Daily Archives: November 9, 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.

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Sakharov night at Harvard

As previously mentioned, last night I attended a discussion of the recent published book, The KGB File of Andrei Sakharov (edited by Amnesty International’s Joshua Rubenstein and former Soviet dissident/Sakharov Center archivist Alexander Gribanov) at Harvard’s Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies. The event was held in a small room with perhaps 25 people in attendance, most of them over 60; notable guests included historian Richard Pipes, the author of several books on Russian history, and Loren Graham, an MIT professor who specializes in the history of science. Also in attendance, as something of a surprise guest, was Sakharov’s widow (and a human rights activist in her own right) Elena Bonner, who now spends most of her time in the Boston area where her daughter and grandchildren have resided since the 1980s.

Sakharov was one of the true heroes of the 20th Century: a man who occupied a position of wealth and privilege in Soviet society as the inventor of the hydrogen bomb, and who chose to become a persecuted outcast because he took a principled position for freedom and human rights. Much of the discussion touched on the ways in which Sakharov and the other dissidents paved the way for the Gorbachev-era changes that eventually toppled the Soviet regime. Yes, the changes were initiated within the communist power structure — but the dissidents who were working on the outside helped frame the discussion of the changes that were needed, and set the goalposts. The dissidents were the first to state openly that the Soviet Union had placed itself outside the community of civilized nations by denying its people civic and political freedom and by squelching intellectual pluralism. By the late 1980s, this view had become part of mainstream Soviet discourse.

Joshua Rubenstein concluded his remarks on a somewhat pessimistic note, saying that in view of Russia’s backsliding toward authoritarianism under the Putin presidency, it was hard to assess at this point just how much influence the Sakharov legacy really had. He was strongly challenged by Loren Graham, who said that however disappointing the Putin regime may be, the fact is that Russia today is full of independent groups and organizations, and full of people who are “striking free intellectually” — and that’s the legacy of the human rights movement and the Sakharov legacy. Gribanov weighed in with a fascinating story about interviewing some Hungarian human rights/pro-democracy activists and asking if they had been influenced by the Soviet dissidents. Their answer was, Not directly — the workers’ movement in Poland was actually a greater influence. And yet “the fact that at the heart of the monster, the Soviet Union, there was a man who challenged that monster — Sakharov — was inspirational.”

In her brief remarks, Bonner said that the main danger she saw to Sakharov’s legacy was that it would be appropriate and distorted by the new statist regime in Russia. Her concern is that, especially after she passes away (which, she wryly noted, is “a distinct possibility” — she is 83 and in fragile health), Sakharov, an agnostic and a proud secular humanist, will be recast as “a Russian Orthodox saint,” “a Russian patriot with a nationalistic flavor,” and a supporter of what Putin and his ilk call “guided democracy.” The only hope of averting this, she said, lies in “an educated populace” which will prevent this lie from taking hold. (“A very faint hope,” added Bonner’s daughter and interpreter, Tatiana Yankelevich.)

Contemporary political issues found their way into the discussion. Rubenstein talked about the fact that the KGB reports on Sakharov usually presented the Soviet Politburo with a distorted version of reality, telling the Soviet leaders what they wanted to hear, and that the KGB and the Politburo ended up believing in their own fictions. In her comments, Bonner noted that there was a lesson in this for the current U.S. administration.

This prompted an elderly gentleman in the audience to wistfully remark, during the discussion, that it was a pity we didn’t have a Sakharov of our own to speak truth to power; whereupon Pipes rather irritably interjected to ask if the gentleman really was implying that Americans don’t have the freedom to speak out against Bush, or that they risk internal exile to a small town (the way Sakharov was exiled to Gorky) if they do so. No, the gentleman replied meekly, but they don’t seem to be able to make themselves heard.

Of course, comparisons between dissent in the former Soviet Union and disagreement with the government in the United States are absurdly and offensively facile; and I’m sure Bonner meant nothing of the sort. But her comparison of the Soviet leadership’s self-inflicted disinformation to the Bush administration’s policies was provocative in a good way — and startling, since Bonner has long been a strong proponent of the use of American power as a force for good in foreign policy.

For me, the evening had an odd aura of Cold War nostalgia. It’s not that I miss the Soviet Union; but the discussion of Sakharov, and Western support for his cause, evoked a simpler time when democracy’s global adversary was a totalitarian empire with a single center in Moscow, not an amorphous terror network that comprises many different forces with often different goals. But then again, even in the Cold War era, good and evil were never simple. At the post-discussion reception, a man in attendance approached Bonner to ask if the human rights movement in the Soviet Union was at all influenced by the antiwar movement in the United States during the Vietnam War. The irascible Bonner lit into him, telling him that regardless of its intentions, the anti-war movement was “objectively” responsible for the deaths and the enslavement of millions of Vietnamese by allowing Vietnam to fall into Communist hands.

Bonner’s assessment of Vietnam and the antiwar movement may be controversial; but at least most people in the West today, regardless of political orientation, treat the nobility of the dissidents’ cause as self-evident. And yet twenty years ago, the notion that the Soviets simply had a different conception of human rights still had some currency among respectable liberals in the West. Even some people who expressed great and genuine concern with the human rights situation in the Communist bloc, and with Sakharov’s plight in particular — such as New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis — cringed at Ronald Reagans designation of the Soviet Union as “the evil empire,” which they saw as crudely simplistic and likely to provoke the Soviets into a more “defiant” stance. Yet the Soviet dissidents had no quarrrel with the “evil empire” label.

Perhaps moral clarity, like many other things, is much easier in retrospect.

With Elena Bonner and Richard Pipes

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