October 02, 2006
The reality of Islam and the Republic
I almost missed this fairly important note in the Financial Times on European Islam and the wild-eyed whinging that seems to be becoming the rage in certain circles in North America regarding the Muslim minority in Europe: The reality of Islam and the Republic.
First, the author of the opinion piece, FT’s European Editor, has an excellent summary of the mythology, playing off of a recent publication, Integrating Islam: Political And Religious Challenges in Contemporary France.
A standard riff is developing among the rightwing commentariat in the US when discussing Europe’s 15m Muslims: they are the potential enemy.
Largely marginalised in low-growth economies, culturally adrift in secular, permissive societies, cut off from their families’ roots in North Africa, many of these Muslims are poor, angry, disorientated and prey to radicalisation by al-Qaeda extremists. The “intifada” launched by rioting Muslim youths in France’s suburbs last November and the murderous bombing campaign conducted by “home-grown” terrorists in London last July are just a foretaste of things to come.
Moreover, the argument goes, Europe’s political leaders are held hostage by their Muslim vote, ensuring that they are “soft” on terrorism and antagonistic towards Israel and the US. A process of “reverse colonisation” is occurring as Muslim immigrants breed faster than the indigenous populations, threatening to turn Europe into Eurabia. France, home to about one-third of Europe’s Muslims and the “arch-appeaser” President Jacques Chirac, is singled out for particular scorn.
Of course I might have highlighted the distorted, exaggerated imagery of ‘rioting Muslim youths’ per se (versus the real issue of the London terrorists), but let’s not nitpick.
The great virtue of Integrating Islam is that it demonstrates how distorted and offensive many of these views are. After examining the everyday reality of the Muslim population in France, the two authors, an American political scientist and a French historian, reach a more complex and optimistic conclusion challenging the “gloomy and alarmist view of France’s (and Europe’s) inevitable ‘Islamisation’.”
For a start, France has had a long and successful history of integrating foreign populations. Unlike Britain, Germany and Italy, France became a country of immigration, rather than emigration, in the 19th century, absorbing waves of Poles, Belgians, Italians, Spaniards, Portuguese and east Europeans (including many Jews). Almost every generation of immigrant was deemed “unable to integrate”.
Correct, although the ex-Jewish immigration was certainly less culturally problematic than the Muslims.
The public school system, the military and the workplace have been the main mechanisms for turning immigrants into French citizens. All are proving less effective today than in the past because of high unemployment, the fragmentation of education and the ending of compulsory military service. But the authors suggest France’s 215-year-old concept of citizenship, based on the revolutionary principles of liberté, égalité, fraternité and the separation of church and state, still holds appeal for many immigrants and is an invaluable tool for integration.
I would call this correct.
Indeed, if France would let go of its mercantilist dirigisme in economic policy and liberalise, one could easily see the business world becoming a motor of integration.
Well, not too easily given the deep unexamined prejudices in French society at present, hidden behind a hypocritical mantra of “equality” without real follow-through. Theory over pragmatic practice, à la vielle tradition française certainement.
Second, the authors contend that it is often misleading to identify Muslims solely by their religious beliefs, especially when many do not do so themselves. France’s Muslim population is marked by huge sectarian, ethnic and ideological diversity.
Besides, opinion polls among those who do identify themselves as Muslims show a strong attachment to France and a profound desire to integrate. These respondents also tend to be more optimistic about the future of the country than those from most other backgrounds. Many of the youths who rioted in the suburbs last year were not screaming about their rejection of French society but of the desperation to become fully part of it.
The authors acknowledge that integrating France’s Muslim peoples does pose challenges. Many of them came to France in the 1960s and 1970s following the brutal war of independence in Algeria, which left a scar on the French psyche. The religious practices of some Muslims have also clashed with the secular traditions of the French state, most notably over whether girls could wear headscarves in schools. Terrorist ideology has indeed infected some disaffected Muslim youths posing a potentially lethal threat.
The book does not gloss over these issues but puts them into perspective. Most Muslim schoolgirls have accepted the ban on headscarves. The government has also been robust in dealing with extremism, monitoring radical groups and expelling extremist imams. But it should be noted that of the 361 people in jail on terrorism-related offences at the end of 2004, 153 were Basque, 79 Corsican and 103 Islamist.
An important item to recall, above all for provincial North Americans, of the existence of other issues other than the obsession du jour of the Americans. For all that said obsession is not baseless nor trivial. But myopic regard only to it distorts and blinds.
Some politicians, notably Nicolas Sarkozy, the interior minister and presidential contender, have also made strenuous efforts to embrace France’s Muslim minority. He has helped establish a state-sponsored Muslim council to create an “Islam of France” rather than an “Islam in France” and has pressed for limited affirmative action.
Such initiatives have been criticised by Republican diehards and are proving hard to implement. In response, Mr Sarkozy has rhetorically asked: “If you find Islam incompatible with the Republic, then what do you do with the 5m people of Muslim origin living in France? Do you kick them out, or make them convert or ask them not to practise their religion?”
The authors conclude that government and community leaders are making efforts to ensure that Islamic beliefs and practices become compatible with Republican values. But the success of these attempts will ultimately depend on how far the French themselves can live up to the ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity.
Absolutely. Two way street between the parts of the Republic.
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I wouldn't waste too much time on the "liberté, égalité, fraternité" stuff. A very flashy slogan, no doubt, but action speaks louder than words and many other countries manage to integrate their immigrants much more easily than France - Belgium has a dozen or so parlementarians of Arab or Turkish origin, and the official in charge for switching from the franc belge to the euro was of Moroccan extraction, something unthinkable in the "patrie des droits de l'homme".
France mixes a very strong discourse on equality and color-blindness and an even stronger reality of segregation and discrimination. Their business-sector is among the first to discriminate (and this is not hearsay), so you could abolish the "code du travail" and income taxes overnight without much effect on the discrimination ethnic minorities such as Arabs and blacks. What they need to do to try and sort out their ethnical mess is to get real, dump their ideological hypocrisy and see the reality of ethnicity as it stands in real life (spend 48 hours in some Paris or Lyon suburbs...) - but this awakening is about as likely to happen as for Saudi Arabia to allow same-sex marriages...
As for France's 215-years old concept of citizenship, it has been racially neutral only since 1958 (before that date, the "Français musulmans d'Algérie", i.e. Algerians, were citizens of second order, in fact and in law)...
Nice article otherwise.
Posted by: Ibn Kafka at October 3, 2006 09:18 AM
I generally agree, and generally I make similar points re the entirely theoretical nature of French equality sloganeering. I do no small amount of work with the French and my woman works for the largest French bank in the world, I am intimately familiar with the hypocrisy and the discrimination.
I do disagree that abolishing anti-market/liberal labour and corporate codes would not have an effect. A jump in economic growth combined with a freer hiring environment would inevitably suck in even the discriminated against. Now, to really address things, the French would have to institute an Anglo Saxon type system of actually tracking minorities - as opposed to piously proclaiming equality - and effecting effective legal remedies. Combined with liberalisation, that would help.
Of course, none of this will happen.
Pity, a French Margaret Thatcher would be great tonic for the nation of theoreticians.
Posted by: The Lounsbury at October 3, 2006 09:55 AM