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Carefully deciphering the banlieues

13 April 2017


THE best and most informative piece of religious journalism this week, possibly this year, is not about Christianity or England. It is published in the New York Times magazine, which, I think, is available online to anyone, in small doses.

Robert F. Worth has taken the argument be­­tween two of France’s leading intellectual inter­preters of Islam, and then applied it to the facts on the ground. The story takes up a lot of space and wastes none of it.

The argument lies between those who think that France’s terrorism problem arises from Salafi Islam, and those who think that it arises from racism and unemployment.

The central figures are Gilles Kepel and Olivier Roy: Kepel, on whom the piece is centred, be­­lieves that the crucial problem now is ideology, and that the banlieues are breeding convinced jihadists. At least one of them has placed him on a death-list as a result. Roy, on the other hand, believes that the real problem is alienation result­ing from multi-generational unemployment and exclusion.

The two men hurl invective at each other — both can be seen as tools of the Islamists — but their underlying positions are thoughtful and well-researched, and Worth takes the time to lay them out carefully. Both men, also, know a very great deal about Islam and French relations with the Arab world.

“[Kepel] has always been careful to distinguish mainstream Islam from the hard-line Islamist ideologues of the banlieues, who have no real equivalent in the United States. He has long been a man of the left; his wife’s family is from North Africa, and he has no sympathy for the xeno­phobia of the right-wing National Front. But he believes that radical Islamists are trying to shred France’s social fabric and foster a civil war, and that many leftists are unwittingly playing into their hands. This view has made him a target for almost everyone.”

Olivier Roy, on the other hand, says that “France’s rigorously secular government and society have helped create an airless environment that has allowed jihadism to thrive. Roy and others on the left appear to believe that the terrorist violence of the past two years has illuminated fatal flaws at the heart of French political culture: too rigid, too hierarchical, too insistent on imposing cultural conformity on an increasingly diverse population. . . In other words, France would be better off adopting a more hands-off, multiculturalist approach to the head scarf and other Islamic cultural symbols.”

Both these approaches are found in England, sometimes coming from the same people, depending on whether they are attacking the French or British governments. What lifts this out of the ordinary run of lucid think pieces is the reporting from the banlieues and prisons them­selves, which supplies material for both sides of the argument.

The process that transforms cultural griev­ances into theological patterns is surely the essence of “radicalisation”: it is not the ideas in themselves, but the place that they take in people’s daily experience. This is a point abso­lutely obvious, I would imagine, to readers of the Church Times, but apparently beyond the secular world at the moment. The seed, the soil that it falls in, and the plant that subsequently grows are all separable problems, although closely inter­linked.

The problem for the French is that you cannot always deal with all of them simultaneously. The question whether to ban headscarves at work puts this problem very sharply: does it increase the marginalisation of decent, devout Muslims? Or does it send out a signal that the State will not be bullied by Salafists and their stooges?


IT DOES not often happen that the Mail follows the Church Times, but Roger Bolton’s jeremiad against the BBC’s lack of a religious strategy got picked up and spun in an entirely predictable way: “The BBC’s religious coverage is a ‘mess’ because its liberal staff are dangerously out of touch, one of the Corporation’s own presenters has claimed.

“Roger Bolton, who hosts Feedback on Radio 4, warned that the BBC’s workers do not realise how important religion is to many of its viewers. Mr Bolton said: ‘[The BBC has] a predominantly young workforce, which is more liberal and secular than the rest of the country.”

Not that the Mail would lay off the Corpora­tion if it started to cover Islam more thoroughly and in a better-informed way; nor does it have a dedicated religious correspondent of its own any longer.


BOTH The Times and the Telegraph followed a BBC survey suggesting that a quarter of all Christians don’t believe in the resurrection. The numbers believing in any form of life after death are divided almost evenly: 47 to 46 per cent. I don’t see how this justifies the routine claims from “a spokesman” that “This survey proves many people, despite not being regular church­goers, hold core Christian beliefs.”

But then neither do I understand how 17 per cent of the population can claim to believe “the Bible story is true, word for word.” Which story do they have in mind? Or have they not actually read any of them recently?

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