The Magazine

Allah Mode

France's Islam problem.

Jul 15, 2002, Vol. 7, No. 42 • By CHRISTOPHER CALDWELL
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Very soon, France is going to have to figure out whether people like Kamel Hamza are its salvation or its worst nightmare. Barely 30, born in France of Algerian parents, Hamza recently launched a telecommunications business that works with Bouygues and MCI in one of France's worst neighborhoods. Seine St-Denis, just north of Paris, is the most violent departement in France. La Courneuve, where Hamza's company is headquartered above a nearly deserted mini-mall, is one of the bleaker corners of it. Seine St-Denis is marked by immigration (it's one-third Muslim), unemployment (30 percent in La Courneuve), and underclass violence (the area not only has a high murder rate but has also been a launching pad for anti-Jewish violence and vandalism in recent months). But what marks Seine St-Denis more than anything else is bureaucratized indifference. Until the late 1990s, decades after the region's factories had closed, computerless schools were teaching metal shop to their male students. This is a place where even the natives refer to their neighborhoods by their departmental postal codes. ("Come visit me in 93." . . . "Be careful walking around 95 after dark.")

Hamza has escaped the dead-end life most people lead in La Courneuve, and he's taken a half-dozen employees along with him. He's stuck around as a role model into the bargain. He's done it through hard work, entrepreneurial initiative, and values--for which he gives his religious faith a great deal of credit. Hamza fasts during Ramadan (as do three-quarters of French Muslims), avoids alcohol (as do two-thirds of French Muslims), and doesn't eat pork. "I'm French first, but also Algerian," he says. "Fran ais d'origine algerienne."

Hamza likes to compare his identity claims to those of Bretons and other native French. He's wrong to. Bretons are looking backward; Hamza is looking forward. Hamza's immigrant parents lived by a code that he sums up as: Don't call attention to yourself. "I saw how my parents lived," he says. "I've learned a new way of living." His own code is: Respect yourself. Don't complain. Keep your kids on the straight and narrow. Know where you come from. Practice solidarity. That decidedly does not mean solidarity with the consumer/TV/sex culture that traps people in ghettos. "The people who succeed around here," says Hamza, "are the ones who keep their distance from the American culture of baseball caps and basketball shoes."

In fact, it means solidarity against Western culture, and at times Hamza sounds like one who has learned his values from some fiery imam's Friday sermon at a ghetto mosque. Hamza is a Berber (or a kabyle, as they're called in Algeria), yet when asked about the sociological differences between Algeria's Berbers and Arabs, which are large and enduring, he'll have none of it. "People create those distinctions in order to divide us," he says. (Who's "us"? one wonders.) "Our first step is to start with ourselves. If we're confident in ourselves, we can build a good society because it's not we who are practicing job discrimination."

FRANCE HAS A PROBLEM with its Muslim population that may be too multifaceted to solve. There have been Muslims in France since the colonization of Algeria in the 1830s, and there were tens of thousands as early as the 1920s, when France officially welcomed Islam in a gesture of gratitude to the Algerian soldiers who had shocked the country with their patriotism, self-sacrifice, and bravery in the Great War. The government, which is working desperately to formulate an official policy on Islam, now estimates its Muslim population at 4 to 5 million. Most social scientists believe this number is too low, speaking of as many as 8 million Muslims in France (and 12 to 20 million in the European Union). These numbers underestimate the weight of French Islam, since the population is concentrated and--thanks to a birthrate that, while falling, remains a multiple of the native-French one--extremely young. In parts of Paris, Marseilles, Rhone-Alpes, and Strasbourg, between a third and half of people in their teens and twenties are Muslim. These offspring of immigrants are referred to (and refer to themselves) as beurs. More invidiously, the word jeunes (or "youths") has come to be used as a euphemism for "Arab thugs," much as "inner city" served for decades as an American code word for "horrible black neighborhood."