H.A. Hellyer is a senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London and the Atlantic Council in Washington, and the author of “Muslims of Europe: the ‘Other’ Europeans.” Follow him on Twitter @hahellyer
Your friendly neighborhood Spiderman just rescued a toddler from a French balcony—but, of course, he wasn’t a comic book character. He was a real human being—a migrant from Mali, who, for his bravery, was celebrated in the French press and internationally, and awarded French citizenship by President Emmanuel Macron. It’s a beautiful story. Mamoudou Gassama’s courage was inspiring, and he saved a child in the process.
But for many of us, it has also been a bittersweet reminder of the kinds of expectations we place on immigrants to prove themselves; the arbitrariness of migration policies; and the kind of exceptionialism that shapes our attitudes toward migrants—particularly Muslim migrants.
Let’s take the migrant exceptionalism first. There are millions of refugees across the world who take great risks in order to make their way to ‘Fortress Europe.’ (Gassama, 22, is one of them—he traveled to Libya, made a perilous journey across the Mediterranean Sea and landed in Italy in 2014.) Millions of children face as much danger as that 4-year-old child on the French balcony. These migrants risk their lives to protect their families only to arrive in Europe to be met with a continent still arguing about taking an incredibly tiny number of refugees from war zones like Syria.
Of course when they arrive after braving the trip, they are not awarded citizenship—and no one would expect them to be. But the path to citizenship is fraught with immense difficulties, and they must navigate it in a climate dealing with rising populism and Islamophobia. Gassama is one of the lucky ones—but he and other migrants to France should not to have to scale buildings in order to be granted citizenship.
And there is no stopping the rise of political forces that would repatriate Gassama and people like him at the first opportunity. The vice president of the National Front party, Nicolas Bay, declared that Gassama had “undeniably” carried out an act of bravery, but that if he had to be granted citizenship in order for all other illegal migrants to be expelled, Bay would sign up to that. It was a striking indication that the most virulently anti-immigrant politicians would point to Gassama’s act of courage and use it to say they are not against all immigrants, just the bad ones.
But it was the Muslim exceptionalism that struck me most of all in the reporting of the story. I have no idea if Gassama is Muslim or not; his name is very typical of Muslim Malians, but that’s not a proof of much. But it raised another thought for me: Had Gassama done something violent, the coverage would have definitely included speculation about Islam’s role in his life—and about Islam itself.
That is what happens every time anyone who carries a seemingly Muslim-sounding name is accused of a negative act. Take, for example, Nasim Aghdam, the now infamous “YouTube shooter.” Because she was originally from Iran, it was assumed she was Muslim, and that identity marker started to be mentioned across social media. It didn’t matter that she wasn’t Muslim at all. In other cases, a violent act might be carried out by someone who was indeed Muslim—but their faith is actually irrelevant to it. Nevertheless, articles on “Muslim grooming gangs” in the north of England are rampant, even though religion is inconsequential to why they carried out any crime. And then articles will ensue around the need for Islam to reform, or that Islam is intrinsically violent, and so forth. The presumptions and assumptions abound about Muslim-ness and Islam—but only when the perpetrator is presumed to be doing something bad.
When Gassama’s story came out, none of that happened. There were no assumptions about him or his faith, even though he had a name from a Muslim background. Indeed, even though he specifically references God in his explanation as to what happened, his religion played no role at all in how the event was covered: “”I just climbed up and thank God, God helped me. The more I climbed the more I had the courage to climb up higher. That’s it.”
The coverage of Gassama in this case was correct: we have no idea if Islam or his religious commitments played any role for him, so why should we assume it did? But that same type of common sense ought to apply more broadly, any time someone with a plausibly Muslim-sounding name comes into the media for any particular reason. I hope the next time such an individual shows up in the press for a negative act, we are likely less interested in making presumptions about them and their faith. Alas, I doubt that will be the case.
And that is what makes this episode somewhat bittersweet. Gassama being filmed in an amazing act of bravery has now altered the course of his life forever. He no doubt deserves it. But for every Gassama who is filmed, there are hundreds if not thousands who are not filmed—who risk their lives and save others without the slightest bit of recognition. They have to deal with our increasingly difficult citizenship routes on the continent. It is easy to sensationalize the case of one man, but all it would take is France and Europe showing some bravery too. Then the lives of millions could change.