Ghosts in the fires of Paris

newsflash is paris burningAs my colleagues here at GetReligion would tell you, about once a week or so I sent around a frustrated note on top of a news story or two linked to the conflict between the extremists that many now call Islamists and other religious believers, from Jews to Christians, from secular Muslims to Western Muslims.

These stories are drenched in religion, yet it is religion that is woven into ancient and modern conflicts that now involve politics, ethnic clashes, economics, blood fueds and many other factors. How can reporters separate the threads?

The religion ghosts are clashing, on both sides, but journalists hesitate to name or explain them. Has anyone out there seen an MSM story that really explains, for the average reader, the Sunni vs. Shiite vs. Kurd divisions in Iraq? Were reporters supposed to have explained that in each and every 700-word wire service report about the new Iraqi constitution?

Do we have too name the ghosts over and over? So a Palestinian bomber blows himself up at a sandwich stand in Israel and people are killed and injured. Was it just any old sandwich stand? Does the story have to tell us that it was a sandwich stand popular among Jews? Do we need to know the religious makeup of every victim list? Or have we reached the point where we are supposed to simply assume that we know?

There are too many questions.

Right now, I am frustrated with much of the coverage of the riots in the Paris suburbs. At the very least, this is a story that represents a violent new stage in debates about the future of the European Union.

It is a story linked to the fading of one faith and the rise of another on the continent. It is a story about high birth rates and low birth rates. It is a story about religious liberty and threats to religious liberty — on both sides. It is a haunted story. But is it truly a story about a clash between religious groups, between different visions of culture and civilization? When are thugs merely thugs? When are police just police?

Here is how Molly Moore of The Washington Post started a typical story about the rioting. There are dozens of stories like this in print today. You can watch them on the news broadcasts tonight. Can you hear the eggshells underfoot?

PARIS, Nov. 3 — The street rampage of angry youths continued to expand across immigrant-dominated suburbs of Paris Thursday, with gangs attacking commuter trains, elementary schools and businesses in an eighth night of violence, according to local police officials.

French government leaders met in emergency sessions for a second day but again failed to agree on how to stem the violence.

Angry youths. Immigrant-dominated.

Rock-throwing gangs attacked two trains linking Paris to Charles de Gaulle Airport, dragging out a conductor and smashing windows. Other attackers torched a car dealership, supermarket and gymnasium in violence in at least nine impoverished towns and communities populated primarily by immigrants and first-generation French citizens. A large percentage of the area’s population is Muslim.

So you are the editor: Is that last sentence too early or too late? Should journalists name the ghost? Should journalists strive to minimize the religious elements of the story? If so, what is the journalistic motivation for doing that?

I am frustrated and I openly admit that, in this case, I do not know what reporters should be doing.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Ryan Richard Overbey

    Perhaps the frustration does not come from complex context of these events. Contexts can be understood and conveyed with enough time and attention. Perhaps the real dilemma is in words like “700-word wire service report” or “short deadline.”

    This may be a case of the form of abbreviated, high-speed journalistic writing being simply inadequate to the task of narrating and contextualizing truly complex content. 700-word wire service reports can indeed be dense and fact-laden, but isn’t there a saturation point somewhere?

    And of course, you should take this opinion with a grain of salt, coming as it does from a long-winded academic. =)

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  • Lucas Sayre

    I think GR contributors are using the word “ghost” way too often… despite the fact that it is Halloween season :-)

  • Lucas Sayre

    A friend of mine made a good post regarding the Paris riots, comparing the media’s reaction to the looting in New Orleans.

  • Michael

    This is also a story about race and poverty. Are the rioters responding because they are Muslim or because they are African or because they are Black or because they are poor or because France (and much of the EU) is white and fairly ethnocentric???

  • Megan B.

    Every MSM article I’ve read on the story has identified the rioters as primarily black African Muslim immigrants. The religious identification certainly isn’t buried.

    Seems to me that religion is an important part of the volatile mix in the situation, but not the real trigger. These are not suicide bombers railing against the corruption of the Great Satan. This is about systemic racism and anti-immigrant politics, poverty, life in the marginalized ghetto, etc. Muslim identity is a significant part of that (both as claimed by the majority of the immigrants and projected onto them by the native-born French). But to put the focus primarily on the religious aspects, would be, I think, misleading.

    In other words, I think the coverage has actually been relatively appropriate. The religious aspect has been mentioned and covered from multiple angles (religious leaders trying to work for peace, discussion of the headscarves issues, Ramadan, cultural vs. religious Muslim identity), but not made into The Story.

    Presumably there will be time in the coming weeks for the longer Newsweek-style pieces on “the origins of the conflict” that don’t get addressed in the regular AP/Reuters/etc. reports. Starting with explaining to confused Americans this whole “suburban violence” thing…

  • tmatt


    I was sincere in my question about when and where the religous element should be mentioned. You are also seeing, apparently, more stories with this fact higher up than I am.

    Keep us posted on what you see!

  • NBR

    I agree with Megan that most MSM stories I’ve seen have mentioned the religious connection, even if they don’t place it in the first few sentences. The NYT’s approach seems to be pretty typical:

    While the vast majority of the young people behind the nightly attacks are Muslim, experts and residents warned against seeing the violence through the prism of religion. The cultural divide between these second- and third-generation immigrants and the native French is deeper because they come from Muslim families, but to date the violence has had nothing to do with Islam. But Islamic radicals recruit in France’s troubled neighborhoods, and there is clearly a risk of deepening alienation and anger that could breed more extremism. (Link)

    The Revealer today linked to a story at alt.muslim which, though brief, struck me as a thoughtful response to just this kind of reasoning, including the following closing line:

    While religious ideology may have a role in other types of violence (i.e, al-Qaida), in this case it just happens to be the faith of the disenfranchised population. Those seeking a solution to the problem would be more effective by looking deeper than that.

    This seems like a good point to me. I have to wonder, in turn, why religious difference would appear to be a more relevant point than, say, economic deprivation, or social dislocation, or political
    disenfranchisement. Looking at this post, it strikes me that you could say exactly the same thing about any news story in which violent or disruptive acts by Muslims figured prominently and which didn’t lay central emphasis on their religious identity. The question comes down to this: are the “youths” in question, the ones who are doing the rioting, best described as “Islamic rioters,” or as rioters who happen to be Muslims? One could also take the approach of WorldNetDaily, in an article titled “Media’s protection of Muslim rioters,” which concludes that

    “France herself is being attacked by foreign hordes,” claims the reliably outspoken Jean-Marie Le Pen at the end of the article. Indeed, in a continent of cowards and compromisers, it should not come as a surprise that citizens will turn to the first public figure who dares say anything at all.

  • Stephen A.

    After three hours of solid coverage of the rioting in Argentina yesterday on CNN, Wolf Blitzer finally admited that it had been “minor.” Two police officers were injured and some windows were broken and small fires started in stores.

    The CNN report on the Paris riots were short in comparison, and mentioned “youth unemployment” and the isolated case of two youths who died after being chased by cops as the causes. It did mention the Muslim component, but in passing, it seemed.

    BBC is not that much better. Two stories online today failed to mention the words Muslim, faith or religion, but did mention “Arab” and “black.”

    That’s excusable, in a way, because race is a big issue in this case. In fact, there seems to be a reluctance to face the fact that the Socialist paradise (France) where “everyone is equal” has problems with race, religion, immigration and assimilation far more serious than the US, which is portrayed by left-leaners in the MSM as little better than we were in the 1890s.

    Not that they don’t exist, but no one I know or have known of has ever said, “Let’s burn down that Muslim’s house” or “Death to immigrants.” Yet, those are commonly heard in France, friends in Europe tell me.

  • Terry Tee

    Here in the UK nearly all the coverage ignores or seriously plays down the fact that most are Muslim. There is an element of self-censorship, I think. (If I may digress: compare and contrast the recent publication of cartoons in a Danish paper showing the Prophet, evoking enormous Muslim anger, but undertaken by the paper precisely to show that there can be no self-censorship when it comes to religion.)

    Among the distressing reports from France are those about a disabled woman who was in a bus that was set on fire. All reports say that she could not get out because of her disability. Some add the detail that the youths poured flammable liquid over her too, though I would be agnostic about this unless it is confirmed. We simply do not know the religion of the youths who did this. But if they were Muslim, would it not be a critical and emotive point that they behaved so badly?

    Two years ago we had Muslim riots in Bradford in Britain. A church was wrecked, and the pastor hospitalised. If it had been white boys wrecking a mosque we would never have heard the end of it. Somehow, the MSM in the UK while not ignoring the story, largely downplayed it.

    Is it fear? Or is it a sense of responsibility, not wanting to stoke the fires further?

  • Megan B.

    The BBC website’s “background” section on the riots leads with an article comparing the Muslim experience in the corporate world to that of the rioting youths. The next one is “French Muslims face job discrimination” and the fourth one is on the headscarves issue. So I’m not sure it’s being completely ignored…

    “If they were Muslim, would it not be a critical and emotive point that they behaved so badly?” — Would it? I would seem to depend on so many more factors, including first and foremost whether their were using religion to justify the attack, which I have heard very little of.

    On a broader level, when person X commits a crime, when is their religion newsworthy? Take the case of Chai Soua Vang, the Hmong man who shot and killed several hunters in Wisconsin in a highly racially-charged incident last year. There, race was the issue, not religion, although certainly the average Midwesterner would assume religious difference as well, and in my experience that’s part of the “they’re not like us” sentiment… but the real lines are drawn around race and immigration status (as the “Save a Hunter, Shoot a Mung” bumper stickers make clear, speaking of Americans saying things like that). Focusing on Vang’s religious affiliation would have been misleading at best; the same might easily be true for the people who allegedly set the woman on fire.

    Of course, if they were shouting religious slogans while doing so, that’s different.

  • Michael

    I wonder in an alterantive universe, Europeans looked at New Orleans and wondered why the religion of the “looters” or those left abandoned wasn’t discussed.

    “Evangelicals loot New Orleans”

    or look at issues with undocumented workers and wonder why religion is never mentioned

    “Catholic immigrants denied jobs in U.S.”

  • Bartholomew

    Why doesn’t anyone ask the opinions of some people who have actually studied Islam in France? In two minutes of googling, I came up with Jonathan Laurence and Justin Vaisse, both of the Brookings Institute and authors of Integrating Islam: Political and Religious Challenges in Contemporary France, and Jocelyne Cesari of Havard, who wrote a very interesting article back in 2002, entitled “Islam in France : the Shaping of a religious minority”:

  • Bartholomew
  • Terry Tee

    On the contrary, Megan, religion is the unmentioned and unmentionable, though it is broached by Niall Ferguson in the Observer today, pointing out that most of the rioters in France are not immigrants but children and grandchildren of immigrants. Why is it the case that other immigrant groups integrate but not Muslim people? Is it bias/prejudice or is is something in their cultural expectations that leads them to have difficulty integrating into a questioning, open society?

    Interestingly the French press is aware of the attention of the rest of the world. In today’s Le Monde we find: ‘Les médias étrangers continuent de manifester leur inquiétude après ces protestations violentes. Le président de la Commission britannique pour l’égalité des races (CRE) Trevor Phillips y voit un avertissement pour l’Europe, montrant que l’intégration nécessite une solution politique.”Nos voisins français sont en train de nous donner le plus fort signal d’alarme qu’ils peuvent (…). Réveillez-vous tous”, écrit-il dans une tribune publiée dimanche par l’Observer. ‘ (‘The foregn media continues to show its unease after these violent protests. The President of the British Commission for Racial Equality, Trevor Phillips, sees in these events a warning for Europe, showing that integration demands a political solution. [He says] ‘Our French neighbours are in the process of giving us the strongest alarm signal that they can. It is time to wake up” he writes in a column in the Sunday Observer newspaper.’ Those who live in the UK will know that Trevor Phillips has been increasingly worried about the self-segregation of certain Asian (read: Muslim) communities.

  • Terry Tee

    The point above about New Orleans if anything, proves my case. There was no suggestion in public understanding that religion had influenced the looters (and anyway subsequent debate made it clear that some looters were simply foraging for food in difficult circumstances). However, by contrast, the public perception is that religion MAY be a cultural factor leading Muslims to live on poor relations within Western society. Certainly those bastions of liberalism, Denmark and the Netherlands, think so and have moved to restrict Muslim religious freedom on the grounds that some practices negate integration. So the question of reporting is not whether rioting youths are identified as Muslim, but whether the media, in analysis, asks the awkward question of how much anger is caused by discrimination, and how much comes from a religious culture which is separatist and suspicious.

  • Stephen A.

    I concur 100% with Terry Tee’s comments.

    The New Orleans looting (however limited it was) was due to a natural disaster.

    The Rioting in France is clearly tied to both poverty AND religion. Muslim immigrants have felt, and have apparently been, unassimilated and unappreciated by the majority, to say the least. The headscarves issue was just one that ripped away the fascade of “tolerance” in supposedly liberal Europe.

    Huge differences between the two examples here.

    Also of note, Newsweek Magazine takes the religious questions head-on in this weeks edition in an article titled “Rage on Rue Picasso” (link below.)

  • Dan Berger

    Nevertheless, on NPR this morning a top-of-the-hour blurb reported a march by “citizens and clerics” supporting “dialogue, not violence.”

    That was it. No further information. Imagine the difference a few adjectives might have made: Muslim citizens and clerics “white citizens and Christian clerics” “>b>area citizens and both Christian and Muslim clerics” Each of these three sets of adjectives imply a slightly different sort of march. None would have increased the length of the blurb more than half a second.

    So why weren’t some adjectives included?

    NPR did, in fact, broadcast an in-depth report about 5 minutes later, complete with several interviews that made the background of the interviewees apparent. So why the dearth of simple descriptive information earlier?

  • Dan Berger

    Sorry… I tried to use more HTML in my post than this message board supports, so the middle paragraph didn’t come out as a list, which was my intention.

  • Avram

    Here’s Molly Moore again, three days later, grabbing Terry’s ghost by the horns.

  • Stephen A

    Not a bad story. While reports still cloak the riots in obscure terms, like Dan points out, articles like Molly Moore’s bring out the real anguish in the situation, and the religious and cultural flashpoints.

    (Note: This isn’t *our* Molly, who posts here, is it?)

  • Terry Tee

    Thank you Stephen. Though I note that the report seems to have more reportage than analysis of religion and culture. These days journalists have to be sociolists as well as reporters!

    Recent AP reports mention churches set on fire in Lens and Sete. This worries me. The war in Bosnia took a new and ominous turn when the various parties began blowing up each other’s churches and mosques. More positively there is also this in the report: ‘The country’s biggest Muslim fundamentalist organization, the Union for Islamic Organizations of France, issued a fatwa, or religious decree. It forbade all those “who seek divine grace from taking part in any action that blindly strikes private or public property or can harm others.” ‘

  • Dan Berger

    Thanks, Avram. If more reporters and editors took an extra 10 words or so, all the news reports might be as informative as Molly Moore’s.

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  • Daniel C

    The paragraph from the NYTimes, quoted above, that mentions “Islam” and “Muslim” is on the second page of the internet version of the article; literally the 27th paragraph in the story.

    The article actually begins with “France’s worst urban violence in a decade exploded for a ninth night on Friday as bands of youths roamed the immigrant-heavy, working-class suburbs of Paris, setting fire to dozens of cars and buildings while the government struggled over the violence and the underlying frustrations fueling it.”

    This means the writer and the paper are focusing on race and class as instegators in the riots, and are dismissing religion as a factor. Just because it is mentioned, then dismissed, in the 27th paragraph does not mean that MSN is paying attention to this factor.

    This is the equivalent of writing on economic factors when Nazis were rioting in Jewish neighborhoods in Germany in the 30s.

  • Stephen A.

    Apparently, someone thinks there’s a connection between Muslim headscarves and the rioting (as I mentioned before.) The article is from AFP:

    _Turkish PM links head scarf law to French riots_

    ANKARA, Nov 7 (AFP) – Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has linked the ban on the wearing of Muslim head scarves in French schools to the unrest inflaming poor suburbs of French cities, according to a press report Monday.

    In an interview with Milliyet newspaper, Erdogan said “the process begun in France in the schools” was one explanation for the worsening violence marked by the destruction of thousands of vehicles, vandalism of schools and attacks on police stations.