In much of contemporary public discourses in the West, Islam is carelessly reduced to an often-malevolent sociopolitical category, bandied about to explain the behavior of militant or near-militant Islamists. This propensity for creating neat categories almost always distorts a reality that is inevitably complex, multilayered, and anything but monolithic. In today’s West, however, reality is parsed primarily by a savvy media and, when it comes to Islam, additionally by a cohort of readily available Islam “experts” and other eager pundits who generate representations of reality meant to be accessible to a largely uninformed public in digestible bites. Needless to say, nuance and complexity are sacrificed in the process.
Truong avoids this trap by refusing to reify Muslims as a “type” and eschewing the kind of culture talk that jettisons “careful explanations, connections between cause and effect, and collective responsibility.” The author focuses instead on “the patient observation of human beings.” He therefore questions the approach of two French academics, Gilles Kepel and Olivier Roy, to issues of radicalization of Muslim youth on which they frequently write. Kepel, a near-ubiquitous Islam expert in France, is typically anxious to attribute the radicalization process to certain ideologies apparently evident in Arabic religious texts. Such ideologies are then understood to be available for ready extrapolation by gullible Muslim youth that propel their entry into the shadowy, dangerous world of religious extremism. Kepel has been rightly criticized for this glib equation by Roy, who has posited instead a theory of the “Islamization of radicalism.” By this he means that radicalization is to be connected to the grim and inhumane conditions in the disreputable, working-class neighborhoods in which many of these young men grow up rather than to any kind of genuine religious allegiance. These youths typically believe in no ideology — religious or political — and consequently come to represent a “nihilist generation.” Truong is unhappy with both analyses; his critique of Kepel is particularly apt and trenchant: how, he asks, can the supposedly transparent ideologies purportedly contained in Arabic texts influence radicalized youths when they barely know formal Arabic and possess at best only a superficial understanding of these texts? The nihilism understood by Roy to inform the actions of radicalized youth is also not to Truong’s liking; “Islamization,” he says, “rests on convictions, decisions, aspirations, projections, links of reciprocity or antagonism — not on ‘nothing.’”
To undertake his project of “patient observation of human beings,” which is meant to avoid the shortcomings of both approaches, the author befriended five young Muslim men in the working-class neighborhoods of Paris: Tarik, Radouane, Marley, Adama, and Hassan (not their real names). A sixth man is the “ghost” of Amédy Coulibaly, who was shot dead on January 9, 2015, after attacking and killing four men at a kosher supermarket in Paris. We meet the younger Coulibaly through the reminiscences shared with the author by Adama, Coulibaly’s friend from the banlieue. Through the course of the growing association with these young men, the author tries to get a better sense of their complex lives: their conflicting loyalties to Islam (as they understand it), to their families and loved ones, to their immediate neighborhoods, and to the Umma — the larger global Muslim community.
The life trajectories of Tarik, Radouane, and Marley are rather similar — they are roughly in the same age group, grew up close to one another, and entered adolescence in the 2000s. Adama and Coulibaly, on the other hand, are almost decades older — they were teenagers in the 1990s at a time when the xenophobic National Front party was becoming more prominent in France. At 44, the sixth individual, Hassan, is the oldest, having arrived in France from Algeria at the age of 11. These six men have different levels of education, and four of them have flirted with drugs and drifted in and out of prison. Although education is much prized in general as a path to upward social mobility, not many in the banlieues have received it. Only Radouane among the six made it to graduate school and eventually earned a master’s degree in accounting.
All these young men display a preoccupation with appearing to be “real” men. This includes cultivating a strong, muscular physique, associated with desirable moral qualities. Finding the proper mate in life is also an important part of the carefully cultivated image of a “real” man. This hypermasculinity is asserted in the face of the emasculation and disenfranchisement they routinely experience in a hostile and suspicious society.
Truong describes in great detail the events of one late summer night when Marley and his girlfriend, Priscilla, are stopped by the police while driving a friend back to his home. The police are primed for a violent encounter — they shatter the car’s windshield, which provokes a barrage of insults from Marley. The upshot of the encounter is that Marley and his male friend end up in prison that night. A similarly hostile encounter with the police led to the deaths of two young Arab men in 2005, which would trigger intense rioting throughout France.
How does Islam get implicated in all this — or does it? Since both materialistic accumulations and altruistic deprivation — two avenues for escaping the banlieue — are denied these young men, what “remains is a religion rooted in the historical pathways of immigration and decolonization: Islam,” says Truong. As he skillfully analyzes the nexus of these intertwined yet divided loyalties, Truong offers us rich insights into the sociology of ostensible religiosity newly resurgent in the lives of these young people. Confronted with lack of opportunities for social and professional advancement and marginalized in grim neighborhoods, these young men have “discovered” Islam and have learned to “perform” it in ways that “provide a sense of honor, history, and collective life.” Truong highlights the performative aspects by connecting the personal lives of these young men to the public sphere: “Beyond self-proclaimed membership in the Umma, what matters is the declaration each person makes to himself and to others, revealing his deepest convictions to the world.”
The Qur’an plays an almost cultic role in the lives of these young men. Rather than actually reading it, they exchange Qur’an copies as gifts to one another through which they seek to cement a communal solidarity meant to be reminiscent of the earliest history of Islam, as they imagine it. Daily ritualized actions of worship are meant to reimbue life with greater meaning — leading to what these young people call “reconversion” (or reversion), explained by the author as “reconciling the purity of heaven with the rocky slope of one’s own imperfect trajectory.”
Here Truong could have explained the notion of reconversion and its significance a bit more fully. He rightly states that “reconversion builds on, while reordering, the past.” The notion, however, is intimately connected to the Islamic belief that there is an incorruptible core of goodness within every human being, an ontologically embedded moral compass, so to speak, that can be revived and nurtured when one has the will and inclination to do so. This inner compass — fitra in Arabic — constantly beckons to what is upright and good and available to anyone and everyone who connects with it and heeds its guidance — hence the reversion to one’s true human nature and recouping its potential for the cultivation of a morally purposeful life. In the hands of these young men, though, as Truong shows, the process of reversion acquires political overtones as they repurpose it for the creation of what they understand to be a political utopia.
Truong’s is a thoughtful, well-crafted ethnography that humanizes the faceless, amorphous “Muslim youth” of the French banlieues, trapped in what the author calls “the second zone.” This zone represents “a world in which all of one’s relationships and shared understandings sanction living life at a remove — in and through illicit behavior. […] It pens them in, it fosters insularity.” Such insularity, from which there is no escape, heightens the sense of persecution on the part of these young men, confronted as they are by the systemic injustices visited on them on a daily basis. It is the collectivity of these grievances that constitute the prime motivator of their actions. When Islam is invoked, it is mainly as a “floating political imaginary” that can be harnessed and instrumentalized to give at least a veneer of meaning to their otherwise desperately hopeless lives.
Truong is on the whole very careful to contextualize the situations of these young men and not generalize them to all “Muslim youth,” as media pundits and Islam “experts” often tend to do. His cogent sociological analysis is a rebuke to the Kepels of this world who see religion — always in a reified sense — as fueling radicalization and who attempt to establish a direct causal link between Islamic texts and extremist behavior, without accounting for the mediating factors of social and political contingencies. On one occasion, however, Truong slips up and resorts to using “Islam” as a shorthand for all Muslim actors; he writes that “Islam defines itself as the religion of a peace that must be defended at all costs.” Surely, Islam has no agency in itself — it is Muslim actors who do the defining, and there are internal contestations of a number of these definitions that cluster around Islam as a religious tradition.
In his conversation with the young men of the banlieue, Truong picks up on the term “jahilya” (or jahiliyya, “age of ignorance,” in reference to the pre-Islamic period) and then proceeds to refer to its importance in Islamic texts. In reality, this term was not a very important one in premodern Islamic contexts, being used to refer to the pre-Islamic era in general — it did not signify a civilizational stage or a human condition. Premodern scholars did not necessarily deploy it as a term of opprobrium. In fact, certain values that were held dear during the pre-Islamic period — such as generosity and hospitality — were revalorized in the Islamic period. The militant understanding of jahiliyya derives from the Egyptian revolutionary Sayyid Qutb’s contemptuous usage of it. Ironically, Qutb (d. 1966) is understood to have fleshed out the concept not from Islamic sources, but under the influence of Alexis Carrel, a French Catholic biologist who won the Nobel Prize for physiology in 1912. Carrel (who was accused of supporting the Vichy regime) thought that Western civilization during his time had degenerated into a state of moral and social barbarism (akin to jahiliyya). Only an enlightened elite cadre of Europeans would be able to rescue the West from such an abysmal state and set it on the path of redemption. Such ideas map very well onto Qutb’s conceptualization of jahiliyya as a human condition marked by similar moral and social degradation and of an elite vanguard that would usher in the Islamist revolution as envisioned by him.
Finally, Truong is right to point to the dangers inherent in seeing religion as “a particularly well advertised commodity, rather than for its real quality” — so that religion becomes performative praxis meant to impress others rather than a constellation of sincerely held beliefs and ethical praxis. The author warns that when religion is reduced to a mere social convention, it may also conduce to authoritarianism. More importantly, as the Qur’an itself warns, the commodification of religion and ostentatious religiosity leads to both spiritual and social ruin — a point that would have impressed itself on the minds of these young men if they had actually read and engaged the Qur’an. Loyalty to the community expressed solely in terms of ostentatious rituals of belonging is at best a hollow exercise and a fig leaf, attempting to compensate for — rather than address and ameliorate — the chronic pathologies that bedevil contemporary French society.
Truong’s finely grained ethnographic analysis should be read as an important exposé of such pathologies. Ultimately, it is an indictment of the modern French “liberal” experiment that currently appears to be both unwilling and unable to challenge and transcend the pitfalls of deeply rooted racism, virulent religious bigotry, and entrenched cultural parochialism.
Asma Afsaruddin is a professor of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures at the Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies, Indiana University, Bloomington.