In reality, the wave of disturbances was only marginally connected with Islam. There was no doubt that many of the youngsters involved in the unrest were Muslims who are descendants from immigrants from the Maghreb and sub-Saharan Africa, but this identity was not at stake in their mobilization. The rioters had no religious claims, for instance, against the French law prohibiting the wearing of the headscarf in state schools; neither had they a political agenda. Theirs was an unorganized outburst of violence that was mainly the outcome of social exclusion and poverty in deprived urban areas where immigrants and their children have been overwhelmingly concentrated for decades
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The Daily Star
Middle East | Alain Dieckhoff
The recent riots in France have been described, mainly in the foreign media, as being linked with Islam. Some have even spoken of an “intifada of the suburbs” nurtured by radical Islamist groups.
In reality, the wave of disturbances was only marginally connected with Islam. There was no doubt that many of the youngsters involved in the unrest were Muslims who are descendants from immigrants from the Maghreb and sub-Saharan Africa, but this identity was not at stake in their mobilization. The rioters had no religious claims, for instance, against the French law prohibiting the wearing of the headscarf in state schools; neither had they a political agenda. Theirs was an unorganized outburst of violence that was mainly the outcome of social exclusion and poverty in deprived urban areas where immigrants and their children have been overwhelmingly concentrated for decades.
If the November riots did not much have to do with Islam per se, this does not mean, of course, that the enduring presence of Islam does not represent a challenge for the French Republic. In order to cope with it, one important step was the creation in 2002, under the impetus of the Ministry of the Interior, of the French Council for the Muslim Faith, whose aim is to federate the various religious trends and provide the state with an identifiable interlocutor. This move, which has striking similarities to the creation by Napoleon of the consistory system for the Jews two centuries ago, was made in the hope that the new institution would be able to exert some sort of control over the Muslim community.
The results have been mixed, for two reasons. First, the council has been burdened by ongoing divisions, mainly along national lines: two of the major Muslim organizations are linked with Algeria and Morocco. Second, as the council’s missions are religious (the building of mosques, supervision of ritual slaughter, etc.), it is not representative of large groups of French Muslims who are not practicing Muslims and are in the process of slow but silent integration into French society. The authority of the council over those who are socially marginalized is also quite limited, which keeps alive the fear that some of them may easily become prey for radical Islamist groups.
Thus far this has not been the case; this surely has something to do with the very restrictive policies adopted by the French government toward radical Islamist militants – barring them from entering France and, thus, from proselytizing freely. Of course, this policy cannot provide an absolute safeguard against terrorist activities, as proven by the bloody attacks in Paris in summer 1995, perpetrated in the name of the Algerian Armed Islamic Group (known by its French acronym, GIA), with the support of a few young Frenchmen of Arab origin.
However, on the whole, this strategy of strict control has surely hindered the creation of well-established radical networks. It stands in stark contrast with the policy adopted by the United Kingdom, which hoped to buy peace by granting right of sanctuary to Islamist leaders persecuted in the Arab world. This strategy seemed to work for a while, but the terrorist attacks in London last summer demonstrated tragically that, in the aftermath of September 11, 2001, and the setting up of transnational jihadist groups, such an appeasement policy was out of tune. A clear indication of the British reassessment took place on December 1, with the extradition from London to Paris of Rashid Ramda, the suspected paymaster of the GIA terrorists. The legal process had taken 10 years.
Faced with political movements that are determined to turn to violence, the only choice for Europe is to develop cooperation on a large scale. The European Union has gone in this direction with the appointment of a counter-terrorism coordinator and the development of judicial and police cooperation. This should increasingly involve the countries of the southern bank of the Mediterranean, as outlined at the Euromed 10th anniversary summit in November.
Isolating radical Islamist trends that are prone to use violent means – without of course infringing on fundamental freedoms – is a winning strategy for everybody, in Europe and in the Arab world. It has to go hand in hand with a forceful promotion of social mobility among children of Muslim migrants so they feel they are part of the national and European fabric. Otherwise, what was recently avoided in France – social dissatisfaction combining with the “jihadist” version of politicized Islam – could well become a dreadful reality.
Alain Dieckhoff is senior research fellow at the Centre d’Etudes et de Recherches
Internationales in Paris. This commentary first appeared at bitterlemons-international.org, an online newsletter.
© 2005 The Daily Star