I'm not racist, but...

COVER Je ne suis pas racisteBy Christine Donjean

International current affairs issues often make a point of mentioning religious or community tensions. They spark off many questions in schools, reveal fears and provoke withdrawals and retreats based on identity or on security issues. How to protect the values of tolerance and respect and protect young people from stereotypes and prejudices caused by a lack of knowledge of the other and the ignorance of cultures? That is the objective of this collective work (1), which delivers an instructive panorama of the concepts linked to migrations and their cultural clashes.

‘How do the youth perceive immigration and cultural diversity, particularly concerning Islam and Muslims?’ It is on the basis of this question that Malika Madi and Hassan Bousetta carried out an enquiry in 36 teaching institutions in the French Speaking Community of Belgium. The former is a novelist, author of A Night of Ink for Farah (Nuit d’encre pour Farah) and The Silences of Medea (Les silences de Médéa), whilst the latter is a sociologist and FNRS researcher at the University of Liège. Both of them themselves come from a background of immigration. The work is above all addressed to young people who are asking themselves questions about the relationships between Islam, Muslims and their place in Belgian society.

The authors have attempted to review the numerous prejudices held against other cultures and in particular Islam.

Being of foreign origin is no protection against racist prejudice

Cultural diversity is one of the foundations of our contemporary societies. It has become rare in our world to still find mono-cultural societies. In a multicultural society, it is necessary to live together: to communicate and share on an equal footing. It is in this issue, quite obviously, that all the difficulties are to be found. Any society based on the ghetto cannot be a democratic multicultural society.

Democratic societies often find themselves confronted by a dilemma: cultural relativism or ethnocentrism? Pushed to their extremes, these concepts or points of view can end up by justifying practices which are antinomical to basic rights and freedoms. These same practices are not necessarily the fruit of religious perspectives but find their origins in culture or in society (slavery, misogyny, segregation). Can we, in the name of traditions and respect for traditions, detach ourselves from our own culture to understand – and assimilate? – that of others or should we adopt the philosophical view which sees human rights as a genuinely universal given?

‘Cultures are made for exchanges. But religion is not culture, and many people are mistaken on this. Cultures should be exchanged, but not religion; that only causes arguments’

Jenny, 16 years old.

Jeunes 1An individual can exist beyond his/her own culture and can become enriched by that of others. Nonetheless, in cultural diversity, living together often goes hand in hand with a lack of understanding, rejection and stereotypes due to a misreading of cultures. Or a clash of civilisations, of concepts which are a priori antinomical.

This misunderstanding leads to a fear of the other, of ‘the foreigner’. Pushed to their extremes, this misunderstanding and rejection take the form of xenophobia. Without a democratic handling of this situation, and a very profound consideration of the phenomenon if inter-culturalism, individuals and societies risk, by withdrawing into themselves, adopting racist behaviour and policies.
A number of young people consider that the other is first of all a human being, with qualities and faults. Some consider that too much importance is given to differences and that it is better to concentrate above all on what unites us. It is fear itself that needs to be defeated.

What history can teach us

In every era, people have migrated towards horizons with better prospects for their development. Every migration is accompanied by an ‘encounter’, which is sometimes happy, sometimes unfortunate. On arrival, a migrant is not always accepted as he or she is and becomes the victim of racism. The trend for migrants is thus to gather together, to find each other. This coming together in certain neighbourhoods or regions eventually becomes a sort of a ghetto.

‘It’s a shame that the foreigners stick together instead of making friends with indigenous people’

Mathilde 15 years

Can this gathering together encourage ‘integration’?
The way societies perceive immigrant populations is very different if they are ‘poor’ or ‘rich’. Do we talk about integration when we talk about European Union officials, diplomats or the executives of multinational companies? We ask rich foreigners to ‘become integrated’ a lot less than we do poor foreigners.

What is that thus provokes fear? The fact of being a foreigner or the fact of living in poverty?

Racism is not an opinion like any other. Racism and xenophobia are punishable by the legal system in Belgium. It is again necessary to distinguish within racism racist ideas, behaviour and political ideology.
In this link with rejection, it is necessary to fight against the act above all when it is accompanied by violence. And this violence can be found in every form of racism.
There exists no serious scale to measure people’s kindness or aggressiveness.

Understanding Islam and Muslims

Jeunes 3The words ‘Islam’ and ‘fundamentalism’ are often linked – certain people think that Islam is intolerant and the primary cause of violence. This association of ideas is reinforced by the media, in particular as far as the question of terrorism is concerned. There are numerous prejudices against Islam: violence (terrorism), misogyny (the place of women in society, wearing the veil), etc. To move beyond received ideas, this work invites us to ask ourselves about the concepts linked to Islam and to try to understand their different component parts.

We thus learn that the wearing of the veil by women is anti-Islamic and equally present in numerous non-Islamic societies. The veil was at the time the sign of social discrimination. In effect, women who came from the most privileged strata of society covered their hair. The fact that every woman can wear a veil in Islam became a symbol of the equality of everybody before God.

Today, political, religious or family pressures have made the veil the super symbol of Islam, but one which has been diverted from its primarily sociological origins. Women have become the centre of attention and found themselves stigmatised by it, with the risk of accentuating the withdrawal and retreat into a particular identity.
To understand Islam, its foundations and origins need to be known. Even amongst Muslims a number of practices with origins in pre-Islamic culture are taken for religious precepts.

Building the peace, denouncing the violence

Once again it’s a question of decoding, of going beyond our fears and prejudices. Today, when we approach the subject of Islam, there exists an amalgamation between fundamentalism and terrorism. Numerous Muslims feel stigmatised because of a minority who act with violence.

The stigmatisation of a group or a community can lead to the idea of a clash of civilisations or cultures within which the other becomes the enemy. This new world order is provoking an identity crisis in the Muslim world. The reading of this enquiry freely gives rise to the final questions, with the spirit – the guiding thread of the work – of taking hold of what unites us: ‘we are all human beings’.

‘It is above all the events that are taking place in the world, such as the attacks, that drive me to have this mistrust of Muslims’

Matthieu, 17 years old

What motivated you to write as a trio and notably with a novelist?
The initiative for the work came from Malika Madi. It was her who wanted to turn to a sociologist to be able to give meaning to the experiences she was having in the ‘Writer in the Classroom’ project. As for Anne Morelli, she joined us later on. Her involvement has been restricted to writing the chapter on the history of immigration.

What motivated you to carry out an enquiry above all in the schools?
It’s not really properly speaking an enquiry, but more an exchange with pupils in secondary education. It was a question of taking further the exchanges that Malika had established in her encounters in the classroom. At the same time, there was an aim to give Malika’s initiative a louder echo and to chisel out a number of arguments conducive to intercultural meetings between pupils.

Have you perceived more ‘racism’ in the large cities than in the provinces?
Not really. Racism isn’t simply a function of exposure to cultural diversity. It’s above all a question of mental representations, of prejudices and stereotypes. And that’s why we think this type of exercise is useful in order to identify the blockages and to try to deconstruct prejudice.

Jeunes 2Is a secular society like France the sole possible rampart against prejudices linked to religions and their impact on public life?
If France had succeeded better than other European partners, we would have known about it by now. Unfortunately, there is no pre-established model that could serve as a panacea on a European scale. Solutions to the question of living together must be looked for and found in dialogue. They are always circumstantial even if we must always remember that there are some minimum demands such as respect for human rights, free and democratic debate, etc.

Can a working project with young people based on positive prejudices be useful in terms of avoiding negative prejudices?
Opposing positive prejudice to negative prejudice has little chance of achieving a pedagogical objective. We were aware of that from the start. We thus rather looked to deconstruct and inform by giving various arguments drawn notably from academic writings, most of which young people are thus unaware of. Our initiative is certainly not the end point, but the beginning of a new debate and new exchanges with young people, because we will return to the schools with this book to continue the debate and make the tool that this book comprises more widely known. There is thus a whole project to stimulate activities in schools. There is a website which accompanies this project for pedagogical activities: www.jenesuispasraciste.be. Under the heading ‘Links’ you can find other internet resources.

(1). Je ne suis pas raciste, mais…By Malika Madi and Hassan Bousetta, in collaboration with Anne Morelli, Editions Luc Pire, 2008.