Top critical review
Not the complete answer to what happened on 13 November 2015
on 29 November 2015
It seems that most, if not all, of the terrorists that attacked Paris on 13 November 2015 were French. Only they did not feel French. Their allegiances were elsewhere. But what motivated them? This is one of the books that I have read to find out an answer.
What I found was a bleak account where the division between France and its Arab populations seems utterly stark and unbridgeable. It starts with a riot the author witnesses at the Gare de Nord in 2007. The account turns to recent incidents, the torture and murder of a young Jewish salesman in 2006, the murders at a Jewish school in 2012 and then a chronicle of colonial history in Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia. A concluding chapter deals with radicalisation in French prisons.
In some respects, a standard liberal explanation is offered – the struggle ‘between the colonisers and the colonised’ is the catch phrase of this book. He doesn’t however draw liberal conclusions. He thinks that the rage of the so-called dispossessed is implacable. It is not merely an equalities issue. ‘F*** France!’ is the refrain of the alienated and they mean f*** everything French, A to Z. What they want is not liberty, equality and fraternity but revenge. France, according to Hussey, does not need a hard-headed political solution but an exorcist.
Strong, bracing stuff. So why only three stars? Not on account of its writing – he writes fantastically well – but because there is too much reliance on psychological explanations. I don’t have a problem per se with that but there is no attempt to get data to scope the scale of the problem. This is partially because statistics are not kept. It is suspected that 80 per cent of the French prison population is Muslim but no one knows because the French code of moral equality, Laïcité, forbids the collection of such data.
But it is not as if the data are not out there. There are five million ‘Muslims’ in France but many are secular. According to 2011 poll by the l’Institut Français d’Opinion Publique (Ifop), only 40 per cent call themselves ‘observant Muslims’ – and only 25 per cent attend Friday prayers. Another poll, among observant Muslims, found that 68 per cent of women never wear the hijab. Fewer than a third of practising Muslims would forbid their daughters from marrying a non-Muslim. Eighty-one per cent accept that women should have equal rights in divorce, 44 per cent have no problem with the issue of co-habitation, 38 per cent support the right to abortion, and 31 per cent approve of sex before marriage. Only on homosexuality is there a deeply conservative stance: 77 per cent of practising Muslims disapprove (poll evidence is taken from Kenan Malik’s website, Pandaemonium).
So how bad is it, then? Obviously, Hussey’s account must contain a great deal of truth. We can’t explain the attacks without reference to the strong undercurrent of nihilistic disaffection among France’s Muslim communities, disaffection that runs deep, driven by ideas with fangs, and it’s not just a matter of adjusting public policy to assuage it. But what is the scope of the problem? Are there counter currents, as the poll data I have shared suggest there are? Perhaps the data are unrepresentative. But at least it’s concrete evidence to be going on, which this book does not really provide, not when it comes to discussing the contemporary problem in France.
I could be accused of being too harsh here. This is a book of cultural history, not social science. Fair enough, but even in history nothing is ever so straightforward. The relationship between France and its former North African colonies is fraught with complexity, as Britain’s relationships with its former colonies are (think of Britain and Ireland). One suspects that the reduction of this to a struggle between the ‘colonisers and the colonised’ is too pat. This makes for a great narrative but I am not so sure if it’s such good history. Indeed, Hussey seems sometimes to grasp this, in his discussion of the psychology of the disaffected, who sometimes seem to hate everything French and sometimes seem desperate to be accepted as French. Moroccan youth cry out that they are ‘dying of boredom’ in their country. Where do they want to go to escape it? To France, of course. These ambiguities do not get the attention they deserve. Nor do French efforts to bridge the divide get the mention that they should. French policy has vacillated between Mitterand’s ‘Viva La Difference’ and aggressive assertions of assimilation, like the headscarves furore. Racism, exclusion and a dirty colonial history do not sum up France’s relationship with its immigrant communities.
For me, there are two pitfalls in this debate. One is to treat the problem of difference as just one big misunderstanding, in other words to deny difference exists. It does. There is no doubt about that and much of it is ideological, driven by clashing world views. The other is to treat migrants as one undifferentiated mass of ‘them’, a pitfall that not only ‘Islamaphones’ fall into. Hussey’s book avoids the first but falls into the second. It was still worth my time to read – it’s a page-turner. But the question I had when I picked it up in the first place wasn’t answered, for all the reasons above.