Terror in Europe

Can France 'Cure' Its Aspiring Jihadists?

Just a few months before the Paris terror attacks, and arguably late to the game, France launched a "disindoctrination" program for Islamist radicals that relies on social and religious approaches.

French policemen in front of the Paris supermarket attacked on Jan. 9
French policemen in front of the Paris supermarket attacked on Jan. 9
Soren Seelow

PARIS — One winter afternoon, Ahmed left to run an errand. The 26-year-old who hails from Hauts-de-Seine, on the outskirts of Paris, was supposed to pick up something his ex-girlfriend Dounia, the mother of his children, had purchased online. But Ahmed didn't come home that day.

It wasn't until three months later that he turned up in the middle of the night looking disheveled, his sneakers in tatters. He had been to Syria.

Dounia looks a little lost. On the dining room table is a bowl filled with oriental sweets, as the coffeemaker brews away in silence. Sitting across from the mother is Carole, a psychologist who encourages her to keep telling her story.

"He wasn't raised in Muslim culture," Dounia says of Ahmed. "His father died when he was young, and he was raised by his mother who was of Italian origin. He never prayed, not even during Ramadan. And then suddenly he left, like a traitor."

Since his return, Ahmed has been making every effort to convince Dounia to go with him to Syria with their two girls, aged five and seven. "He describes Syria as if it were paradise," she says. "He says that over there I'd have a house that it would take me years to buy here."

Ahmed, a petty criminal, tried again twice to leave France to join the ISIS terror group in Syria. Each time, he was turned back at the airport and placed in police custody. "He's not afraid of death or of going to prison," his ex-girlfriend says. "He feels like Superman, but he's completely lost."

In October, Dounia decided to notify police out of fear that Ahmed would take their daughters hostage and try to leave with them. This rather late reflex was the reason the young woman was sitting on this winter morning in the offices of the cellule de désembrigadement ("disindoctrination cell"), an experimental structure of the Maison de la Prévention et de la Famille (the "House of Prevention and of the Family") located in a discreet apartment building in Seine-Saint-Denis.

In early October, Paris police charged the association with tracking religious radicals, helping their families, and managing the cases of jihadists returning from Syria. Aware that a single, repressive response would not be enough to resolve the phenomenon of jihadist departures for Syria, the Interior Ministry asked police to create monitoring cells. Paris organized its cell around the different institutional actors that meet every month to prioritize files according to degrees of danger.

(We now know that though these efforts were underway in the fall, Islamist radicals Cherif and Said Kouachi and Amedy Coulibaly were nevertheless able to perpetrate the January terror attacks in Paris on the Charlie Hebdo staff and a kosher supermarket, a terror wave that left 17 people dead. This article was written eight days before those attacks began.)

Prevention as innovation

The most delicate cases are handled by justice authorities, but the major innovation here is prevention, which has a three-pronged approach: to help families, to "treat" unstable radicals and, most sensitively, disindoctrination.

The first part of the disindoctrination method is aimed at drawing up a profile of the radical based on accounts from people close to him to determine the religious "faction" that indoctrinated him and his "social, familial and psychological weaknesses," explains Sonia Imloul, founder of the Maison de la Prévention et de la Famille. This stage makes it possible to furnish detailed notes to police on the individual's "course of radicalization," and to personalize the strategy.

The second phase of the process has been more difficult for authorities to accept. Among the mediators the cells employs is a quietist Salafist, someone who favors a rigorous reading of Islam but is against armed jihad. His job is to approach the radicals around mosques and get them to read the texts in a more healthy way, putting them in touch with imams if necessary.

"Radicals only trust people who look like them, at least physically," Imloul explains. The cell therefore plays on these resemblances to exploit the tensions between the religious factions: the quietist Salafists and the "tabligh" — preachers who do not call for jihad — are in competition with the "takfiri," who legitimize violence to impose sharia. The quietist mediator is well-versed in the techniques of disindoctrination, and relies on his appearance and his knowledge of Islam to "turn around" the radicals.

Late to the game

The religious approach explains why France is late to this deradicalization work. "The slowness of the French response as compared to Great Britain or Denmark is linked to secularism," explains Pierre N'Gahane, Secretary General of the Interministerial Committee Against Delinquency, one of the architects of the system to fight radicalization set up by the Ministry of the Interior. "Where do you place the cursor between fundamentalism and violent radicalism? How do you get involved with personal beliefs without falling into the trap of distinguishing between the good and the bad Muslim?"

If such questions have long inhibited response from the French government, the necessity of integrating the religious dimension has now been recognized. "We're no longer in a uniquely police approach," a Paris police spokesman explains. "The religious question doesn't sum up the phenomenon of indoctrination, but it is important. We've evolved on that score. We've become more pragmatic."

This pragmatism makes it possible for the cell to turn indoctrination techniques against the jihadists. "The recruiters take a social approach before they take a religious one," Imloul explains. "They seduce the weakest ones by promising them assistance before taking them into their vision of religion. We inverse that method: We approach radicalized individuals via religion before proposing solutions for joining society."

This attempt at "resocialization" constitutes the last phase of the work of deradicalization. "When you get a radical to come back down to earth, what do you offer them instead? You have to fill the void," Imloul continues. Depending on the profiles, the cell is in contact with the university, the employment center Pôle emploi, and the prison system for social reinsertion and probation, so that the individual can be helped with any number of options ranging from academic study, vocational training, obtaining a driver's license, or finding a job.

To this day, one case, the first one Imloul's cell handled, offers encouraging signs. G., a 22-year-old delinquent who was radicalized in prison, had announced his intention to leave for Syria, much to his mother's chagrin. Today, he's training to be a tiler and has a girlfriend.

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The Food Truck, A Sign That The White And Wealthy Are Moving In

In San Diego, California, a researcher tracked how in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked dining options, when interesting eateries arrive the gentrification of white, affluent and college-educated people has begun.

Balboa Park Spring Fling Food Truck festival

San Diego Food Trucks via Facebook
Pascale Joassart-Marcelli

SAN DIEGO — Everybody, it seems, welcomes the arrival of new restaurants, cafés, food trucks and farmers markets.

What could be the downside of fresh veggies, homemade empanadas and a pop-up restaurant specializing in banh mis?

But when they appear in unexpected places – think inner-city areas populated by immigrants – they're often the first salvo in a broader effort to rebrand and remake the community. As a result, these neighborhoods can quickly become unaffordable and unrecognizable to longtime residents.

An appetite for gentrification

I live in San Diego, where I teach courses on urban and food geographies and conduct research on the relationship between food and ethnicity in urban contexts.

In recent years, I started to notice a pattern playing out in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked food options. More ethnic restaurants, street vendors, community gardens and farmers markets were cropping up. These, in turn, spurred growing numbers of white, affluent and college-educated people to venture into areas they had long avoided.

This observation inspired me to write a book, titled The $16 Taco, about how food – including what's seen as "ethnic," "authentic" or "alternative" – often serves as a spearhead for gentrification.

Take City Heights, a large multi-ethnic San Diego neighborhood where successive waves of refugees from places as far away as Vietnam and Somalia have resettled. In 2016, a dusty vacant lot on the busiest boulevard was converted into an outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44. There, food vendors gather in semi-permanent stalls to sell pupusas, lechon (roasted pig), single-sourced cold-brewed coffee, cupcakes and tamarind raspado (crushed ice) to neighborhood residents, along with tourists and visitors from other parts of the city.

Informal street vendors are casualties.

A public-private partnership called the City Heights Community Development Corporation, together with several nonprofits, launched the initiative to increase "access to healthy and culturally appropriate food" and serve as "a business incubator for local micro-entrepreneurs," including immigrants and refugees who live in the neighborhood.

On paper, this all sounds great.

But just a few blocks outside the gates, informal street vendors – who have long sold goods such as fruit, tamales and ice cream to residents who can't easily access supermarkets – now face heightened harassment. They've become causalities in a citywide crackdown on sidewalk vending spurred by complaints from business owners and residents in more affluent areas.

This isn't just happening in San Diego. The same tensions have been playing out in rapidly gentrifying areas like Los Angeles' Boyle Heights neighborhood, Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood, New York's Queens borough and East Austin, Texas.

In all of these places, because "ethnic," "authentic" and "exotic" foods are seen as cultural assets, they've become magnets for development.

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

A call for food justice

Cities and neighborhoods have long sought to attract educated and affluent residents – people whom sociologist Richard Florida dubbed "the creative class." The thinking goes that these newcomers will spend their dollars and presumably contribute to economic growth and job creation.

Food, it seems, has become the perfect lure.

It's uncontroversial and has broad appeal. It taps into the American Dream and appeals to the multicultural values of many educated, wealthy foodies. Small food businesses, with their relatively low cost of entry, have been a cornerstone of ethnic entrepreneurship in American cities. And initiatives like farmers markets and street fairs don't require much in the way of public investment; instead, they rely on entrepreneurs and community-based organizations to do the heavy lifting.

In City Heights, the Community Development Corporation hosted its first annual City Heights Street Food Festival in 2019 to "get people together around table and food stalls to celebrate another year of community building." Other recent events have included African Restaurant Week, Dia de Los Muertos, New Year Lunar Festival, Soul Food Fest and Brazilian Carnival, all of which rely on food and drink to attract visitors and support local businesses.

Meanwhile, initiatives such as the New Roots Community Farm and the City Heights Farmers' Market have been launched by nonprofits with philanthropic support in the name of "food justice," with the goal of reducing racial disparities in access to healthy food and empowering residents – projects that are particularly appealing to highly educated people who value diversity and democracy.

Upending an existing foodscape

In media coverage of changing foodscapes in low-income neighborhoods like City Heights, you'll rarely find any complaints.

San Diego Magazine's neighborhood guide for City Heights, for example, emphasizes its "claim to authentic international eats, along with live music venues, craft beer, coffee, and outdoor fun." It recommends several ethnic restaurants and warns readers not to be fooled by appearances.

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against the "urban food machine"

But that doesn't mean objections don't exist.

Many longtime residents and small-business owners – mostly people of color and immigrants – have, for decades, lived, worked and struggled to feed their families in these neighborhoods. To do so, they've run convenience stores, opened ethnic restaurants, sold food in parks and alleys and created spaces to grow their own food.

All represent strategies to meet community needs in a place mostly ignored by mainstream retailers.

So what happens when new competitors come to town?

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

Starting at a disadvantage

As I document in my book, these ethnic food businesses, because of a lack of financial and technical support, often struggle to compete with new enterprises that feature fresh façades, celebrity chefs, flashy marketing, bogus claims of authenticity and disproportionate media attention. Furthermore, following the arrival of more-affluent residents, existing ones find it increasingly difficult to stay.

My analysis of real estate ads for properties listed in City Heights and other gentrifying San Diego neighborhoods found that access to restaurants, cafés, farmers markets and outdoor dining is a common selling point. The listings I studied from 2019 often enticed potential buyers with lines like "shop at the local farmers' market," "join food truck festivals" and "participate in community food drives!"

San Diego Magazine's home buyer guide for the same year identified City Heights as an "up-and-coming neighborhood," attributing its appeal to its diverse population and eclectic "culinary landscape," including several restaurants and Fair@44.

When I see that City Heights' home prices rose 58% over the past three years, I'm not surprised.

Going up against the urban food machine

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against what I call the "urban food machine," a play on sociologist Harvey Molotch's "urban growth machine" – a term he coined more than 50 years ago to explain how cities were being shaped by a loose coalition of powerful elites who sought to profit off urban growth.

I argue that investors and developers use food as a tool for achieving the same ends.

When their work is done, what's left is a rather insipid and tasteless neighborhood, where foodscapes become more of a marketable mishmash of cultures than an ethnic enclave that's evolved organically to meet the needs of residents. The distinctions of time and place start to blur: An "ethnic food district" in San Diego looks no different than one in Chicago or Austin.

Meanwhile, the routines and rhythms of everyday life have changed so much that longtime residents no longer feel like they belong. Their stories and culture reduced to a selling point, they're forced to either recede to the shadows or leave altogether.

It's hard to see how that's a form of inclusion or empowerment.The Conversation


Pascale Joassart-Marcelli is a Professor of Geography and Director, Urban Studies and Food Studies Programs at San Diego State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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