Why we don’t call them “Muslim riots” in Paris suburbs
As soon as a riot starts in one of the poor suburbs around Paris, we get emails from readers and see comments on blogs accusing the media of hiding the supposedly key fact about the unrest. That fact, they tell us without providing any proof, is Islam. Why don’t we call this violence “Muslim riots?” they ask. What are we trying to hide by not identifying the rioters as Muslims? Do the MSM have a hidden agenda? Don’t we have the courage to “tell the truth?”
We’ve had rioting this week and the same questions came again. This blog has discussed this issue already in a post last month called “Smoke without fire – there was no Paris intifada in 2005.” That dealt with the 2005 riots in detail. This latest unrest is a good opportunity to explain why we don’t write “Muslim riots” — and ask in return why readers so far from the events are so convinced that we should.
We mention race and religion in Reuters news stories when they are relevant to the event being covered. It would be absurd to write “Presbyterian second baseman XYZ…” in a baseball story. He may be a Presbyterian, but he is not at second base as a Presbyterian, but as a baseball player.
When Muslims marched in Paris demanding the end to a ban on headscarves in public schools, we called them Muslim protesters. When French Muslim Council members speak out on an issue, we call them Muslim leaders. These people are speaking as Muslims, so we identify them as such. They also have other identities — they may be French or foreign citizens, male or female, football fans or music lovers — but these other identities would be irrelevant to a story about Muslim issues.
In this week’s events, young men, often hooded, roamed the suburbs at night and firebombed cars, dumpsters and a library. They did not shout Muslim demands, spray Muslim graffiti or wear the trademark beards and baggy pants of a salafi. They did not gather at mosques or shout “Allah-o-akbar!” They avoided journalists, presumably seeing them as part of “the system” that they oppose, and made no demands related to Islam. When those detained were questioned by police, they were not asked about their religion or ethnic identity — that’s not allowed in France.
So my first question is — how are we supposed to write as fact that they are Muslims? Where are the facts to justify phrases like “Muslim riots” or “French intifada?”
Some might say that we know these riots happen in “Muslim neighbourhoods.” But when journalists go visit them, they find neighbourhoods that are multiracial, multicultural, multilingual and multifaith. Judging by the faces seen on the streets, there are Arabs (mostly from North Africa), blacks from Africa and the Caribbean, people from the Indian Subcontinent (often Sri Lankans) and whites — yes, poor French whites. There are Muslims who pray in mosques and Christians who attend various churches, including a growing number of African evangelicals. Here and there in Paris or its suburbs, you even find poor Jews who moved to France from North Africa — some even still speak Arabic and live peacefully with their Muslim neighbours. And don’t forget there are a lot of agnostics and atheists out there — this is France, after all, where the average rate of regular attendance in churches, synagogues and mosques is about 10 percent.
Since France does not collect data on its residents’ religion or ethnic background, there are no official statistics on the population of these suburbs. The mix varies according to neighbourhood. Even if we call an area a “Muslim neighbourhood,” what does that mean? Many of these people have family roots in majority Muslim countries like Algeria, but they are French citizens who identify themselves as French. Many do not regularly pray in mosques (local Muslim leaders admit this). You see women and girls wearing headscarves, but they are not in the majority in these neighbourhoods. Many of them are actually older immigrant women who’ve always covered their heads, not “neo-orthodox” or “born-again” young French-born women who wear headscarves to assert their Muslim identity.
So my second question is — why should we inject religion into this when these neighbourhoods are actually a religious patchwork and there is no sign that faith has been a factor in the rioting?
How about going by the names of the detained rioters? After the 2005 riots, police reported that half of the 3,000 or so they took in were males under 18. Some 640 of them were eventually arrested and most of them already had police records. Most had Arabic or African names, true, but the lists of detainees in some areas had many French, Italian and Portuguese names. Does this show a religious element? How can we tell? Would youths of French, Italian or Portuguese descent join an intifada?
Suprised by the Portuguese? In Seine-Saint-Denis, the département north of Paris best known for its unruly housing projects, they are the second largest ethnic group after North Africans, according to the urban development association Profession Banlieue. That study also mentions growing communities of Southeast Asians, which would be Vietnamese and Cambodians.
So my third question is — how do you define an group of unidentified rioters from a mixed ethnic area simply as “Muslim”? What essential information do you provide if you stick a label on these rioters that you cannot prove?
Among all this patchwork, there are some unifying factors that apply to the large majority of residents in these suburbs. They are poor. They live in substandard housing. The schools are bad, there aren’t many shops or cinemas and it’s unusually difficult and time-consuming to get into Paris by public transportation. They live amid and often suffer from widespread unemployment (up to 40 percent in some areas). Politicians who promised a “Marshall Plan” for the suburbs after the 2005 riots have not delivered .
There is also a serious crime problem in the suburbs, especially organised crime involving drug dealers. There has been a worrying rise in firearms circulating in the suburbs, many smuggled in from the former Yugoslavia. President Nicolas Sarkozy has stressed this criminal aspect, decrying the “thugocracy ” he says was driving the unrest.
Many residents face discrimination when seeking jobs or housing outside these suburbs. This goes for poor whites too — they say can clear the name hurdle (the point where job applications from Mohammads and Mamadous get binned) but stumble when employers see they live in a “hot” suburb. The French police, who can be intimidating even to the white majority in the better parts of Paris, are quite aggressive towards minorities and are accused of harrassing them often in the suburbs, for example with regular I.D. checks. Although they may make up about a fifth of the French population, the ethnic minorities are all but invisible on television and in public life. They have almost no political representatives on the national level. Even the mayors of these suburban towns are almost all white males. Muslims as a group have almost no national non-Muslim organisations or movements fighting for their intersets.
Listing these problems does not excuse the rioters, not by a long shot, or exonerate the French system for its many shortcomings. But it does show how youths in these suburbs could be so frustrated that they turn to violence, whether their background is Muslim, Christian, Hindu, Buddhist or agnostic/atheist.
So my fourth question is — why stress religion over the economic, social and political complaints that people in these suburbs express when they are asked what leads to the protests? Why ignore factors that apply to the broad majority of suburban residents?
In researching this post, I ask my Reuters Paris bureau colleague James Mackenzie what he found during his night out reporting in the riot-hit suburb of Villiers-le Bel. “It’s a mixed immigrant community,” he told me. “People saw the TV crews and came up to us to say it wasn’t just about youths rioting. They accused the police of beating the youths. They also said there were constant I.D checks there … I haven’t heard or seen any credible suggestion of any Muslim mobilisation behind this. There may be Muslims among the rioters, but nothing even vaguely religious was mentioned when we talked to residents there.”
For another view, I called Ahmed El Keiy, the news editor of Beur FM, a radio station popular among young French of North African origin (“beur” is the slang name for these French-born youths). El Keiy runs an evening call-in show to discuss the news (I wrote about his Ramadan call-in about Islam just last month). “The main problem is the relationship between police and young people,” he said. “The police are seen as enemies. They don’t know how to talk to these youths. They also have to produce results — they’ve been told they have to expel 25,000 illegal immigrants a year, so any Arab or African face they see, they think they’re illegals and they do I.D. checks. It’s very tense.”
Having spent a long evening sitting in his studio last month listening to El Keiy and three imams discuss Ramadan and Islam with French Muslims who called in, I thought he if anyone would be sensitive to any Muslim angle to the rioting. “In 2005, we heard the politicians blaming the unrest on polygamy or saying there had been cries of ‘Allah-o-akbar’ but that was just the politicians talking,” he said. “This time around, there was no mention of that. The religious element is not present in this at all.”
Finally, a personal note. I’m the Reuters religion editor and I live in Paris. In 2005, when Nicolas Sarkozy was putting out the story that Muslims fundamentalists were behind the rioting, I went out to the suburbs and found the people out there weren’t buying it. This time around, there is not even any suggestion from anybody here that religion has anything to do with it. If I thought it did, I’d write about it.
So my fifth question is — what would it take to convince these readers that there is no hidden agenda here? Is it possible that the hidden agenda lies elsewhere?