Dr Joseph Downing, a lecturer in the European Institute, has spent many years living in Marseille. His experiences and perspectives helped inform his book, French Muslims in Perspective, which ‘banalises’ the lives of French citizens sometimes labelled as extremists and terrorists.
Living and working in Marseille, a port city in the south of France where French Muslims make up an estimated third of the population, Dr Downing’s apartment sits within a diverse community where people of different religious backgrounds, origins and family status live side-by side.
“Living and working in France, in Marseille, gave me a new perspective after studying the country for most of my career. Marseille is often defined by its large French Muslim population, with many social problems, in a reductive way. I felt it was important to try to show French Muslims there and elsewhere in their complexity.”
Dr Downing says the media, politicians and academic scholars often produce narratives which label French Muslims as part of a homogeneous bloc: “In many instances, French Muslims are portrayed as usually devoutly religious and often as terrorists to be feared.”
“Their religious identity has become an umbrella term that has metamorphasised to encompass an identity that actually has many facets of ethnic and racial identity. Often French Muslims are described in a negative context, reproducing the narratives of the far-right.”
Each chapter in Dr Downing’s book takes a different aspect of French Muslim’s experiences- France’s history, economic, political and media culture, among others, to break down and demystify their lives.
Dr Downing says: “My aim with the book is to try to banalise the French Muslim experience, and reject this idea that they are exceptional and extreme. They have everyday concerns and normal ambitions and feel very French. There is a large and rapidly growing Muslim middle class in France, who have the same aspirations as most other citizens."
In some ways, the French state has helped isolate minority communities with policies such as banning religious symbols in public. As politicians have tried to keep the state secular, legislation in recent years has disproportionately targeted women wearing hijabs, a traditional Muslim dress.
“This kind of policy is a distraction from the problems in France. It sows division as it disproportionately effects Muslims, and arguably discriminates against them.”
Despite these tensions, Dr Downing says that in his experience, French Muslims largely support the republican ideal. He says France's aspiration of equality and fairness for all citizens, regardless of their background, is particularly popular.
“Republicanism promises a colour-blind relationship with the state, something that is really appealing for most French Muslims I speak to. But equally, often the state isn’t functioning effectively or responding to their needs, so they are disadvantaged and excluded for other reasons.”
“French Muslims are not different to most French citizens. They want more equal allocation of resources, access to good state schools and universities, and fair access to employment opportunities.”
“Republicanism doesn’t stop France from addressing any of these issues. If you can fix these banal, everyday concerns, then living in the Republic of France becomes more appealing to all citizens.”
France faces huge structural disadvantages in providing equality for its citizens because of French social housing policy, which led to the creation of vast housing estates after the Second World War to provide homes to hundreds of thousands of immigrants. Over time, many of these areas have become neglected and ignored by the central state, and suffer from high unemployment and crime.
Dr Downing calls these estates ‘an accident of history’, segregating thousands of people in tower blocks in a single area: “They are difficult to reform and redevelop, and the mostly Muslim residents are discriminated against because of where they live.”
He highlights how the more banal social problems have helped feed the narrative of French Muslim extremism. “The crime problems that exist within these estates are partly down to the fact that the police are not in control for long periods of time.”
“These estates are in many ways unpoliceable due to their architecture, so residents can act with impunity. Living in Marseille I found that gun crime was common in France, and military weapons like Kalashnikovs are used in low-level crimes like raiding shops or muggings. These guns are available for around €1000 and circulating freely around social housing estates.
"The stigmatisation these crime ridden estates face further stigmatises Muslims in a mix of religious and secular terms, as they reside often in high crime areas.”
“But really, these crimes are an example of how you can fix the bigger social problems with smaller, practical solutions.”