The recent history of state intrusion into Les Minguettes has left most residents suspicious of outsiders and jaded. The larger suburb of Vénissieux has become associated with the growth of Salafist Islam alongside state intrusion. Indeed, Deputy André Gerin, who initiated the national commission on the burqa, is the former mayor of Vénissieux. Gaining entry into the mosques was thus a painful, arduous process, thanks to years of police surveillance and security efforts. Until I adjusted to this, it felt difficult to just be normal. I grew tired of the ubiquitous EuroSecurité guards on the bus and at the terminals. On several occasions, they would stand right next to me and smile at me on and off for an entire bus ride and then walk right behind me as I got off the bus. For the members of the mosques, memories of police raids, arrests, and deportations of mosque leaders were fresh. Three major incidents have defined Les Minguettes in the last decade. The French arrests of two young men who were sent to the Guantanamo prison camp occurred in Les Minguettes. (They were returned to France in 2004 and 2005, convicted in 2007 of criminal association, and released on appeal in 2009.) There were the arrests of several family members who ran a housing project mosque. Their apartment was raided as they were accused of having ties to Chechen militants. Their mosque, which I attended during the fieldwork, was left unorganized and stained by its ill-repute. Finally, Abdelkader Bouziane, the former imam of Mosquée Hasan, was deported in 2004 for posing a threat to public order. This occurred after the publication of an interview with him by a city-based magazine in Lyon in which he discussed the right of men to hit their wives (“only below the face”) in cases of adultery. He also made remarks about his desire for France to become an Islamic country. Notwithstanding Bouziane’s problematic views, the magazine article was without context, and his remarks were made mostly at the journalist’s prodding. But it caused an outcry throughout the country, and Bouziane was expelled from France after having lived there for 25 years. According to Ahmed, a former long-time Muslim activist in the neighborhood, “the whole community felt scared and demoralized.” When I was doing my research at Mosquée Hasan a few years after the deportation, several people outside the mosque community told me with no doubt that there were state agents who attended the women’s classes on a regular basis. I was initially incredulous that there was a spy among this group of women that I was coming to know. Eventually, when I saw the degree of privacy that each woman sought to maintain, it no longer seemed so outrageous. No matter how much we came to know and like each other, nobody ever really knew the private details of each other’s lives. There was always an element of uncertainty and mistrust.
An underlying mistrust colored not only my initial entry into Minguettes and the general relationships inside the mosque, but it clearly defined the relationship to the state and law enforcement, as is well-known. One of my close informants, a Syrian woman who taught at “Mosquée Ennour,” often complained about raising her daughter in a neighborhood like Minguettes. Sumaiya had the usual complaints, such as the weekly burning of cars. “But you know, I understand why [our kids] riot,” she reflected on the harassment of minority youth in the neighborhood. “The police are constantly bothering them. We hear stories all the time, and I saw it myself.” She relayed various local stories of mysterious disappearances and even murders of Maghribi (of North African origin) youth. “You never know, but I really think—many of us do—that it’s the police.”
Thus, Minguettes is known for its hostility to outsiders, researchers, and journalists, who on occasion have had stones thrown at them by neighborhood youth. The climate of stigmatization has led to resentment of those who might seem to treat the neighborhood as a kind of zoo, to be observed and photographed. In time, I recognized the distrust of outsiders and the social code that involved keeping things private and insulated. I was also told by a resident that women are perhaps even more distrustful of outsiders or researchers, for fear of inviting trouble for their husbands and sons. The phenomenon of mistrust follows the collapse of civil society and heavy state intrusion. Hence, the increased importance of maintaining and protecting a private sphere.
But it was not always like this in Les Minguettes. Although it has been part of the deindustrializing, undesirable urban periphery for decades, it also enjoyed a period of intense social activism and flourishing civic associations during the 1980s and 90s, under Mitterand’s socialist administration. This included Islamic associations as well as projects initiated by secular associations such as SOS-Racisme and DiverCité, active on behalf of immigrant rights. France’s first and largest national demonstration for immigrant and racial justice was initiated in Les Minguettes in 1983. The demonstration, called “marche des beurs” by reporters, followed a series of riots in the neighborhood after a local teenager was injured by a policeman. (The word “beur” is a slang term for the French-born children of North African immigrants. It was intended to reflect their simultaneous belonging and alienation from French and Arab cultures.) Although few recall this event today, the name Les Minguettes continues to be attached to the memory of 1983. “There was so much hope back then,” recalled Ahmed. “Today, it’s all gone. There’s nothing.” Ahmed’s popular Islamic youth association in Vénissieux had once hosted weekly activities including family events, scholarly tutoring, youth clubs/sports and after-school activities, and training in debate and public speaking. According to Ahmed, as local youth began feeling politically empowered, their presence appeared more threatening to André Gerin, then-mayor of Vénissieux. In the aftermath of 9/11 this network of Muslim activists was attacked by the state and placed under surveillance, eventually leading to their decline. Ahmed, like a number of former activists, was blacklisted throughout Lyon as a fundamentalist and potential terrorist. His defense of the two brothers who were sent to Guantanamo led to greater notoriety for him and a public confrontation with Mayor Gerin in which other Muslims were pitted against him. His association collapsed and today, said Ahmed, “I have a family now, kids to support. I can’t put my family at risk. For all of us, it became too hard to find work or even have respect. And I’m tired. I can’t do it anymore.” He mused:
What did we want when we were younger? To get out of the banlieue. To be le bon francais, avec la bonne baguette [a respectable Frenchman with a baguette under his arm]. Now, there are exactly two structures left in Minguettes: the drug dealers and the mosques. And the mosque leaders are totally incompetent and uneducated. They don’t have the means to be politically active or organized.
Ahmed’s particular trajectory reflects the decline of Les Minguettes, its structures of civil society and the hopes that bonded together Islamic (as well as secular) associations. It also shows the precise mechanisms by which the state itself demoralized and broke apart networks of youth and Muslim leaders, leaving only a drug market and unorganized mosques in their wake.
The state’s regulation of mosques and Muslim activists also coincided with the banning of the headscarf in schools and a growing discourse about the oppression of Muslim women. Conversations in mosques or covering one’s hair were no longer considered private matters. Indeed, the most recent step in eroding the private sphere has been attacking the burqa. This did not come as a surprise to any of my informants. As Sara, a close informant who wore the niqab, stated: “It’s starting again.” Given this history of state intrusion in the banlieues and monitoring of Islamic practices, defense of the private sphere is among the only responses available to poor Salafist communities. In arguing that Salafist women seek a de-territorialized conception of the private sphere, I mean that the burqa is a private practice of the self that the women seek to carry with them into public space. To the state, the presence of the burqa in public space is harmful to the public and to the women themselves for promoting sectarianism, fundamentalism, and violence against women (National Assembly hearings 2009). What the women wear in their apartments is the only domain that the state really concedes as the private sphere.
In addition to the notion of de-territorializing the private sphere, there is also a reconfiguration of the private sphere toward the self and away from the domain of family life. This is perhaps expected in a context of the disintegration of urban, immigrant families. While the state is eager to enter the domain of the Muslim family by insisting that men are coercing women into wearing burqas, Salafist women are rejecting both the state and men (or any other family members) as their agents of liberation. Their private sphere is strictly about their individual relationship to God and requires, if necessary, expulsion of both the state and their families.Footnote 11
Although this conflictual scenario in no way pertains to all of the women of Mosquée Hasan, it was not far into my research that it became abundantly clear that most of the women chose to wear the djelbab or the niqab—indeed, sometimes against the wishes of their husbands, parents, or brothers. While the question of whether or not women choose to wear the burqa permeates all national debates on the practice, many women of Mosquée Hasan were unmarried (and thus were not coerced into the practice by a husband) and/or came from non-religious families. Thus, the dominant trend at this mosque was precisely the opposite scenario that the French state and public continually evoke. For some women, misconceptions and disgust of the practice had painful personal consequences, especially when they occurred in the context of their own families. For example, Amina was a 29-year old woman of Algerian background, born and raised in France. Her particular story is full of regret and anxiety. Estranged from her family and currently unemployed, she lived alone in Vénissieux. Her family did not practice Islam, and her brother was abusive. She had minimal contact with her mother, who said to her (vis-à-vis her djelbab), “you think anyone’s going to want to marry you, dressed like that?” Although of Muslim origin, her family mocked her religious practice and offered her no material or other support.
Contrary to the popular image, there are also numerous women who assert their desire to wear the djelbab or niqab against their husband’s will. Ahmed, the former activist from Minguettes, recounted the story of his good friend: “His wife insists on wearing the burqa, and it’s driving him crazy. He finds it completely embarrassing.” During a session at Mosquée Hasan, one woman, perhaps in her mid-30s, broke down crying in front of fifty of us students. She had a scarf roughly tied around her hair and was wearing a tight Moroccan robe (instead of a dejlbab), unusual among most of the students at Mosquée Hasan. “My husband doesn’t want me to wear the hijab. He insults it, constantly criticizes me for wanting to wear it. Others make fun of it too. And I have a job in the [Vénissieux] city administration. I have to take it off for work—I don’t have a choice. I don’t know what to do.” Unable to reconcile her desire to start a rigorous spiritual and religious practice with her external constraints, she said she was growing increasingly depressed.
Malika, one of the teachers at Mosquée Hasan, was concerned and troubled but insisted that the djelbab (and at least headscarf) is not optional but is obligatory. Whenever such stories or questions came up, she was sympathetic but firm.
Remember, the Prophet’s companions were always mocked and ostracized. They were even tortured. I can’t be the judge of your decisions, but all I can say is that it’s not a choice, we can’t say no to God. You have to have courage to do what you believe. People laugh at me all the time. They get in my face and ask me aggressively why I do this. Try to explain very simply and directly, in a well-mannered way. But once they get aggressive or mock you, just leave it. Don’t engage them. Just turn inward.
She then offered to give this particular woman the number of a sheikh in Saudi Arabia who could talk to her husband. (The general approach to these questions is to try every possible avenue to reconcile with one’s spouse. If, ultimately, a husband obstructs his wife’s Islamic practice, she has the right to demand a divorce.)
Salafist reconfiguration of the private sphere as increasingly oriented away from the family is also evident in the phenomenon of French conversions to Salafist Islam and “born again” experiences (Roy 2006). The standard line of explanation for the growth of Salafism is its appeal to the marginalized sons and daughters of immigrants in the declining working-class banlieues (Césari 2002). Having suffered the loss of cultural identity and exclusion by French society, these young men and women are drawn to Salafism for the many ruptures that it demands and celebrates—a rupture from family ties, street culture, and French (non-Muslim) society (Roy 2006). Disaffected youth of working-class banlieues, even those without an immigrant background, do not feel part of any culture or society and welcome the redefinitions that Salafism imposes on one’s life.Footnote 12 It is argued that Salafi Islam in France reflects the detachment of ethnicity from Islam (Roy 2004, 2006). As Mélissa, one of numerous young French converties I knew, proclaimed: “I gave up everything. I left my family, everything I knew, when I embraced Islam.”
This detachment of Islam from ethnicity is a dynamic process that is explicitly discussed in the mosque setting. For example, I witnessed the following discussion at Mosquée Hasan between Malika, who was teaching that day, and the students.
Student 1: What about a person who’s Arab, Muslim, but doesn’t pray or anything? But he fasts during Ramadan. Will he go to hell or heaven?
Malika: Nobody can say who goes to heaven or hell. But he doesn’t believe? He doesn’t have faith?
Student 1: No….
Malika: Then he’s a kafr. There are Muslims with weak faith, and those who simply don’t believe. If he doesn’t believe in God, he’s a kafr. It doesn’t matter if you’re Arab, or if your name is Muhammed or Abdullah.
Student 2: At another mosque I go to, the imam [mosque leader] said that we shouldn’t label people who were born Muslim as “kafrs.”
Malika: Right now in France, unfortunately, you just do as you want, regardless of sunnah [the way of the Prophet]. If he believes but also sins, well, we have no right at all to call him a kafr. But you think that a non-believing Arab is more Muslim than a practicing Muslim whose family was Catholic or atheist? I don’t believe that at all.
In this discussion, Malika makes clear her position that one’s ethnic status has nothing to do with being a “believer.” What matters instead is the state of her/his faith. As Malika discussed numerous times in her courses, they cannot take for granted their status as Muslims simply because they were born into North African families. This is something that distinguishes the Salafist movement from “folk” Islam and also from middle-class discourses that take a more ambiguous approach to the question of defining who is Muslim. Another way to understand this phenomenon is precisely through the notion of reconfiguring the private sphere. The status of being Muslim, for Salafists, is not linked to embracing a public or extended family but rather, an inward orientation and set of beliefs—which are inherently private. Families often only stand in the way of one’s private relationship to God. Thus, the defense and expansion of the private sphere against an intrusive and paternalistic state is crucial to antipolitics. But here, women are engaged in an antipolitics against both the power of the state and sometimes, their families.