France’s Muslims are no monolith

Submitted by Anon on 27 April, 2006 - 12:28

By Colin Foster

According to a recent research report from an international think-tank, what’s happening in France’s Muslim minority is a decline of political Islam, in fact a general depoliticisation, and a withering of communalism in favour of individualism.

On closer reading, the report’s contradiction of all first impressions and established wisdom is not quite so flat. Nonetheless, the report does present a powerful argument that things are not as they appear at first sight.

There has been a “re-Islamisation” of France’s Muslims in the sense of increased mosque-going and so on, but it is limited. “Surveys show... over the last 20 years, a slight increase in religious practice (prayers, going to mosque on Friday, dietary rules), but much less than the tidal wave often described”.

The number of imams in France has increased only slightly since 1995, from 800 to 1000, mostly elderly (majority over 50) and foreign-born (only 30% speak French fluently). (There are about 1600 mosques in France, and no clear figures for the number of mosques in Britain. On searching I found the following mutually contradictory statistics: 1984, 450; 1985, 338; 1990, 1000; 1996, 613; 1997, 1000; 1999, 584; 2003, 300; 2003, more than 1000.)

Intense Muslim religious revivalism in France happens “most often in an unstructured way, often ‘home-made’ individually or in the framework of a youth culture quite alienated from the imams”.

At the same time, the report points out, “Immigrants from the Maghreb [North Africa] are going through an extremely rapid process of Francisation, since the 1980s, through acquiring French nationality and language and through mixed marriages”. The last are increasing fast, up to 30% among women of Algerian origin.

By “decline of political Islam”, the report means the decline of the organisation which sought to participate in mainstream, established politics on an Islamic basis, the UOIF, the French offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood.

The UOIF burst onto the scene in the 1980s when “it was militant with veiled school students, tried to stop the appearance in France of Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, and proclaimed a struggle against ‘the Francisation of thinking and customs’.”

Since the late 1990s, however, it has sought, and been granted, a place in the French establishment. It is the strongest faction in France’s new official “Muslim Council”, set up by right-wing Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, though factions close to the Moroccan and Algerian governments gained ground in 2005 in the second set of elections to the Council (from mosques) compared to the first set (2003).

The UOIF has kept a low profile in the rows about the new French law banning the hijab in state schools (2004) and the Danish cartoons of Muhammad (2006). Younger Muslims complain about its “being caught up in a home-country political culture” — an affair of older men whose thinking is still geared to society in Algeria, Morocco, or Tunisia.

The growing trends are three: jihadism, politically-quietist salafism, and individualism. The report’s authors do not classify jihadism as part of “political Islam”, because it seeks no part in the established political scene. But in the broader sense it is highly political.

The report finds that most jihadists start out from an inchoate political revolt against the status quo, without initially being specially devout, and adopt their religious views later in the search for a “theory” to give shape to their revolt — in the same way, though in a contrary direction, as most revolutionary Marxists start out with an instinctive revolt against capitalism and then work their way to Marxist doctrine to gain shape and perspective.

“Jihadism recruits ever younger people, and is more closely linked than before to the petty criminal milieu. The financing of the jihadist networks is largely done through the black economy of the poor suburbs: delinquency, hold-ups, forging of credit cards and designer clothing... Prison has become one of the strategic sites of radicalisation”.

Also attractive to a minority of youth is politically-quietist religious revivalism (salafism). Groups of young people, clustered round a mosque, a halal butcher’s, or a snack bar or phone shop run by other salafists, turn their back on French society in order to engage in Islamic study-circles, often using material got over the Internet from Saudi theologians.“They do not aim to create Islamic spaces in French society, but to break from it as much as possible as preparation for leaving to go to the Muslim world, an attitude which often brings conflict with the community and their families”.

This salafism has gained ground as against the “old people’s” version of quietist religious revivalism, organised through the Indian-based Tabligh movement.

There is a third contingent of young French Muslims who are neither salafist, nor jihadist, but simply angry and alienated — often alienated from “their own” community as well as from French society in general. The reason for this is not religious revival, but the relentless high unemployment and decay of social provision in the poor suburbs where those young people live. Their revolt in last November’s riots had no clear political demands. The Islamists did not instigate it, but tried to stop it in the areas where they were strong — which turned out to be not so many.

There other factions, for example the more “modernist” Islamists around the Swiss academic Tariq Ramadan. But the report reckons that Ramadan has support only among a thin layer of better-off, well-educated young French Muslims. It quotes Ramadan:

“We are all disconnected. The Islamic organisations, like myself and my speeches, do not reach the poor suburbs and their downtrodden populations. There is a clear gap, and no-one can claim to represent the suburb populations”.

The report reckons that the French state and its big political parties have gradually, under the counter so to speak, been trimming their ostensible secularism, and the bulk of political communalism among French Muslims is introduced “from above” — by the state and the parties seeking “Muslim representatives” or “Muslim candidates” to court the “Muslim vote”. Community-based “Muslim” political candidates have been few, and dismal failures.

Commenting on the report in the daily Le Monde, the writer Dounia Bouzar said that social workers were at a loss with the Islamist youth. “For years and years they have been crammed with cultural relativism. [It’s not only in Britain!] They are told: ‘Everyone has their own values, you must not be ethnocentric’. They receive ‘intercultural’ education... With young French Muslims, who listen to the same music, watch the same films, and wear the same clothes as the rest, this approach does not work at all.” They really believe the religious doctrine! It’s not just a quaint bit of culture!

If the report is right, it demolishes the paranoid right-wing image of Muslim communities as monolithic Islamist blocs. But it also has lessons for the left.

By courting the political Islamists — whether “moderate” like UOIF in France or MAB in Britain, or “radical” like the jihadists — the left will not be getting a path to the dissatisfied youth, but, if anything, strengthening in their eyes an image of Islam as an effective “anti-imperialist” doctrine rather than the business of conservative old men which they may well have seen it as before.

We have to find ways to speak directly to the young people of Muslim background, with our own ideas, under our own banner, without assuming that we must first defer to a supposed homogeneous all-enveloping Muslim “culture”.

• (La France face à ses musulmans: émeutes, jihadisme, et dépolitisation. International Crisis Group Rapport Europe N°172).

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