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    Tous Dans La Même Direction

    (All In the Same Direction)

    Alex Muscat

  • Introduction

    The concept for Tous Dans La Même Direction first emerged in September 2014—before the killings at Charlie Hebdo and the Hypercacher, before the tragedy at the Bataclan. I had just composed a 2-minute piece made entirely out of samples recorded in San Francisco. As an avid listener, this process was thrilling to me; sound worlds and instruments I was incapable of physically playing suddenly became accessible. I searched madly for another outlet, another city, another sound source to explore. At this point, I only had a vague sense of the situation of Muslim citizens in France, but the confluence of cultures fit with my own grasps of the Arabic and French languages. I decided on Paris. The city would frame my passion for found sound, field recording, and electronic music in a cultural context, giving otherwise purely aesthetic decisions conceptual weight.


    The final album exists somewhere between fiction and documentary, providing a phenomenological experience of the Paris I heard. I stayed true to working exclusively from field recordings, although at times heavily mangled and manipulated by Logic Pro X—the interface that guided my musical universe. I plucked single notes from acoustic sources, individual phonemes from spoken sentences, assembling a palette of virtual, half-real half-imagined, instruments. My creative process mirrored the indeterminate state of my subjects’ cultural identities. The sounds originated from a clear provenance yet manifested themselves in new, shifting ways.


    However, these fifteen tracks are not an ethnomusicological study. From a compositional standpoint, I largely stayed true to my own American and European influenced musical vernacular. This made sense on a literal front, as my interview subjects were actually more in tune with American popular music than I was (despite having never visited the U.S.). Offering up a pastiche of Middle Eastern stylings would have been unfaithful to their actual experience. Furthermore, the act of translating interviews and field recordings through my own filter embodies the driving core of the album: how does one engage with difference when they themselves are an outsider? Does art, and specifically sound art, have the potential to provide an imaginary space of connection?


    Tous Dans La Même Direction is an environment to be explored. It flits in and out of existence as one engages or daydreams in its presence. Each track gestures toward a progression or idea, bleeding seamlessly from one to the next. This structure resists the commercial urge to rip songs from their surrounding tissue (an ironic proposition for music made entirely from collage). The album is a futile effort to create some degree of order out of sonic scraps, combining noises from separate times and locations into a medium of measured organization. Fittingly, as the album progresses, the transitions give less and less leeway for dismemberment.


    The goal of my project was to take marginalized Muslim words and voices seriously, to approach my research subjects with the utmost humility and with a willingness to simply listen. My interviews centered on a group of Arab students in the Arabic Studies department at Sorbonne Paris III. Before our sessions, I informed each interviewee that their testimony could later be used in the musical and academic aspects of my project. To respect their privacy, I am unable to foreground their real names. However, I am deeply indebted to them and the time they took to talk to me. Although they often joked that I must be CIA (why else would a non-Muslim boy from California travel all the way to Paris to talk to them?), they expressed a verve and openness to share their experiences. This album, and any projects that later stem from my experiences in Paris, would be impossible without their emotional labor. I will do my best to someday return the favor.

  • Acousmatic Listening

    During my research I collected over 350 field recordings from around the city. These recordings consist of sidewalk ambience, jazz concerts, street markets, gurgling water, bicycles, pigeons, leaves, Arabic music, etc. Several of my recordings have no clear relationship to my subjects; however, my intent was to capture the general rhythms and sensations of living in Paris.


    Yet, why sound? In Roland Barthes’ essay “The Grain of the Voice”, the French intellectual proposes a theory for the relationship between performer and listener, which he dubs “the grain of the voice”. This grain is the audible physicality of performed music. From a listening perspective, Barthes then describes how he is “determined to listen to [his] relation with the body of the man or woman singing or playing”, dissolving his own subject-hood (188). Tous Dans La Même Direction expands Barthes’ theory to the noises and voices of daily life, presenting non-musical sources in a musical context. Aestheticizing these sounds evokes the melding of experiences that arises from the “grain of the voice” yet broadens the listener’s imagination to encompass the grain of quotidian existence.


    Although ethnographic recording, acoustic ecology, and field recording influence this art practice, all three techniques suffer from conceptual shortcomings in isolation. With the advent of the radio and more sophisticated recording techniques, French acoustician Pierre Schaeffer was fascinated by listening contexts in which “listeners could not see the sources of sound production” (Demers 27). He referred to this phenomenon as acousmatic listening. Schaeffer envisioned acousmatic listening as a purer or “reduced” sound, allowing the listener to ignore external referents and focus on the sound itself (Demers 27).


    While Schaeffer strove to strip sound of its cultural associations, electroacoustic composer Trevor Wishart veered away from Schaeffer’s “reduced” approach to sound. Instead, he argued that “it is impossible to separate sounds from their associations, so it is incumbent upon composers to acknowledge and work with sound references rather than to repress them” (Demers 30). While one could try to isolate and manipulate a noise (such as a bird tweet) beyond recognition, this school of thought draws conceptual weight from the emotional and cultural associations that sounds evoke. Most post-Schaefferian composers align themselves with Wishart’s philosophy, and I also use acousmatic listening as a means of highlighting sound’s external world.


    Ethnographic recordings such as Tony Schwartz’ Nueva York which was a “series of sound ethnographies of Puerto Rican immigrants in Manhattan during the 1940s and 1950s”, fundamentally overlap with my project’s objectives (Demers 121). Schwartz uses “footage in a reconstructive manner to convey what it feels like (or at least sounds like) in a given place” (Demers 121). However, ethnographic recording often claims to offer an objective version of sound that “can be used to imitate reality and impart truth in an unambiguous manner” (Demers 122). In contrast, I fully acknowledge the mediated nature of sound perception and the inherent biases that inform my composition. I view my project as an aesthetic interpretation rather than as an objective document.


    Acoustic ecology composers arose as a vein of environmentalist electroacoustic music. Like Wishart, they capitalized on sound’s referentiality, recording natural environments as a reaction to increasing industrialization. Yet, this work, at its “most polemical conceives of nature’s sounds, and, by extension, all of nature, as existing in an adversarial relationship with humanity” (Demers 123). In fact, almost all soundscape work either situates itself in strictly natural environments (i.e. Westerkamp’s Kits Beach Sound Walk, which intentionally filters out encroaching city noise), or urban locales (i.e. Francisco Lopez’s Buildings [New York]). Tous Dans La Même Direction, in contrast, contains a mixture of natural, industrial, and human sounds, blurring the boundary between this conventional divide.


    While reduced listening (or as Lopez calls it, “profound listening”) emphasizes the inner world of sound and draws attention to what would normally be conceived of as mere background noise, it strives to erase cultural context. My work considers listening as “a socially inscribed experience”, where the associations and references that a sound evokes are equally as important as the sound itself (Demers 129). Furthermore, listening is a subjective act. Even microphones, perceived as mechanical, and thus objective, tools, possess individual characters. The sounds that appear throughout Tous Dans La Même Direction are refracted through these layers: my ears, my microphones, and finally the ears of my audience.

  • The Politics of Sound

    Print cultures tend to underestimate the emotional weight and personal resonances of sound environments. In every single interview, when asked about their favorite sounds, my research subjects recalled the open air markets of North Africa. Each interviewee then complained about the roaring traffic that dominates Paris. The disjunction between these responses possessed a clear personal resonance. While sound is often thought of as a sensation rooted in the present, my participants remembered the sounds of Morocco and Tunisia with a pang of nostalgia. For Sophie, street market hubbub evokes the sense of community she misses from Morocco. Paris, on the other hand, is characterized by impersonal, industrial tones. Sound environments deeply shape one’s perception and appreciation of a specific space.


    The natural simultaneity of sound makes it an ideal medium for teasing out intersections of power, race, and identity. The modern primacy of the visual has locked the human mind “into a position where only linear conceptualization is acceptable” (Mcluhan 69). Unlike sound which can contain several layers, visual logic “encourages reasoning by exclusion: something is either in that space or it isn’t” (Mcluhan 70). The written and visual hold such weight that other senses occupy hyper-specific functions. However, this hierarchy of the senses is not immutable. My project intentionally avoids the visual realm, instead focusing solely on sound. Oral societies, although often deemed uncivilized, “can easily entertain two diametric possibilities at once” (Mcluhan 70). This mode of thought is crucial for discussions of identity, but woefully undertrained by written cultures. Using my field recordings as source material, I aimed to thrust these conversations into a musical medium and develop a cultural capacity for multiplicity.


    Furthermore, the physicality of sound offers the potential to explore concepts of space. In 1981 American composer Alvin Lucier recorded “I Am Sitting in a Room”. The piece begins mundanely, as Lucier intones, “I am sitting in a room different from the one you are in now” (Lucier). He explains that his voice will be recorded and then played back into the room over and over again. After each iteration, more of the reverberant noise engulfs Lucier’s words. Until, over time, “any semblance of my speech…is destroyed”. The piece holds iconic weight in electroacoustic music history and taps into a fundamental concept behind recorded sound. Space, each specific space, coauthors the noises of one’s life.


    Electronic music models this physical phenomenon using a method called convolution. At its most general, convolution in music is “cross-synthesis”, a mathematical process where “the spectral (frequency) envelope of one sound is applied to the other” (Lumens). Producers often employ this technique to add reverb to audio. A sharp, loud noise is recorded in a given space and convolved with another recording that “will then sound like it originated in that space” (Lumens). Convolution achieves a type of musical teleportation, where recorded sounds transcend their original environment. Just as the advent of recording technology unleashed music’s boundless accessibility and transportation, convolution pushes sound into previously impossible spaces. A fly buzzing in Ghana darts into a middle-class Alabama home; the Beatles forego Abbey Road for the Vatican. The borders have not collapsed, but rather they are now mutable. Space in sound has become a contested territory.


    Convolution serves as both a metaphor and a tool in my research. A biracial individual like Sophie occupies multiple identities simultaneously. The rhythms and noises of her life, centered around both prayer and school, reflect elements of her selfhood. However, my project is not focused on generating a mimetic representation of daily rhythms. Rather, the conceptual core of my work drives the shape of the sounds I choose to manipulate. Sounds that evoke disparate spaces will sit atop one another, challenging the listener to truly listen.


    This listening takes on a dual meaning, as it suggests intensified focus on one’s auditory environment as well as the listening skills so necessary to cultural humility. Only through listening can one engage “difference in ways that call into question the certainty and superiority of our own views” (Scott 19). For this reason, binaural microphones figured heavily into my recording practice. These microphones sit in one’s ears (like headphones) capturing a closer to three hundred and sixty degree, true to life, sound. If listened to with headphones, binaural recordings spatialize noises in a highly embodied way. At times, I faithfully render this naturalistic sound design yet also undermine it with manipulated samples. The interplay between several audio sources offers the opportunity for complicated layers of meaning. By setting sounds against one another and displacing them from their original context, these aural landscapes offer a confrontation with, and potential to understand, the unfamiliar.

  • Laïcité and the Myths of Islam

    “La France est une République indivisible, laïque, démocratique et sociale. Elle assure l’égalité devant la loi de tous les citoyens sans distinction d’origine, de race ou de religion. Elle respecte toutes les croyances.” (Constitution de la République française, Article 1).


    The French concept of laïcité officially dates back to 1905. Although translated to secularism in English, the term goes beyond this one-to-one association. In practice, it is a secularism that not only establishes the separation of church and state, but also precludes religious expression from the public sphere. An egalitarian, democratic intent drives this policy, and yet, like most universals, it contains natural exclusions.


    This lopsided universalism became politically explicit in 2010 when the French Senate passed a law banning the “dissimulation of the face in public space” (Allen). While the bill’s language avoids a direct indictment of Islam or the burqa, the French president at the time, Nicolas Sarkozy, called the burqa a “walking coffin” (Allen). Like the similarly controversial 2004 ban on religious symbols in French public schools, several individuals, particularly Muslims, viewed the law as a pointed attack on France’s Muslim population. The tension between France and its Muslim citizens includes, and goes beyond, issues of class and race. Homegrown terrorists and the emergence of ISIS have created a culture of fear in the West. Media representations of Arabs promotes this image of an essentialized Islam. A beard denotes terrorist; a hijab denotes oppression. I met several Muslims, and in turn encountered several Islams. I found complicated relationships with religion that disrupt the monolithic vision of a single, anti-modern Islam. Through my work, I aim to complicate this view of a “homogenous and dangerous other” and to expose the diverse lives of Muslims and Arabs in Paris (Scott 10).


    Sophie was born in Paris in 1990, the daughter of an Italian father and an Algerian mother. She lived in Paris until the age of seven, at which point her family moved to Rabat, Morocco. After nine years, she returned to Paris for high school. Although she is ethnically Algerian, she strongly identifies with Morocco and speaks the Moroccan dialect of Arabic. Often, she referred to Morocco as her “pays du coeur” (country of the heart) and compared French society to its Moroccan counterpart. However, Sophie is hardly a stranger in Paris. She supports the Paris Saint-Germain soccer team, has a comprehensive historical knowledge of the city, and calls herself French. Sophie’s multifaceted identity evades a singular qualifier.


    Sophie identifies as Muslim, however has only been practicing diligently for one year. While one would assume her faith comes from her Algerian side, her mother is only culturally Muslim. Her father, on the other hand, converted to Islam in 1992 after a visit to La Grande Mosquée de Paris. For both Sophie and her father, this faith came after a spell of drinking and irresponsible behavior. In Sophie’s case, she felt alienated from her family and as though she were living without a driving purpose. It was difficult for me to imagine this phase in Sophie’s past, as it stood at odds with her current behavior. The Sophie I encountered loyally cared for her parents and underscored morality in what others might deem trivial concerns. For example, after missing some work to visit her mother in the hospital, she worked extra hours the next day to make up for it. She felt convinced that it was theft otherwise, because she was paid for time when she was not actually working.


    Further adding to her nuanced identity, Sophie keeps her religious beliefs private. She does not wear the hijab, and said that several of her non-Muslim friends are unaware that she practices Islam. Born into French culture and trained in the French educational system, Sarah approaches religious expression with the laïcité so treasured by modern France. Although her work and school schedules overlap with the five daily Islamic prayers, she waits until she returns home at the end of the day to catch up on the prayers she missed. Nonetheless, religion centers her and forms an inextricable part of her world view. At the Natural History Museum, Sophie looked up in awe at a whale skeleton and asked me how one could explain this without God. Her question came from a place of genuine curiosity, not veiled proselytizing. For her, Islam acts as a lifeline and a stabilizer in a world that can be hectic and unwelcoming. Almost every time we saw one another, she would marvel at a tree or a bridge and say confidently, “don de Dieu”. Gift of God.


    Divisions certainly exist amongst the Muslim population based on denomination and means of expression. When Sophie first joined the program at Paris III, she was intimidated by her peers’s conservative attire. Nearly all the women wore veils, and several men had long beards. One of the Arabic professors at Paris III corroborated this account, telling me, “here at Paris III we have a lot of veiled women…I would say I’ve never seen so many veiled women as I’ve seen here”. However, the students were immediately accepting of Sophie’s less conspicuous religion. This tolerance of alternative religious practices, as in any large religious group, is not universally present. Sophie spoke about discrimination coming from certain Salafi sects, generally older men, who frowned upon her manner of dress. In turn, Sophie would often speak skeptically about Salafis and tell me to avoid the more conservative mosques. Islam in France, as elsewhere in the world, runs along a complex, varied spectrum.


    Furthermore, differences also arise in political identity. Despite their similar dialects and cultures, distinct rivalries separate Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia. While this often took the form of teasing between Sophie and her friends, they told me that it had a tendency to boil over into political contention (such as disputes between Algeria and Morocco over the Western Sahara region). In a similar way, outside of the Rue Myrha mosque in Barbès, I was asked several times by Muslims about my stance on Israel and Palestine. As an American, they had trouble separating my individual beliefs from the actions of my country and sought affirmation that I supported the Palestinian cause. The strong link between personal and political exacerbates fissures with the French government, as policies like the 2010 ban on face covering read, understandably, as personal discrimination.


    The history of essentializing Muslim culture based on the hijab has been particularly evident since the 1950’s, during France’s occupation of Algeria. As Frantz Fanon points out, “one may remain for a long time unaware of the fact that the Moslem does not eat pork…but the veil…appears with such constancy that it generally suffices to characterize Arab society” (“Algeria Unveiled” 162). The French colonial government latched onto the veil with tenacity, contributing to the modern narrative of a brutish, repressive Islam. French colonists portrayed Algerian women as “humiliated, sequestered, cloistered”, leading them to condemn “the behavior of the Algerian…as medieval and barbaric” (“Algeria Unveiled” 164). This soft power attack allowed the colonists to justify their colonization, depicting themselves as benevolent saviors.


    However, the reality of Muslim life in France stands in stark contrast to this narrative. In one of the families that Sophie introduced me to, all three daughters were in their early twenties and had begun to practice Islam within the last year. One of them had only worn her hijab for a few months. In both this family and Sophie’s, young, educated, French-Arab women are turning to Islam. These two models also rebuke any notion of a conservative, commandeering patriarch who imposes his religion on the women of the family. Such individuals seem drawn to Islam as a way of navigating the modern world, not opposing it. I visited the family’s house for the sundown meal on the last day of Ramadan. Their mother, born in Tunisia but not Muslim, welcomed me in and sat me down on the sofa. Playing on the TV was an episode of Bones (an American crime show) dubbed in French, while a reading of the Qur’an played over a radio in the kitchen. The scene encapsulated a sentiment I felt with all the students I encountered. Here are Muslims who use smartphones, watch American television, listen to hip hop, and identify as French. Sophie and her friends embody the navigation of difference to which France should aspire.

  • The Double Bind of Intégration

    The discourse surrounding how France ought to “integrate French Muslims”, rests on the faulty conception of a fixed cultural identity. This dichotomy frames a conflict between the rooted French (families of French heritage), and the offspring of Arab immigrants. However, the diversity of Muslims and Arabs in France dissolves the idea of a singular “Muslim community” or even of an individual in possession of a stable identity. There are secular Muslims, Arab Muslims, Berber Muslims, sub-saharan Muslims, white Muslims, mixed-race Muslims, Jewish Arabs, first-generation immigrants, second-generation immigrants, and many many more. While hubs of African and Arabic culture certainly exist in Paris, a unified community is pure myth.


    My terms in discussing race are derived from an American context, as France generally adopts a policy of color-blindness (one would be hard pressed to find usage of ‘person of color’ or ‘internalized racism’ in France). However, this is not meant as an accusation against French discourse. While France’s racism is frequently sensationalized in American media (i.e. Sharia-ruled “no go zones”), it should not be conflated with American racism, nor should it be overindulged. While there are signs pointing to the dire state of Islamophobia and racism in France, there are also positive markers of acculturation and tolerance. Any viewpoint that flattens either dimension of this topic runs the risk of perpetuating discrimination.


    The colonial histories of Morocco, Tunisia, and particularly Algeria give North African immigration a different register than other immigration to France. In the 60’s and 70’s men from the former colonies traveled to France to find brutal industrial employment (Laurence, Vaïsse 31). As is the case for many immigrant groups, this established an immediate class gap between rooted French and North African laborers. Although these men were expected to eventually return to their former countries, they gradually established families in France.


    As theorized in Frantz Fanon’s prescient text, Black Skin, White Masks, one’s identity as a colonial person of color in a white nation is constantly in flux. By connecting physical traits to inherent abstract qualities, skin color and other external markers comes to define the perception of minority groups. Turning to the first person, Fanon laments, “I am overdetermined from the outside. I am a slave not to the ‘idea’ others have of me, but to my appearance” (95). While I find it difficult to separate ‘idea’ from appearance in this case, as racial categories charge appearance with ideas, Fanon identifies a fundamental point: in a minority context, one is trapped by one’s skin color. Even when one achieves success, race remains as a qualifier. While whiteness is the universal, otherness is a negativity.


    This steep historical power dynamic bleeds into the present, leading to internalized racism and complex personal relationships to cultural identity. Some young citizens of Arab descent experience a double-bind; unfamiliar with their North African heritage and not fully accepted by their country of birth, they are dislocated from all sides. However, this double alienation is not omnipresent, and some beurs argue, “they have always lived in France, they are French citizens, and they do not see why they should have to transform themselves in any way or reach out to a society that ought naturally to consider them full and equal members” (Laurence, Vaïsse 30). Yet, there is also a common vision of the disaffected youth who admits: “‘we were not well acquainted with our original culture. We knew nothing about almost all the social codes of the Arab world. And yet we were not truly accepted in the country of our birth’” (Egerton 40). The Muslim beurs I met were both comfortable with their French identity and well-versed in Arabic language and history. My findings in no way discredit cultural alienation; rather they suggests that my research subjects are one subgroup—specific to those who attend an Arabic studies program in the center of Paris—amongst many. For the purposes of this research, my perspective on the banlieues and HLMs comes predominantly from readings, but perhaps these areas will be the focus of a future undertaking.


    While integration and alienation are both loaded terms, statistics regarding the socioeconomic status of Arabs and Muslims in France suggest prejudice that ought not be ignored. In terms of unemployment, immigrants generally experience “twice the rate of the overall population, and that rate is even higher among youth of North African origin” (Laurence, Vaïsse 33). Some of this discrepancy can be accounted for by difference in skill level and education. Nonetheless, “in 2002, the rate of unemployment for immigrants with a college degree (16 percent) was still twice that of natives with a college degree (8 percent)” (Laurence, Vaïsse 33). Logically, there must be other factors contributing to such a jump in numbers. In a 2005 study, the organization SOS Racisme, “looked at the records of two major employment agencies”, showing, “that those with ‘non-European’ first names were, on average, one and a half times as likely to be unemployed” (Laurence, Vaïsse 34-5). Resumés with non-European names or addresses from disadvantaged banlieues on the outskirts of Paris disproportionately preclude one from finding employment. Similarly, Sophie told me that it would be much more difficult for her to find a job if she wore a hijab. French Muslims may be free and equal before the law but not before the hiring manager.

  • Liberté, Égalité, Extrémité

    In what ways does this discrimination spread throughout society? Fanon’s interpretation of the Jungian collective unconsciousness—an “acquired” set of beliefs rather than an inherited intuition passed through generations—provides a useful framework for understanding this phenomenon (Black Skin White Masks 165). In news outlets, movies, and television one often sees Muslims that represent fundamentalism, violence, anti-modernism, and an unwillingness to assimilate. Fanon, speaking about the media’s effect on blacks in France, proposes: “we would like nothing better than to create magazines and songs specially designed for black children, and, to go to an extreme, special history books” (Black Skin White Masks 127). Although not distributed through media, one sees the type of tailored cultural outputs that Fanon describes in areas like La Goutte d’Or and Barbès-Rochechouart in Paris.


    These neighborhoods, predominantly West and North African, have set up an economy and culture suited to the area’s demographics. Walking along Barbès, one encounters beauty salons specifically for African hair types and skin tones, as well as Islamic Librairies. On Rue Dejean, I passed through pop-up markets that sold produce and Halal meat. As a young white man walking through these areas, I immediately sensed my otherness. The storefronts were not advertising with someone like me in mind; my light skin was notably different from the majority of residents in the neighborhood. My discomfort stood as a testament to the empowering spaces these public, economic centers try to create. I felt ready to believe in Fanon’s desire to shift the paradigm, to expose an alternate narrative that subverts mainstream stereotypes. 


    Yet the model citizen of the French Republic does not include room for the black man selling bracelets at the Sacre-Coeur. Walking west on Boulevard de Rochechouart for fifteen minutes, an entirely new neighborhood surfaces. As one approaches the hill leading up to the Sacre-Coeur, the African beauty salons are replaced by booths brimming with tourist kitsch. Observing the crowd, one is surrounded by white tourists snapping pictures and having picnics. The black and brown faces of Barbès become a handful of young men selling water bottles or trying to loop a bracelet around an unsuspecting wrist. They rattle off English: “water, water, water”—a mantra that is largely ignored. Sometimes, a tourist jumps back in surprise as one of these men attempts to put a bracelet on her wrist. The tourist marches away hurriedly and whispers resentfully to her companion. Barbès, geographically near yet spiritually nonexistent, has been reduced to these anonymous faces. They are seen as annoyances—scammers trying to make a quick euro. It is both a racial and a class issue; the tourists pump their expendable reserves into an area, and the urban poor vainly attempt to survive off this population influx. Barbès remains invisible. Its insularity keeps it unseen in the general eye of France. As a student researching race relations, I felt prepared to encounter my discomfort stepping into Barbès-Rochechouart. However, this cognitive dissonance is generally rejected by the white community. They see isolationism, a  resistance to assimilate to a laïque ideal.


    Invisibility only perpetuates this discrimination. Without a lived experience next to—and in real conversation with—Arabs, Africans, and any other disenfranchised group, the general view of these minorities is relegated to an essentialized media version. This cycle wreaks havoc on a fragile society. Centering back on Islam, every Muslim I met passionately denounced ISIS and the perpetrators of the Charlie Hebdo attacks. Both Sophie and an Algerian man I met at a mosque in Barbès cited the same passage from the Qur’an: “to kill one person is to kill all of humanity”. In their eyes, these violent extremists are the furthest thing from true Islam. One would hope that French society would rally around this vast majority. Instead, Sophie tells me stories of women in hijab, some pregnant even, being attacked in the weeks following Charlie Hebdo. She says that on her bus commute to the college the morning after the events, she received dirty looks from those around her. When she asked her classmates in the Arabic studies department if they had experienced similar treatment, the answer was a unanimous yes. I only heard about the stories of these young, educated college students, but greater brutality was enacted on other subsets of the Muslim community. Less than a week after Charlie Hebdo, “more than 50 anti-Muslim incidents” were reported across France, including shootings. These acts of prejudice go well beyond dirty looks.


    Sophie expressed frustration at the aftermath of Charlie Hebdo. If only you had been in Paris six months ago, she told me, you would have heard “Je suis Charlie” (I am Charlie) everywhere. There is no question that Sophie condemns the attacks and the violence. However, she also finds it difficult to support a publication that depicts extremely vulgar images of the prophet Mohammed. According to her, no matter their intent, it reads as an act of needless intolerance against French Muslims. The conversation around the events radicalized nuanced opinions, creating an unwavering dichotomy of us versus them. Sophie felt that, in the public eye, if one questioned the morality of Charlie Hebdo’s provocations, then one was automatically on the side of the terrorists.


    This one-dimensional nationalism enforces extremism, rather than eradicating it. Without space for multiplicity, French Muslims like Sophie are forced into feeling resentment and distrust toward the French state. In such a caustic environment, she feels unable to condemn the violence and the publication. The French public is understandably shaken by the recent attacks from European-born terrorists, seeing it as, “the latest, most arresting sign of a deeper crack in this frail unity that the French nation holds on to so desperately” (Alduy). Although the response to homegrown terrorism is complicated and beyond the scope of my research, the current French approach to the greater Muslim population appears to aggravate the situation. Instead of supporting French Muslims like Sophie and giving them a platform to voice their opinions, they are often left feeling adrift from mainstream French culture.


    Sophie made it clear to me that she would like to leave France someday. After the next terrorist attack, who is to say that she will not be harassed for the color of her skin? Ideally, Sophie hopes to become a diplomat and work for France, a country to which she feels she owes a tremendous amount, but live in a country like Morocco. The current French approach toward Muslims is sending individuals like Sophie away (both literally and psychologically). Without stable support structures to fill the void left by these people, I predict that France will gradually lose visible Muslim role-models.


    My presentation of these young, popular culture savvy Muslims should not be misconstrued as an attempt to sanitize or offer a white-washed Islam. The students at Paris III come from diverse socio-economic backgrounds and most of them live in the banlieues. Although my research centered on a tiny subset of Muslims, their commentary on their own culture helped to broaden my vision. Based on this testimony and further reading, they seem to represent a significant swath of the French Muslim population (not some select, acculturated group). One need not unfurl the hijab to enter into moderation, just as the clean-cut Frenchman can embody trenchant conservatism. The prevailing myth of Islam as incompatible with modern society sustains damaging prejudices. Over time, perhaps France will develop an ear for difference.

  • Citations

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