In the wake of the tragedy in Paris, this long article, “The Other France,” by George Packer (from August) in The New Yorker is worth a read. The issue of Islamist extremism is complex, and despite the rhetoric of conservative thought leaders and Republican presidential candidates, it will sadly not be easily or quickly solved. (Another article by David Ignatius at The Atlantic traces the history of ISIS and is worth a read as well.)
The opening paragraphs of Packer’s article:
Fouad Ben Ahmed never paid much attention to Charlie Hebdo. He found the satirical magazine to be vulgar and not funny, and to him it seemed fixated on Islam, but he didn’t think that its contributors did real harm. One of its cartoonists, Stéphane Charbonnier, also drew for Le Petit Quotidien, a children’s paper to which Ben Ahmed subscribed for his two kids. On January 7th, upon hearing that two French brothers with Algerian names, Saïd and Chérif Kouachi, had executed twelve people at the Charlie Hebdo offices—including Charbonnier—in revenge for covers caricaturing Muhammad, Ben Ahmed wrote on Facebook, “My French heart bleeds, my Muslim soul weeps. Nothing, ABSOLUTELY NOTHING, can justify these barbaric acts. Don’t talk to me about media or politicians who would play such-and-such a game, because there’s no excuse for barbarism. #JeSuisCharlie.”
That night, Ben Ahmed left his house, in the suburbs outside Paris, and went into the city to join tens of thousands of people at a vigil. He is of Algerian and Tunisian descent, with dark skin, and a few white extremists spat threats at him, but Ben Ahmed ignored them—France was his country, too. On January 11th, he joined the one and a half million citizens who marched in unity from the Place de la République.
Ben Ahmed’s Facebook page became a forum for others, mostly French Muslims, to discuss the attacks. Many expressed simple grief and outrage; a few aired conspiracy theories, suggesting a plot to stigmatize Muslims. “Let the investigators shed light on this massacre,” Ben Ahmed advised. One woman wrote, “I fear for the Muslims of France. The narrow-minded or frightened are going to dig in their heels and make an amalgame”—conflate terrorists with all Muslims. Ben Ahmed agreed: “Our country is going to be more divided.” He defended his use of #JeSuisCharlie, arguing that critiques of Charlie’s content, however legitimate before the attack, had no place afterward. “If we have a debate on the editorial line, it’s like saying, ‘Yes—but,’ ” he later told me. “In these conditions, that is unthinkable.”
Ben Ahmed, who is thirty-nine, works as a liaison between residents and the local government in Bondy—a suburb, northeast of Paris, in an area called Department 93. For decades a bastion of the old working class and the Communist Party, the 93 is now known for its residents of Arab and African origin. To many Parisians, the 93 signifies decayed housing projects, crime, unemployment, and Muslims. France has all kinds of suburbs, but the word for them, banlieues, has become pejorative, meaning slums dominated by immigrants. Inside the banlieues are the cités: colossal concrete housing projects built during the postwar decades, in the Brutalist style of Le Corbusier. Conceived as utopias for workers, they have become concentrations of poverty and social isolation. The cités and their occupants are the subject of anxious and angry discussion in France. Two recent books by the eminent political scientist Gilles Kepel, “Banlieue de la République” and “Quatre-vingt-treize” (“Ninety-three”), are studies in industrial decline and growing segregation by group identity. There’s a French pejorative for that, too: communautarisme.
After the Charlie massacre—and after a third terrorist, Amedy Coulibaly, gunned down a black policewoman outside a Jewish school and four Jews at a kosher supermarket—there was a widespread feeling, in France and elsewhere, that the killings were somehow related to the banlieues. But an exact connection is not easy to establish. Although these alienated communities are increasingly prone to anti-Semitism, the profiles of French jihadists don’t track closely with class; many have come from bourgeois families. The sense of exclusion in the banlieues is an acute problem that the republic has neglected for decades, but more jobs and better housing won’t put an end to French jihadism.
Ben Ahmed has lived in the 93 his entire life. A few years ago, he and his wife, Carolina, and their two children moved into a small house near Charles de Gaulle Airport. They wanted to be near a private school that the children attend, because most public schools in the 93 are overcrowded and chaotic, and staffed by younger, less qualified teachers. Ben Ahmed spent his teens in one of the toughest suburbs, Bobigny, in a notorious cité called l’Abreuvoir. During his twenties and early thirties, Ben Ahmed was employed by the Bobigny government as a community organizer, working with troubled youth—some of them his friends and neighbors, many just out of prison or headed there. His authority on life in the cités exceeds that of any scholar.
After the attacks, Ben Ahmed wrote an open letter to President François Hollande titled “All Partly Responsible, but Not Guilty.” He identified himself as a banlieue resident who had often “seen death a few metres from me.” He wrote about the problems of joblessness, discrimination, and collective withdrawal from society. He recalled that, in October, 2001, a soccer game in Paris between France and Algeria—the first such match since Algerian independence, in 1962—had to be called off when thousands of French youths of North African origin booed the “Marseillaise” and invaded the field, some chanting, “Bin Laden, bin Laden!” The French public responded with righteous revulsion. “The problem was before our eyes,” Ben Ahmed wrote. “But instead of asking good questions, we chose stigmatization, refusal of the other.” He went on, “The split was born on that day, the feeling of rejection expressed by the political class, when we could have asked other questions: What’s wrong? What’s the problem?”