Mideast Media Ask: Can France and Islam Coexist?

Who is to blame? The French people? France's government? The Muslim immigrants themselves?

When it comes to the riots that swept France over the last two weeks, commentators in the Arab online media are divided. Some blame French secularism, many blame a more general European racism, but some blame the Arab immigrants themselves.

The BBC's press survey suggests the dominant view is that racism is the primary cause of the unrest. Abdul Bari Atwan, a leading Arab columnist, writes in Al Quds al Arabi that the violence is "a warning to all European governments. It is an expected outcome of policies that look down on foreigners and deal with them as if they were a terrorist time bomb."

Cartoon by Hassan Blebel/Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon)

Fehmi Koru, writing in Turkey's Yeni Safak, says "the French system, which promises 'equality, freedom and justice' to every citizen, does not act at all equally and fairly towards those with 'Muslim' roots who form part of its society. This shows itself mostly in religion-based separatist practices. For example, the education system uses simplistic excuses to practice exclusion on the basis of religion.

But Ahmed Al-Rabei says the problem is less racism than the failure of Arabs in France to combat it. The immigrants must hold themselves accountable "for the degree of contradiction between the grand size of this community and their meager accomplishments in the field of politics, economics, culture and academic life," he writes in Al Sharq Alawsat.

"The second-generation Arab community in France has not been able to organize itself in a civilized manner, nor achieve any major accomplishments within French society that may lead to them playing a more substantial role, thus weaken the policies of extreme racist factions," he writes."The French Arabs should live as French citizens and will have to prove that they are part of French society. Such action entails higher level of achievement, mobilization to enhance the living and educational standards of French Arabs and defeating those who stigmatize the Arab minority.

"Firstly, they must divest themselves of the 'Ghetto' complex, mix with French culture; make the most of democracy and civil institutions to achieve real accomplishments and not to be portrayed as an angry group out to cause destruction."

The conservative Iranian daily Jomhouri-ye Eslami, quoted in the Middle East Media Research Institute, says "repression" makes integration of Muslims into European society impossible. 

"...Every looted store reflects the repression that the residents of the Elysée have imposed upon the poor and downtrodden people of their country. This is the exposure of all the lies that the French politicians maintain in their glittering and sparkling demands [to be considered] defenders of human rights everywhere," they write.

"Discrimination is also rising in England, Germany, America, Canada, and many other Western countries... are suffering from this disease... The French people see the discrimination, the repression, and the hypocrisy of the French politicians. These matters, in addition to the problems of poverty and hunger, were too hard to bear, and have led them to rebel against their politicians. The domestic reality in France is now revealed. The politicians of Paris can no longer hide the ugly face of the country's racist discrimination..."

Qatar's Al Watan daily on November 7 said that the French government should not be blamed completely for the events, saying that the immigrants were partly to blame for their impoverished conditions, according to a press survey in the Cairo-based Middle East Times.

"The first three immigrant generations of Africans and Arabs have contributed to widening the gap between them" and the "original residents by closing up on themselves, taking easy jobs and neglecting their education. Their children are today paying the price for a problem that has been growing for half a century."

Tariq Ramadan, a leading Islamic intellectual, said colorblind secularism and class discrimination are more to blame than racism. Writing in the French Islamic Web site Oumma (in French), he says the the phenomena of racism and of the ghettos must be dealt with through education, which has to reflect the contribution of the immigrants to French society.

"The school curricula include very little about the history and traditions of those people who make up French society today. If formal education does not acknowledge the contribution of the parents, it will be difficult to make them believe that their sons are appreciated," he writes. According to Ramadan, the legitimate demands of the French and British Muslim citizens are not being heard, "and their violence, though illegitimate in its means, can, unfortunately, be understood."

But expatriate Iranian writer Amir Taheri counters that poverty, racism and cultural alienation alone cannot account for the widespread violence.

"After all the Paris region is also home to substantial numbers of Asian, mainly Vietnamese and Chinese immigrants who are as poor, as culturally alienated and as subject to racial pressure as are the inhabitants of the 'exploding suburbs.'

"The indigenous French do not consider the Asian community as a threat to the very idea of Frenchness if only because it has no universal pretensions," he writes.

"The Muslim immigrant minority, however, is perceived as a threat because Islam regards itself as a universal faith and an alternative to Western civilisation. Most indigenous Frenchmen are persuaded that their own culture and civilisation is the best that mankind has ever produced and that Islam's pretensions are misplaced, to say the least.

"Assimilation is far more difficult now because the Arab and African Muslim communities are neither European nor Christian. They may be prepared to become a bit more European but would demand that, in exchange, other Frenchmen also become a bit more like them," Taheri writes.

"In other words what they demand is a new French identity, a synthesis of the traditional concept of Frenchness with new Arab, African and Islamic ones. You cannot play multiculturalism without admitting the possibility that your own culture may, at some point, be affected by other cultures, including ones that were once regarded as alien or even threatening."

Are other Muslim commentators weighing in? Use the comments section below to highlight other interesting views.

By Jefferson Morley |  November 14, 2005; 11:35 AM ET  | Category:  Europe
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How can People from an area that will Kill or Jail a person for being Christian condem a country in the west for not being in tune with their Religon? Remember when you were little and a fight broke out in your yard? the other kids were sent home.

Posted by: HRH | November 14, 2005 12:44 PM

As much as I understand that people would try to see this through the prism of religion, the riots in French suburbs are not about that.
They don't have religious demands, actually they don't have demands at all.
It's more like an outburst of rage at society in general.
Much has been tried already to bridge the economical gap between these suburbs and the rest of society.
It still doesn't work.

Most youth there don't make it to college, can't get a job and are lured by gangs...

Same old, same old..

Posted by: Pierre | November 14, 2005 12:59 PM

Probably the most interesting aspect of this debate about who's to blame for the rioting in france is that it's almost a complete mirror of the one we have here about who's to blame for the riots we've had here -- the oppressed or the oppressor.

Posted by: Homer | November 14, 2005 12:59 PM

I think we are seeing the results of a blindly optimistic view of multiculturalism. For so long, Western civilization had a rather ignorant view of the benefits large groups of minorities could bring to their home culture.

The result seems obvious, and we are seeing the fallout now. The minorities that adopt their new, home cultures identity start suceeding, and increase their power with every generation. The minorities, however, who continue to place value on traditional beliefs to the detriment of adapting to a new set of beliefs and priorities that really don't have a place in Western culture.

We all are rather unrealistic these days - we want to have the benefits of modern, Western civilization, but when it comes to the cost of giving up traditional beliefs that are incompatible, we start looking for 'alternative' identities.

You can't have your cake and eat it, too.

Posted by: Dremain | November 14, 2005 01:15 PM

Here's a question, no one seems to address

Why is their so much hatred of other racial class of people by some (not all) Caucasians?

Claude - prehaps you can answer this? you seem to have a take on this issue with your comment.

Posted by: dassy | November 14, 2005 01:50 PM

Dassy -
You might want to ask the same question of the black skinned people of Darfur, who are being subjected to the Pogroms being visited upon them by the Arab (both are Moslem) majority population in Sudan.

Posted by: Catcher50 | November 14, 2005 02:03 PM

The essense of liberty is the freedom to be yourself. I think Islam will do very well in the West, but you cann't micromanage change. Banning head scarfs will not change hearts, and France will be seen as a oppresive society if it continues such practics. Over time, if a society is seen as just, welcoming, and tolerant of differeces, the immigrant will want to be a part of it because it is worthy of imitation. Of Course, there must be economic opportunities for all citizens.
The only certainty is change, and you can either work with it or be buried by it.

Posted by: P. J. Casey | November 14, 2005 02:38 PM


Your entry title is "ARAB media desk" when you quote extensively:

one Turkish source and TWO Iranian sources.

Please understand this:

Turkey is NOT Arab state, Turkish people are NOT Arabs.

Iran is NOT an Arab state, Iranians are NOT Arabs.

Posted by: Karim | November 14, 2005 02:42 PM

I do understand that Karim. Its a fair point. I changed the headline.

Posted by: Jefferson Morley | November 14, 2005 02:52 PM

Why do people who demand holy war then cry when they get it? Why do muslims have problems living with everybody, whether they are Christians, Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu, Animist, etc...? Why do muslims not allow the worship of different religions in their own countries? As for the comment that you either adapt or are buried by change, well, change can come from a number of directions, some of which you and your muslim friends will find to be extremely unpleasant and excruciatingly painful.

Posted by: Juan Matamoros | November 14, 2005 03:42 PM

Thank you Jeff.

You may want to add the following editorial by Zyad Limam from the leading pan-African magazine "Jeune Afrique":


Posted by: Karim | November 14, 2005 04:46 PM

The French are just getting what they deserve. The French under Chirac proffer France as some kind of "alternative-to-America" model for the world when in fact they are so blinded by their arrogance and hypocrisy that they can not see the failure of their leftist economic and social policies has wrecked both their internal security and external reputation.

Posted by: American | November 14, 2005 04:59 PM

Whatever changes France makes to improve the immigrant "issue" will be of limited success. France (and most countries in Europe) still has a class system that exists and divides even its domestic population into the elites and the working class. The immigrant population is just a lower rung on the class ladder of French society. This system is entrenched in the culture of France and has historical roots that will not be undermined by a few attempts at pro-immigrant legislation. Before things get better, attitudes need to be changed, not just laws.

Secondly, (and a little off topic) is the NEED for immigration in Europe and America. The domestic populations in Europe and America are declining which presents tremendous problems for social welfare state in Europe and the Social Security system in America. If we feel these policy issues are worth keeping, we need to allow immigration to continue and accept the necessary changes that will occur to our countries and our cultures.

Posted by: Bryan | November 14, 2005 05:00 PM

Mr. Morley

Why do you allow such contents on your blogger? (Claude) while you may laugh and ignore - it can become a distraction by some and you may start to lose your respective audience.

I hear Karl Rove is gearing back to - it's a shame when a party hails a man who uses smear tactics to defeat the opponent.

I'm sure he thinking send the Blacks to France that way we won't have to worry about gaining their 20% of voters.

Posted by: dassy | November 14, 2005 05:50 PM

I think Dremain's come closest to hitting the real point. As Brian says, France (and the United States) have put themselves in a situation where they wish (or find it profitable) to bring in workers for lower-rung jobs. And said workers wind up staying, in great numbers, and have kids of their own... kids who are born in France, and so consider it with justification to be their homeland.

The trouble is coming from the fact that while they may consider it their homeland, they do not consider themselves to be a part of the majority French culture and society. And it's mutual. The result is that you have, in effect, two separate French nations sharing the same land, one side with all the power and education, the other side with the energy and growing numbers. Lincoln once commented that a house divided cannot long stand, and he was right.

The system of having immigrants live in little cultural enclaves is doomed to disaster, in France, America, or wherever. It is a recipe for Balkanization, xenophobia, and marginalization. New arrivals can be forgiven if they never adjust, but the children MUST be assimilated, or everything goes off the rails. They grow up as aliens in their own land, denied opportunity, and instead of adding to France and French culture threaten its existence.

Posted by: MacMorrigu | November 14, 2005 05:58 PM

I'm french. I live in Paris. I was born in Paris. I studied in french republican schools with children of immigrants of several countries. We all have the same bases of knowledges. I grew up with persons of the suburbs who had different religions.
We learnt history of religions.
I think that the problem of french riots isn't a question of religion but a question of poverty. This problem can be noted all around the world : poor people, without distinction of religions, are upset by globalization which enriches the richest and reduces to poverty the poorest.
Obviously the touched first are weakest.
Furthermore, as in the United States (I'm thinking about the Wasp)or in the others European countries, white decision makers have some reserves to engage African people or, for US, afro-american, because of their culture, of their religions or more simply because of their own prejudices about these persons.
Islam isn't the purpose of the young riots, don't forget it.
And I want to specify that a lot of these riots don't come from The Maghreb. French people, but also portuguese, chinese, indian, spanish, italian and others people live in the suburb of big French cities. Their kids also took part in the riots.

The solution is simple : to distribute the world richnesses more equitably and to lay down ethical rules to slow down a capitalism without a goal (except that to enrich always more one minority on planet).

Posted by: andrea | November 14, 2005 06:00 PM

These two cultures can not coexist. Let's face it, Muslim countries are backward. How many European enclaves exist in foreign countries and make outrages religious demands on their host countries? How bad will things have to get before the mass deportations begin?

Posted by: Trojans #1 | November 14, 2005 06:22 PM

I repeat it one more time : this isn't a question of religion and riots don't make demand about Islam or other religion. It's all about money and consideration.

Posted by: andrea | November 14, 2005 06:35 PM

You may believe it's about money and consideration, I believe it to be people who refuse to assimilate to their host country. If things are so bad in France then why don't these people pick up and go back to Morrocco and see how far they get over there.

Posted by: Trojan | November 14, 2005 06:53 PM

France has been protectionist about it's culture, particularly from the invasion of American culture, for decades. The final observation noted by this column's author seems to be the most insightful.

The French have forgotten (or don't know) that the flavor of a culture SHOULD change if the culture purports to be inclusionary. We've learned over the years here that a cultural "gumbo" is not perfect, but it creates more unity than attempting to melt everyone into the same "melting pot".

I wonder if we're seeing the future of America should cultural protectionists pushing "English only" or illegal immigrant pogroms under the guise of National Security gain traction on their goals.

I hope they are taking note of what happens when a supposedly inclusionary culture refuses to meet new immigrants halfway on assimilation.

Posted by: Tola | November 14, 2005 07:42 PM

Things aren't so bad that it is said in the US. Paris isn't on fire.
You said that people don't want to assimilate to their hote country but they are french : they were born in France, they have been living in France since their birth.
You said some things but you never went in these suburbs, you don't know about what you talk.
And one last thing : if you were Morrocan, don't you want to go where the life seems better ?
And all the riots aren't Morrocan !!
There are Maghrebian people of course, but there a lot of other nationalities. Thus don't make amalgams.

Posted by: andrea | November 14, 2005 07:49 PM

Trojan: Most of the rioters were born in France. Saying that they should 'go back' to north Africa makes no sense; they've never seen the place. France is their native soil. And the outward cause of the riots was money and consideration, but both of those are just a symptom of lack of assimilation. So in that sense you are right. But it is important to remember that it is France that is setting the terms under which immigrants are assimilated, not the immigrants. France could have put forth a major effort to see that immigrants' children mix with gallic kids and society, get a good education, apprentice to French firms, and basically benefit by becoming Frenchmen with a strong French identity. Instead France found it easier to push them into ghettos and forget about them, and now they're paying the price.

Tola: We've learned over the years that 'gumbo' is better than a 'melting pot'? I do wish you would give some examples. Frankly I think we've seen the opposite. The American part of my family went over not speaking a word of English and dirt poor. The first generation never did get past broken English, but the second grew up speaking it fluently. The third was just 'average Americans' who remembered their heritage on holidays and in cooking and religion, but who didn't speak much of the old tongue and were a solid part of the majority culture.

Compare that to the Balkans. That is, perhaps, your successful gumbo?

Posted by: MacMorrigu | November 14, 2005 08:01 PM

Do you really think that the american model of "melting-pot" is functionning correctly ?
I don't think so : we saw the recent racist demonstration in Ohio, or late assistance of the government for the black disaster victims in New-Orleans.
I saw a very good american movie "Little Senegal" which exposed clearly that there is white racism against afro-american but also racism between diffrenet black communities.
So I don't think that the maerican melting-pot is the good model but a model among so much of others. Some things must be retained as in the French model but others must be rejected. That's my opinion.
And about cultur : France isn't so protectionist : we all speak English (but all American don't easily speak French or an other languages!) and a lot of foreign movies are broadcated in their source language with subtitles (which is seldom the case in the US).
Being universalist or differencialism is eternal discusses of whoch neither you nor me have the good answers. But to start by being modest is a good beginning and this on the two sides of the Atlantic.

Posted by: andrea | November 14, 2005 08:13 PM

Andrea: I think that the 'melting-pot' functions correctly WHEN it functions. The history of blacks in America has traditionally been one of the white majority resisting black integration and assimilation. One of the major struggles in the civil rights days of the 1960s was the fight to let blacks attend the same schools, restaurants, and theatres... the most basic form of assimilation. This has always been a painful and strange part of the American heritage, that an entire people could be brought here early in our history and denied the right to join the basic fabric of American life, kept instead in servitude of one sort or another.

I certainly don't mean to imply that the American history of dealing with immigrants is perfect or even better than the French. Indeed, the current French riots bear a strong resemblance to the OJ Simpson riots in the 90s - a dramatic event creating a flashpoint for the rage and hopelessness of people who feel that they are trapped in poverty and outside of the main society.

That said, if you look at immigration issues in the United States, I defy anyone to show a case where an ethnic group has fared better by not assimilating into the mainstream society. This is not through any special virue of American culture, but insiders do etter than outsiders.

Posted by: MacMorrigu | November 14, 2005 09:24 PM

I believe that the lack of assimilation of immigrants in France has been a policy, also seen in Germany with migrant workers from Turkey.It is predictable that people will eventually explode, when you are deliberately used as low paid labour to be kept in ghettos and you look around you to see locals with the good jobs, housing, and opportunities. What do you have to lose. When you try to find a place in your own society, to find your culture locked out, to keep your own pride you show your anger.The arrogance they deal with on a daily basis is very obvious, just listening to the French politicians makes me outraged. The arrogance and insensitivity has to hurt, and over time damage the fabric of French culture.
I have worked as a volunteer with immigrants and have met many people of colour from France over the years, and they all had the same complaint. They left because of the racism in France, and that no matter how hard you work you will go nowhere.
I have read in the international media that several European countries are looking at the success of Canada's multicultural policies. There is little tension, a low crime rate, and assimilation has been very successful.
The American policy of a melting pot has always had the expectation that everyone m elts together until they all come out a white man. There is an aversion to knowing the culture, language, or cultural beliefs of others. The expectation is that people should forget their culture to become American.

Posted by: Gael | November 15, 2005 11:22 AM

I'm an Asian (oriental) immigrant who has lived in London, Paris, Toronto, and now reside in the US. I have a French wife (white). These are my observations.

I don't think economics is the solution in this case. That's too simplistic especially since some of the rioters had jobs. It is a problem, though. The fact that the US alone creates ten times more jobs than all of Europe makes it difficult for France to address that issue.

It's hard to generalise as well. Some are wanting their voices to be heard for being second class citizens, others are along for a bit of fun - sadistic as it is.

North America has a younger history which is built on immigrants, so, integration seems to work better - not perfect - than an older civilisation like France who wants to protect culture and heritage. A big difference in the approach is that North America enforces equal opportunity while France takes an idealic approach of not having any data on how many minorities are employed, admitted, etc... Again, not perfect but North America (esp. US) is still viewed as the land of opportunity whereas that is not so in France.

Yes, this isn't about religion but, since most of them are Muslim, that is their rallying cry or common ground. It's their identity since they don't necessarily feel French.

I guess I'll agree with Bryan on the fact that the class structure in Europe makes it hard for immigrants. Heck, it's already hard enough for the indigenous population. Couple that with much fewer, high profile jobs (as opposed to the US) and, therefore, no immigrant role models to look up to; we have a growing social problem.

What's the solution? I would almost hazard a guess that a sort of 'affirmative action' is necessary. Thoughts?

Posted by: Dosser | November 15, 2005 02:02 PM

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