The Silence of 'Others': Marseille Again

In November 2011, I was in Chapel Hill to see a dear friend, Aseem Hasnain, who was a PhD student at the University of North Carolina. There I met Zaheer Abbas, another friend whom I decided to photograph for The Silence of ‘Others’. I vividly remember how after dinner one night we sat down for the ‘interview’. I took out my notebook, voice recorder and the questionnaire that I had been using since 2009 for all my interviews for the project. Since Zaheer is a voracious reader and his PhD topic – Construction of Bengali Muslim identity in colonial Bengal – is in many ways related to my work, I was looking forward to an exciting interview with him. But I couldn’t interview him. Because Zaheer and Aseem refused to be interviewed. They were keen on interviewing me. It all began as soon as I had finished asking my first and the only question – Are you a Muslim? In the blink of an eye, Zaheer counter-questioned, ‘What do you mean by ‘Muslim’’? Quite confidently, I mentioned a number of things, like a believer in Allāh, follower of Islam, one who prays regularly, fasts during Ramzān, offers zakāt, etc. My interviewers weren’t pleased. Because my responses were directly or indirectly related to the conventional idea of an organized religion. Zaheer and Aseem had helped me to acknowledge a serious flaw in my research. Our discussion had led me to understand that any attempt to study Muslims or their relationship with non-Muslims, while viewing Muslims as a homogenous ‘religious’ group or analyzing their actions solely on the basis of their religiosity, is incorrect and insufficient. This new learning has helped my project to explore many contemporary and relevant issues. But simultaneously, it has also made my work a lot more demanding. Because in order to understand the hundreds of questions that surround the Muslim community in today’s world, I now have to know more and be aware of many other complex issues and subjects. Talking about Islam, niqabs, beards or maddarsas in isolation is not going to help anymore. 

Often, my friends and colleagues interrogate me with an intention to prove that Islam and Muslims are inherently flawed and violent. They ask questions like – Why don’t Muslims publicly protest or criticize international acts of terrorism, why do Muslims demand separate social, cultural and religious concessions in non-Islamic countries, and why are non-Muslims oppressed and discriminated against in Islamic countries, why do Muslims migrate to Western countries if they do not wish to ‘integrate’, why do Muslims put their religion first and foremost in all social and political issues, why only Muslims fail to make any social or economic progress in an equal opportunity environment, why isn’t there a single Arab Muslim country that allows freedom of expression or follows democracy, etc. Discussions and concerns over recent events - like young Muslims in the West fleeing to join ISIS (really?) - fail to move beyond the 'bad influence of Islam and Imams'. Such discussions are invariably wrapped in the usual allegations that since Muslims uncritically accept Quran as the final word of God, they are intolerant towards other religions, that they believe it is permitted to kill ‘infidels’, their societies stifle dissent, and they are women oppressors who refuse to alter their outmoded way of thinking and living. My objection to the flawed premise of their queries – one that views Muslims not as a social but as a ‘religious’ group and categorizes Muslims according to the length of beards or scarves – is out rightly rejected. Added to the personal prejudices and twisted perspectives of many debaters is their refusal to critically understand history, historians, wars, immigration and post-colonial settlement, the blunder of viewing propaganda as journalism, the unawareness of complex ground-level issues and the cultural, socio-economic and legal factors that manufacture or sustain these issues, the reluctance to accept the existence of race and class politics, the failure to recognize and respect the diverse world of people with different identities and varied affiliations, the myopia of labeling senseless criminal, political or militaristic conflicts as religious or ‘Islamic’ wars, and the fetish of branding any and every form of intellectual and civil resistance by Muslims as radicalization. I often find myself trapped in many such insular debates where it is an impossible task to prove that Muslims are much more than ‘religious beings’ and just like every other individual on this planet, they too have diverse interests and opinions on society, politics, culture, and even their own religion. But many of us intentionally ignore all such complexities and conveniently choose to categorize Muslims simply as ‘practicing’ & ‘non-practicing’ or ‘moderate’ & ‘radical’ Muslims. 

 I confess, that for many years I too could not move beyond such reductive generalizations. But I am glad that I came to France. Because here one can visibly comprehend the ambiguity of such simplified classifications. In France, one learns that not all Arabs are Muslims and not all Muslim immigrants are Arabs. One learns that not all Arabs come from the ‘Middle-East’ and that there are Black Arabs too who come from the Comoros Islands and the Maghreb. Maghreb is in Africa and not in the ‘Middle-East’ but not all Maghrebis are Black. Yes, a majority of the poor in France are Maghrebis but there are many Maghrebis who have managed to succeed economically. As soon as one begins to respect these differences, one also understands that marginalization of Muslims is not always tied to their religion; a Muslim can experience discrimination also because of her race, ethnicity, immigration or economic status. A black woman can experience racism because of her skin color, but it can also be because she wears a hijab, cannot speak French or because she is poor. A young college graduate cannot be shortlisted for a job interview if she has an Arab name, even if she is not a Muslim. And a brown man can be subjected to ethnic profiling, harassment and humiliation even if he is neither an Arab nor a Muslim. Even terms like ‘practicing’ Muslims cannot explain the differences in personal practice like prayers and mosque attendance, Islamic dress codes and food habits, openness to inter-religious or inter-racial marriages, etc. Strolling outside Mosques cannot tell us that a majority of the Muslims in France are all packed in those tall shiny ivory towers that are peppered in and around French cities. Built in the 50s and 60s, these social housing buildings were meant to replace the shantytowns and to accommodate immigrant workers. And of course, to keep them away from the ‘real’ French people. The result is that today, millions of people all over France live a life of poverty, despair and ruin in these ethnically homogenous and insular buildings. A majority of these buildings are dilapidated and clearly unfit for human habitation. With a pervasive atmosphere of barrenness and misery, most of the buildings suffer from a combination of structural defects, water seepage, insulation problems, out of order elevators and swarming population of rats. Instead of providing safe and affordable homes to poor people, flawed urban planning, institutional discrimination and government apathy has aided the gradual transformation of these buildings into a poverty trap and a life long curse. And even if some young individuals do manage to get out of these areas, the deep-seated racial, cultural and religious discrimination does not let them buy or rent a home in better neighborhoods. That is why Muslims and immigrants return to these buildings; not because of any genetic or religious tendency to flock together. Schools should provide enabling environments where young minds learn how to disregard inequalities, improve social relations and shun segregation. But here, schools are the true mirrors of the socio-economically unequal and highly segregated French society. Schools in these areas have poor infrastructures, less resources and overcrowded classrooms. Freshly recruited teachers, who rarely have the skills to understand the multicultural needs of the students, are sent to these difficult schools. Experienced and more qualified teachers get to work at schools away from poor violent cités. The stigma attached with these cités further ensures that their residents are never hired for good jobs and the unemployment rate keeps getting worse. A majority of the shops or markets built at the center of the cités are now closed due to lack of capital and high crime. They have been replaced by an underground economy that revolves around drug trade and stolen goods. This has led to greater police scrutiny/harassment and increased tensions with the cité residents. But simultaneously, police corruption and collusion also permits an illegal weapons and drugs network to flourish in these cités, which further fans the menace of crime, violence and drug abuse. 

So if we wish to understand the Muslims/Arabs in France, or anywhere else, then we should be prepared to explore a complex mix of their personal and social realities. It is very important to acknowledge and dissect this complexity. Because, firstly, it informs and enables us to discard our own ignorant and stereotypical ideas about Muslims. Secondly, it reinforces the need to understand Muslims not as a ‘religious’ but as a highly heterogeneous ‘social’ group. It tells us that scrutinizing the Quran or dissecting Islam is not going to help; solution to their issues will have to come from the social, political, economic, cultural and legal realities that they live in. Thirdly, it demands that all of us, who choose to study the Muslim community, should be willing to welcome greatly diversified and sometimes contradictory opinions. Finally, it tells us that if we so desperately seek an answer to the quintessential question – Whether a Muslim can also be French (or European/American/Indian) – then we should first try to define what does it mean to be French. 

Can words like ‘citizenship’ or slogans like ‘embrace the French principles of liberty, equality, and fraternity’ truly explain what it means to be French’? Citizenship is a simple legal term and it does not take much to tell who is a citizen and who is not. Though, there is still a need to thrash vague terms like ‘failed citizens’ and ‘undeserving citizens’. But what about words like liberty, equality, and fraternity. Who is going to tell what these words mean and who decides whether those meanings are permanent or changeable? Dr. Jennifer Fredette, in her wonderful new book – Constructing Muslims in France – explains what it means to be ‘French’: 

"In France, as we are frequently told, the deserving citizen embraces the principles of    liberty, equality, and fraternity. For those with even the vaguest sense of French history, this is recognizable as the perennial discourse of French citizenship that has remained dominant since the revolution, except during the period of Vichy government, which valued “Work, Family, and Fatherland.” Liberty, equality, and fraternity, just like any other big ideas, do not have fixed meanings. Their articulation by elites in today’s French political context produces a set of characteristics that mark someone as a deserving French citizen. Joan Wallach Scott, the feminist theorist and France expert, identifies five characteristics that disqualify one from being seen as fully “French”: anything short of complete liberality in sexual relations; any reference to or sign of religion in not just political but also social affairs; cultural pluralism; anything short of abstract individualism; and ancestral origins beyond the countries of Europe (Scott 2007, pp. 5, 11, 88, 125, 172– 173). Apart from the last of these five characteristics, which has nothing to do with personal choice, these characteristics are all defended as “French” because they are seen as contemporary articulations of the French values of liberty, equality, and fraternity. Those who do not bear the five characteristics are seen as rejecting France’s national values triad."

In other words, one has to agree to a certain kind of sexual behavior, should not overtly display or identify with her religion or culture in the public sphere, and willingly mix with other races, ethnicity and gender. And even a cursory reading of this clearly suggests that one does not even have to be a Muslim to be treated as an outsider or less French. Because even a traditional Indian Hindu woman in a saree and a bindi on her forehead, or a Sikh man with a beard and a turban, would never be considered as fully French or well ‘integrated’. 

Dr. Fredette later sums up a discussion about how Muslims are treated as undeserving citizens: 

"Muslims are typically depicted by French elites as sexually aberrant (either predatory or virginal), as so religious that Islam dominates all aspects of their lives, and as unwilling to think beyond their Muslim identity to the common good. Consider how the political, media, and intellectual depictions of Muslims presented above associate Muslims with excessive religiousness, immigrants and foreigners, violence, and sexual repression. And because of stereotypes that exist about Muslims in France, even those who vaguely identify as Muslim in a cultural sense but have a weak attachment to the religion find that they are assumed to lack these five characteristics that define the deserving French citizen, even if they have them (or, at least, the first four) in spades. Muslims, we are told, behave in ways that suggest they do not share in the French values of liberty, equality, and fraternity. They remain outsiders even though they bear the legal accoutrements of citizenship: they may be citizens, but they are undeserving citizens."

(Dr. Fredette’s book is available online with free access). 

I have come to believe that our reluctance or inability, to confront the complex, incites us to believe that Islam as a religion is the root cause of all issues that plague Muslims as well as non-Muslims. This loud but false perception of Muslims as ‘undeserving’ or ‘failed’ citizens is a direct manifestation of our unwillingness to challenge and critically scrutinize our own social existence, politics, religion and belief systems. We simply refuse to acknowledge and examine evidence that proves that a multiform social process, and not religion, shapes individuals and governs their actions. Instead, we expend energies and emotions in exhorting Muslims to collectively explain or apologize for rabid violent individuals who have Islamic names or use Islam as a justification for their acts. And we do so while believing that all Muslims have the same histories, ethnicities, cultures, beliefs, opinions, identities and political orientations. All ground realities and complexities are ignored and unanimously a conclusion is drawn that Islam/Muslims/Arabs are incompatible with modern thoughts, freedom, progress and empowerment. We refuse to accept any individual or collective responsibility for any socio-political or humanitarian upheaval. But we consider it as our right to blame Muslims for their ‘integration’ or ‘national identity’ problems and then raucously demand for various changes in Muslims’ behavior as a solution to these problems. I am seeing it in France and I have seen it at many other places. But unfortunately, the situation is not going to get better any time soon. Not because we can’t see the solution but simply because we refuse to see the problem. 

France. Marseille. 2014. Radia (center) with her daughter (left) and her friend (right) at her home in the 3rd arrondissement of Marseille. 

France. Marseille. 2014. Inside a room at an under-construction Islamic school building. 

France. Marseille. 2014. Community members gather at the office of Lakbir Messas (not in the picture). Messas fought but lost the 2014 Municipal elections as an independent candidate from 2nd arrondissement of Marseille. 

France. Marseille. 2014. Ihlem Ouertani (right), 30, meets a friend at Agora Centre, a social development organization located in quartier Busserine, 14th arrondissement of Marseille. For a number of reasons, including high crime and violence, Busserine and nearby areas have been identified as ‘Sensitive Urban Zones’ by the French government. Agora Centre works for the socio-economic and political upliftment of the people living in these sensitive zones. It implements several projects and organizes a number of creatively engaging activities – computer & language classes, dance lessons, craftwork, sports – for young men and women in order to prevent them from falling prey to the drug trade's deceptive lure of easy money. Young women, to evade the violence in their quartier, regularly use Agora Centre’s premises to socialize and spend time with their friends. 

France. Marseille. 2014. A young man at a kebab shop.  

France. Marseille. 2014. Mohamed Guelmani works to convert his attic into a bathroom. Guelmani is a professional social worker and a self-taught carpenter, plumber and painter. He often buys and renovates old dilapidated flats, and then resells them for a tidy profit.  

France. Marseille. 2014. Maeva, 28, gets emotional as she talks about her mother. Maeva lives in a shelter for homeless young men and women. To escape poverty, she left her home in Morocco and came to France with a hope to earn a better life. But the person, who had promised to get Maeva a job in Marseille, turned out to be a cheat and she ended up in a homeless shelter. The shelter supports individuals like Maeva to return to school and helps them to acquire professional skills for future employment.  

France. Marseille. 2014. Women prepare the traditional Algerian flatbread, Kesra, inside a shop at Noailles. Noailles is a neighborhood in the 1st arrondissement of Marseille located downtown near the Old Port. Noailles is famous for its old buildings, immigrant population and hundreds of shops selling North African food and other products like crafts and fabrics.  

France. Marseille. 2014. Hamed Boussai, 22, returns home to his wife after an early morning work shift at a local butcher shop. Hamed, a recent immigrant from Morocco, has had a lot of trouble with law and has also served prison time in Italy. But he said that his marriage has transformed him completely as a person. He and his wife, a convert to Islam, met in January earlier this year, fell in love and got married soon. They are expecting their first child, which is due in November this year.  

France. Marseille. 2014. Young men at cité Les Rosiers (City of Roses). Built in 1957 and infamous for drug trafficking and high crime rate, Les Rosiers has some of the oldest and dirtiest buildings in Marseille.  

France. Marseille. 2014. Inside a Lebanese restaurant.  

France. Marseille. 2014. Ali, 22, works at a Pakistani restaurant. I had met Ali in 2012 when he had just arrived in Marseille from Pakistan via Iran. Ali’s parents helped him escape from his native village near Lahore when they found out that Ali’s uncles and cousins, in order to settle a long-running property dispute, were plotting to kill Ali. A trafficking agent got him out of Pakistan but abandoned him, and several others like him, in Iran. Ali was held in an Iranian jail for a few months before being sent to France. In France, a social organization helped him to acquire professional and language skills and later produced him in the court that granted him with a French nationality.  

France. Marseille. 2014. Sylvain Massoudi, 25, lights a candle at the Notre Dame de la Garde. Sylvain, an Iranian immigrant, lives in Marseille but had never been to the world famous basilica before.  

France. Marseille. 2014. A young couple embraces before retiring to their separate rooms in a shelter for homeless young men and women.  

France. Marseille. 2014. Mohamed [center], a Zumba instructor, during one of his evening classes in a local dance bar. Mohammed, an immigrant from the Comoros, works full-time as a social worker and is also a very popular dance instructor & choreographer in Marseille.  

France. Marseille. 2014. Friends and Nelson Mandela at Noailles. Often labeled as ‘The belly of Marseille’, Noailles is an old but very popular neighborhood with a rich history of immigration and post-colonial settlement.  

France. Marseille. 2014. Outside a bar in Noailles.  

France. Marseille. 2014. Samia Ouertani (left), a social care worker, at one of her client’s home. Her client, F. Hamadi (right), has been suffering from mental depression since many years and rarely steps out of her small 5th floor apartment. Samia, her only friend, visits her 3 to 4 times in a week and helps Hamadi with her medicines and grocery shopping.  

France. Marseille. 2014. Inside a café – cum – library young members of EuroPalestine, a pro-Palestine association, rehearse their acts and speeches a night before organizing a protest theater against Israel in downtown Marseille.  

France. Marseille. 2014. Inside his small room in a shelter for homeless young men, Daniel (standing), 19, gives a haircut to his friend, Mohamed Chérif Spiga. Daniel dreams of becoming a hairstylist and provides his services free of cost to all the residents of the shelter home.

France. Marseille. 2014. Near the Town Hall Square. 

France. Marseille. 2014. Students during a break between their classes at Adelies association. Adelies is a social organization that works with children from troubled environments, early school dropouts and juvenile delinquents. Its activities are designed to promote and facilitate the overall education of men and women, their development and taking responsibility in civil life and at workplace. 

France. Marseille. 2014. Young men at a technical training center run by Adelies, a social organization. Many of the students at Adelies are juvenile delinquents coming from difficult and diverse backgrounds. Adelies provides them with language, mathematics, computer and technical skills to help them succeed in professional environments. Using an approach of prevention, mediation and training, Adelies works with families, educational institutes and directly with young men and women on the streets to prevent their exclusion, anti-social behavior and conflicts.  

France. Marseille. 2014. A student at an Islamic school in Marseille.  

France. Marseille. 2014. Camille (right), a convert to Islam, enjoys the view atop the hill of Notre Dame de la Garde. On being asked why she embraced Islam, she said, “A few years ago, while walking I saw many Muslim men praying on the side of a busy street. I saw then calm and lost in their prayers in spite of the heavy traffic and blaring car horns. On one hand, I was touched to witness their devotion and on the other, I felt sad to see them worshipping under such non-sacred conditions. Something inside me changed that day and it encouraged me to walk towards Islam”. 

France. Marseille. 2014. Isa (standing) and his two daughters take a break during their first visit to the MuCem (Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilizations).  

France. Marseille. 2014. Young men from Mayotte at La Roseraie, an emergency shelter home for homeless students and unemployed young people aged 16-30 years. Managed by the Association for Aid to Young Workers (AAJT), the shelter not only provides housing but also offers its residents free food and medical treatment for various heath problems, like malnutrition, addictions and psychosomatic disorders.  

France. Marseille. 2014. A child slides down the stairs at a street in the 3rd arrondissement. Home to a very large and diverse immigrant population, the 3rd arrondissement is known for its deprivation and increasing poverty in comparison with other parts of Marseille. With very high unemployment rates, old run-down housing and low levels of education, the population of this district is much poorer than the average, even by Marseille standards. 

France. Marseille. 2014. Soccer and candy apples at a social housing building compound. 

France. Marseille. 2014. Young men honing their soccer skills outside a social service office at cité les Flamants in the 14th arrondissement. This neighborhood has been identified as one of the fourteen sites for the Marseille Urban Renovation project where a few decrepit social housing buildings are being replaced with new colorful ones. 

France. Marseille. 2014. In front of an old social housing building at quartier Busserine in the 14th arrondissement. The neighborhood, labeled as a Sensitive Urban Zone, is one of the fourteen sites for the Marseille Urban Renovation project where a few decrepit social housing buildings are being replaced with new ones. 

France. Marseille. 2014. A child plays in the courtyard of Agora Centre, a social development organization located in quartier Busserine, 14th arrondissement of Marseille. For a number of reasons, including high crime and violence, Busserine and nearby areas have been identified as ‘Sensitive Urban Zones’ by the French government. 

France. Marseille. 2014. At a friend’s apartment in cité les Lauriers in 13th arrondissement.  

France. Marseille. 2014. Sisters share a joke outside The Grand Littoral shopping center. 

France. Marseille. 2014. An evening of reading and kickboxing workout at the beach.  

France. Marseille. 2014. Leslie Diebel, with her son Adam Belaadi (left), soaks up the sun at the beach near Promenade Georges Pompidou.  

France. Marseille. 2014. Malika Ibrahima with her boyfriend, Mathieu Cocly, at La Roseraie, an emergency shelter home for unemployed homeless young people.  

France. Marseille. 2014. Picking fresh flowers in the morning. 

France. Marseille. 2014. A young man and his blue-and-gold macaw in a street near Place Jean Jaurès. 

France. Marseille. 2014. A young man does a wheelie in a narrow street even as his friend (hand) warns him of a fast approaching car behind his scooter. A youngster performing a wheelie is such a common sight in Marseille that many people jokingly describe it as the ‘national sport of Marseille’. 

Selected photographs from The Silence of 'Others' (2009-ongoing) can be viewed at the link below

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