Nuancing the Integration Debate: Interview with Dr Joseph Downing

Darren Wong 30 October 2019
Image Credit: European Horizons - Cambridge Facebook Page

The Cambridge Chapter of European Horizons (EH), which was recently founded at the start of this academic year, seeks to engage the core issues facing contemporary Europe, including those surrounding identity, integration and transatlantic cooperation.

This is particularly timely, given burgeoning public scrutiny over its evolving socio-political environment, which is very much shrouded in uncertainty. The refugee crisis, the rise of right-wing populism and Brexit have invariably been accompanied with the constant redefinition of what it means to be a citizen of Europe and what the future may hold for the European project.

In the first of EH’s “Islam in Europe” lecture series, I spoke to Dr Joseph Downing, Fellow in nationalism at the European Institute of the London School of Economics, after his thoughtful sharing on identity and security in France through his new publication “French Muslims in Perspective”. Joseph’s specialisation in global security, migration policy, minority rights and qualitative research methods were evident as he delved into the pertinent strands on citizenship, integration and the discourse of security.

France has one of the largest Muslim minority in Western Europe and in light of the highly scrutinised Muslim headwear ban, the underlying tension between the statist narrative of secularism and the racial, religious and civil rights of citizens, which has extended to access to public services and city-owned infrastructure, has been reified. Some backlash has been felt from the community; for instance, Operation Burkini was recently launched by members of the group Citizen Alliance, where burkini-clad women went about normal activities in public swimming pools. What does it mean to be a citizen for French Muslims then? How has citizenship for them been reshaped, with certain elements withdrawn or extended? The idea of international citizenship has gained traction with the universalisation of human rights, as enshrined in the UN Declaration of Human Rights and one of the central tenets of the EU’s key values. To Joseph, the identities that ground citizenship “exist in shifting and disorganised forms” and he drew a comparison to a marble cake with its chocolate and vanilla sponge swirls. However, he points out the “non-recognition of ethnic differences by the state” as a French citizen is “not only French first, but [is] only French”.

Joseph’s presentation introduces the idea of “banal nationalism” and advocates for the understanding of national identity formation manifesting in small everyday acts, instead of focusing on the broader narratives of terrorism, security and integration, which he calls “exceptional nationalism”.

He argues that the “banal” is not visible enough — there are 10 times more French Muslims in French security forces than those who have joined ISIS, and French Muslims are also victims of terror attacks. Service and victimhood are two examples of daily life that the integration debate fails to consider, and Joseph asserts that due to a skewed portrayal of the “exceptional”, there is an erroneous mainstream perception that integration is a major problem.

As Joseph endeavoured to deconstruct the discourse surrounding integration and terrorism, I questioned if Europe is articulating a politics of risk instead of security, seeing a pre-emptive governance style seeking to create fear that justifies the punitive actions. What are the consequences of excessive policing and harsh policies like deportation or the stripping of citizenship? “Once you create a precedent, you don’t go back.” Joseph reminded me that a politician has to be cognisant of his image and appear as though he is taking action, especially when it comes to the issues of violence and terrorism, for “human security is the most basic function of the state”. However, in a bid to garner political support, such policies could be an overreaction, or become overly simplistic due to the lack of empirical grounding.

“Once you create a precedent, you don’t go back.”

Joseph pointed out an interesting and unusual clash of values between the French state and the EU as both entities espouse “different ideas of human rights and what it means to have an identity”. To the EU, pluralism is desirable — “we preserve cultures, we give minority rights, we celebrate religious richness”. On the other hand, Joseph suggested that as a result of historical factors, “France has worked hard to standardised what it means to be French… so they can defend the place.” After all, “nations are social constructs”, and there is always room to pursue homogeneity within the country through nation-building. Citing the examples of Lyon and Marseille, he asserted that pluralism has been instrumentalised as a tool for France to gain access to European funding for various social and urban projects. Funnily enough, Marseille was chosen as the European Capital of Culture in 2013, which bears testament to the fact that the top-down narratives of secularism and non-recognition of ethnic differences can be suppressed effectively enough to showcase cultural diversity on the ground. It is hence not an issue of the inherent lack of cultural vibrancy, but rather, the variable appropriation and recognition of further state agendas.

Nicolas Sarkozy’s administration introduced a public ban on full-face veils in places such as schools, government offices and public buildings, all in the name of secularism and gender equality.

In contrast to Sarkozy’s hard-line stance that has been criticised for promoting Islamophobia, openly centrist Emmanuel Macron is more sympathetic, warning against stigmatising Muslims or linking Islam with terrorism. Cycles of political leadership often bring fluctuating levels of uncertainty to the socio-political climate and Joseph noted that Macron’s centrist position allows him to avoid “calling the same kinds of constitutions as Sarkozy because he is not looking for a voter base”, but quickly qualifies this statement with a dismal evaluation of Macron’s inaction. Joseph lambasted that Macron “totally ignored problems in the suburbs and socio-economic discrimination” because these are hard to fix and the easier way out is to steer clear of them.

Since there has not been a major event under public scrutiny like the Charlie Hebdo or Bataclan incidents, I asked Joseph how he felt this might change or progress in the coming years and whether we can expect a dampening of anger or insecurity surrounding this issue. Indignant, Joseph rebutted that nothing has changed, calling the serious lack of security service reforms a “systemic issue that is very complex”, one that is wanting of clear coordination and communication. He highlights the ease of accessing firearms, saying that one “can buy a Kalashnikov rifle for a thousand euros”. These weapons had been used in the Charlie Hebdo and Bataclan attacks and with a resigned shake of his head, Joseph exclaimed how “ridiculous” it was.

The most important question, for me at least, as a Geographer who has been trained to approach issues with a (sometimes overly) critical lens, was with regards to Joseph’s positionality.

I could not help but see a disconnect in his status as a white male academic conducting research and constructing conclusions about French Muslims; surely his background must have had an influence on his perspective or framing of the issues he studies? The key takeaway from his book being that French Muslims have no issues with integration when considering the everyday was problematic for me as I expected some degree of hesitation in making assertions about groups that he did not belong to. “It’s something I cover in the foreword of the book”. Joseph acknowledged the importance of this, raising the socio-economic background that he grew up in — “deprived housing estate in the suburbs of London” — and his multiracial, multicultural social circles. “I grew up with loads of Muslim friends and seeing this everyday lived multiculturalism, integration was not raised as an issue. So why now?”

“I could not help but see a disconnect in his status as a white male academic conducting research and constructing conclusions about French Muslims; surely his background must have had an influence on his perspective or framing of the issues he studies?”

Paradoxically, Joseph said that his role as an “outsider” actually grants him “access to information and people who would not speak to you if you were French”. He lamented the active self-censorship of ethnic topics in academia due to sensitivity, and warned against looking at places with “rose-tinted glasses”, because our romanticised image of France should not come with the assumption that all topics are open and readily discussed in society.

To watch the full version of Dr Joseph Downing’s speech, click here!

What do you think? Let us know at editor@tcs.cam.ac.uk with the subject ‘Letter to the Editor’!