Why we don’t call them “Muslim riots” in Paris suburbs

November 29, 2007

A burning car in Villiers-le Bel, 28 Nob 2007As 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.

Hooded youths and burning car in Villiers-le Bel, 26 Nov 2007In 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.

“We will never forget you” — sign at accident siteSince 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.

Police patrol and helicopter in Villiers-le Bel, 28 Nov 2007Many 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.”

Beur FM news editor Ahmed El KeiyFor 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?

10 comments

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Keep closing your eye’s.

1. The boys how got killed was muslims, and thier death couse a series of riots in mostly muslim suburbs, during them rioters shoot policeman.

It is very likly to asume, saying the least, that the rioters are muslim too.

But maybe, as you saying, we need to think about it again. It is very wird that this kind of rioting never happend in mostly french suburbs, after couple of white boys lost thier life. mmm… We must investigate.

Posted by amir | Report as abusive

A rioter is a rioter is a rioter. Then how does it matter if he is a white or a black, or a muslim or a christian or a hindu or who ever?

I totally agree with Tom Heneghan’s comments.
The riots over the week may have happened in Muslim dominated areas, but clearly one can’t say that those areas are 100 percent muslim populated.

Also it was not the case of Muslims going on a rampage for their demands.
The riots are clear example of how precarious the situation is in Paris’ poor neighbourhoods.
It is a due to economic and social issues plaguing those areas and has got nothing to do with any particular religion.

Posted by Nachiket Kelkar | Report as abusive

[...] PS: Reuters tries to explain their cover-up here. [...]

“you even find poor Jews who moved to France from North Africa — some even still speak Arabic and live peacefully with their Muslim neighbours.” – Tell it to Ilan Halimi.http://www.boston.com/news/world/ europe/articles/2006/03/13/anti_semitism _seen_rising_among_frances_muslims/

Posted by Gerry Ur | Report as abusive

What is a factor in all of this is the way these people are treated as second class citizens here in France. It seems the French were happy to go forth and colonize years ago but were less than pleased when those from those countries started arriving here in France to live.

[...] Some interesting viewpoints are being expressed on the Reuters website at the moment concerning the riots in Paris.  One blogger in particular, Tom Heneghan, has been answering one common question from readers in his post: “Why we don’t call them ‘Muslim riots’ in Paris suburbs“. [...]

Unfortunately the media like to ‘tag’ a situation such as these riots, and by using religion or nationality blame can easily be apportioned to a certain group or groups. All there needs to be is one common denominator and, ‘voila!’, you have your cause.

Mmm, yes, very weird that there was “no rioting in ‘mostly’ French suburbs” even after a “couple of white boys lost their life.”

“Must investigate,” says Amir, tongue-in-cheek, presumably, as the first comment on this page.

Hmmmm. Question: Could it be that “French” suburbs are made up of people benefiting from a century or two of French colonialism? As opposed, for example, to those whose countries have been systematically ravished, e.g. non-white boys?

… oh yes!

Forgot to ask the author: hidden agenda? Lies elsewhere? Is that a pun?

Well spotted, Jason! No, no pun intended, though I can see (with hindsight) how you might read it that way. I ended with that question because many emails we get accusing us of having a hidden agenda seem to be pushing a hidden agenda themselves.

It’s interesting that none of those readers who strongly criticised us in emails for not writing “Muslim riots” has come out publicly here with a convincing argument for using the religious tag. I wonder why. As Amir wrote, “mmm… We must investigate.”

Amir rightly noted that this unrest doesn’t happen in “French suburbs.” I assume he means “mostly white” suburbs. But the residents of the poor suburbs are mostly French citizens, too, so the simple “French versus immigrants” tags are tricky, too. Your point about who benefits from the system and who doesn’t is very pertinent as well. These are factors in the feeling of discrimination that people in these “hot” neighbourhoods complain about.

There is an interesting phenomenon in the landscape of French social unrest that also challenges the view that these should be called “Muslim riots.” If you ask which city in France has the most Muslims, most French will say Marseille. Since there are no official religious or ethnic statistics here, it’s hard to say for sure. But it is certainly a city with a large population of immmigrant background, many of them from majority Muslim countries.

So why, during the riots of 2005 that spread across the country, was Marseille relatively quiet? Why didn’t poor Muslims there riot out of control like their co-religionists in the northern Paris ‘burbs? One important element that’s different down there is that the poor neighbourhoods are within the city, not parked out in the fields somewhere far from the centre where the jobs are. That means they’re less isolated from the rest of the city. City officials and neighbourhood leaders said at the time that the city’s geography apparently helped keep the temperatures lower there.

Posted by Tom Heneghan | Report as abusive

When people talk about a Muslim neighborhood, or a Christian neighborhood, they are talking about an ethnic grouping, not some sort of religious test.

Some atheists celebrate Passover. Others celebrate Christmas and others celebrate Ramadan. Still others have Hindu shrines in their homes. When people refer to Muslims they include the atheists who celebrate Ramadan and have relatives who keep Halal. They refer to people who come from (or whose ancestors come from) places where Islam is the predominant religion and where Arabic was one of the predominant languages when their predecessors’s emigrated. Okay?

Your third question was particularly objectionable. “What essential information do you provide if you stick a label on these rioters that you cannot prove?” You are watching a riot. You couldn’t prove anything the next morning. Why did you ask this question?

One reason I don’t trust Reuters on this subject is that the same reason I don’t trust most of the press. Over 90 percent of US reporters polled voted for Gore in an election that went 50-50. Reporters are not representative of the populace, and their prejudices must be controlled for.

Another is problems like the great Photo-shopping problem with pictures from Lebanon. The Jenin fraud. Another is the accuracy problems with stories from Iraq where curiously all the stories discovered to be false are slanted in one direction. Another is the persistent failure of Reuters to label Palestinian actions as violations of the Geneva Conventions. These issues add up to a perceived pro Moslem slant.

Now maybe you will answer the questions.

Posted by Yaakov Watkins | Report as abusive

[...] the police rather bizarrely running over a pair of youth on a motorcycle. As the UK Spectator and Reuters both noted, what needn’t have been about Islam, became about [...]

[...] But back to the actual story, the burning of cars in France. Insurance fraud. And feel free to make fun of this part of French society (most French love making fun of it also), but put in perspective when you use it in "we are superior" than the French attempt. We are superior. We've protected their arrogant asses for 70-years, and it's French like intrusions into our system that are making it weak. Was this insurance fraud too?Why we don’t call them “Muslim riots” in Paris suburbs | Analysis & Opinion | … [...]

[...] New Year’s Eve? He also links to this blog, which expands on the theme. All very interesting: Why we don’t call them “Muslim riots” in Paris suburbs | Analysis & Opinion | … So there's no evidence that these car burnings, which have been happening for decades, have become [...]

Interesting blog. I think some better investigating could be done. Not just talking to leaders of muslims. Put someone undercover and do some real investigating.

You know. When I lived in Spain I got in an agrugement with a student about how Amercia is so racist. This was shortly after citizens of Madrid burned out an entire city block of Gypsies because the were “drug runners”.

Why don’t you do a story on how racist Europe is? We sure have a lot of stories of how America is. How many people of color are politicians in Europe. How many are department heads of universities? Then you can explain why Europe is always held up as a tolerant society. America has bad schools? You’re lucky if you get to go to school if you’re not middle class in Spain.

Afgan officals are corrupt but French aren’t? Do us a favor and do some real meaningful reporting.

Posted by bhmike17 | Report as abusive