The recent wave of violence that has swept through Paris and French suburbs has exposed the failure to integrate immigrants of African and Arab descent, the majority of which are Muslims, into French society, especially as they represent the largest and most excluded minority group.
Despite the protestors calling for better education, better employment and better healthcare, familiar demands for those seeking integration, the continuing riots have highlighted the problems of France’s highly centralized system of government as opposed to the pluralistic system of government in the United States and the United Kingdom’s multicultural society.
This issue came under the spotlight in the wake of the debate on the law prohibiting religious symbols in French state schools, known to Muslims as the “veil law”. It was also highlighted during the Palestinian second intifada (uprising) in 2000 when mixed neighborhoods saw confrontations between Muslims and Jews. These events demonstrated that French society was moving away from its centralized system of government, which took shape the enlightenment age and institutionalized with the birth of the secular republic where religion and politics were separated by law in 1905.
In an interesting book, entitled “Ce que nous voile le voile” (What the veil hides), the philosopher Régis Debray called for pluralism to be recognized in France instead of avoiding the obligations of a pluralistic society by the use of legal procedures, in line with the new realities of cultural and national pluralism in France.
It is wrong to reduce the crisis of the Arab and Muslim communities living in France, also known as the Beurs, to a criminal problem, as the country’s political class has so often been guilty of doing. Equally, it is incorrect to blame the immigrants’ religious beliefs for their situation. These two tendencies make for a mistaken analysis and a sensationalist perspective.
Despite its particularities, the French case is not unique in Europe and the western world. The horrific terrorist attacks that struck western countries with Arab and Muslim migrants, such as the Madrid train bombings on 11th March 2004 and the July 7 attacks in London , without forgetting the 11th September 2001 earthquake, point out to new aspects regarding this problem.
While stressing that terrorist acts are never justified, under any pretense, they can be explained as a result of the dangerous failure of Arab/Islamic and Western coexistence in one of its most important aspects, immigration. The causes of this failure are beyond the scope of this article. Suffice it to point out three factors below.
To begin with, European societies failed to incorporate Arab and Muslim immigrants in the same manner they absorbed Jewish, South European (Greek and Italian) and East European (during the communist era) newcomers. The legacy of colonialism and the industrial boom which followed WWII meant these immigrant communities remained in their ghettos shut off from the rest of society.
Migrants did not receive compensation for the crimes committed by the colonial administration and were further marginalized when the demand for manual labor decreased with the advent of the information age and advanced technology.
Secondly, immigrant communities were unable to integrate effectively in European societies and moving from the “guest” model to that of “full citizens” with religious and cultural traditions continuing to act as an obstacle in this respect. Arab and Muslim migrants have been unable to reconcile their culture with European citizenship and integrate in societies with a different history and culture. Some European Muslim intellectuals, such as Tariq Ramadan, have called for a “European Islam”. Yet, the fact remains that the majority of Islamic associations and institutions in Europe do not differ greatly from their counterparts in the Muslim work in their extremism and close-mindedness.
It is important to mention, in this regard, the efforts of the European Council for Fatwa and Research which has only recently began to record the status and challenges faced by Muslim communities in the West according to the “fiqh of minorities” which is rejected by many traditional Muslim jurists.
Thirdly, the strategy adopted by European governments in their immigration policies suffers from a contradiction in terms; it support the freedom of movement to facilitate the travel of humans and goods, as globalization requires, while at the same time closing its borders to protect itself from the hungry barbarians encircling it.
The scores of immigrants killed trying to cross the Moroccan- Spanish border reflect this inconsistency and demonstrate that universal human rights are subservient to national interests. They also point out that globalization is not a unified process or a single open space.
The latest rioting across the suburbs around Paris cannot be explained by other factors than those summarized above. Of course, similar social problems occurred during earlier waves of migration, Jewish, Southern European and Eastern European but cultural homogeneity put a limit to any difficulty to integrate.
The question we pose to European countries with significant Muslim immigrant communities is this: Can these societies incorporate an Islamic component with its own distinctive features within the existing social model?
Whatever the answer, the reality remains that Islam has become a major element of these societies even if it not yet fully integrated.