This is the title of a lengthy article by George Packer in the August 31st issue of The New Yorker, in which he inquires into the social climate and general mood in the Paris banlieues—the Seine-Saint-Denis (le neuf-trois) in particular—in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo-Hyper Cacher killings of last January, specifically asking if they are “incubators of terrorism.” It’s one of the better explorations of the subject I’ve seen by an Anglo-American journalist, nowadays as in past years. I naturally have a quibble here and there and Packer made an unfortunate choice in at least one of his informants, but no big deal, as most of them are very good, e.g. Fouad Ben Ahmed from Bondy and the academics Farhad Khosrokhavar and Jean-Pierre Filiu. It’s too bad Packer didn’t meet Bernard Godard, who can speak more authoritatively on the subject of Islam in France than anyone (e.g. see his La Question musulmane en France, which came out in February). I’ll come back to the general subject soon, as, comme toujours, there is much to say about it.
Archive for the ‘Immigration’ Category
Adam Shatz, contributing editor at the London Review of Books and writer in residence at New York University’s Hagop Kevorkian Center for Near Eastern Studies—and dear personal friend—has a fine review essay in the latest issue of the LRB on Michel Houellebecq’s latest novel, Soumission. As one is no doubt aware by now, the novel is about a Muslim takeover of France following the 2022 presidential election, in which Marine Le Pen squares off in the 2nd round against one Mohammed Ben Abbes—candidate of a new (moderate) Muslim party, La Fraternité Musulmane—who, supported by the Socialists and everyone else seeking to block Marine LP, wins. And then the Islamization of France en douceur begins. The pre-publication hype around the novel—which fatefully hit the bookstores on January 7th, the day of the Charlie Hebdo massacre—made it out to be Islamophobic but Adam says that it’s not, that while “deeply reactionary” it is not only not hostile to Islam but is almost sympathetic. And as Adam emphasizes—as have Adam Gopnik and Mark Lilla in their reviews of the novel—the veritable targets for backhanded scorn are the French political class and French people themselves, who willingly, without resistance, slouch towards the new Islamic republic. It is more a commentary on France than on Islam.
Soumission is, not surprisingly, a best-seller, the nº3 ranking novel two months after its release. And one may predict that the English translation, due out this fall, will also sell well. So will I read it? Most unlikely. I’m not a big fiction person to begin with, Houellebecq has a well-known twisted mind, and my fiction-reading wife, among others, says she doesn’t like his style. That’s enough for me. I also find both preposterous and mystifying the lurid fantasy—more in the Anglo-American world than in France—of Muslims/Islam taking over the European continent in the coming decades. It is such a crackpot notion that I will definitively cease listening to or taking seriously anyone—by definition an ignoramus—who adheres to it. For starters, identity Muslims in France—the Western country with the largest Muslim population, in both absolute numbers and percentage—number 4.5 million max (and probably less), representing some 7% of the French population (the higher figures one sees in the media and elsewhere are exaggerations based on not a shred of published data). And the number is unlikely to increase by even 50% in the coming decades, let alone reach 50%. How an ethno-confessional group making up a tenth of the population “takes over” a country is not apparent to me. Moreover, Muslims in France do not constitute a “community,” as Olivier Roy—whom Adam cites—has insisted. It is a disparate population divided by national origin, ethnicity, degree of religious observance, generation, social class, and you name it. French Muslims do not constitute a bloc for anything and there is not the slightest chance in the foreseeable future that even a small number among them will coalesce qua Muslims in the realm of national electoral politics or representative bodies (assertion: there will never be a “Muslim caucus” in the French National Assembly as, e.g., Afro-Americans have in the US Congress; the mere notion is ludicrous). So even if I were a novel-reading person and liked Houellebecq’s style, I am not a science fiction fan, so doubt I would expend time on one based on such a harebrained, science fiction-like premise. The reviews will suffice.
BTW, Adam has a major article coming up in The New York Times Magazine, on the Algerian writer Kamel Daoud. Stay tuned.
In my December 31st round-up of French films of 2014, I mentioned that I’d have a separate post on films focusing on immigration and ethnicity, of which there were several last year. Le voici. Three discussed here have received nominations for this Friday’s César awards. ‘Bande de filles’ (English title: Girlhood) leads with four, including Best Director (Céline Sciamma) and Most Promising Actress (Karidja Touré). The story, in short: Marieme (K.Touré), a.k.a. Vic, is a mid teen girl of African immigrant stock, who lives with her hard-working mother (hotel chambermaid) and two brothers in a cité in the neuf-trois. She’s generally well-behaved but doesn’t have the grades to get into a lycée général—that would track her to higher education, which she desperately wants—and is thereby told that the only option open to her is a lycée professionnel (vocational high school), which she refuses. Following this setback she falls in with a gang of black chicks (African), led by the cool and cheeky Fily (Mariétou Touré), drops out of school, adopts an attitude, and spends her days with her new BFFs, getting into fights with other girls, riding the RER into Paris to hang out at the Forum des Halles, shoplift, and just fool around. But then the nice boy Ismael (Idrissa Diabaté) takes a liking to Vic and she to him, but as Ismael is a pal of Vic’s dictatorial older brother, who enforces the code of honor of the cités—thereby keeping tabs on his sister’s girl-boy interactions—the budding relationship with Ismael runs into logistical problems. So Vic, who’s basically a good kid, splits from the cité and takes her distance from her girl gang. It’s a coming of age movie about a black teen in the Paris banlieues who is finding her way. I was engaged enough with the film—it is well acted and certainly holds one’s attention—but won’t call it a chef d’œuvre. French critics mostly gave it the thumbs up—N.B. in particular this review on the Africultures website—and their American counterparts positively loved it (the pic opened in the US on Jan. 30th). So as cinema it may be seen; as ethnography—if one is into that—it may definitely be seen. Trailer is here (plus the great scene here of the girls dancing to Rihanna’s “Diamonds”).
A note on the film’s choreographed opening scene, of a team of black girls playing American football, which more than one US reviewer took note of. The scene, which one may interpret as symbolizing the aggressiveness of the social interactions one sees in the film, is, as one reads, a mere clin d’œil of director Céline Sciamma at her favorite TV series, ‘Friday Night Lights’ (the players are from an amateur female American football team in the banlieue).
Also receiving a César nomination is ‘Samba’, by Eric Toledano and Olivier Nakache, who co-directed the 2011 Über hit comedy Intouchables—which sold 19.5 million tix in France, making it the nº2 French film of all time—and became the biggest ever French film at the box office in several countries. And it propelled the career of Omar Sy—already popular with the younger generation—into the stratosphere. So seeking to capitalize on his and the film’s success, Toledano & Nakache made another movie intended to be crowd-pleasing—though this a dramedy, so more serious—with Omar Sy in the lead, and accompanied by top draws Charlotte Gainsbourg and Tahar Rahim (though the pic’s one César nomination went to the relative newcomer Izïa Higelin for Best Supporting Actress). In this one Sy plays an undocumented Senegalese immigrant in Paris named Samba, who has been working hard for ten years (in a restaurant kitchen), causing no trouble whatever and stealing no job from a single French person, and whose boss wants to promote him, except that he doesn’t have papers. Snared by the police, he is subjected to deportation proceedings and sent to a detention center near CDG airport. In trying to avoid deportation, he is assisted by a not very experienced immigration case worker named Alice (Gainsbourg), a corporate executive on extended medical leave for burn-out—which is, as I have learned from a friend who is suffering from it, a serious affliction indeed—who is volunteering her time with undocumented immigrants during her recovery. She is touched by Samba, develops feelings for him, and the two forge a relationship of sorts, which I didn’t find entirely convincing BTW (no spoilers, so I won’t say what does or does not happen between the two, or whether or not the pic has a happy ending). The film, which has its share of bons sentiments and tugs at one’s heart toward the end, is perfectly watchable but is not a chef d’œuvre by any stretch. French reviews were good to very good on the whole, though US critics who saw it at the TIFF were more reserved (here, here, here, and here). The word-of-mouth on the film was obviously good, though, as it sold over 3 million tix, which was nowhere near ‘Intouchables’ but still very good by any measure (and way higher than any other film discussed here). This is good and gratifying, as the film presents undocumented immigrants—and from Africa—in a sympathetic—and accurate—light, as law-abiding, hard-working potential future citizens—should they have the good fortune to have their status regularized—who want no more or less for themselves than any other Frenchman or woman. On this level—and in view of the near toxic nature of the issue in France at the present time, and with the attendant demagoguery and political surenchères—the film is salutary. Trailer is here.
Also netting César nominations is ‘Qu’Allah bénisse la France’ (May Allah Bless France), a biopic of Abd al Malik (né Régis Fayette-Mikano), the well-known Franco-Congolese (Brazzaville) slam poet and rap singer (I should say well-known in certain milieux, as I was not familiar with his music and other artistic work before the film came out; see the NYT’s 2012 portrait of him here). The pic is directed by Abd al Malik himself—earning him a César nomination for Best First Film—and based on his eponymous 2004 autobiographical novel, though his role is played by Marc Zinga (César Most Promising Actor nominee). The film begins with the teen Régis/Abd al Malik’s life in the tough Strasbourg cité of Neuhof, where he hangs out with his homies, most of whom are drug dealers and petits voyous—Régis/Abd al Malik partaking in petty crime himself—lives with his nurturing (mother-headed) Catholic family, and performs brilliantly in lycée—notably in French and philosophy—resulting in an invitation by the school to enter hypokhâgne after receiving his bac (signifying that he is indeed very bright and with marked literary talent). Needless to say, there aren’t too many cagneux around of his social class and ethno-racial background, so he kind of stands out among his fellow students. He keeps up his friendships with his gangbanger homies, though, and when one with whom he was close gets killed in a gang règlement de comptes, Régis/Abd al Malik decides to convert to Islam (and change his name). During this time he’s writing slam poetry, composing music, and gaining celebrity. Under the influence of the Franco-Moroccan Nawel (Sabrina Ouazani)—his g.f. and future wife—he moderates his religious practice and a spiritual voyage of discovery to Morocco brings about a reconversion, as it were, to sufi Islam, which gives him inner strength, peace, and everything else contemplative, mystical sufism is supposed to do. The film—which is in black-and-white, à la Mathieu Kassovitz’s ‘La Haine’—is understated, almost low-key. And while one hears the poetry, there should be more of Abd al Malik’s music. The film could have also delved more into what the title strongly suggests, which is Abd al Malik’s (positive) relationship with France. His life experiences and trajectory give the lie to the crap one hears almost daily about problems of integration in France—whatever “integration” is supposed to mean and which I will insist is not a problem in this country—as Abd al Malik is clearly a success story of the Republic (among other things, he has published books with titles like La guerre des banlieues n’aura pas lieu and L’islam au secours de la République). It all goes to show that, yeah, one can be a rap-singing convert to Islam of 100% African stock and love France all the same. The film received generally good reviews in France—for a US review go here and scroll to the end—but was not a box office hit, which is perhaps unfortunate in view of the present-day salience of the immigration issue and the clear message of the film. The word-of-mouth clearly did not work in Abd al Malik’s sizable fan base, a likely consequence of him opting to make a film d’auteur rather than a more conventional, bigger-budget biopic. Trailer is here.
Another recent film with an Islam/immigration focus is ‘L’Apôtre’ (The Apostle), written, directed, and produced by Cheyenne Carron—who was previously unknown to me—which opened in October in exactly one cinema (independent) in Paris, before being released on DVD the following week. The reason why the film played in only one salle: no distributor would touch it, as the subject was deemed too hot to handle. And what is the subject? The conversion to Christianity of a young Maghrebi Muslim. The story: Akim (Fayçal Safi), who’s in his late 20s, lives with his parents, older brother Youssef (Brahim Tekfa), and adoring younger sister Hafsa (Sarah Zaher) in an inner Paris banlieue. The family is close-knit and middle class (living in a house, not a flat in a cité). And they’re practicing Muslims, though “moderate”—mother and sister are not veiled—and with the father’s brother the imam at a nearby mosque. Youssef, who takes his religion seriously, is following in his uncle’s footsteps and it is hoped that Akim will become an imam too, but he declines. One day Akim is invited by his friend Fabien to attend the baptism of the latter’s baby daughter. It was Akim’s first time ever in a church. He is taken by the Catholic ritual and sets out to learn more about Christianity. The interest becomes a fascination, leading to a meeting with the priest of the local cathedral. Deciding that Catholicism suits his spiritual needs more than Islam, Akim takes the plunge and converts. And when he announces to his family that he’s found Jesus, well, a little crisis ensues, and particularly with Youssef, who considers his younger brother—the two are very close—to be an apostate and disgrace to his family. But—spoiler alert!—things work themselves out and there is no tragic ending.
I thought it was a pretty good film—the few reviews of it were positive—and on a topic of vital importance, as the issue of how Muslims deal with conversions out of Islam is a real one. The phenomenon is not insignificant in France, where the Muslim identity population (of some 4 million) is the highest in the Western world (the number of Muslim-to-Christian converts in France is into the five figures and one sees literature tables and other proselytizing efforts by Maghrebi and African Christian converts—mainly evangelical Protestant—in heavily immigrant areas). After seeing the film I was interested to know what kind of reaction it received among French Muslims. But as it played in just one theater—albeit off the Champs-Elysées—practically no one saw it (and no one I know). And I have seen no mention of it on the higher profile French Muslim websites (e.g. Oumma.com, Al-Kanz). C’est dommage. The film merits being seen and discussed. Trailer is here (followed by a 14-minute interview with actors Safi and Tekfa).
There are several more films I’d intended to discuss here. Will do so in a separate post in the next week.
Christopher Dickey, grand reporter for The Daily Beast, offers an excellent argument here for banning face veils in public space. In a post 3½ years ago I expressed my disapproval of France’s “burqa” ban—which had just entered into force—, though not out of high-minded principle or respect for religious freedom, as face veils are specific to certain cultures, mandated by no religion—not that this matters one way or the other—, and cannot be defended on these particular grounds. But I’ve changed my mind. The French law may have been enacted for the wrong reasons but that doesn’t mean it was wrong tout court. Now this is not to suggest that the police should stop every last niqab-wearing woman they see on the street; discretion can and should be exercised—e.g. to avoid causing a riot—, as the police generally do when witnessing persons in the act of committing misdemeanors. But they should still have the authority to stop and detain those who conceal their faces in public. So on the question of the niqab, I say ban the damn thing!
UPDATE: Omer Aziz, a writer and J.D. candidate at Yale Law School, has an op-ed by the title of “Banning the niqab harms an open society: So does wearing it,” which is one of the best succinct arguments I’ve come across on this question. (March 16, 2015)
I’ve been reading about the speech today and just watched it on YouTube. This is President Obama’s best action of his second term. It was such an obvious thing to do, particularly as he has the authority to issue an executive order on the question. One only regrets that he waited until after the midterms to do it. On the politics of the decision—to regularize the status of undocumented immigrants with children who have been living and working in the US for at least five years—, I couldn’t care less about it, of whether it will help the Democrats or hurt them, cause problems for the Republicans, or whatever. The partisan political calculations do not interest me. And public opinion polls interest me even less. If large numbers of individuals oppose legalizing undocumented immigrants, that’s their personal opinion. What interests me is that it was the right thing to do. It is quite simply unconscionable—indeed immoral—for a state to seek to deport persons who have been living and working within its borders for many years—invariably in precarious, poorly paid jobs and with no health insurance or other benefits—, and in a state of permanent insecurity and fear for the future. And particularly if they have children, who have grown up in the country and are often citizens and native speakers of the language, but who likewise lack legal status and what this means for their lives—and who could see their parents suddenly deported, leaving them stranded. If a state is unable and/or lacks the will to deport undocumented foreigners—who have been working, paying taxes, and not been involved in criminal activity—within a relatively short period of time—up to, say, five years—, then that state has a moral obligation to allow them to stay. Period. The only thing I regret with Obama’s new policy is that it does not also include longtime undocumented immigrants without children.
As for those who are critical of Obama’s announced measure, they have no good arguments. The notion that the immigrants in question have unfairly jumped to the head of a metaphorical line—which is how it’s put—is silly and just plain ignorant, as if an actual line exists in which all potential immigrants out there take a number and patiently wait their turn. International migration does not work this way, nor does US immigration policy (or the immigration policy of any country). As for the immigrants lowering wages and taking jobs from nationals, I came across this reaction to Obama’s speech by the anti-immigration, pro-trade protectionist publicist Alan Tonelson—who’s a sort of American Nicolas Dupont-Aignan-style souverainiste—on a social media comments thread
Hooray! Working and middle class Americans will face much more low-wage competition! The Party of the Common Man serves the plutocrats’ agenda once again!
This is ignorant demagoguery, as cross-border migrants in their great majority do not compete with nationals for the same jobs. They do not operate in the same labor markets. Immigrants invariably invest sectors, or niches, of the economy that are low paying, necessitate a high degree of flexibility, and are perceived as low status in the immigrant-receiving country, having thus been deserted by nationals. And once this situation pertains, it cannot be reversed by administrative fiat. It is beyond the capacity of governments or state functionaries to administer labor markets in a complex capitalist economy. Anyone with the slightest familiarity with the literature on international migration knows this. As for immigrants lowering overall wage levels of nationals, this has not been conclusively demonstrated by economists (e.g. see this NBER paper that Paul Krugman linked to today). In any case, if undocumented immigrants are being exploited by employers, paid below the minimum or normally going wage, and are bringing about localized downward pressure on the wages of nationals, then the solution is obvious: legalize them! Which is precisely what President Obama has announced he will do. Should President Hollande be so inspired…
Adam Shatz has a first-rate review essay—as one would expect from him—in the latest issue of the London Review of Books, on two books on Anders Behring Breivik: A Norwegian Tragedy: Anders Behring Breivik and the Massacre on Utøya, by Aage Borchgrevink—a well-known Norwegian writer and literary critic; his book was first published in Norwegian in 2012—, and Anders Breivik and the Rise of Islamophobia, by Oslo-based social anthropologist Sindre Bangstad.
Borchgrevink’s book, which Adam says is “superb,” recounts the troubled parcours of Anders Breivik and the massacre he committed on July 22, 2011 (which I had a post on at the time, ironically speculating on the possible Tea Party GOP reaction to the bloodbath). Breivik, as it happens, had friends in Oslo’s Muslim immigrant community—the largest component of which is Pakistani—as an adolescent but gradually developed a virulent hatred of them, which Borchgrevink examines in detail. Before his trial Breivik was described as a paranoid schizophrenic but he rejected the notion and psychiatric examinations found no sign of it. He did hail from a dysfunctional family, however, and steeped himself in, as Adam puts it, the “virtual netherworld of ‘Eurabia’ literature,” which, intellectually speaking, set him on his murderous path.
I’ve looked at the “Eurabia” literature, which posits that Muslims/Arabs are taking over Europe—demographically and as part of a plot hatched by France and the EU—and that Islam will, at some point in the course of this century, become the majority religion on the continent and impose “dhimmi” status on non-Muslims. It’s conspiratorial junk. Preposterous trash. Bon pour la poubelle. The author most associated with this wacky idea is the British/Egyptian Jew Gisèle Littman (better known by her nom de plume Bat Ye’or), to which one may add the nutters and cranks Pamela Geller, Robert Spencer, right-wing Danish intellectual Lars Hedegaard, gay American Oslo resident Bruce Bawer, and Canadian publicist Mark Steyn, entre autres. None of these illuminés, it may be said, possess the credentials—scholarly or otherwise—to be writing articles and books on the subject. But write on it they do, and their screeds have an audience in Norway, as Sindre Bangstad details in his book on Breivik and Islamophobia. Now I happen not to like the “Islamophobia” neologism, which lacks a precise definition and tends to conflate criticism of Islam as a religion—which, in a liberal, secular democracy, is an entirely legitimate exercise of free speech—, denunciation of radical Islamism—also entirely legitimate (and which large numbers of Muslims engage in themselves)—, and the stigmatizing of Muslims as individuals, whether or not they practice the religion—which is bigotry pure and simple. But whatever label one wants to attach to it, fear and loathing of Islam and Muslims pervades a portion of the Norwegian public, as it does elsewhere in Europe and North America. So while Anders Breivik was an outlier in his act of terrorism, he was not one in his beliefs.
One is reminded in reading Adam’s essay that Breivik received the maximum sentence in Norway for his crime—of murdering 77 people—, which is 21 years imprisonment. Now this sentence can be extended indefinitely—and presumably it will be—but still, it’s crazy that in Norway cold-blooded murderers—not to mention mass murdering terrorists—can theoretically be released from prison while in the prime of their adult lives.
Huffington Post UK political director Medhi Hasan has a delicious piece (August 21st) on two 22-year-old British jihadists, Yusuf Sarwar and Mohammed Ahmed, who were convicted on terrorism charges in Birmingham last month—after Yusuf’s mum alerted the police about her son’s activities. As was revealed during the trial, they had purchased copies of Islam for Dummies and The Koran for Dummies (en français: L’Islam et le Coran pour les nuls) on Amazon before setting off to Syria to wage jihad. Sans blague.
In his post Hasan mentions the 2010 comedy satire ‘Four Lions‘, which spoofs a gang of low IQ jihadist wannabes from the English Midlands. The film, which I saw when it came out, is very funny and also spot on. There are certainly many dangerous, violent jihadists from immigrant communities in the West—recent ones including Mohamed Merah, Mehdi Nemmouche, and the psychopath who murdered James Foley—who are out there, but for all of these there are no doubt as many, if not more, of the whack job losers depicted in ‘Four Lions’—and the two just convicted in Birmingham. If one is interested in the jihadist phenomenon and has not seen the movie, one should do so. Take it from one of France’s leading scholars on radicalism, as quoted by the NYT’s Robert Worth
When I asked Jean-Pierre Filiu, a French scholar and one of the most respected analysts of jihadi groups, whether anyone had really succeeded in capturing the everyday truth of their world in fiction or film, he ran through a number of novels on the subject and dismissed them all: too many were unconvincing or tied up in political agendas. Then, after a long pause, he said: “Seriously, the way most of them operate? I think ‘Four Lions’ said it best.”
UPDATE: Sophie Gilbert, senior editor of The Atlantic, has a piece (October 18th) entitled “The best film about Islamic terrorists is a comedy.” The lede: Chris Morris’ Four Lions, released four years ago, skewers the pointlessness and confusion of wannabe jihadists.