The Corner

Re: Flaming Youth

Mark, wonder what you make of this. I just finished reading Beyond Terrorism and Martyrdom: The Future of the Middle East by the lefty French Arabist Gilles Kepel.  It’s a mostly silly Bush-basher (his main theme is the purported symmetry between the Bush administration and al Qaeda), but the chapters about Islam in Europe are more interesting — including one called ”Missteps of Multiculturalism.” In it, Kepel argues that France is much less multi-culti than other European countries. This, he contends, has made it less prone to social “pillarization” and, consequently, to the kind of Islamist enclaves that breed terrorists and the sorts of attacks experienced by what he insists are less well assimilated countries like Britain, Spain and the Netherlands.

To carry off this argument that Muslim immigrants have become culturally French, of course, he has to interpret the rioting by those “youths” in the banlieues as an economic event, having nothing remotely to do with, you know, any religion/culture of any kind. He writes:

Its experience of facing terrorism in the 1980s and 1990s, and the security services’ response to those threats, seems to have inoculated France against more serious infection by jihadist violence.  But the absence of terrorist attacks in a country that is also home to religious rigorists and jihadists of every stripe must be understood within a deeper social context….  [T]his context includes a cultural fascination with the integration of individuals into modern French life and with a sense of national identity dating back to the French Revolution.  Added to that is a colonial tradition based on the premise of France’s “civilizing mission”[.]…  The cultural values shared by the host society and its Muslim immigrant population have been more explicitly declared in France than in European countries boasting a multiculturalist agenda.  As a result, immigrants from Muslim countries were obliged to face up to the disastrous consequences that Islamist violence would have on their own lives in French society, however innocent of participation in that violence individuals might be…. 

But the flip side of France’s cultural integration is an unwillingness to address very real barriers that impede French residents of African or Middle Eastern descent from rising on the ladder of social and professional advancement.  The riots in autumn 2005, unprecedented in scale relative to neighboring countries, were not an Islamist uprising but were rather a dramatic protest against the refusal of conventional French society to face the need for affirmative social, economic and poltical action on behalf of immigrant populations.  As many observers have pointed out, the violence was not a rejection of French secular society.  On the contrary, what it strongly expressed was a demand for greater integration and acceptance.

My sense is he’s kidding himself. He’s got the formula right: A country like France must maintain its French character and assimilate immigrants to it. But he’s seeing a practical success in applying this formula where there isn’t one: I mean, do countries really assimilate their immigrant populations culturally first, and then only later integrate economically, socially and politically? Such a two-track process seems very unlikely to me — and if it did happen, I would think the timing would be reverse, with culture as the lagging factor. I applaud Kepel for attempting a rational explanation for why it’s sensible to see only “youths” rioting, I just don’t find it very convincing.

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