Dialogue Circles Tackle Divides between Native French and Muslims in France
04 June 2007

In France, prejudice against Islam has been increasing over recent years, with a proportionate rise in frustration among Muslims. Many are beginning to lose faith in dialogue. Frédéric Chavanne writes about a programme of Initiatives of Change called Initiative Dialogue that is attempting to address these issues.

For the past eight years, members of the Initiative Dialogue group of native French and Tunisian origin have been forming relationships characterized by friendship, trust and openness. At the end of 2005 a goal was set to share these experiences more widely in order to contribute to transforming relationships in society.

In February 2006, a public meeting was organized in Elancourt, western Paris, to establish contacts with other groups, whether Muslim, Christian or multi-faith. Since then, a dialogue circle has been set up in Yvelines, Trappes and neighbouring communes, to try and reproduce the dialogue experience within a new group, and trial the method for wider use around the country.

The main characteristic of the dialogues is holding open discussions on the struggle to live by one's deepest convictions in everyday life, and daring to cover controversial subjects. In this they differ from groups that focus on intellectual or theological debates.

Six meetings have already taken place and were soon held in participants’ homes, demonstrating the new relationships within the group. At the first few meetings, participants were each asked to describe a childhood memory, to share a subject that they cared about, or to tell each other what they appreciated about each other’s cultures. Finding out about each other is what establishing relationships is all about. We discover that we are similar in terms of our emotions, pleasures and sorrows, reminding us that we are all human.

These opportunities to talk about our worries and the things we don't understand won't necessarily change the world. Nor will they change the often frustrating realities of our society with its divisions, fears and rejections. But they do help us to cope with these realities in a different way. 'I didn’t know how to interpret your attitudes and I sometimes thought that you were grumpy,' relates a native French participant. 'But I didn’t imagine how you could have been feeling.'

Current affairs were also covered. The reactions of the Muslim world, often considered disproportionate by others, to the publication of the cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed and to Pope Benedict XVI's address at the University of Regensburg, where he touched on holy war, show the irritation Muslims feel at being targeted repeatedly.

However, we have made it a rule within the group that we do not denounce anyone, but look for ways of contributing to change and encouraging initiatives. When the issue of unrest among young people in the banlieues (suburbs) was covered, three young people came along from Garges-lès-Gonesse in Seine-Saint-Denis, northeast Paris. They stressed how their peers had lost self-respect and self-confidence. 'If we see ourselves in a bad light, we allow others to see us in the same way,' commented Marie-Claire, from Haiti. 'If you think you are nothing, how can you build your life?'

They described the codes of conduct that must be learned in order to be accepted: how to speak on the telephone, how to introduce yourself, being punctual, doing your work well. Ramzi started with a BTS (an advanced vocational diploma) in accountancy and went on to become an accounting expert. He is constantly approached by young people who have been unable to find a job and come to ask his advice on starting their own business. He cited the case of a 21-year-old Moroccan man who bought a small second-hand truck with the help of a few friends and who, five years later, is running a business with 27 employees. Another set up a small pizzeria, a third set up a facility for defrosting bread. They have devoted themselves to their work, sometimes without any qualifications, and they are succeeding.

'In order to change society I’m just going to care for one person,' said Michael, one of the dialogue circle leaders. We don’t necessarily have to launch huge projects. What are important are the small, everyday gestures of care which transform our relationships. The young people from Seine-Saint-Denis said how much it meant to them that we showed interest in what they had to say.

Over the course of our meetings, the way we see each other has started to change. It seems that this dialogue circle method can be reproduced. It just requires long-term commitment and a willingness to approach others and to talk about oneself. It is simple and anyone can do it. Creating personal relationships will contribute to fighting discrimination.

Many challenges

Several North Africans whom we had hoped would join the dialogue circle did not do so. Approaching others is not always natural, and it is not easy to get to the heart of people’s worries. Raouf, an engineer at Peugeot, described how a manager at work commented that he and a few of his colleagues, also of immigrant origin, would stick together and keep themselves to themselves. This issue went unresolved but it clearly bothered them. The impression was that it would not take much to change the situation.

Muslims’ reluctance to approach us is perhaps partly caused by us, native French people. We could well ask ourselves how the way in which we view our fellow human beings, particularly Muslims, even leads some people to be ashamed of their names. It is up to us to reverse the stigma that has been attached to the Muslim community. We must recognise the fact that we live in a multicultural society. We talk about discrimination and racism, but we must go deeper. It is only by examining the roots of our fears that we can find answers. We are often dismayed to hear 'Islam specialists' giving endless warnings and reasons to be wary of dialogue with Muslims. Their analysis does not seem to take into consideration what goes on in our hearts.That could change everything.

A former French officer, who fought in the Algerian war of independence, said recently at a public meeting in Versailles: 'We had not understood the aspirations of the young Algerians who wanted their country’s independence. Today, we have even more trouble understanding the aspirations of young people of immigrant origin who want to find their place in French society.'

On the Muslim side, the tendency to feel victimized makes it more difficult to establish relationships as equals. Curiously, instead of inspiring compassion, this tendency ends up causing irritation. This issue has not been tackled within the dialogue circle, but people here and there confide that they have had enough of Muslims’ complaints. Perhaps it is because the complaints imply a reproach — 'you are responsible for the way we feel we are being treated' — or simply because they highlight a demand that people do not feel equipped to deal with.

As pointed out by a Lebanese visitor to France last January, 'Muslims in Europe have a role to play in order to develop relations between the Arab-Muslim world and the West. They live in a world of freedom of expression which is conducive to reflection on what it means to be a Muslim today.'

Each of us must work on ourselves to make this relationship free and joyful. The process has begun, and it is already yielding fruit.

Article first published in Changer. Translated from the French by Lyndsay Collinge

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