Wednesday, November 09, 2005

The French riots: racial/ethnic unrest or Muslim intifada?

As the rioting in France continues unabated and spreads to other European countries (Belgium and Germany), the big debate is: is this an outburst of violence by disaffected young men marginalized by racism and unemployment, or the beginning of an Islamic revolt in Europe?

Some conservatives are accusing the liberal media of a politically correct cover-up of the Muslim aspect of the riots. Mark Steyn compares the rioters to "the Muslim armies of 13 centuries ago." British commentator Melanie Phillips writes:

What we are seeing is, in effect, a French intifada: an uprising by French Muslims against the state. ... Blaming an official policy of segregation is wide of the mark. The fact is that French Muslims want to be segregated. The ghettoes are a way of ensuring a separate Islamic existence without having to assimilate into French society.

But another conservative, Stephen Schwartz at TechCentralStation (who is hardly blind to the danger of radical Islamic fundamentalism), comes to a very different conclusion:

Aubervilliers, Clichy, Vitry were and are ghettoes, and are now aflame. France must confront the reality of its bad history with minorities of various kinds, but especially with North African Arabs, who have never been forgiven for the beating the Algerians inflicted on France in the late 1950s... Notwithstanding the hue and cry that will be raised against Muslims in France, in the aftermath of this nightmare, the truth about French bigotry remains.

(Schwartz, it should be noted, spent some time in Paris in 1979 and socialized with some aggressively secularist North African leftists, and witnessed firsthand some of the racism of the dominant French culture.)

In the fog of rioting, the facts are extremely difficult to sort out. One website (linked by Andrew Sullivan) purports to gather evidence, with links, that the riots are indeed driven by radical Islam. Yet as some of the commenters point out, the "proof" in some of those links is dubious: for instance, unconfirmed "eyewitness reports" that the rioters have been sparing cars with Islamic stickers; the fact that Molotov cocktails have been thrown at two synagogues (along with many other targets) and that churches have been reportedly torched in two towns (again, along with secular targets such as buses, schools, and day care centers); the fact that some jihadist websites have hailed the rioters.

On the other hand, check out this report, in which an 18-year-old rioter named Ahmed says, pointing to his friends: "You wear these clothes, with this color skin and you're automatically a target for police." Is he talking about traditional Muslim garb? No -- "Izod polo shirts, Nike sneakers and San Antonio Spurs T-shirts." (Hat tip: a commenter at Outside the Beltway.)

The complex intersection between race/ethnicity, religion, and economic and social grievances is explored in a fascinating article in Monday's Boston Globe. It is perhaps best illustrated by a young man featured in the lead paragraph, an unemployed 20-year-old of Algerian background, who says that his two heroes are "Osama bin Laden and Rodney King":

''One because he gives pride back to the Muslims," the young man asserted as he and a trio of friends stood near the charred ruins of a carpet shop. ''The other because he was just a poor man, a 'nobody man' of color, but he caused a great city to burn."

The article suggests that while the rioting is primarily an "underclass" problem, the anger and resentment is frequently channeled into a radicalized Muslim identity and exploited by Islamic radicals -- just as two generations ago, similar discontent would have been exploited by secular left-wing movements. A disturbing tidbit:

One significant change, is that until a decade or so ago, immigrants proudly referred to themselves as ''French Arabs," ''French Algerians," ''French Moroccans," and so on. Today, in a sign of alienation, they typically call themselves ''Muslims," taking religion, often the radical brand, as their strongest identity.

This is true elsewhere on the continent that once defined Christendom but that is now home to the largest population of Muslims outside the classic Islamic world.

So are the French Muslims deliberately isolating themselves from the larger French society and refusing to assimilate, or are they responding to being marginalized and oppressed by the larger French society? Which came first, the chicken or the egg? From a lot of the accounts I have read so far, it sounds like societal prejudice/marginalization came first, and the result is a large population in which alienation from and hostility toward the larger society have become deeply entrenched. What to do? Stephen Schwartz has some ideas.

More good insights and links from neo-neocon.

I suspect that some liberals are too inclined to dismiss the Islamic angle, and some conservatives are too inclined to finger Islam as the culprit (rather than try to understand the ways in which the underclass problem and the Muslim problem are deeply intertwined). One thing that I think we can all agree on: the Europeans' superior attitude toward America's racial problems is revealed as utterly hollow.

Update: A disturbing article in The Weekly Standard discusses the "Islamization of French schools," based on a leaked report from the French ministry of education. (Hat tip: Right Side of the Rainbow.) The report, prepared under the auspices of top education official Jean-Pierre Obin, states that as a result of the growing influence of religious activists, many Arab and North African students in French schools are aggressively asserting a raical Muslim identity. Girls are often forced to observe the Islamic dress code. Other aspects of this trend:

In primary schools, the report cites instances of first grade boys' refusing to participate in coed activities and Muslim children's refusing to sing, dance, or draw a face. In one school, restrooms were segregated: some for Muslim students and some for "French." Some lunchrooms were segregated, by section or table. ...

With Muslim proselytizing on the rise, the report states that students are under pressure to observe Ramadan, the annual month during which Muslims fast during the day. In some high schools, it is simply impossible for Muslim kids not to join in, whether they like it or not. Obin cites one student who tried to commit suicide because of intimidation and threats from other kids over this issue. Obin also emphasizes that many conversions to Islam are taking place under duress.

Inevitably, the report records rampant "Judeophobia," to use the term in vogue in France. Among even the youngest students, the term "Jew" has become the all-purpose insult. Obin deplores the fact that principals and teachers do not strenuously object to this, treating it simply as part of the youth culture. Even more serious is the increase in assaults on Jews or those presumed to be Jewish...

According to the report, Muslim students perceive a large gap between the French and themselves. Even though most of the Muslim kids are actually French citizens, they see themselves as Muslims first, and more and more of them hail Osama bin Laden as their hero. In their eyes, he represents a victorious Islam triumphing over the West.

Finally, the report discusses a host of difficulties teachers encounter in dealing with specific subjects in the classroom. Most Muslim kids refuse to participate in sports or swimming, the girls out of modesty, the boys because they do not want to swim in "girls' water" or "non-Muslim water." When it comes to literature, French philosophers such as Voltaire and Rousseau are very often boycotted because of their supposed Islamophobia. Molière, the father of French satiric comedy, is among the writers most often boycotted.

As for history, Muslim students object to its Judeo-Christian bias and blatant falsehood. They loudly protest the Crusades, and commonly deny the Holocaust. Under the circumstances, many teachers censor their own material, often skipping entire topics, like the history of Israel or of Christianity. The report cites one teacher who keeps a Koran on his desk for reference whenever a thorny issue arises. It cites Muslim students who refuse to use the plus sign in mathematics because it looks like a cross. Field trips, especially to churches, cathedrals, and monasteries, are boycotted.

Very troubling indeed. One question the article never answers, however, is just how widespread and how representative all of these phenomena are. It's filled with general references to "Muslim students" (90% of Muslim students? 50%? 5%?), "many teachers" (again, how many is "many"?), "some schools," etc. Whatever the numbers are, this is clearly a worrying trend. But it would be helpful to have a clearer picture.


Revenant said...

The main lesson of the riots is... schadenfreude is a wonderful thing.

Every time I see a report on the riots, I remember the snide remarks about Katrina and get the warm fuzzies.

As for why it is apparently only Muslims who are rioting, I have no idea. I don't know anyone with firsthand knowledge of the area who doesn't have some sort of axe to grind one way or the other.

Revenant said...

why don't they return to their countries of origin?

France IS their country of origin. The rioters are mostly teenagers and people in their early 20s; almost all of them were born in France.

Anonymous said...

This whole thing brings to light what a tricky thing integration is. I am not surprised that their is discrimination in hiring against these youth. I just wonder how much of it is related to religion or skin color, and how much of it is related to cultural differences in behavior, particularly toward women.

I spent two weeks in France a few years ago, staying in hostels and traveling north to south. Whenever I was in an area where there was a large Moroccan immigrant population, I couldn't sit in a cafe or walk down the street without having these men approach me for sex. Here I am, in my 30's. I dressed modestly. I wasn't flirting. I didn't even make eye contact. I was eating in a cafe or walking down the street, and that was enough to provoke that kind of obnoxious behavior. It was crazy! From what I've read in my travel guide books, that kind of behavior is normal in Morocco.

After that experience, I would be hesitant to hire a French-Morroccan man. People are always on their best behavior in job interviews. I would really have to have some strong assurances he wouldn't create any problems with female employees.

Is that discrimination? Yes. Certainly, not all French-Moroccan men are that obnoxious. But the thing is, how do you know this one isn't? How can you be sure that you aren't hiring a problem? These issues just aren't easy to deal with.

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