Religion, Social Action & Urban Policy: London Paris face to face / Religions, action sociale et politique urbaine: Paris et Londres en face à face

On 17 March 2016, a conference took place in Paris at the GSRL. It was organised within the exchanges between PSL Research University and the University of Cambridge by Samuel Everett (postdoctoral researcher at the GSRL/Woolf Institute). Read the conference program.

The talks aimed at framing a comparative study and giving context to the exchanges by discussing the role of religion in sustaining communities, comparing England with an established church, and France with its struggle around religion and laïcité.

Introduction

Professors Robert Tombs (University of Cambridge) and Philippe Portier (Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes / GSRL) introduced the series of roundtables that you will find forthwith by considering the historical, geographical and ideational parameters of British and French historical contexts.

Both presentations relate to the tensions and evolutions between the state and religious spheres as they interact politically via local religious community involvement in society for the common (moral good).

Prof Robert Tombs gave an historical description of the changes that the cities of London and Paris have undergone since the 16th C. while Prof Philippe Portier spoke about the ways in which secularization since the late 19th C across Europe, and in particular in France, was shaped first by the shift from divine to secular-rational law and then by the individualisation of society and the flow of goods and people with the onset of globalisation.

At a micro level, as Prof Robert Tombs aptly summarized, faith-based civil society has grown differently on the basis of London’s mozaik and Paris’ centre-periphery structures while governance both national and local has adapted to the realities of late 20th C. demographic change, the importance of individuality and recognition of cultural difference and the consequent growth of moral uncertainty.

These broad overviews serve to ‘set the scene’ for the themes of each roundtable, rooted in present day tension over the implication of the religious sphere in the political.

Religious Leadership & Social Action

Since the fall-out from the Paris attacks and alongside the rise in nationalism across Europe, faith leaders have sought to improve community relations. The first panel brought together two experts of religious minorities in Europe, Nilüfer Göle (chair) who has conducted pioneering research on the everyday of Muslims in Europe and Diana Pinto specialist of Jewish communities in Europe.

By way of provocative introduction, after having lauded interfaith activists in France for their ‘uphill struggle’ against the strictures of France’s fourth religion ‘la laïcité’, Professor Diana Pinto wondered if a depressive Education Nationale and the almost complete absence of Jews in the national schooling system in France is not the very proof that a French model living off its reputation for ‘enlightened’ theory may in fact be less efficient than the apparently haphazard ‘muddling through’ or ‘bricolage organique’ in which church & state vie for power in the spheres of politics and education in the UK.

Imam Mohamed Bajrafil then raised the question of a Savoir Minimum Indispensable à la Conversation (SMIC – French ackronym for minimum wage), a common lexicon, in order to speak across religions in the first instance.

He then went on to discuss (Qui) who, (Que) what, (Quels leviers) what tools, (Quels obstacles) and what obstacles for leaders in promoting interfaith.

Indeed, for Prof Göle Inter-faith dialogue is set to change the very identification of Muslims in Europe.

Figureheads of Muslim and Jewish communities in London and Paris then interrogated the role of religious leadership and interfaith practice in reaching out to other communities. Rabbi Herschel Gluck MBE from Stamford Hill in NE London spoke about his experiences as founder and chairman of the Arab-Jewish forum, how dialogue needs to be locally anchored in order for inter-community (not just interfaith) shared issues can pave the way for the discussion of broader geopolitical questions with respect and empathy.

Between the Rabbi and the Imam, activist and historian Samia Hathroubi discussed change and continuity in the field of interfaith activism in France and methods of action: through community & identity (modalité d’action – interreligieux, communitaire et identiatire).

She asked what are the expectations of interfaith dialogue in post-2015 attacks France? Her examples were multiple and she put forward an ‘inter-convictionnel’ (inter-belief) model for opening-up the discussion with broader society.

Finally Annie Benveniste applied a post-structuralist lens to proceedings by discussing some of the binaries within the question of the interreligious encounter – alterity (being other) and alterization (othering), dialogue & action.

Secularism Faith & Community

While in London civil society is often openly infused with religious values, social initiative in Paris and its periphery is structured by laïcité.
This panel explores these conceptions of state secularism and questions the realities of these ‘models’ within local urban contexts as ideas of class, race and religious identity increasingly intersect.

Ben Gidely discussed three historical-social science research projects on which he has worked focusing on his historical and ethnographic work in East and North East London.

He argued that national-level policy can mould how people live together and in the UK.

He discussed the theory attributed to this idea: “conservative pluralism” in which the Church of England maintained overall religious supremacy by mediating for minority faiths.

Space and place nevertheless impact on interreligious relations such as those on Brick lane which fosters neighbourhood narratives of cosmopolitanism.

Finally, somewhat paradoxically, his research has shown that how people interact with one another does not necessarily concur with how they talk about each other i.e. racist speak can belie good relations.

Arié Alimi then spoke from his ‘participant observation’ as a criminal law barrister in Paris.

Having defended pro-Palestinian demonstration organizers in the Jewish part of a neighbourhood called Sarcelles to the North East of Paris in the name of Republican principles of equality he has been on the front line of Muslim-Jewish community tension.

At the same time Maitre Alimi grew up in the neighbourhood and has close ties to the orthodox Jewish community of his childhood. He discussed inter-community resentment between Muslims and Jews in terms of political advantages and community cooperation with authorities.

He then discussed his experience of defending the Imam Khatibi (Montpellier) and showed how the Imam’s house arrest (one of the first after January 2015) aligned with the instrumentalisation of laïcité in France.
Born in the neighbouring town to Sarcelles of Villers le bel – Estelle Barthelemy co-founder of social enterprise Mozaik RH discussed how she came to have the idea of a recruitment agency that specialises in getting jobs for people from the periphery of the larger French urban spaces.

Research suggests that postcodes and North African sounding names can discriminate against job candidates by up to four times. 11000 people come to Mozaik RH since 2005 and 3000 have been posted.

Estelle Barthelemy also discussed access to key information like word of mouth for high end jobs. Through Mozaik RH and the new Mozaik foundation Estelle and co-founder Said Hammouche are campaigning political decision-makers to redress the balance and improve chances of graduates from particular suburbs to get into the job market in line with their qualifications.

Drilling down further into questions of discrimination in the job market, Omar Khan, director of Runneymede that conducts UK research on the issue that Mozaik deals with, gave a statistical overview of Islamophobia—which has both racial and religious based aspects of discrimination—using UK census data, exploring its impact on the job market.

After discussing social action on this issue to date he argued that at a political level more work needs to be done to listen to the experiences coming from within minority religious communities.

Faith Communities and Local Governance

Faith and politics can clash when communities feel that it is desirable to take local governance into their own hands.

Local politics, community interaction and the boundaries of religious observance in secular life were discussed in the closing panel.

 

Julie Siddiqi mentor, consultant & activist focusing on gender issues and Jewish-Muslim relations in the UK commenced proceedings from a Muslim faithful perspective, describing a community under increasing scrutiny.

She discussed the compatibility of Britishness and being Muslim but highlighted that the post 9/11 context for Muslims has changed self-perception particular among the youngest generation.

While Islamophobia is on the rise this is balanced by more speaking out and increased initiatives to work together and understand one another across perceived faith and social barriers.

Mme Siddiqui then went on to discuss good examples of community organising that overlap with social action and improved interreligious togetherness. Importantly she raised the question of faith and feminism in a milieu that all too often is dominated by men.

Addressing the question of violent radicalisation among young Muslim men in France and drawing from his research with 30 service providers Pierre Winicki spoke about the possible link between levels of distrust in family, state structures and society in general and the alienation that led to radicalisation.

He identified several risk areas: experience of trauma, distrust in public institutions, lack of joined-up service provision and social worker fear of ostensibly ‘radicalized’ men.

Nevertheless, Serena Hussain, specialist of Muslim communities and change in the UK questioned the correlation between Trust and radicalisation.

Returning to the question of faith engagement at a social level Alexis Artaud de la Ferriere discussed St Bernard de la Chapelle in terms of its relationship with migration to France.

The church in question has a particular place in the French psyche because of the identity of the clergy, the parishioners and in terms of the church’s social action within ‘La Goutte d’Or’ a neighbourhood of high demographic density and ethno-religious diversity and weak social indicators.

Artaud’s ethnographic work as a church-activist shows both the tensions and successes of ‘inter-cultural’ initiatives for migrants.

He traces these fault lines ideologically between Catholic Church and Secular Left between members of the organisation for the support of migrants (refugees) in La Chapelle as well as the sometimes precarious position of Church based actors in a group that has a significant Muslim component and shelters a high proportion of Muslim asylum seekers.

Along similar lines, David Barclay in his research and activism explored the questions of faith and grassroots social action seen through the prism of his work helping and supporting the Citizens UK to fight against exploitative usury.

This group brings together a group of civil society organizations; predominantly faith-based. He discussed community-organising as a methodology and its merits: this starts with listening (money talk in the Citizens UK case) with different groups, then proceeds to the research stage by looking at public space and local council policies and petition-making possibilities, then at a local level builds team confidence and imaginative social action which can then be translated at a national level.

For example, in the case of Citizens UK, the engagement of archbishop of Cantebury which had an legal impact that would eventually lead to the capping of the cost of credit. Thus a faith-based initiative was recognised across society as a valuable contribution to public life.