Arooj Khan and Yacine Gherouat unpack the similarities in the lived experiences of Paris-based and London-based Muslims
The Muslim experience in the west is a fairly saturated media topic, it is almost taken for granted that our respective lives are rife with heightened tension, islamophobia and generalised paranoia, all of which are amplified by how visibly Muslim you are.
Although there has been an increase in the acknowledgement of the lived experiences of Muslims in the west, predominantly within alternative media outlets (see Saraaya Sulaiyman’s Navigating Dating as a Muslim Gal). There are still many journalistic pieces which aim to quantify the Muslim experience through utilising surveys and polls, completely void of our everyday lives (see Samuel Osbourne’s Europe’s Muslim Population Projected to Increase by 50m by 2050 in High Migration Scenario).
This article argues for a more nuanced approach to understanding the Muslim experience in the west by drawing parallels between Muslims across borders. Specifically through a momentary geo-political reflection of life in Paris (from a Paris-born Algerian Man) and life in London (from a London-born Pakistani woman).
On the face of it, life for Muslims in Britain and France appear similar. Descendants from the Maghreb make up the majority of France’s Muslim population (7%), as do Pakistani’s to the UK (1.86%). Both countries were the apple of its coloniser’s eye, with Algeria receiving independence in 1962 and Pakistan receiving its independence through partition in 1947, furthermore both communities were exploited for their foreign labour shortly afterwards. French laws prohibit the collection of detailed data regarding race, ethnicity or religion, therefore support for the following similarities are found through unofficial datasets and independent research. Pakistani’s and Algerian’s residing in England and France are also subject to similar disadvantages, 26.5% of university educated French Algerians are unemployed after leaving education, for British Pakistani’s (and Bangladeshi’s, included within the dataset) this figure is between 10-15%; they are also both highly likely to be precariously housed, Algerians and others from the Maghreb are likely to reside in Banlieue’s (outer city settlements characterised by social housing and poverty) and 57% of British Muslims reside in social housing or privately rent; furthermore, hate crimes against French Muslims have tripled since the Charlie Hebdo attacks and hate crimes against British Muslims have increased almost fivefold since the London Bridge attacks.
Our subsequent reflections are based within a specific geographical location, and explain the complexities of navigating the everyday politics of life in those areas. We observe these domestic geopolitics within the frame of specific moments of macro history, namely that of the French Police’s recently ‘enhanced powers’ which infringe on residents civil liberties and Trump’s still raw victory in the American elections. We also present this from the standpoint of self-identified contemporary Moors, loosely defined by Hisham Aidi as young European and American Muslim’s who travel (domestically and internationally) in search of a nonracist utopia. And finally, the subsequent sections act as autoethnographic pieces of journalism which aim to place our lived experiences in the matrix of complex social, cultural and religious manifestations of our lives as Muslims in the west.
And then Trump came along…
“But the thing is, Trump makes some really good points. I think he’s strict on terrorism, we need that. Any anyway he’s all the way in America, so it doesn’t even affect you…”
It’s a few days before Trump’s inauguration and the workplace is alive with debate, both for and against his election.
I avoid eye contact with my colleague, and quickly sift through all the reasons as to why her viewpoint may be justified. She’s only eighteen – still no excuse.
She’s not Muslim, so why would she care about the Muslim ban he’s been proclaiming? – ok maybe a feasible argument…
Yes, but she’s from Stratford – an area in one of the most multi-cultural boroughs of London, she should know about the strife’s and struggles of Muslims…right?
I hit back with a pathetic counter-argument along the lines of Trump’s election is a joke. My response goes through one ear and out of the other, before I receive a severe silencing from another colleague:
“The thing is Arooj, you shouldn’t be airing your views at work. It’s a professional environment here and you’re making people feel uncomfortable.”
On the surface, my colleague’s remark seems fair. Realistically, how much can oppression against Muslims in America affect Muslims in Britain? Well, unless they’re from one of the countries upon which Trump has inflicted his travel ban.
However, this laissez-faire attitude is ultimately dangerous. It effectively ignores the manifestations and consequences of (upper-case) Political racism. We all know that ignoring racism does nothing to tackle the issue, in fact it buys into the false illusion of a racial utopia which ignores the real ways in which racism exists and is exacerbated by individuals and the wider systems.
Racist ideologies have long evolved from a localised approach, where British nationalists once sought to keep ‘English values’ intact, Britain First and all of its splinter factions now spout a rhetoric which transcends borders, highlighting a presumed threat against an international white tribe by people of colour and Muslims across the globe.
The words that I wish I had said to my colleagues are as follows:
“Racism across geographic boundaries does indeed happen, and by choosing to disregard it, you are upholding a system which thrives on the oppression of an already disadvantaged group. When racist ideologies are upheld within the politics of a nation, it filters down into the everyday lives of the people who are being targeted. It doesn’t matter that America is an ocean away, the fact that we are debating this shows that Trump’s rampant Islamophobia, masked behind ‘national security’, has pervaded our society and our consciousness. Racism is not confined within geographical boundaries, the fact that the Welsh Finsbury Park attacker was emboldened by the Rochdale Grooming Case (204 miles and one country away) and that Trump could easily retweet Britain First’s anti-Muslim video’s from the safety of his White House are frightening and painful demonstrations of this…”
The ‘other’ Paris
The first time that I was stopped and searched was in my hometown of Chevilly-Larue, just south of central Paris. I was twenty two years old, standing outside my building with a group of friends. I was one of the lucky ones though, prior to this I had always managed to keep out of trouble. A combination of knowing when to show extra respect to authority and looking younger than my age, and thus less ‘threatening‘.
We were approached directly by a group of police officers who said that they had to search us because an inmate had escaped from a local prison. I was asked for my ID, I explained that I didn’t have it with me. I was bundled into a police car and taken to the local police station where my dad had to collect me and show them my proof of residence (my French passport).
Apparently it was ‘routine’… yes, predominantly routine for North Africans and Black residents.
I am reflecting on this shortly after the French president, Emmanuel Macron, approves a controversial counter-terrorism bill, which has been subject to UN scrutiny given that it hugely infringes on citizen’s civil liberties – French police can now search your house or place you under house arrest without a court order.
In France, if you are North African or Black, you are twenty times more likely to be stopped and searched according to research by the French human rights organisation Defender of Rights. This hyper-policing of people of colour is unsurprising given the demographic make-up of the French police – predominantly white and from the provinces, a stark contract if they are assigned to policing the banlieues.
In recent years there has been an emerging trend of police brutality which has made me reflect on my experience of being stopped and search with renewed fear. In 1999, France was found guilty of torture by the European Court of Human Rights regarding the case of Ahmed Selmouni who brought to light his experience of abuse and sexual exploitation whilst in police custody. This is echoed by the case of Yacine Ben Kahla who was found in the cellar of his building block with his pants around his ankles and contusions on his body similar to the way French police use to immobilise people. As well as that of Théo Luhaka who was beaten and anally raped with a police baton whilst being subjected to a stop and search.
Emasculation is a brilliant tactic, one that has been long used by colonial superpowers. According to McKinney (2007), there is an oscillation between emasculation and hypermasculinity through which men of colour from the banlieue’s in France have been viewed. We are dangerous degenerates who should be restricted to a geography of deprivation, who can be controlled through rape and white male dominance which in turn renders us passive and emasculated. I can draw multiple parallels between the stories shared by family members regarding the French occupation of Algeria, whereby rape was a common interrogation method, used as a form of psychological warfare in order to humiliate the ‘enemy’.
Ultimately the geographical injustice of police brutality is stark, and the spatial stigma is painful. The banlieues embody the racial, cultural and religious stereotypes that consistently haunt us and the stop and search tactics echo the brutalities of France’s colonial past.
Between our very personal examples of ignorance and racism, it is clear to see that geopolitics plays a large part in the creation and extension of racist ideologies. France’s colonial relationship with Algeria filters down into the everyday lives of French Algerians who are subjected to hypercritical policies and procedures. And Britain’s ‘special relationship’ with the US which includes amicable cultural relations between the two states, perfectly manifested by a shared islamophobia which penetrates the subconscious of the seemingly apolitical.
Therefore, despite our ethnic and national diversity, what Muslims in France and Britain increasingly have in common are our nuanced and varied ‘lived experiences’, which includes the bitterness of exclusion and the laborious efforts to integrate; the haunting memories of our respective colonial histories; and some of the more enduring similarities such as state violence, poor access to resources and general normalised ignorance.
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Arooj Khan is the Research and Knowledge Manager for Business in the Community’s Education campaign, and an Urban Geographies PhD student at the University of Birmingham. She is also a Community Arts Facilitator who utilises arts workshops as a medium to discuss area specific issues. She has evaluated programmes on behalf of the Barbican, Create London, InIVA and The Hayward Gallery. She has also partnered with Metal Arts, Thurrock Arts Trail and Hidden Gems to facilitate bespoke arts workshops. She frequently writes and comments on race, creative research methods, the diasporan identity, social mobility, regeneration and neo-liberalism, typically through an intersectional lens. Tweet her @arooj88
Yacine Gherouat is a keen writer and poet with a keen interest in all subject matters, ranging from economics to geo-politics. He is an avid hip-hop fan, raised in Paris with living experience in London and Algiers. A book addict with a penchant for political documentaries, when he is not writing about the experiences of Muslims in the west, he can be found disciplining his mind and body at the gym.
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