How Does It Feel to Be a Problem?: A Statement by French Social Scientists of Arab and African Origin Following the Paris Attacks

“How does it feel to be a problem?” wrote the black sociologist W. E. B. Dubois in 1903. This is the poignant question also asked by native inhabitants and foreigners in France, and throughout Europe, who are Muslim or presumed to be Muslim. The massacre at Charlie Hebdo and the hostage-taking and murders at a kosher supermarket, perpetrated by an armed commando of three French combatants claiming ties with al-Qaeda and the “Islamic State,” only exacerbate political and social tensions that already existed in French society. For some, these killings were merely the macabre realization of literary and journalistic prophecies in which the “Muslim community” is perceived as “a people within the people,” whose problematic presence can only be resolved by “re-emigration”[1], a euphemism for deportation. For others, who stress that it is important not to lump together Islam and terrorism, the solution to this violence lies nonetheless in a “reform of Islam,” which theologians and responsible Muslims are urged to undertake.

These two types of interpretation of the killings are wrong about a key social fact, because, as political scientist Olivier Roy has aptly pointed out, “the Muslim community does not exist.” Muslim organizations do not represent presumed Muslims. Presumed Muslims make up a diverse population in terms of social classes, nationalities, and political and ideological tendencies. Their plurality is completely ignored by injunctions to the effect that Muslims need to “dissociate” themselves from the killers, the premise being that there must be a hidden solidarity between the killers and presumed Muslims. In other words, presumed Muslims are also presumed to be guilty, even when one of them is a policeman who was brutally assassinated and another is an undocumented immigrant – now rewarded with French citizenship – who saved several lives in a kosher supermarket. Presumed Muslims thus face a dreadful situation: they are said to be the source of the problem because they’re Muslim and are commanded at the same time to “dissociate” themselves publicly from other Muslims. They are thus doubly indignant: on the one hand, they condemn the killings and sympathize with the victims’ families; on the other hand, they refuse the offensive injunction to “dissociate.”

These two types of discourse have imposed themselves in France because yesterday’s immigrants have become today’s presumed Muslims. After the “problem” of “the integration of immigrants,” we have now moved on to the “Muslim problem,” the stake of which is in fact identical: do they have the legitimate right to live on French territory and by extension in Europe? No one proposes to resolve the “unemployment problem” by deporting the unemployed, but this solution is overtly envisioned when it comes to the “Muslim problem.” Something shameful is occurring when the identity of presumed Muslims is reduced to their Islamic identity (“islamité“). To be sure, this is not so new: some were already defining them as French citizens on paper alone (“Français de papier“), who deserved to be deported in spite of their French citizenship.

There is no choice, then, but to question the generalized blindness we are witnessing regarding the sources of the violence that have struck Paris. The emotional reaction to the killings, nationally and internationally, has tended to disqualify the journalists and social scientists who have revealed through their work the mechanisms that produce this violence – among them François Burgat, Olivier Roy, Farhad Khosrokhavar, Dietmar Loch, Vincent Geisser, Ahmed Boubeker, Samir Amghar, Mohamed-Ali Adraoui, Valérie Amiraux, Romain Caillet and others. They are discredited as too naïve, or too “politically correct,” or “unable to look reality in the face.” Today’s situation resembles that of 9/11, when desk reporters and TV “philosophers” were giving lessons about the real world to political scientists, sociologists and journalists who had spent years investigating the violent groups that invoke Islamic references. What is at stake is the very possibility of producing a rational and empirically based discourse, at a time when islamophobes of all stripes are taking advantage of this window of opportunity to impose a return to “clash-of-civilizations” thinking.

Once presumed Muslims have had the finger pointed at them, the effort then turns to pillorying those journalists and activists who have denounced Charlie Hebdo‘s islamophobia. They are accused of being responsible for the killings and are called to account for them, as if the killers had actually drawn inspiration from their writings. This is to attribute them a media influence that they don’t have, since access to the public arena is selective and persistently asymmetric, depending largely on the type of message proposed. It is also to ignore the actual ideological influences on the commando group, to be found in the writings of certain sheikhs in al-Qaeda circles. The reasoning underlying such arguments smacks of sophistry, the idea being as follows: defending the editorial line of the journal and attacking those who have criticized it implies that the killing could theoretically be justified by the nature of this editorial line. Here, it is clear that emotion has overtaken reason.There is a risk of censoring the words of all university researchers, journalists and activists who denounce islamophobia – an actually existing social phenomenon. There is a further risk that this collective responsibility may turn into collective punishment, that is, that all those who “are not Charlie” could be treated as potential enemies.

To avoid such morbid blindness, which can only lead to an escalation of violence, as already illustrated by dozens of islamophobic acts committed since January 7th, it is indispensable to stick to the facts and to adopt a secular analysis of political violence. These combatants are not the only ones who use violence; other groups do so in the name of other ideologies, in the context of other conflicts. It is absolutely necessary to de-specify the violence that invokes Islamic references in order to grasp its deeper mechanisms and – for those who exercise political responsibilities – to try to prevent them. The crucial questions are the following: how does one enter the “career” of combatant? What are the conditions that make such political violence possible? The personal paths of the members of the commando provide some clues.

The first source of their combat is linked to the geopolitical quagmires provoked by western military interventions prior to, and in the wake of, 9/11, in Syria, Yemen, Iraq and other countries. After being supported by the United States against the Soviet Union, the Taliban and the future cadres of al-Qaeda, originally defined as “freedom fighters,” turned against their former US allies following the fall of the Berlin wall. They imposed their political and religious order on Afghanistan with the aid of foreign powers and created a haven for all the combatants of the world who shared their ideology and sought a safe place to learn techniques of execution and destruction. Several generations of combatants were trained in Afghan camps. The “vile beast” is thus the creature of western interventions and has drawn nourishment as well from conflicts over power in Algeria, Chechnya, Bosnia and other places, but it also has struck at the heart of western powers in 1995 in Paris, 2001 in New York, 2004 in Madrid and 2005 in London. The accumulation of military capital in the 1970s gave way to an unprecedented wave of violence unleashed on western powers by experienced fighters. Although these violent groups were confined to a few countries, the “global war on terror” favored their multiplication in several countries where they were not present, or much less so: Iraq, Syria, Libya, Yemen, Mali, Pakistan, etc. A new generation, embodied by the leaders of the “Islamic State,” gained military training in the struggles against western occupation and became radicalized by observing what was happening in the prisons of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, and have circulated in a veritable transnational network from Africa to Asia. In other words, the primary source of this political violence drawing on references to Islam resides in state violence in the Middle East and the disastrous consequences of the wars waged, precisely, in the name of the “war on terror.”

Drying up the international source of this violence is certainly the most difficult task to be faced. How can France and other European Union member states, for example, have a foreign policy based on rights of peoples to self-determination and true respect for human rights without calling into question its alliances with the authoritarian regimes of the Arab world and Africa, its support to Israeli colonial policy and the interests of French and European multinational corporations?

The second source of the violence is linked to the social anomie that is worsening in working-class districts in and around French cities. Contrary to what is insinuated by the injunction by islamophobes to “dissociate,” the three members of the commando were “floating electrons” with few personal and emotional ties to others; they were products of traumatizing personal circumstances, social disaffiliation and structural inequalities, which plunged them into a world of delinquency and violent small groups. These “floating electrons” dissociated themselves from their peers, in particular from their extended families and the worshipers at local mosques, nor were they aided by any services of social or educational assistance. They were drawn into the magnetic field of certain preachers who, as objective allies of their neoconservative counterparts, are convinced of the imminence of the “clash of civilizations.” These children of the working class had incorporated a high level of social violence thatturned them into tormented individuals. They no longer saw any meaning to their existence within traditional structures, but only within h a nihilistic and deadly ideology that promised them power and recognition, and that affects only a tiny minority of people in working-class districts.

Many different tendencies exist within the landscape of Islam in France: unaffiliated mosques; large organizations close to countries of origin (North Africa, Turkey); brotherhoods, including the Muslim Brotherhood; the Tabligh; pietistic and apolitical “Salafists,” Sufis, and small violent groups known as “takfiristes.”[2] Everyday local inhabitants, activists and political leaders have struggled silently, making no headlines, against the influence of these violent groups. Thus, the members of the Paris “Buttes Chaumont network,” including the Kouachi brothers, had been excluded from pro-Palestinian demonstrations by immigrants’ rights and anti-fascist activists in the early 2000s. The irony is that those who, yesterday, opposed these groups, today find themselves under accusation when they denounce islamophobia.

The continued existence of these violent groups is thus directly linked to the internal balance of forces within the popular classes. If these groups have an influence on certain “floating electrons,” it is because other political forces, including the descendants of marches in the 1980s for equality and against racism, have lost ground and left a relative political vacuum around them, from which spring these candidates for horror. The phenomenon is also supported by the disconcerting ease with which one can buy weapons of war from the former USSR and Libyaand by the constant efforts of Takfirist networks to recruit via social networks on the internet which disseminate their ideology and military know-how transnationally.

Drying up the French source of the violence will not be easy either. To do so, it will be necessary to attack economic and social inequalities, unequal educational opportunities, political exclusion, endemic racism, territorialized stigmatization – the very sources of social violence and delinquency – by promoting a policy of real equality for those chronically stuck at the bottom of the social ladder.

The conditions that made the political violence of January 2015 possible are multiple. The analyses of social scientists deserve more attention from political leaders. Those who today have the favors of political leaders, their advisors, and the media, are supposed experts on “Islam-and-terrorism.” The failure of French intelligence services, which had in fact located and taken testimony from the killers before letting them slip away, is erased by the fact that, in the end, the killers were “neutralized.” The initial political reactions appear to be going in the worst direction, as witnessed by proposals for a French “Patriot Act,” even though a law on terrorism with negative impact on civil liberties was already voted two months earlier; the return to discussion of the death penalty (abolished in France in 1982); and the targeting of supposedly unassimilable Muslims as the “internal enemy.” It is also to be expected that citizenship by birthright (jus soli) will be questioned again. In short, the lessons of 9/11 do not seem to have been learned – above all the fact that political violence is nourished by state violence and social violence.

Chadia Arab, researcher, CNRS (National Center for Scientific Research)
Ahmed Boubeker, professor, Université de Saint-Étienne
Nadia Fadil, assistant professor, Université Catholique de Louvain
Nacira Guénif-Souilamas, professor, Université Paris 8
Abdellali Hajjat, associate professor, Université Paris-Ouest Nanterre
Marwan Mohammed, researcher, CNRS
Nasima Moujoud, associate professor, Université de Grenoble
Nouria Ouali, professor, Université Libre de Bruxelles
Maboula Soumahoro, associate professor,’Université de Tours

Translation by Jim Cohen

Translator’s Notes:

1. The term “remigration” was used by right-wing pundit Eric Zemmour in December 2014.

2. Takfiri in Arabic means “excommunication”. “Takfirists” consider Muslims who do not share their point of view to be apostates and legitimate targets for their attacks.