A Clash of Loyalties in the Parisian Suburbs
Beyond clichés about a “clash of civilizations,” a new book by French sociologist Fabien Truong illuminates the role of Islam in the lives of France’s poor and marginalized.
- Interview by
- Seth Ackerman
In Europe, repeated jihadist attacks and ISIS propaganda have caused a growing fear of terrorism — but also a more general fear of working-class young people from immigrant backgrounds living on the edges of Europe’s major metropolises. The subject has given rise to a series of debates in the media and in the political sphere: Has Islam itself radicalized? What brought about such violence and intolerance? Is it growing? Most such debates consist of little more than punditry based on partial, secondhand information — a discourse in which jihadist propaganda and bellicose Western triumphalism echo each other even as they do battle.
But in his ethnographic study Radicalized Loyalties, based on years of observation and immersion in working-class French neighborhoods, sociologist Fabien Truong offers a concrete portrait of how violence cuts through the lives of young men in marginalized suburbs, and the intimate yet highly politicized relationship with Islam that has emerged among some of them. Praised as “a patient observation of human beings” by the Los Angeles Review of Books, the book plays host to a welter of contrasting and discordant voices — none more striking than those of the friends and relatives of Amédy Coulibaly, one of the infamous perpetrators of the January 2015 Charlie Hebdo attack.
In this interview with Jacobin’s Seth Ackerman, the book’s English translator, Truong reveals how, behind the rhetoric of a “clash of civilizations,” the appeal of jihadism to young people in Europe grows out of the contradictions and dilemmas of Western society itself.
In France, there has been a highly publicized debate about the causes of homegrown jihadism between two well-known scholars of Islam, Olivier Roy and Gilles Kepel. As the debate is usually summarized, Kepel says it’s the result of a “radicalization of Islam,” whereas Roy say it’s actually a problem of the “Islamization of radicalism.” How do you see the issue?
What Gilles Kepel is saying is that the discourse and ideology of Islam have radicalized, and that’s why we now have a “third generation of jihadists.” So, basically, what explains the current radicalization of the youth, in his terms, is the radicalization of the ideology — the interpretation of the religious texts and so on. Well, to me this is very old, not to say lazy, political science from the 1950s. It’s exactly what social scientists in the 1950s said to explain the power of communist ideology — this idea that if you have a forceful ideology, people will act in a forceful way. People are just puppets; if you have a strong ideology, it just works by itself.
But it doesn’t explain anything. At best it’s tautological: obviously, if you are ready to die or to kill people, you believe strongly in a discourse that advocates some form of violence or intolerance. But the real question is: Why does it make sense to you? Why does it matter? Why does it get traction? You can see that this very quickly becomes an ideological position, because if you follow that thread, this is a problem caused by Islam. Islam has radicalized. So it’s a theological issue, a cultural issue, an issue within the Islamic community. And the Islamic community is responsible in some way.
You can see why Kepel’s interpretation is very attractive, politically speaking. You can see how it shapes deradicalization programs: the idea is that you need to reform the ideas to reform the behaviors.
On the other side, Olivier Roy is saying, “No, this is not the radicalization of Islam, this is the Islamization of radicalism.” I would share that first idea, where he’s pointing out that violent radicalism existed before jihadism. And, as he puts it, a globalized and radical form of Islam is becoming a sort of banner that this generation is rallying to, to express this radicalism. But his explanation is that it’s a nihilistic generation — the problem is that they don’t believe in anything, and that’s why they need a banner to rally to. But nihilism is not an explanation. If you’re on the ground, if you look at the lives of the boys I follow in the book — Marley, Adama, Amédy Coulibaly, and the rest — you find everything except nothing. There are a lot of desires, frustrations; there are aspirations, needs, questions that remain unanswered, a lot of determination. There are a lot of “things,” so there’s not nothing.
You can also see how this can become an ideological interpretation: “This is not the fault of Islam.” So then the debate is reduced to: “Is this the fault of Islam, or is this not the fault of Islam?” What I am saying in the book is that there is no such thing as “Islam.” Islam doesn’t exist per se. It’s not a thing, it’s a set of ideas that are constantly interpreted in different places, and here you need to understand why a particular kind of interpretation makes sense for young people from the banlieues. It answers many metaphysical, moral, aesthetical, intellectual, sociological, and political questions that are themselves “made in the West.”
Who are these young people, and what are the questions they’re seeking answers to?
If you look at the typical portrait of the “homegrown terrorist,” there is a clear Western pattern, or rather a European pattern: young men from working-class and immigrant backgrounds approaching their thirties who come from marginalized neighborhoods and are trapped in what I call “the second zone.” They haven’t managed to build anything except an illegal business, which means they have been socialized for years into a life that exists purely in a permanent present where it’s always just about the next job. The “second zone” is not only a physical space; it’s also a closed social space and a mentality. You’re not even living “in the ghetto,” you’re living in a kind of secret society, because you cannot talk about what you do in your illegal work with all your friends from the neighborhood.
Also, there’s a socialization into violence, which leaves deep marks. Because you have to deal with violence and you have to be violent. One of the moral questions that remain unanswered is the problem of what I call “sullying.” Because these guys basically hate themselves.
When you follow people for a long time and establish some kind of intimacy — and the book is all about that; religion is about intimacy in many ways, and ideological debates about “Islam” don’t deal with this intimate side of things — well, the issue of self-hatred is prominent. You can put on a big masculine show, saying, “I’m a big tough guy, I killed this guy.” But at the end of the day, you have to live with it. What we see in this book is that these young men can’t face themselves in the mirror when they’re alone. And the more time passes, the more urgent this issue becomes, because there are so many things that you cannot say, that you cannot be proud of, and that you can regret. And there’s this idea that you’re going to pay for it: all the boys of the “second zone” that I know are convinced they are going to rot in hell when they die. Because they know that the things they have done are fundamentally “dirty.”
Tell me about Amédy Coulibaly. What was his background, and how does it relate to this portrait?
I spent more than two years, staying several days a week, in the Paris suburb of Grigny. Amédy Coulibaly was already dead when I arrived, and I didn’t know him when he was alive. But I quickly started to talk with people who knew him, and what they were saying was definitely not what I was seeing in the press. So I thought there was a possibility to do a postmortem ethnographic study, like a historian who works on oral sources, trying to recall the ordinary story of this guy.
You can tell that he was so badly in need of social recognition: he actually left a lot of public traces before he died. I found, for instance, several press interviews he gave at the time (not always under his real name). He made a hidden-camera movie in prison that he smuggled out, which was quite a big deal at the time in France. He met Nicolas Sarkozy. So you can tell he needed some sort of recognition. So the interesting question for me was: What had happened before all of that? What gradually led to this trajectory? And it was interesting to juxtapose him with other young men in the neighborhood who followed a different path. In the radicalization literature, there is a tendency to look out for the thing that explains what “turned” a person. Usually it’s like, “one predictor,” “one trauma,” “one group of friends,” etc. But that’s simplistic — it’s much more complicated and gradual than that. Looking at him in juxtaposition with the other guys, like Adama for example, is a good way to sort this out.
Adama and Amédy were best mates; they’re from the same generation, both their parents coming from Mali, both heavily involved in drug trafficking. They go through the same upheavals, they leave school at the same time. In many respects, they are cut from the same cloth. But Adama now works as a social worker. You can see by looking at Adama that he didn’t experience things in the same way as Amédy. Rather than pinpointing one moment as “the reason why,” you can understand by looking at other people’s trajectories: “Oh, at this point, there was a possibility of experiencing prison in a different way, of experiencing the loss of your friend in a different way, etc.” It’s difficult to summarize it because it’s like a puzzle. As you read the book, you gradually understand the logic.
Maybe I should just give two or three examples. One is the first experience of prison, when Amédy Coulibaly goes in for the first time. You can see that he is really, really scared. And that’s the case for most young people when they go to prison. You fear for your safety because being in jail is a massive state of insecurity. So he has a really bad experience. Like most of the prisoners, he doesn’t get much help, and at the time he didn’t have a lot of connections to help him deal with this insecurity. So he went about building up a sort of outer shell. He was going to try to be stronger than the weak guys. And you can tell that he was determined to make this world his own world — in the end, he spent almost half of his life in jail, back and forth. This reflects this “second zone” mentality: “This is my only social world, and I’m never going to leave it.”
The criminalization of poverty has really changed patterns in France, because now young people go to prison more often for shorter periods of time, and from an early age — really, starting from seventeen or eighteen, you get these boys who come and go, again and again. It’s a series of round trips, which is very different from how it was when you would spend six years in jail and then come back. Back then, you really had the feeling of an “inside” and an “outside.” Now that doesn’t exist, you come and go: prison is like the ‘hood, and the ‘hood feels like a prison. You can see that, year after year, he’s trying to become a boss of the prison. In the book, a fellow prisoner explains how he took him under his wing, and that just reinforced the idea that he’s never going to be able to leave this second zone.
That has consequences. It leads to an unbearable feeling of a personal impasse. When you start to reach your thirties and you’re stuck in that second zone, you basically know that there’s no future for you. You’re faced with a huge question: you can’t envision a future anymore; you know that you’re going to hit a wall. One of the other characters in the book, Marley, the first time I met him, he says to me, “I’ve got five or six years to live.” He was twenty-six at the time. He cannot see beyond his thirties because he lives in that kind of world.
Then, by contrast, if you look at Adama, when he first goes to prison, he’s protected. Not by the institution, but rather because he came from a family of major drug dealers. When he goes into prison, he knows that nothing can happen to him because there are a lot of “big brother” figures in prison with him. There was a kind of ambiguity; they were saying, “You shouldn’t be here; this is the last time we want to see you here, because if you come back, that means we’ve failed as big brothers, you need to follow the right path. But as long as you’re here, nobody will touch you, you will be fine.”
For that reason, and also thanks to two social workers who came and visited him, he has an understanding of an “outside” versus the “inside” — he can project a life for himself outside, because he’s safe inside. He’s got this minimal social state of security that allows him to decenter himself and try to go in a different direction. As he says in the book, “In prison I was a cat among the lions.” Those are his words. (Note that ISIS also talks about “lions” all the time.) So he ends up becoming a social worker himself, and that was something he was able to envision for himself, becoming a social worker, while still in prison. So it’s a very different experience for him than for Amédy.
I could also talk about the death of Amédy’s teenage friend Ali (killed by the police while they were carrying out a robbery together). When you see your best mate killed by a policeman, obviously that is going to feed a hatred of the police and so on. But I discovered from some of his friends and relatives that it’s not just hatred of the police or the idea of vengeance; Amédy Coulibaly was convinced that he should have died instead of his friend. So he goes off from the age of eighteen with this idea that “I should have died, it should have been me.” He lives with this sense of guilt and self-hatred for the rest of his life. That goes a long way toward explaining why you would be able at some stage to think that martyrdom is a good idea.
And then there’s another thing that these highly ideological and abstract explanations do not tackle. If you take someone who is going to perpetrate a terrorist attack and look at them like an ethnographer, you need to think about the characteristics, the resources, the dispositions that people need to have in order to do something like that. To carry out an attack with success, you need to have a certain set of skills. Just because you’ve read an ideological text that advocates violence doesn’t mean you are going to become a good terrorist. And this is why, thankfully, there are far more attempted attacks that fail. You need to have the training, the skills, to make an attack something other than a fantasy.
All the dispositions, all the resources that homegrown terrorists have, they learned from the second zone. And you can see in the book that for the final attack that Amédy carried out, he was the one who got the cars, he got the weapons, everything. Among his contacts, most of the people who were helping him at this stage were generally not trying to be terrorists, in the sense that they were just continuing to do the kind of work they had been doing for a very long time. They didn’t know that they were helping him plan a terrorist attack. Amédy was very good at compartmentalizing information, because that’s what you need to do when you’re a stickup man; and that’s what he was. Also, he acquired the necessary sangfroid from his experience with previous jobs.
Something that’s often talked about is the idea that Islamist homegrown terrorists can hide themselves among “sinners” — it’s the idea of taqiya, a much-discussed theological concept in Islam. But in the here and now, it’s just the ability to shut your mouth, to be secretive about something even though it’s the most important thing in your mind, in your life — killing people and killing yourself in front of the whole world. If you just look at this disposition (the ability to keep quiet while carrying out the plan), he has that because he has done it many times, for fifteen years.
But also, he can’t do it anymore. This is a straightforward anthropological phenomenon — mid-level players who are stuck in the second zone suffer from a basic lack of recognition. They have become super-competent in a lot of ways, but they don’t benefit from the social recognition of excellency. Amédy would not be able to say to his mum and dad, “I did a really great holdup job today, I’m great at it.” No, you have to keep your mouth shut. And when you see these terrorist attacks, they’re a big spectacle; it’s a way of dignifying the skills acquired in the second zone, it’s a public way of shouting to the whole wide world, “I’m good at this!”
In that respect, if you take away religion, the book is really about the manufacture of warriors. These guys have been shaped in the second zone, and this is the product of an urban marginalization process; it’s got nothing to do with religion. Homegrown terrorists have more to do with what I call in the book “radical continuity.” When Amédy and all those terrorists convert to Islam, what they’re trying to say is, “I have changed,” to the point that they actually change their names, adopting Arabic fighter names. Now, that’s what you see in their rhetoric, but you have to look at the disjuncture between their practice and their rhetoric. Because if you look at the actual practices, it is actually a radical continuity. In the attack, he does what he has been doing for so many years, but he pushes it to its ultimate limit, pursuing a morbid process of dignification.
So far, you’ve been talking about Amédy Coulibaly, an example of the “homegrown terrorist.” What about other ways of embracing jihadism, like going off to fight in Syria?
You get different patterns. Successful homegrown terrorists are boys from the second zone who are gradually reaching their thirties. Whereas people who are tempted to go into terrorism but haven’t been socialized in that way, they will inevitably fail. If you look at kids who have gone through all these personal upheavals and wanted to carry out an attack and failed — they all fail because they don’t have the skills to carry it out. They are going to get flagged when they try to obtain a weapon, because they haven’t done it enough; or they are going to be flagged on social media because they can’t keep their mouths shut.
Now, going to Syria is a different story, because you needed fewer resources and skills — that’s why you had a larger number of cases, and also more girls, and a more diverse sociography. Also, it doesn’t constitute the same kind of gesture, because carrying out an attack at home is the gesture of someone who is no longer capable of envisioning a future for themselves. It’s the absolute pinnacle of the mentality of living in a permanent present. This feeling of being at a dead end in life and of wanting to serve something bigger than yourself is what is at play when an attack is carried out. Right now, in our society, the problem lies in the second zone, and that’s what we need to face. Islam is an important issue, but it comes afterward.
Whereas with the departures for Syria, there is a plan for the future. Radouane, another character in the book, is a typical example. He says that he is ready to go to Syria. Why? He dabbled in robbery when he was eighteen or nineteen, but it didn’t last for long. And now he’s a university student and goes quite often to mosque, and he’s incapable of holding a gun, so for him going off to war in Syria is a fantasy. There’s this vision of running away from home. And there’s a political vision, so that even though it involves the imagery of war, there’s really this idea that you are going to create a new society that will be better, cleaner, purer than our current society. It’s a political project and a fantasy. It’s a different thing.
So you have people who leave for Syria, you have homegrown terrorists. But then you also have this category of what you call “adherence to rigoristic lifestyles.” Where does that fit in? For many French people, that’s probably the most visible aspect of “radicalization” on a day-to-day level.
Because it’s so highly visible, and so much stress is placed on the issue of “Islam” that there’s this idea that if you have somebody who’s showing off his islamité in an ostentatious way, it’s like they’re a terrorist in waiting. Radouane is a very good example. He goes to mosque five times a day, wakes up at four o’clock in the morning to go to mosque, and he’s really dedicated to the religion. On certain subjects, he’s got some very backward and chauvinistic views, but at the same time he’s a university student and nowhere near being a terrorist, as the book reveals later. Basically, he’s not going to be shooting a gun as long as he’s holding a book — it’s as simple as that.
But for most of these young people, this very rigoristic and ostentatious way of practicing religion is a phase, and that’s why you get this process of both conversion and “reconversion.” It’s actually exhausting to have such an intense level of dedication and “intolerance of ambiguity,” as Adorno put it. Given all the competing and conflicting personal loyalties, very often it doesn’t last very long. What is interesting is the second phase — reconversion — which is almost totally invisible: your commitment to religion has to reach a modus vivendi with other commitments in your life. If you’re super rigoristic and a know-it-all about Islam, you’re going to have to fight with most of the people who are close to you, starting with your parents. Can you do this for your entire life?
That’s why, again, people who are in that stage of conversion become highly conscious of Syria or Iraq, because they’re constantly angry at everybody as a result of expressing themselves through this religious conversion. At some point it feels like it would be easier to just go away. Syria becomes a land of fantasy where everybody thinks exactly like you. It’s obviously a fantasy, but it’s the attraction of running away. And ISIS’s rhetoric plays into this — it functions as what I call a “political floating imaginary.”
But what is important to understand about this phase of conversion — and this is the problem with lots of “deradicalization” policies — is that when you point to these things and say they’re a tremendous problem (e.g., wanting to eat halal, having a certain kind of beard), you are going to create a self-fulfilling prophecy. Rigidity feeds rigidity. Because instead of seizing this moment as a cry for help and as an opportunity for dialogue — “Why are you doing this? Why are you expressing most of your social life through religion? Why does it matter so much?” — you go straight into a posture that forbids dialogue, and most of the time you create a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Because for somebody who is attracted to this “us versus them” discourse, if they have people telling them that they’re not only wrong but also stupid, you just validate his or her views. But if you respect people’s intelligence, you’ll say, “Let’s discuss these things.” And let’s be honest, most of the questions we are asking ourselves as a society, we probably don’t have the answers to. The politics of this are complicated; we’re living in a capitalist system with a lot of inner contradictions; it’s difficult to manage for everybody. But if you don’t allow any openness, there’s the risk that these rigoristic religious practices can become increasingly rigid and hardened.
My view is that when it comes to these rigoristic attitudes, if the purpose is to tackle the problems and actually solve things, this moment is an opportunity to create a dialogue and to look at what religion means to people. It’s not a bleeding-heart, naïve, soft view. I was a public-school teacher in the banlieue, I was in the thick of it.
I think in mainstream public debate we are nowhere near where we should be. But things are moving forward — that’s been my personal experience with the book. People know now that a lot of things that have been said since 2015 are not really helping.
So you perceive an improvement, or at least a movement in the right direction in the public discourse in France?
Yeah. It’s difficult to measure, but my own perception since the book was released — I do feel that there is a space to have this conversation. French society has not imploded, and there are two ways of looking at that. Despite all the attacks since 2015, society still holds together to a certain extent. So it can still go either way, but I think there is a discrepancy between what you see in TV debates and mainstream politics, which are still quite heated or stereotyped, and what people actually experience on the ground. People are not killing each other yet. There’s obviously been a return of Islamophobia, but I think you can see the glass as half full or half empty. If you look at history, there have been moments when the backlash was maybe harsher.
Muslims are there within French society, and the huge majority of them are “integrated.” People are not stupid. For example, you can see a lot of train workers who are Muslim. They’re unionized; they go on strike in a certain French style. They might not eat pork, and some are very pious. And their white colleagues can see that Rachid or Youssef or Laila are colleagues who are dedicated to their job and Muslim — it’s not that much of a problem.
Again, when we look at the people we’ve been talking about — the travelers to Syria, the homegrown terrorists, even the rigoristic Muslims — they do really represent a minority of the population. It could change, but I think if you look at the structural factors, they tend to show that this clash-of-civilizations pattern is not going to happen that way. Then again, if French politicians carry on decontextualizing Islam and playing into these “floating political imaginaries” — maybe at some point you get backlash from Muslim people who feel like they are persecuted and not respected as Muslims. But their Muslimness is really not the only part of their life. I think you have to see that as well.
And going back to the young people who might potentially do harm — not only to themselves but to other people — becoming Muslim can also actually be a resource for finding inner peace and getting out of the illegal business. Of course, it’s related to a lot of different factors, so it’s not just religion. Also, once you acknowledge that turning to Islam can help, you can also see that the job that is currently done by religion could totally be done by other social institutions just as well. And that demonstrates the responsibilities we all have in this. I think you need to understand the two phenomena — political violence and pacification through religion — together.
And, at that point, you’re really far from that lazy cultural conversation that results from the way things get translated into the political debate: “Is it Islam’s fault or not?” I don’t think you can make any progress if you present things in that way, because it doesn’t give a sense of what those young people who are so much talked about are experiencing.