‘Banlieues de l’Islam’ in the context of Copenhagen School of Security

“The world of Islam may do more to define and shape Europe in the twenty-first century than the United States, Russia, or even the European Union.”[1] Timothy M. Savage

Islam has always played a very distinctive role in shaping relations between Français de souche[2] and the Arab migrant population. The last thirty years of French history clearly indicate Islam’s strong impact on both the security and domestic policy of the republic. This essay examines the current existence of Islamic population in France and the challenges it poses to security. Its main scope is to describe current responses to the emergence of Islam on the French political arena, ways it affects French security and examine common failures in addressing the “Islamic Challenge” in France.

In order to approach the above-mentioned topics, reference is made to the Copenhagen School of Security Studies and its role in shaping our understanding of security. Moreover, this essay attempts to assess relevance of this theory for our understanding of the “Islamic threat” in France. The author attempts to indicate the effectiveness of this theory in explaining the phenomenon of banlieues de l’Islam as both increasingly “constructed” and highly affecting French security on its societal level.
The notion of securitisation plays a significant role in the Copenhagen School’s understanding of security. Constructivist nature of securitisation is used (or some may claim misused) to explain the existence of “Islamic Threat” as a constructed rather than a factual danger. Revival of collective memories of both the “Ottoman peril” and the crusaders, along with historically well-established European xenophobia - or what some may call “Islamophobia”[3] - certainly contributes to shaping our understanding of Islam and Muslim immigrants as threatening France and the French cultural identity.
Furthermore, the fall of communism with the emergence of a ‘societal cold war’[4] is claimed by Buzan to be yet another factor leading to the process of securitisation of Islam, providing Europe with a new ‘threat’ that defines European identity in a clear contrast to the world of Islam thus substituting the role of communism in shaping common Western identity. However, current radicalisation within parts of the French Muslim community and their engagement in terrorism is claimed to be a real and imminent threat to French security. Assessment of the nature of ‘Islamic threat’ as increasingly constructed but also real and imminent will serve as a starting point to our deliberation on the existence of Islam in France and its impact on the security of the republic.
Finally, Buzan, Wæver and others interestingly point out the significance of the societal level of security,[5] which seems to be highly challenged by the recent magnitude of Islamic hijra (migration) and the increasing radicalisation of French Muslim community. This phenomenon is commonly believed to be crucial for proper understanding of current issues related to Muslim communities in France and their radicalisation. “Exclusion and marginalisation of Muslim immigrants”[6] and the failure of French-style integrationalism are seen to lead to radicalisation and strengthening attractiveness of jihadiya (jihadism), which presently poses threat not only on the societal but also military and political level of security. Therefore, the last part of this essay seeks to indicate the crucial role of social seclusion and marginalisation of Muslim communities of banlieues de l’Islam[7] in escalation of radicalisation of the French Muslim youth.
Securitisation of the French Islam
The notion of security is essentially contested and open to various interpretations that frequently cause disagreement on the political arena[8]. The traditionally narrow theory of security mostly emphasises only the military threats to national and international security. Many critics claim that security, though, may not be restricted exclusively to military threats. Instead they call for the broadening of the concept to include ‘soft’ security challenges or a range of non-military ‘sectors’[9]. This idea of “widening of security”[10], became the major point of focus for the Copenhagen school of security. This theory is, though, clearly constructivist in their understanding of security threats. Buzan et al. claim that “‘[s]ecurity’ is thus a self-referential practice”[11] and the importance of threat lies not in its factual existence but people’s intersubjective recognition of that threat[12]. “[T]he issue is securitised only if and when the audience accepts it as such.”[13] Thus, introduction of the idea of securitisation as presenting a constructed “issue (…) as an existential threat, requiring emergency measures and justifying actions outside the normal bounds of political procedure”[14] became the central pillar of Copenhagen school’s theory. This theory seems to be rather efficient in explaining some of the facets of the “Islamist threat” to French security.
“The war of Memories”[15]
The existence of Islam in Europe in general and in France in particular is not a new phenomenon. In fact, impact of Islam played a crucial role in the emergence of Renaissance in Europe.[16] Islam, historically, has had a great positive impact on Europe. However, “Islam and Europe are two civilisations characterised by a historical relationship that has been described both positively, by a combination of intercultural borrowing and a cross-cultural fertilisation, and negatively, by conflict and war”[17]. It is this “history-based inter-civilisational conflict between Islamic and European civilisations over power and values”[18] and our memories of the Ottoman peril and the crusaders’ massacres in the world of Islam that often shapes our perceptions of each other and causes xenophobia and uneasiness in relations to each other. Tibi, the most respected Muslim scholar in Germany, claims, “[a] ‘war of memories’ is [now] at issue”[19]. This historically strong discomfort proves to be a very fertile ground for the construction of the currently emphasised “Islamic threat” as it is “doubtless [that] some atavistic fear of Islam [exist] in Europe”[20].
Islam – the new communism
Moreover, some scholars like Mortimer, Buzan and Robertson describe yet another reason for the potential securitisation of Islam. The fall of communism clearly caused some ideological vacuum that saw its effects in various tragedies of the last decade of the twentieth century. The conflict in the Balkans and disintegration of Yugoslavia are often considered to be an effect of ideological vacuum that stripped the Yugoslavs of their common communist idea of belonging to one nation. Similarly, “Mortimer points to Europe’s need for an alien threat to replace the role of communism in supporting its social and political identity.[21]” It was the European self-identity that was at risk of losing the only challenge that served as its major constituent. Munster notes, “there seems to be a broad agreement in security studies that self identity, to a degree, is constituted through the externalisation of the other as a threat”[22]. Islam was meant to become the ‘new threat’ that would define European identity by “invoking a kind of societal cold war between Europe and Islam”[23]. It is also claimed that Islam serves perfectly in drawing Carl Schmittt’s “border between friend and enemy”[24] that the Copenhagen school does not directly refer to but “bears remarkable similarity to”[25], in their process of securitisation. Although, this notion may seem to be very irrational for some, Buzan and Robertson offer much deliberation to this controversial idea in their article in a book published in 1993; and therefore it is worth pointing out that this may have also served as another ground for securitisation of Islam in the world. They believed that it was quite tempting to draw a parallel “of Islam as the new torchbearer for anti-Westernism to replace the defeated communist challenge”[26]. Willy Claes, the Belgian NATO secretary general in the mid-1990s, famously stated, that “the new threat to the alliance was Islam”[27].

Banlieues de l’Islam and The French ‘constructed’ threat
Although the notion of Islam as a threat to European security existed already in the twentieth century, “it was not until the assaults of September 11 in New York and Washington, and the chain of 11 March in Madrid and 7 July in London that people in the West developed an awareness of global jihad lying at the hub of world politics”[28]. The uprising in the banlieues de l’Islam in Paris in late 2005 made the perception of Islam as a threat only more persistent in the public opinion. However, following Jocelyne Cesari, one can see that the situation in France was slightly different. She states that:
“In France, the growing fear of fundamentalism does not date from September 2001: it begins with the December 1995 bombings in the Paris Métro and the case of Khaled Kelkal (a young man of Algerian origin born in a suburb of Lyon, who was suspected to have taken part in the Paris Métro bombings, subsequently killed by the French police). September 11th exacerbated this fear, and lent a feeling of urgency to the discussion on national security. The main targets of this discussion were the youth of the suburbs, who were envisioned as sympathizers with the radicals.[29]
It is exactly the abovementioned youth of banlieues de l’Islam that currently occupies the central position in deliberations on radicalisation of Islam in France and its threat to national security.  Media has so far clearly played the main role in constructing and popularising the common perception of ‘Islamic threat’. French TV channels often refer to the youth of the suburbs. Cesari notes that:
“On a regular basis, suburban youth are referred to as a threat: a dangerous social class made up of people who do little but steal and engage in all sorts of illegal activity. In the past five years, the teenagers of the suburbs have been portrayed as budding terrorists, as rapists (with the gang-rape controversies of the past ten years), and, after the debates over the headscarf, as their sisters’ oppressors”[30].
This common perception of a threat posed by the Islamic youth; so abused by the French media; made it extremely easy for the public to conclude that the uprising in the banlieues de l’Islam was a blatant Islamic intifada fought against the French republic. This notion had a strong worldwide resounding. However, it has to be noted that the facts seem to prove that “neither Islam nor religious concerns were motivating factors in the riots”[31]. Anouar Boukhars also states that: “There were no shouts of "Allahu akbar!" erupting from the rioters”[32], which could also indicate clear lack of Islamist ideology behind this project. Another very important proof that these riots had no Islamist agenda can be drawn from the fact that the young rioters completely disregarded attempts by the leaders of the UOIF (the Union of French Islamic Associations) to bring peace to the suburbs and stop the violence[33]. Moreover, Berenice Guyot-Rechard claims that “to apprehend the situation of French Muslims only through the prism or radicalism and terrorism would be a fundamental mistake”[34]. However, “theories of self-segregating Islamic communities fuelled by Islamic radicalism and other simple cultural arguments abound[ed] in media commentaries and popular discourse”[35]. This security issue proves to be a tremendous example of the process of securitisation of Islam as a constructed and intersubjectively accepted threat to the French national security.
Islam – a factual threat
Although the constructed characteristic of ‘Islamic threat’ of the banlieues de l’Islam seems indisputable, it is also very important to state that there have been several occasions, in which a real threat to French security was posed. Modern French history has experienced quite strong Islamist activity. A King’s College study on “Recruitment and Mobilisation for the Islamist Militant Movement in Europe” indicates that:
“In France (…) the origins of the Islamist militant movement can be traced back to the Algerian civil war in the 1990s, when the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) first used France for logistical support and then declared the country a legitimate target”[36].
The existence of GIA in France resulted in wounding 150 people and deaths of eight French citizens in 1995 attacks on the Paris Métro. It must be also stated that a relative lack of other terrorist attacks since 1995 in France does not indicate total absence of Islamist militancy on the French territory. Guyot-Rechard notes that: “In December 2005, the French intelligence services dismantled a terrorist cell planning to attack the Paris underground and the Charles de Gaulle International Airport”[37]. Several members of “Ansar al-Fath” (Partisans of Victory); a radical Islamist group responsible for that terrorist attempt; have been recently convicted by the Paris criminal court. Bourada – an Islamist terrorist previously incarcerated for his involvement in 1995 bombings, masterminded this project[38].
Moreover, France together with other European countries proves to be a safe haven for homegrown Islamic fundamentalism. Cottey quotes Jonathan Stevenson claiming, “liberal asylum laws and standards of religious and commercial freedom have made Europe an effective safe haven as well as a fundraising hub for aspiring terrorists”[39]. Europe has definitely proven to be an Islamist hub for both fundraising and masterminding the attacks of 9/11. We now know that according to French intelligence, approximately 300 French radical Islamists had been trained in al Qaeda’s camps prior to September 2001[40]. However, although Islamist fundamentalism and terrorism are factual threats to French security, radical Islam is relatively different from its British edition and does not pose much of a military threat. “It is [rather] a factor of instability due to the widespread socio-economic deprivation of the Muslim community”[41].
Muslim immigrants and the societal level of security
The aforementioned socio-economic situation of Muslim immigrant communities seems to lie at the core of our perception of ‘Islamic threat’. Copenhagen school of security, once again shows clear signs of being extremely helpful in examining this issue at the level of French security.  Their critique of previously very narrow and state-centric understanding of security implies that security has to encompass more than simply its military level. Cottey claims that:
“The (…) concept of national security should be supplemented, or perhaps even replaced, by a focus on other referent objects such as the individual, or society or humanity as a whole”[42].
The Copenhagen school attempts to include various other levels of security and their societal level of security seems to play a very distinctive role in examining threats to states security. Immigration currently proves to be the most important factor affecting the societal level of security. Buzan claims that: “in relation to (…) migration (…) it is, up to a point, possible to justify perceptions of threat as having real substance”[43] and that: “it is only in the societal sector that any real short-term basis for European threat perceptions about the ME can be found”[44]. Current statistics can certainly support this notion. The polls indicate that the presence of Arab migration to Europe has overcome any previous expectations and “Muslims now constitute more than 25 percent of the population of Marseille [and] 20 percent of (…) Paris”[45]. Present magnitude of immigrant population may already be quite frightening for some, however it is in the future projections and expectations that a further societal threat to French public may be seen. Cottey notes that Muslim community may make up one quarter of France’s population by 2025, and even a majority by 2050[46]. Although strong Muslim presence is not a recent phenomenon in France[47], it commonly raises questions of Muslims threatening the French republican ideas and common European identity.
Muslims as a threat to French identity
Buzan and others note that identity[48] is the main constituent of a society and threats to identity are thus main threats to the society and consequently the state[49]. The “demographic panic”[50] that emerged due to extensive presence of Muslim population, combined with some very negative perceptions of Muslim immigrants in the media enables many to claim that the Arab migrants are a clear threat to the European and French society. Timothy Savage notes that:
“Europeans see Muslims as a direct challenge to the collective identity, traditional values, and public policies of their societies, as demonstrated by the heated controversies over the hijab, Muslim food (halal), the construction of mosques, the teaching of Islam in schools, and Muslim burial rites”[51].
These controversies are very apparent on both the French political arena and in the public discourse[52]. Many French citizens believe that their culture and identity is constantly threatened by the potential Islamisation. However, at the same time a large part of the French Muslims, especially those from the second and third generation of immigrants, believe that imposed integrationism and attempted assimilation of Muslims will only strip them off their real identity – being Muslim[53]. The notion of a threat to identity plays a very important role in Copenhagen school’s understanding of security. It may be claimed that societal level of security is as important for them as the military level and from the French example we can see that it should never be underestimated. This problem is also very closely related to the socio-economic situation of the Muslim community often ‘confined’ to the Parisian or Marseillian banlieues de l'Islam.
Ghettoisation and socio-economic exclusion as roots for radicalisation
Most of the world’s media and even some scholars[54] seem to have jumped on the bandwagon of Islamophobia and perceive the 2005 uprising as an epitomisation of Islamic radicalism and part of the worldwide intifada against the West. However, Guyot-Rechard and Boukhars[55] very directly discredit this notion describing the riots as “primarily [a] protest against a society which fails to give [young French Muslims] a future out of segregation and joblessness”[56]. The phenomenon of October/November 2005 was certainly a threat to French security, however describing young rioters as Islamists is to a large extent misleading, as this rapid explosion of violence in the suburbs had some very clear socio-economic background. Once again this proves the socially ‘constructed’ nature of our perception of banlieues de l’Islam as an ‘Islamist threat’. Traditional “‘black-blanc-beur’ France”[57] fails to integrate all parts of the society, with Muslims being “the most discriminated or disadvantaged community”[58]. This leads to strong ghettoïsation and socio-economic exclusion of French Muslims. The crisis of identity among French youth of the suburbs, a factor acclaimed to be extremely important in potential radicalization and the emergence of fundamentalism[59], is one of the distinctive results of that situation. Arab immigrants, often perceived by the majority of the society as part of “them” rather than “us”, tend to take up the “self-identification as a Muslim (…) [that] in many cases [is] a consequence of an ethnic solidarity maintained or preserved by the socio-economic conditions of segregation”[60]. Moreover, Farhad Khosrokhavar notes that: “Islam is becoming in Europe, especially France, the religion of the repressed”[61]. Radical Islamism is currently more of an exception than a norm in France[62], however further exclusion and structural racism towards French immigrants in general, and Muslims in particular, may very well lead to further progress of Islamisation and more violence.
Islam has clearly played a very distinctive role in both French and European history. It certainly affected many aspects of the French public life, with the security of the republic and the common perception of French identity affected most. This essay aims to indicate that Islam has recently become highly securitised in both the French media and public discourse. The Copenhagen School of Security helps us further understand this phenomenon. Ideas associated with deeply rooted European xenophobia and negative approach to Muslims in general only strengthened the French perception of threat. The fall of communism may have also served as yet another dynamic for securitising Islam. On the other hand, quite evident ghettoisation and socio-economic exclusion, as well as public perception of Muslims as a threat to French identity, clearly play a valid role in radicalisation of some parts of the French Muslim community. Although, there has been a multitude of examples of actual Islamic threats to French security, the author believes it to be essential to realise that riots of Banlieues de l’Islam did not have any clear Islamic agenda and were mostly caused by social dissatisfaction among the immigrant population. Nevertheless, it has proved to be easily constructed as an “Islamic threat”.

© 2009 Matthew Machowski
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1.     The Associated Press, “9 Convicted In Paris Terror Trial”, in International Herald Tribune, October 23, 2008, <http://www.iht.com/articles/2008/10/23/europe/24trial.php> [accessed October 23, 2008]
2.     Boukhars, Anouar, “Islam, Jihadism and Depolitization in the French Banlieues” in Terrorism Monitor Volume IV, Issue 18, September 21, 2006,
3.     Buzan, Barry and Ole Wæver, Jaap de Wilde, Security, A New Framework For Analysis, (Lynne Rienner Publishers: London, 1998)
4.     Cesari, Jocelyne, ETHNICITY, “Islam and banlieues: Confusing the Issues”, November 30, 2005, <http://www.ipcs.org/06-RP-Berenice2.pdf>  [accessed October 25, 2008]
7.     King’s College London, “Recruitment and Mobilisation for the Islamist Militant Movement in Europe”, report by International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence (ICSR) at King’s College London for the European Commission (Directorate General Justice, Freedom and Security), December 2007,
8.     Munster, Rens van, “Logics of Security: The Copenhagen School, Risk Management and the War on Terror”, in Political Science Publications (10/2005),
9.     Savage, Timothy M., “Europe and Islam: Crescent Waxing, Cultures Clashing”, in The Washington Quarterly 27, no. 3 (summer 2004), pp. 25-50,
10.  Sendagorta, Fidel, “Jihad in Europe: The Wider Context”, in Survival vol. 47 no. 3 (Autumn, 2005), pp. 63-72,
11.  Tibi, Bassam, Political Islam, world politics, and Europe, (London: Routledge, 2007)
12.  Wæver, Ole and Barry Buzan, Morten Kelstrup, Pierre Lemaintre, Identity, Migration and the New Security Order in Europe, (Pinter: London, 1993), chapters 2, 7, 8

[1] Savage, p. 25
[2] Expression commonly used to describe the ethnically “French” population of France.
[3] This neologism expressing discrimination or popular prejudice against the Muslims and their faith first emerged in its French usuage in 1980s and is now often used in various academic and popular literatures. See: Tibi p. 16
[4] Waever et al., p. 25
[5] see Buzan et al., pp. 119-140; Tibi, p. XIV; Wæver et al., chapter 7
[6] Tibi, p. XIX
[7] Expression popularised by Gilles Kepel in his book “Les banlieues de l'Islam” published in 1991. The term is often used to describe poor suburbs of Paris with extensive Muslim population. French press commonly uses it with strong negative connotations.
[8] Cottey, p.6
[9] ibid., also see Buzan et al., p.25
[10] Buzan et al., p. 26
[11] ibid., p.24
[12] ibid., pp.25 and 31, see also Cottey, p. 7
[13] ibid., p.25
[14] Buzan et al., pp. 23-4. See also Cottey, p. 7 where he follows Buzan in his definition of securitisation.
[15] Tibi, p. 4
[16] Savage, p. 47
[17] Tibi, p. 162
[18] ibid., p.173
[19] ibid., p.4
[20] Wæver et al., 65
[21] ibid.
[22] Munster, p. 1
[23] Wæver et al., p. 67; see also Tibi, p.21
[24] Munster, p. 3
[25] ibid.
[26] Wæver et al., p. 76
[27] Savage, p. 46
[28] Tibi, p. 6
[31] ibid.
[32] Boukhars, p. 9
[33] Xavier Ternisien has reported this in the November 9, 2005 edition of Le Monde. See: <http://www.ipcs.org/06-RP-Berenice2.pdf>
[34] Guyot-Rechard, p. 9
[35] ibid.
[36] King’s College London, pp.28-9
[37] Guyot-Rechard, p. 6
[39] Cottey, p. 172
[40] Guyot-Rechard, p. 7
[41] ibid., p. 3
[42] Cottey, p. 8
[43] Wæver et al., p.  87
[44] ibid.
[45] Savage, p. 29
[46] Cottey, p. 183
[47] Guyot-Rechard notes that Muslims have been present on the French soil for the past 170 years. Muslim immigration supposedly started in the 1830s during Algeria’s colonization. See: Guyot-Rechard, p. 3
[48] Buzan et al., p. 119
[49] ibid., p. 120
[50] Sendagorta, p. 69
[51] Savage, p. 43
[52] The official ban on wearing Islamic hijab in public schools was imposed in September 2004 and has been very contested ever since. It also raised a large public outcry among the Muslim community.
[53] Savage notes that European Muslims often identify themselves first with Islam rather then their country of origin or the state in which they currently reside. See: Savage, p. 30 For the impact of integrationism on the French Muslim community and the way it resulted in violent riots of the late 2005, see Cottey, p. 185.
[54] See Tibi, p. 23 (Tibi’s description of riots in 2005 as ‘Islamic’ is in fact quite surprising, as he is a Muslim himself, although often considered to be a part of a strongly secular division of Muslim scholars in Europe.)
[55] see Boukhars, p. 9
[56] Guyot-Rechard, p. 10
[57] Term indicating strong societal divisions in France. See: Guyot-Rechard, p. 11
[58] Guyot-Rechard, p. 4
[59] For description of the ‘crisis of identity’ as a factor accounting for the rise of fundamentalism see: Gray, p. 88 and Ruthven, p. 125
[61] King’s College London, pp. 40-1
[62] Guyot-Rechard, p. 9

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