.

The recent draft law championed by President Emmanuel Macron against “separatism” and a new “charter of republican values” is the latest measure taken in defense of the Republican ideals of French secularism and assimilation, to curb foreign influence, block extremists and bring young people who feel forgotten by the state back into the fold. This charter of values represents an historic turning point for Islam in France.

Ambiance réalité

French Muslims in Perspective offers an essential corrective to the simplistic characterisation of French Muslims, and the politics of fear disseminated by politicians on the right at one end, and Islamist jihadis on the other. An in-depth study of an extremely diverse group within French society, it illuminates how “a multiple of republics exist in multiple solitudes. The innovation in policy, norms and politics occurs, yet remains isolated both from the national but also from other local manifestations of change.”

Unlike the UK where multiculturalism is based on identifiable migrant communities from British ex-colonies such as India, Pakistan, the Caribbean and West Africa, in France “multicultural” characteristics run counter to the State’s homogeneous nationalism. “This book demonstrates that Muslims are also police officers, musicians and indeed porn stars.”

The author of French Muslims in Perspective, Dr Joseph Downing, is LSE Fellow in nationalism where he teaches courses on global security, migration policy, minority rights and qualitative research methods. He wrote this book “living and writing in many cafés in many places” which is “not a bad run for a working-class, council-estate kid from Northolt who left the UK for the first time at the age of twenty. In fact, it was my relative and enduring fascination with all things suburban and deprived stemming from my own early life that would first pique my interest in France when the riots broke out in 2005.”

Downing shows how certain key perceptions stretch back to the colonial era, and Muslims in North and West Africa agitating for independence. Many were not considered to be fully French when they settled in Metropolitan France, and the assimilationist stance of the Republican state contributed to the lack of comprehension and communication. France has not comprehensively confronted its colonialist past hence its significance being overlooked today.

Many of the victims of terror attacks in France are in fact Muslims. “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 policeman, defending with his life the values of freedom, democracy and security so dear to European democracies.”

Downing assesses the impact of the 2004 hijab ban and various regulatory laws structuring daily lives under the secular republic, as well as the paradoxical nature of memorials and statues. “Monuments change over time and the specifics of the present have powerful forces to render the meaning of monuments to the past very differently.

French Muslims play a crucial in the armed forces and the police, but are “treated simply as soldiers or police officers by the state, absent from ethnic or religious affiliations, and this presents a discursive imbalance.” More serve in the security services than have fought for jihadist movements.

Downing also looks at popular culture – football and rap in particular – and gender. While the Muslim male gangster is stereotyped by the Larbis in French TV crime thriller Engrenages; “in the contemporary era, the harem has been replaced with the suburban tower block, and the passive oriental woman has been remade as a working-class, suburban French woman of Muslim origin.”

France excels at absorbing artistic talent from other parts of the world to become a French cultural icon – the novelist Romain Gary being one example. Artists who produce controversial novels and who lead unconventional lives have always been a feature of French cultural life. An example from each end of the spectrum of contentiousness being Michel Houellebec who derides Muslims, while Virginie Despentes celebrates kickass women of North African origin in her Vernon Subutex trilogy.

Downing’s book is rich in detail and research with copious end notes following each chapter.  Although written for an academic readership, there is plenty for the lay reader. As an informative background giving context to issues which are likely to hit the headlines in 2022 in the run up to the presidential election, French Muslims in Perspective is an illuminating and thought-provoking read.

French Muslims in Perspective: Nationalism, Post-Colonialism and Marginalisation under the Republic by Joseph Downing | HB ISBN 978-3030161026 PB ISBN 978-3030161057 eBook ISBN 978-3030161033 | 290 pages Palgrave Macmillan 2019

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georgia DC

Bilingual editor, rewriter, French-to-English translator. Has written for 3am magazine, words without borders, The Independent, The Lady, Banipal, Prospect Magazine, Times Literary Supplement. Currently writes for The BookBlast Diary. Founder (1997) of London-based writing agency BookBlast.

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