Quoting an Arab

November 10, 1995

Stella Hughes reports on the furore caused by the publication of a supposedly anonymous interview by an academic on a disaffected youth who was shot by French police as a terrorist. (below) outlines Algerian politics.

I had what it took to succeed, but I didn't fit in because I told myself: total integration is impossible, I can't forget my culture, eat pork. They had never had an Arab in their class - as they said, frankly, 'you are the only Arab' - then, when they got to know me, they told me 'you're the exception'.".

When a young German PhD student working on ethnic conflict and municipal policies on community integration was gathering interviews in the Lyon suburb of Vaulx-en-Velin in 1992, the Algerian-born youth quoted above gave him one of his longest interviews and showed a rare desire to explain himself as fully as possible. The youth was Khaled Kelkal, hunted down as France's number one terrorist suspect and shot dead by French security forces on September 29.

Five days later, the researcher, Dietmar Loch, now a lecturer in social and political science at Bielefeld University, offered the interview to the French daily Le Monde, which then published it.

The publication caused a stir. Was this the typical soggy thinking of the social scientist, conspiring with the media to give terrorists not just the oxygen of publicity but also absolution, laying the blame for producing terrorists on society yet again? Or was it a brave attempt by a newspaper to use academic research to set the record straight?

For weeks Le Monde's postbag bulged with a range of reactions, showing how close social scientists can find themselves to the heat of action when a country like France is hit by a wave of terrorism. That heat is experienced by at least one leading French specialist on Algeria as a series of death threats. The exodus of academics fleeing the Algerian bloodbath is a reminder of just how serious such threats may be.

But the Kelkal interview also went to the heart of the issue of research ethics. Like all the interviewees in Vaulx-en-Velin, Kelkal had been told the interview would be used in a fashion which would not identify him. Le Monde said that the Kelkal family had "authenticated" the interview. Whether they had also given their permission that it be used was not spelt out. In an accompanying article, Dietmar Loch wrote that the full extent of the discrimination experienced by such youths could only be perceived by examining their discourse. Yet what was published was the raw material of that discourse, not an examination or analysis - and so the reader, not the social scientist, became the examiner. The breach of the basic research rule of preserving the subject's anonymity has divided French social scientists.

"You can argue that anything which allows a better understanding is valid, that the fact that someone becomes a public personality changes the situation, or you can argue that the breach of anonymity remains problematic, that the interviewee might not have given the same interview without the cover of anonymity," notes Claudine Herzlich, outgoing chair of the French Sociological Association. She found "sharply contrasted" viewpoints among the sociologists she spoke to, as well as a real desire to discuss the issue. Herzlich would have organised a debate had the association not just entered its election period. One sociologist keen to have such a debate is sociologist Michel Wieviorka, author of The Making of Terrorism. "I think it was necessary to publish the interview, but this shouldn't happen too often or it will open the way to unethical practices," he said. "We have to be especially careful in today's climate where sociologists are treated either as police informers or as the fellow travellers of those they interview."

Wieviorka's own methodology, started by Alain Tourraine, is "sociological interventionism", whereby subjects are interviewed and then asked to give their views on the sociologist's resulting analysis. In the early 1980s, he conducted 50 to 60 hours of interviews with Italian and Basque terrorists for The Making of Terrorism. "This could amount to psycho-sociological seduction, so you do not just want the subjects to say, 'OK, it's good', but to understand better their own past and present social experience."

Since then Wieviorka and his research group CADIS, at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, have studied terrorism and the media, racism in France and the crisis in the suburbs - research at the crossroads of the multifaceted terrorism which has hit the country.

The lack of connection between the Kelkal of 1992 and the Kelkal of 1995 was a major criticism of the decision to publish the Loch interview. Objectors said it left the reader with sympathy for Kelkal, the victim of racism and no understanding of his transition to terrorism. In the 1992 interview, Kelkal was still bitter about his experience of discrimination but had recently discovered Islam in jail, seeing it as the key to personal fulfilment and the means to give moral strength to other youths on the downward path of drugs and delinquency.

He said he was fed up with France and talked of settling in Algeria, opening a shop and raising a family. Loch wrote that Kelkal's life story was "exemplary"; an example of a good start by a good pupil who failed in the face of discrimination. "Khaled Kelkal was a Franco-Maghrebin who sought recognition and dignity and did not find them," Loch concludes. What Kelkal did find was radical Islam and, apparently, an armed fundamentalist group or network. No one knows how Kelkal was enlisted, or who is master-minding the terrorism. Behind what is generally agreed to be a myriad of often intermeshed and infiltrated groups, some see the GIA, the Algerian Armed Islamic Group, banned in France; others see the Algerian secret service.

Wieviorka thinks sociology might help answer these questions as there may be some similarities between today's wave of terrorism and the Italian terrorism of the late 1970s. "It was a movement where two different rationales met: there was political and ideological terrorism, after the collapse of leftism and the emergence of the Red Brigades and, in a movement from below, there were young people who had no link with politics but who were angry, ready to use guns and wanting to live differently."

The present wave of terrorism in France appears to be born of the meeting between Islamic fundamentalism and disaffected youths from suburbs who experience racism. "The intellectual problem is: what is at stake when they meet?," says Wieviorka.

Whatever aspects the French wave of terrorism shares with other countries, it also has its own peculiarities. One of these is the relationship between the state and the media. Much was made in other countries of the initial French cutting of the film of Kelkal's death (to excise the French officer's order to "Finish him off", a command given after the suspect had already been wounded). More significant, Wieviorka argues, is the dual attitude of authoritarianism and fascination which French politicians display towards the media. "This does not create real cooperation and in a terrorist situation, it leads to great tension, as the media needs information and much of that usually comes from the government and the police." French media coverage has been highly consensual despite glaring failures to co-ordinate the security forces.

Wieviorka believes the lack of debate on such issues as the use of the military for policing is more a result of the "intellectual collapse" of the Left than the fault of the media.

France's relationship with Algeria adds its own twist to the crisis, illustrated almost to the point of caricature by the fiasco of the failed meeting between presidents Jacques Chirac and Liamine Zeroual. Political scientist Bruno Etienne says the "psycho-pathology" of the relationship is rooted in France's reluctance to acknowledge the brutality used in colonising Algeria and the devastating effects of a universalism which tried to crush cultural differences.

That Enlightenment ideal of universalism, still flourishing today, provides the final theme of France's crisis. Multiculturalism is a concrete reality, its presence well established in public where culturally differentiated activities such as community radio stations can get state funding. Yet in political life and political philosophy, the 200-year-old model of republican integration holds absolute sway, and discussion of multiculturalism remains taboo. Loch wrote that he felt "schizophrenic" when, amid the daily examples of "ethnico-cultural problems" described in the media, the representatives of institutions would only acknowledge the existence of undifferentiated "young people". It is a problem which fascinates Wieviorka. "We must define conditions under which cultural differences can be articulated with universal values." It is up to the sociologists to create a debate with the politicians.

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