Islamophobia in French Media

An Imaginary Conception of an Essentialised Islam

In his book "Imaginary Islam: The media's construction of Islamophobia in France", the political scientist Thomas Deltombe reveals certain parallels in the way Islam is perceived by the French media and by ultra-conservative Muslims. By Bernard Schmid

​​As the title suggests, "L'Islam imaginaire" makes no attempt to deliver a final judgment on Islam or on the political movements that connect with that religion. Instead, the book focuses mainly on the way the French media have constructed the public's perception of Islam. In doing so, it also sheds light on the mentality of post-colonial French society.

Though Deltombe's preparation for the book included analyses of numerous press articles, his main interest is in the performance of the two most important TV stations in France: the privatised "Channel One" TF1, and the public broadcaster France 2. Deltombe examines their coverage of Islam in the period from 1975 to 2005.

Essentialised Islam

One of the author's central theses: "This conception (which postulates a continuum between Muslim culture, religious practice and 'Islamic' terrorism (…) neglects determinants that lie beyond the sphere of religion - especially the psychological, political and social factors that might explain acts of terrorism."

At this point in his book, the author speaks of "an imaginary conception of an essentialised Islam". He describes how people "look to see what the Holy Book of Islam has to tell us about the ideas of Osama bin Laden" because "Islam is seen as something that stands outside space and time."

Current events, he says, are often placed side-by-side with things that happened in the 7th century - as if the Muslim religion had not developed in the slightest since then, and as if the pages of the Koran could provide an explanation for anything done by Muslims today. Delcombe concludes that TF1's perspective is not very different from the attitudes of the most bigoted and reactionary Muslims.

In the 70s, he says, most people in France still perceived "Islam" as a largely external phenomenon, and the predominant attitude was "a romanticising exoticism". At that time, France already had nearly as many immigrants from Muslim countries as it does today; but most people believed that such "visitors" would soon return to their home countries.

The scenario of an Iranian threat

What altered these initial conditions was French TV's presentation of Iran under the Ayatollah Khomeini. The Iranian Revolution and its effects on the Middle East also posed a threat to French interests, for Paris had enjoyed good relations with the ousted Shah while simultaneously supporting the Iraqi president Saddam Hussein.

The scenario of an Iranian threat emerged in parallel with a change in the way the French state related to its majority population and to its immigrants.

As unemployment began to rise, the French government attempted to control the number of foreigners living in France by exerting pressure on immigrants and by offering "bonuses" to those willing to return to their countries of origin. At the same time, "the second generation", which had grown up in France, began for the first time to make political demands.

Iran = "Islam"

A markedly defensive attitude now characterised political and media discourse: the scenario of an Iranian "threat" and the perception of immigrants in France were merged – and the latter were identified for the first time with "Islam".

Here, Deltombe recalls some hair-raising statements made at the time by Prime Minister Pierre Mauroy and Socialist Minister of the Interior Gaston Deferre: when Algerian and Moroccan workers called a spectacular strike at car factories on the outskirts of Paris, the politicians claimed that this industrial unrest was being controlled from abroad by "supporters of Khomeini".

In 1989, the first debate about the Muslim headscarf followed a similar pattern – whereby the simple headscarves worn by a few Muslim schoolgirls were wrongly described as "chadors", in clear reference to the black, full-body coverings seen in Iran.

A year later, says Deltombe, the constellation began to change: in the run-up to the Iran-Iraq war of 1991, politicians and the media worried about how Muslims in France would react to the bombardment of Iraq, and therefore wished to avoid depicting them as an "enemy within".

Good Muslim, bad Muslim

Instead, an attempt was made to ensure peace on the "home front" by addressing the "good" Muslims, i.e. those who were "integrated" and living in conformity with the French state. As Deltombe describes it, this distinction between "good" and "bad" Muslims often reflected a gap between a fairly prosperous Islamic middle class and the "underclass" that inhabited the ghettos and banlieues.

Moreover: as reactions varied within France's Muslim population, the media presented these varying attitudes as the alleged result of differing interpretations of the Koran.

The author refers us to two of the most important books by the French scholar of Islam, Gilles Kepel: "Jihad" (2000) and "Fitna" (2004) – the latter term signifying a feud within a single community. Deltombe sees the books' titles as themselves highly significant.

Today, the media are less inclined to see all Muslims as potentially engaged in a "Holy War against the West"; instead, media discourse usually invokes a "clash between peaceful and radical Muslims". When we ask what they are clashing about, however, it seems that it's nothing to do with politics, ideology or social conflict, but merely a matter of "correctly interpreting the holy scriptures."

One can follow the author this far; but he also writes about the Algerian Civil War, and about the era of Charles Pasqua - the ultra-repressive French Interior Minister, who described himself as an "arch-enemy of Islam". On these points, Deltombe's arguments are weak.

A dubious manipulation-theory

When civil war broke out in Algeria in 1992-93, Pasqua conjured up a vision of the conflict "sweeping across the Mediterranean". He exploited this alleged threat in order to subject France's North African residents to a series of surveillance measures that clearly overstepped the limits of a law-based society in several respects.

Nonetheless, some of Deltombe's own arguments in this context are themselves highly questionable. Thus, he describes the acts of violence committed in 1995, in both Algeria and France, by armed Algerian Islamists helped by a few youths from the banlieues; but Deltombe presents these actions mainly as the result of "manipulations by intelligence agencies and military personnel".

In short, Deltombe's "manipulation theory" is that the actions of the "Armed Islamic Groups" (GIA) were in fact carried out by agents of the Algerian regime. It seems unlikely that this is true. Deltombe has taken this thesis from other authors – and, in France, their writings are regarded as highly contentious.

Bernard Schmid

© 2006

Translation from German: Patrick Lanagan

Thomas Deltombe: "L'islam imaginaire. La construction médiatique de l'islamophobie en France, 1975 - 2005", Paris, published by La Découverte, 2005, pp 383, 22 Euro

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