Léopold Lambert

They called your apartments and gardens guerrilla strongholds.
    - June Jordan, Apologies to All the People in Lebanon (1989)

On the evening of Friday, November 13, while the murderous attacks on Paris were still occurring, social media was already saturated with messages and opinions of all kinds. One recurring argument highlighted the great disproportion between coverage of the Paris attacks in relation the ones in Beirut and Baghdad occurring only a few hours earlier. Although this argument is undeniably well founded, it’s regrettable that much of the attention brought to Beirut, and later to Bamako (November 20), seems to have been brought in opposition to Paris, rather than with genuine care for and attention to the local contexts in which these other attacks happened – this despite the paradoxical selling point of the articles’ titles promising insight into “the thing that no one is talking about.” But talking about the fact that we are not talking about something does not make us actually talk of this thing, and it certainly does not address the terms chosen to talk about it.

Many of the Western descriptions of the double suicide bombing in the Burj al-Barajneh neighborhood in Southern Beirut systematically depicted it as a “Hezbollah stronghold” or “Hezbollah bastion.” Although the association of this neighborhood with Hezbollah can hardly be denied – Hezbollah is in charge of security in many Shi’a neighborhoods in South Beirut, which ISIS noted in justifying its decision to attack this specific area, and Hezbollah both participates alongside the Syrian regime in the war in Syria and fights ISIS in the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon – such terminology is highly problematic for at least two reasons. The first is specific to the audience targeted in these articles: the immediate association of the forty-five victims in Burj al-Barajneh with Hezbollah implies, for these readers, an inherent connection between the victims and the typical Western image of a terrorist organization, rather than a multifaceted civil and military organization whose actual complexity does not make it much more likeable. The second major problematic aspect of the terminology used by much of the Western media is closer to the core of this text’s topic: the construction of an antagonizing, or hostile, image of certain neighborhoods in various cities of the world. The terms “stronghold” and “bastion” impose militarized characteristics to a residential neighborhood and, in doing so, deny the status of civilians to those targeted by these deadly attacks.

Screenshots of news articles about Hezbollah stronghold in Beirut.

Although we might give Western media the benefit of the doubt about its intentions regarding Burj al-Barajneh, we should not forget that the use of such imagery by governments is intentional and, in many ways, emulates tactics perfected by the public relations battalions of the Israeli army, which regularly employs such rhetoric to construct a narrative legitimizing its bombing of the Gaza Strip and the resultant killing of large numbers of Palestinian civilians. In the Israeli military narrative, the population of Gaza renounced its civilian status by electing Hamas in 2006. The systematic rhetorical association of Gaza’s 1.8 million inhabitants with the armed branch of Hamas – like for Hezbollah, the military aspect is only a part of its global function – evidently allows the Israeli army to introduce legal ambiguity into calculations of who can and cannot be considered a civilian. Such pseudo-legal inventions abound on the Israeli side, in particular regarding the notion of warning. For instance, the army’s “knock-on-roof” tactic supposedly gives a few minutes (sometimes seconds) warning to a building’s inhabitants to evacuate before it is bombed, with the implication that anyone who stays behind as no longer civilian. Similar is the arbitrary declaration of territorial “no-go zones” in which anyone can be bombed or shot (“normally” the last few hundred meters along the Gaza Apartheid Wall, but this zone was extended to three kilometers during the last siege in summer 2014).

Israeli Defense Forces propoganda poster from July 2014.

Yet the main rhetorical apparatus used to deny civilian status to Palestinians is a narrative perpetuated around the term “human shields” – the use of which is condemned in international law – to describe the Gaza population in relation to Hamas. The Israeli logic is evident in propaganda material provided by the army to its supporters. In a poster widely distributed during the last Gaza siege, which killed 2,220 Palestinians, a poster asks “When Is a House a Home?” while displaying a caricature of an architectural blueprint of a Palestinian building in Gaza in which half of the rooms are dedicated to domesticity and the other adjoining rooms an operations center for the military branch of Hamas. In this case, the deliberate use of terms like “strongholds” or “bastions” goes as far as pointing out individual dwellings.

Although the degree of violence employed by the Israeli army in the Gaza Strip cannot be compared to the French and Belgium police operations last week in Saint Denis (Paris’ northern suburb) and Molenbeek (a western suburb of Brussels), we can recognize the rhetoric used to claim the legitimacy of these actions to the detriment of these neighborhoods’ populations. People who are not familiar with Brussels may have heard of Molenbeek (with its 94,000 inhabitants) for the first time over the last few days in a deluge of fearful descriptions in the international press of the neighborhood’s Muslim population and its supposedly high number of radicalized supporters of a political Islam – the so-called “jihadists” (another highly problematic label). Several armed police operations over the last week have drastically disturbed the life of the neighborhood and its residents, and the name Molenbeek is now associated with “terrorism,” stigmatizing en masse Molenbeek’s several thousand Muslim inhabitants.

Gentrifying development in West Brussels, not far from Molenbeek.

We should not kid ourselves with the idea that such an association is only an unfortunate consequence of overly sensational journalism. Molenbeek is situated in close proximity to Brussels’ city center and in the throes of gentrification, as the newly renovated buildings on either side of the canal that separating the decreasingly separate municipalities already attest. The fear that emerges from the rhetorical association of an entire neighborhood with narratives of radical political Islam and terrorism may, at first glance, seem to discourage the march of the middle-class to this area; however, it prepares the field for legitimizing massive urban transformations to come, which will inevitably be depicted as solutions to the self-manufactured problem. Developers in Brussels are almost certainly making their preparations even as the city is locked down at “maximum alert” against potential terrorist attacks.

Molenbeek 2014 (Photo/Léopold Lambert)

Another deadly police operation (the fact that we never expect them not to be deadly says a lot about the power we accept to delegate to the police in this kind of situation) was undertaken on November 18 in Saint Denis, targeting three persons suspected to have organized and/or taken part in the six attacks November 13 in Paris and Saint Denis (Stade de France). Here, again, such a massive armed intervention can only occur through the simulacrum of legitimacy leant by the recent events, as well as a manufactured threat narrative imposed upon Paris’ Northern banlieues (suburbs). Exactly ten years ago, another state of emergency was declared by the French government – it was only the third time this exceptional measure had been applied since its legal creation in 1955 – to give the police additional powers to counter youth revolts in the banlieues. Much of the youth consisted of first- or second-generation offspring of immigrants from France’s former colonies (in particular from the Maghreb and West Africa) who experience structural and police racism on a daily basis. The reality of these interventions, which many in France would otherwise reasonably consider unacceptable, is, again, only permitted by the production of imaginary demonizing this youth and the neighborhoods in which they live, in particular the many cités (high-density housing in low density urban areas) of the French banlieues.

Photographs taken and distributed by the police during the occasional confrontations in these areas, including the flames of burning cars typically shown on television, systematically associate these neighborhoods with drug- and weapons trafficking (often with the sound of preaching imams in the background, the stigmatization of the Arabic language in particular strongly contributing to this depiction) and provide a saturated narrative that seems to legitimize not only the statu quo of the highly segregated organization of the city, but also the regular violence deployed by the police in these neighborhoods. A look at the architecture of the police stations – those which could legitimately be called “strongholds” and “bastions” – recently built in Paris’ northern banlieues, gives a good idea of the antagonism that the “peace officers” (a recurrent journalist term for police officers) maintain towards the population they are supposed to protect, rather than oppress.

Fox News map of "no-go" zones in Paris. (January 2015)

The “states of emergency” we are currently experiencing in many cities of the world – whether promulgated as such or not – therefore should not correspond to urgently increasing security and suspicion, let alone bombing other cities in the world, but rather to the emergency of dismantling the narratives described above and the violence they legitimize. After the January political assassinations and anti-Semitic shootings at Charlie Hebdo and a kosher supermarket, Fox News absurdly reported that Paris counted several large “no-go zones” where sharia law was in effect and where non-Muslims would not dare go and many Parisians were torn between laughter and anger (I now take visiting friends on tours of these “no-go zones”!) However, the imaginary of the banlieues remains, for many of these same Parisians, inscribed with depictions that are only slightly less ridiculous than those purveyed by Fox News. The very first measure that we therefore need to take to dismantle the narratives that legitimize state violence is, perhaps, to simply make an effort to visit our own cities, since one’s capacity to doubt stigmatizing information increases with respect to having visited that place previously. Of course, the empirical observation of places beyond their journalistic and political depiction is not enough, and can only contribute to the dismantling of biased notions; still, it constitutes a necessary step towards the dismantling of violence itself, since the latter would then only appear in its crude brutality and cruelty. This is the only emergency we should be accepting and addressing.

Feature Image: Police station of Villiers le Bel (Paris Northern banlieues) (2015). - (Photo/Leopold Lambert)

Léopold Lambert: is a Paris-based architect and Editor-in-chief of The Funambulist Magazine and its podcast, Archipelago. He is the author of Weaponized Architecture: The Impossibility of Innocence (dpr-barcelona, 2012), Topie Impitoyable: The Corporeal Politics of the Cloth, the Wall, and the Street (punctum, forthcoming 2015) and Politique du Bulldozer (B2, forthcoming). leopoldlambert.net | thefunambulist.net | the-archipelago.net