A view from France

The recent riots in France have often been described, mainly in the foreign media, as being linked with Islam. Some have even spoken of an "intifada of the suburbs" nurtured by radical Islamist groups. In fact, this wave of disturbances was only marginally connected with Islam. No doubt, many youngsters involved in the unrest were sociologically Muslims (descendants from immigrants coming from the Maghreb and Black Africa), but this identity was not at stake in their mobilization. The rioters had no religious claims (for instance, against the French law prohibiting the headscarf in state schools); neither had they, by the way, a political agenda. It was an unorganized outburst of violence that was mainly the outcome of social exclusion and poverty in deprived urban areas where immigrants and their children have been overwhelmingly concentrated for decades.

If the November riots had not much to do with Islam per se, this does not mean, of course, that the enduring presence of Islam does not represent a challenge for the French Republic. In order to cope with it, one important step was the creation in 2002, under the impetus of the Ministry of Interior, of the French Council for the Muslim Faith, whose aim is to federate the various religious trends and give an identifiable interlocutor to the state. This move–which has striking similarities with the creation by Napoleon of the consistory system for the Jews, two centuries ago–was made in the hope that the new institution would be able to exert some sort of control over the Muslim community.

The results have been rather mixed, for two reasons. First, the council has been burdened by on-going divisions, mainly along national lines: two of the major Muslim organizations are linked with Algeria and Morocco. Secondly, as the council’s missions are religious (building of mosques, supervision of ritual slaughter, etc.), it is not representative of large groups of French Muslims who are not practicing Muslims and are in the process of a slow but silent integration into French society. The authority of the council over those who are socially marginalized is also quite limited, thus entertaining the fear that some of them may easily become prey for radical Islamist groups.

Thus far this has not been the case; this surely has something to do with the very restrictive policy adopted by the French government toward radical Islamist militants: barring them from entering France and, thus, from proselytizing freely. Of course, this policy could not provide an absolute safeguard against terrorist activities, as proven by the bloody attacks in Paris in summer 1995, perpetrated in the name of the Algerian Armed Islamic Group (known by its French acronym, GIA) with the support of a few young Frenchmen of Arab origin.

However, on the whole, this strategy of strict control has surely hindered the creation of well established radical networks. It stands in stark contrast with the policy adopted by the United Kingdom, which hoped to buy peace by granting right of sanctuary to all Islamist leaders persecuted in the Arab world. This strategy seemed to work for a while, but the terrorist attacks in London last summer demonstrated tragically that, in the aftermath of 9/11 and the setting up of trans-national jihadist groups, such an appeasement policy is out of tune. A clear indication of the British reassessment was registered on December 1, after a ten year legal battle, with the extradition from London to Paris of Rashid Ramda, suspected paymaster of the GIA terrorists.

Obviously, faced with political movements that are determined to turn to violence, there is no choice for Europe but to develop cooperation on a large scale. The European Union has gone in this direction with the appointment of a counter-terrorism co-ordinator and the development of judicial and police cooperation. This should increasingly involve the countries of the southern bank of the Mediterranean, as stated at the Euromed Tenth anniversary summit (November 2005).

Isolating the radical Islamist trends that are prone to use violent means–without of course infringing on fundamental freedoms–is a winning strategy for everybody, both in Europe and in the Arab world. It has to go hand in hand with a forceful promotion of social mobility among children of Muslim migrants in order that they feel they are indeed completely part of the national and European fabric. Otherwise, what was avoided this time, i.e., an encounter between social dissatisfaction and the "jihadist" version of politicized Islam, could well become a dreadful reality.