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."

France's Islamic immigration has been until recently something the country literally could not bear to think or talk about. This is largely a problem of historical guilt. Most Arabs in France are economic migrants from North Africa, where France waged a brutal counterterrorist war in the late 1950s and early 1960s against Algeria's FLN independence movement. The war involved widespread torture in Algeria (a subject painfully reopened two years ago in a memoir by Gen. Paul Aussaresses), the drowning of Algerian protest marchers in the Seine (revealed during unrelated investigations into the World War II activities of Maurice Papon, who was Paris's police commissioner during the murders), and the abandonment of Algeria's harkis, those who had fought for France against the FLN. Vast numbers were slaughtered, sometimes along with their entire families, for their loyalty to France. Those who succeeded in escaping across the Mediterranean were often greeted as an unwelcome reminder. When President Jacques Chirac declared a day of national recognition for the harkis last fall, it was hailed as the brave breaking of a taboo.

As far as Islam is concerned, France has had a tendency to avoid looking at problems until they rear up on several fronts. First, France now has an underclass, made up of jeunes issus d'immigration. Second, there is an ongoing problem of racial discrimination, which is both a cause of Arab/Muslim poverty and an effect of Arab/Muslim crime. Third, there is Islam itself, which has confounded every governmental attempt to assimilate it into France's sternly secular constitutional order. Fourth, there is the rapidly increasing influence of conservative Islam in France, in the context of a global terrorist war that certain schools of conservative Islam have declared on the West. Solving some of these problems means exacerbating others. That may be why, according to a poll taken in 2000 by the National Commission on the Rights of Man, 63 percent of French people think there are "too many Arabs" in the country. This may be evidence of racism, but not of knee-jerk racism: Only 43 percent of Frenchmen say the same of blacks, only 21 percent of Asians, and only 19 percent of Jews.

What worries people at the most visceral level is the growth of a real Muslim underclass. In his book La France et les beurs, Zair Kedadouche, a former professional soccer player who has become an adviser to the mayor of Paris, refers to the housing projects of suburban Paris as "a Soweto that dare not speak its name."

In some areas, the underclass problems are exactly those of the United States. Sebastian Roche and other social scientists have coined the word surdelinquance to describe a phenomenon familiar to Americans as "the superpredator problem." As in the United States, there is worry that welfare payments are subsidizing illegitimacy. The revenu minimum d'insertion, France's guaranteed income, which hovers around 500 euros a month, is increasingly deplored as argent braguette ("zipper money"). Riots and other disturbances are underreported but frequent. Last week on July 4, gangs burned 20 cars in Lille to protest the suspended prison sentence given to a police officer who had shot an Algerian youth during a car theft. The dominant concept of the ghetto is now respect (pronounced, usually in a menacing way, as "woo-speh"). The word was the centerpiece in the presidential campaign of Guyanan leftist Catherine Taubira, and it is used increasingly in the political harangues of the poor and their tribunes. It sounds nice, but generally means respect only for those who can impose it by force. It means, if we may draw another American parallel, "Don't diss me."

There is this difference, though: Under the influence of Islam, a reactionary machismo has been established not just as a fact but as a reigning ideology. In a lengthy investigative article on the housing projects of Lyons, Figaro journalist Marie-Estelle Pech quoted a public school teacher as saying, "A young girl who respects the teachings of Islam cannot sit alongside boys." This segregation of boys and girls, according to Hugues Lagrange of the National Center for Social Science Research, has spread to many other aspects of life. Pech's interview subjects told her that a girl who wears a dress, or other well-fitting Western clothing, is "asking for it." She often gets it, too. The most alarming stories in Pech's investigation concerned tournantes, or gang-bangs. Girls who, for whatever reason, lack a father or brother to defend them get loaned out by their boyfriends to fellow gang members. In the United States, when the taboo against racism faces the taboo against sexism, the taboo against sexism prevails--i.e., people take the girls' side. Not so in France. Daniel Welzer-Lang, a sociologist whose latest book studies manliness and machismo in the ghetto, told Pech that virilisme is a strategy of collective defense, "in response to the fear of unemployment, of racism, of lawlessness, to the suffering of not being able to show other aspects of manliness."

Welzer-Lang may be politically naive, but the reality of discrimination must not be dismissed. At the very simplest level--that of political exclusion--one can note that Muslims now make up as big a proportion of France's population as blacks do in the United States, and that not a single Muslim (and not a single Arab of any faith) sits in the 577-member Chamber of Deputies. Fifty percent of France's unemployed are Muslims, according to Zinedine Houacine, president of the Arab/Muslim Union of Seine St-Denis. Over half of France's prison population is made up of people of "foreign origin," as is 43 percent of its reform-school population. Under such circumstances, there are not many employers in the country who are eager to hire beur boys. On the other hand, beurettes, as the girls are called, have a reputation as excellent students and reliable workers--which may exacerbate the impotent fury of young Muslim men.

There is no right answer to whether it is delinquency that causes discrimination or vice versa. But in its ability to set aside chicken-and-egg assignments of blame, religion provides a mighty tool for addressing such social problems right where they happen.

MUSLIMS IN FRANCE, like their compatriots, live in a godless consumer culture--but many are putting up a stiffer resistance to it. French Muslims are much more observant than French Christians. The most recent study of religious habits was made by the respected Michele Tribalat of the National Institute for Demographic Studies in the early 1990s. To the extent that there has been a growth in practice over the past decade, her work will not have captured it. France's least observant Muslims, Tribalat found, were Algerians, among whom 10 percent of men and 18 percent of women constituted a religious-conservative "hard core." That is still double the proportion of French Catholics who practice their religion at all. Half of Turkish immigrants to France practice their religion, a figure far above that of Turks who remain at home. Half of Algerians and Moroccans--and two-thirds of Turks--still ask to be sent back to their native countries for burial.

Again, the masculinity of Islam creates differences in the quality, as well as the quantity, of piety. First-generation Portuguese immigrants to France, Tribalat found, are 41 percent churchgoing. But the vast majority of these are women. The French mosque, by contrast, is a masculine domain. As in North Africa, mosque attendance in France is only 10 to 20 percent female. With men running things, the growth of hard-line Islam becomes self-reinforcing. One incontestable conclusion of all studies is that, as neighborhoods become more monolithically immigrant, piety rises--or, to put it more precisely, hard-line religious conduct is more strictly enforced.

Tribalat notes that it is important to distinguish between France's Islamic immigrant populations, which are highly diverse. She's right--but only for now. Under the influence of mass media and one-size-fits-all government programs, the distinctions grow less important over time. In the United States, "Hispanic" identity--meant to embrace Argentine psychoanalysts of Italian descent and Salvadoran cowboys and Dominican santer a priests--was a fiction two decades ago. But affirmative action and mass-marketing have made it a reality, as Chileans, Nicaraguans, and Cubans all listen to Ricky Martin on the same "Latino" radio station and all apply for the same jobs marketing Apple computers to Los Angeles Mexicans. Given globalism and the current habits of Western governments, it is all but certain that Muslims in France will constitute a single monolithic bloc in another generation. The big question is: Who will get to speak for them?

DOWN THE STREET from Kamel Hamza's offices in La Courneuve is the Union of French Islamic Organizations (UOIF). This is the largest umbrella organization of French Muslims, and it is skewed to the far, far right of national opinion. (At its convention in Le Bourget in March, the UOIF drew 100,000 people to attend presentations on such topics as "Liberated Women, De-Natured Women.") The two dominant forces within the UOIF are Saudi Arabian foundations, which use generous subsidies to steer Muslim organizations towards profession of Wahhabi extremism, and the francophone branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, founded by the Egyptian Hassan al-Banna. A hard-line fraternity whose theories of Islam are at the root of al Qaeda, the Muslim Brotherhood has been increasingly active in France since the late 1980s. The European Muslim Brothers are under the intellectual leadership of Tariq Ramadan, the Swiss-born grandson of al-Banna himself. Now a university professor in Geneva, Ramadan is a sort of French-Muslim Noam Chomsky, a cheery, media-hungry radical, much in demand on campuses.

Most French Muslim institutions are to the right of national Muslim opinion. Practically all of France's 1,200 mosques are funded by foreign governments. Of the country's 230 major imams, none is French. In fact, imams are often chosen by foreign governments for loyalty to their ideological priorities. These priorities are decidedly not those of France. One imam in Roubaix met Lille mayor Martine Aubry on the edge of the Muslim-majority neighborhood where he preaches, declaring it Islamic territory into which Mme. Aubry--the most important minister of labor in modern French history, the early favorite to win France's presidential elections in 2007, and the daughter of former prime minister Jacques Delors--had no authority to venture. Mohamed Latreche, a fiery Algerian-born Strasbourg preacher trained by aides to Hafez al-Assad in Syria, has recently started a political party called the French Muslims' party (PMF). His preachments are marked by vilification of Jews and little else. In May, he held a rally in Strasbourg with Hamas and Hezbollah representatives, at which flyers were handed out calling for boycotts of Israeli, American, and British products. Those with Jewish owners were marked with the Nazi yellow star and the German word Jude. Religiously sectarian parties are banned under the French constitution. So is anti-Semitic hate speech (and Latreche's supporters do not even go to the usual trouble of replacing, pro forma, the word "Jew" with the word "Israeli"). But the French authorities have not chosen to take action against the PMF on either score--reportedly fearing that it would be a "provocation" to the group's sympathizers.

Does this kind of radicalism "play" in the general population? There is some evidence that it does. The impact on national self-confidence of last autumn's France-Algeria soccer match, where a stadium full of French Arabs booed the "Marseillaise," is impossible to exaggerate. Many French residents and citizens have joined the ranks of terrorists--from Khaled Kelkal (who killed several people in train-bombings in 1995), to the gangs who rioted in the Lyons neighborhood for three days when Kelkal was shot by police, to Safir Bghouia (who went on a murderous shooting and bombing spree in the town of Beziers last summer), to Zacarias Moussaoui, who sits in an American jail for his possible links to the September 11 plot. The Simon Wiesenthal Center in Paris has assembled a list of 300 radical Muslim websites. To take only the most popular and "mainstream" of these, runs photos of President Bush praying at the Wailing Wall over the caption, "That explains everything." It also urges surfers to join the Latreche-sponsored boycott of Israeli and American products, warning readers that every time they buy Head & Shoulders shampoo they provide bullets the Israel Defense Forces will use to murder Palestinian children.

ZAIR KEDADOUCHE says that "the vast majority [of young Muslims] just want to live in peace." Rachid Kaci, deputy mayor of Sannois in Val d'Oise and founder of the political action group Democratia, thinks the percentage of hard-core Islamists in France cannot be above 10 percent. Surely both are right. But Latifa Benmansour, an Algerian novelist and psychoanalyst who has been living in exile since violence overwhelmed her native city of Tlemcen, is much less optimistic. Her book on the rhetoric of the Muslim Brothers (Freres musulmans, freres feroces) was published to acclaim in France this spring. "Maybe it's only 4 percent," she says. "Maybe it's only 2 percent! It doesn't matter. When they take power--it's all over. When these kids say, I'm Algerian, I say, 'Oh, good, why don't you go to Algeria for a month? Why don't you go get arrested and see how you like Algeria?"

"The UOIF is the big problem," says Kaci. "Ideologically they control everything. It is they who are the interlocutors with all the poor kids of 14, and all the convicts." Fundamentalist proselytizers diligently work the housing projects and the prisons for new converts. Through Saudi Arabian subsidies--but also through the zakat (tithing) of a sincerely openhearted and pious community--they have succeeded in setting up an alternative social-service network that works, in many cases, better than the French one. You cannot talk to a Muslim from a poor neighborhood without hearing a story of a brother who robbed stores until someone from the UOIF took him down to the mosque, or a sister who was selling her body to feed her heroin habit until a Muslim women's group taught her self-respect.

Is Kaci merely attacking religious groups for doing good? Hardly. We know this problem from the United States: It's the Farrakhan problem. Mosques do rescue youths from delinquency, idleness, and all sorts of other ills. But in so doing, they become power brokers in areas where almost all disputes are resolved by violence and the most tribal kind of woospeh. And it is that mastery of a violent environment--not the social-service record--that these groups call on when they make demands on the larger society. The religious project may have laudable results in the short term--but those are incidental to the underlying political project. As Hanifa Cherifi of the French government's High Committee for Assimilation points out: "Neo-fundamentalism is not a matter of transferring a traditional society into the Western world." (These troubled kids' parents, after all, are not particularly religious.) As Cherifi implies, it is a modern strategy, aimed at consolidating political power over the long haul.

Even in the least radical corners of French Muslim society, one finds hints of a total distrust--to the point of conspiracy-theorizing--of French government and private-sector institutions, not to mention moderate Muslim ones. Where such distrust is not actually felt, it is feigned, in the hopes of undermining the legitimacy of those institutions. The Union of Muslim Associations met in La Courneuve in February to discuss how to solve the problems of France's Muslims. Eric Raoult, a conservative parliamentary deputy from Paris's eastern suburbs, suggested that a lesson in French civics might be a good start, given the across-the-board failure of any Muslim group to condemn terrorism after September 11.

Rachid Nekkaz, a Muslim radio personality, shouted that some groups had condemned them: "Such things were said."

"Well," Raoult replied, "they certainly weren't heard."

"That's because the media didn't report them!" Nekkaz countered.

And that settled it! The largely Muslim audience erupted in applause. We're good people, was the message. (And most of them undoubtedly are.) It's just the media who are conspiring against us.

Part 2