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6840France and Its Muslims*

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  • Zafar Khan
    Jul 4, 2006
      France and Its Muslims*
      Riots, Jihadism, and Depoliticization
      International Crisis Group **


      France faces a problem with its Muslim population, but
      it is not the problem that is generally assumed. The
      October and November 2005 riots, coupled with the wave
      of arrests of suspected jihadists, moved the question
      of Islam to the forefront of French concerns and gave
      new life to concerns about the threat of a Muslim
      world mobilized by political Islamism.

      Yet the opposite is true: Paradoxically, it is the
      exhaustion of political Islamism, not its
      radicalization, that explains much of the violence,
      and it is the depoliticization of young Muslims,
      rather than their alleged reversion to a radical kind
      of communalism, that ought to be cause for worry. The
      key to minimizing the risks of rioting and militant
      jihadism is to curb forms of state violence being
      exercised against predominantly Muslim, working-class
      neighborhoods and to promote political participation
      by their residents.

      To date, efforts to politically organize this
      population have systematically failed. This has been
      the case, most recently, in attempts by the principal
      Islamist actor, the Union of Islamic Organizations of
      France (UOIF), to use religion as a rallying force.
      Forsaking its strategy of political opposition, the
      UOIF gradually adopted a clientelist strategy in which
      it sought recognition by the state. The end result was
      to alienate the organization's social base, especially
      its youth, which no longer felt adequately represented
      by leaders they believed had been co-opted by the

      The same fate befell the various movements of young
      Muslims that emerged in the 1980s as agents providing
      social organization for Muslim neighborhoods.
      Suspected by the authorities of enjoying excessively
      close ties with North African Islamist militants, and
      viewed by young residents of disadvantaged
      neighborhoods as overly removed from their everyday
      concerns, these associations lost their momentum.

      The exhaustion of political Islamism has coincided
      with the growth of Salafism, a missionary movement
      which, invoking the "pious ancestors" of Islam,
      preaches a rigorous adherence to scripture and focuses
      on morals and individual behavior, and calls for a
      break with Western societies. With the weakening of
      the dissident impact of political Islamism and the
      exhaustion of the Muslim youth movements, Salafism has
      expanded into the vacuum, its success reflecting the
      growth of individualist concerns, the tendency to
      retreat from French society, and the opting out from
      politics rather than the project of organizing the
      Muslim community as a community or of confronting
      wider French society.

      As neither political Islamism nor the Muslim youth
      organizations can organize or mobilize their
      constituencies any longer, and as the rising religious
      force, Salafism, has no interest in doing so, a
      dangerous political vacuum has developed, particularly
      among the young, idle underclass of the suburbs. As a
      consequence, political demands increasingly are
      expressed through jihadi Salafism and rioting, fueled
      by precarious living conditions, rampant unemployment,
      social discrimination and, more recently, the
      perceived vilification of Islam.

      The question of jihadism is clearly both political and
      transnational. While in the past, terrorist attacks in
      France were linked to foreign national Islamic groups
      whose struggles spilled over onto French soil, since
      the second half of the 1990s this has no longer been
      the case. Today, the vast majority of Islamist
      violence is not imported; rather, it is perpetrated by
      French nationals in the name of an "Islamized"
      anti-imperialist discourse, stimulated by the
      Palestinian and Iraqi issues on the international
      scene and by social discrimination in France.

      The nature of the struggle has changed; it aims not at
      attaining political power or at establishing an
      Islamic state in a given country, but at a broader
      confrontation between the global Muslim community, or
      Ummah, and its enemies. The issue for jihadis is not
      Western licentiousness but Western imperialism.

      That said, in the absence of effective organizational
      structures, political demands have tended to be
      expressed less through the jihadist temptation than
      through mass revolt. The unrest in the suburbs in
      October and November 2005 took place without any
      religious actors and confirmed that Islamists do not
      control those neighborhoods.

      Even though they had every interest in restoring calm
      and thereby demonstrating their authority, and despite
      several attempts to halt the violence, they largely
      failed, there were no bearded provocateurs behind the
      riots and no bearded "older brothers" to end them. As
      for the officially sanctioned institutions of Islam in
      France, they too demonstrated their lack of purchase
      on events and on the populations involved in them.

      With the neutralization of Muslim youth organizations
      and political Islamism, and the failure of the secular
      political parties to engage properly with the Muslim
      population, there is a growing tendency to resort to
      violence, be it a riot or of the jihadi variety.
      Undoubtedly, Islamist violence reflects the growing
      appeal of a global, radicalized world view inspired by
      Al-Qaeda and requires security measures in response.
      But such violence, like the uprisings in
      underprivileged neighborhoods, is above all the
      consequence of a crisis in political representation
      and, to that extent, requires — beyond necessary
      security and socio-economic measures — a political

      The events of 2005 served as a reminder that the
      French model of integration — quickly lauded in the
      aftermath of the July 7, 2005, London terrorist
      attacks as a preferred alternative to Anglo-Saxon
      communalism or multiculturalism — is also in need of a
      corrective. But while the general tendency is to
      define the problem as a clash between the communal
      order supposedly governing Muslims on the one hand and
      the emphasis on individualism allegedly governing the
      French republic on the other, the problem is in fact
      the precise opposite.

      France's Muslims are in reality far more
      individualistic than expected; conversely, the French
      republican model is far more communal than claimed, a
      feature expressed through the country's social ghettos
      and through the state's repeated instrumentalization
      of religious elites. That this form of communalism is
      inconsistent with a strict republican dogma is not the
      issue. The issue is that it is singularly ill-adapted
      to the management of a population dominated by
      individualism and in which demands placed upon the
      state are high and often unaddressed.

      A policy response that focuses on religion building
      and looks for "moderate," controllable Muslim
      representatives will have little impact. Offering
      young Muslims a tamer, domesticated, or co-opted Islam
      will hinder neither the temptation of radicalism, nor
      the dynamics of mass rioting.

      A more successful approach would be to focus on the
      political matters at the core of the crisis and
      concentrate on curbing repressive practices in
      disadvantaged neighborhoods and promoting new,
      credible forms of political representation for young
      Muslims, including via existing secular political
      parties. For the West, more generally, an effort
      should be made to seriously address the dramas that
      help mobilize and radicalize European Muslims —
      Palestine and Iraq in particular — and that constitute
      the principal grievance invoked by armed movements,
      whether or not they actually motivate them.


      To the French Government

      1. Reduce the state's coercive presence in
      underprivileged neighborhoods by

      a. Focusing on police training, including by severely
      punishing abuses of power, notably those with a racial
      connotation; and

      b. Rebuilding non-authoritarian forms of mediation
      between state authorities and the population, for
      example by revitalizing neighborhood policing and
      social activities.

      2. Reduce social discrimination by, in particular

      a. Revising public housing allocation by promoting
      ethnic intermixing;

      b. Rigorously applying the Solidarity and Urban
      Renewal law, which is aimed at ensuring a more equal
      distribution of public housing among different
      municipalities; and

      c. Conducting vigorous and sustained public campaigns
      against racial and ethnic discrimination.

      3. Reform the modes of political representation of the
      Muslim population, and in particular

      a. Abandon the idea that institutionalizing Islam as a
      religion will thwart the jihadist temptation;

      b. Clearly define the functions of Conseil Français du
      Culte Musulman, as a body charged with the management
      of the faith, not with the representation of Muslims
      residing in France;

      c. Curb policies of a clientelist and communal
      character at all levels of the state;

      d. Give priority, in dialogue with young Muslims at
      both the local and regional levels, to those who have
      been born in France; and

      e. Adopt a constructive attitude in relation to those
      political movements that might grow out of the October
      and November riots.

      4. Revitalize the associational movement, in

      a. Review the harsh cuts that have affected the public
      financing of associations since 2002 and do not
      neglect those associations with clear political goals;

      b. Adopt a long-term approach to funding; and

      c. Better oversee and control how these funds are

      To National Political Forces

      5. Strengthen their presence in underprivileged
      suburban neighborhoods by

      a. Responding to demands by young Muslims to
      participate in politics, seeing in this a possible
      means of promoting a secular type of militancy. The
      example of the Green Party should be emulated in this
      regard; and

      b. Mobilizing trade unions in the struggle against
      discrimination, in particular in the fields of housing
      and employment.

      To Activists of Immigrant Communities and of
      Underprivileged Neighborhoods

      6. Increase opportunities for young Muslims to be
      active and mobilized through political parties and
      local associations, as a means of competing with the
      Salafi and jihadi trends. This requires that

      a. The Union des Organisations Islamistes opens its
      doors wide to Muslims born in France, granting them
      access to leadership positions, and that it develop a
      discourse more closely attuned to realities in
      working-class suburban neighborhoods; and

      b. The associations that are heir to the earlier
      mobilizations of Muslim youth should reengage in
      social activism, get involved in urban neighborhoods,
      and strengthen partnerships with actors who do not
      refer to Islam.


      * The report has been issued by The International
      Crisis Group as the first in a series that will look
      at Islam in Europe. The full report is currently only
      available in French.

      ** The International Crisis Group is an independent,
      non-profit, non-governmental organization, with nearly
      120 staff members on five continents, working through
      field-based analysis and high-level advocacy to
      prevent and resolve deadly conflict. Crisis Group's
      approach is grounded in field research. Teams of
      political analysts are located within or close by
      countries at risk of outbreak, escalation or
      recurrence of violent conflict. Based on information
      and assessments from the field, it produces analytical
      reports containing practical recommendations targeted
      at key international decision-takers.

      More about Islam and Muslims in France at: