The Paris murder of 12 journalists at the satirical publication Charlie Hebdo has a special horror for super-secular France, home to Europe’s largest Muslim population with many hundreds of its young already disaffected and away fighting for jihad in Syria and Iraq. The killer brothers were reportedly born in France, and Europeans are beginning to wonder: How can these children born and bred in our countries still be so alien? Is this the un-absorbable minority?
France rejects multiculturalism and won’t even take statistics on race or religion. It is thought that being a French citizen is the great equalizer and common denominator under the ideals of liberty, equality, fraternity dating from the French Revolution. As the writer Adam Thrope wrote: “The French Republic is not merely a political construct, but for good or ill an ideology.”
Instead of sliding gracefully into European norms and values, Muslim immigrants in particular seem to Europeans to be sticking to their ghettoes and customs, alienated from the whole. Visit the sterile housing projects in the sad suburbs of Paris, and you will have no doubt that you are in a North African ghetto. In France, immigration followed empire, and most immigrants are North African.
Of course the vast majority of European Muslims reject jihad, and just want to get on with making a living. But the Muslim world at this time is going through a spasm of self-doubt, upheaval, and civil war, which, in their most extreme form, represent intolerance and violence on a grand scale. It will eventually burn itself out, but not in this generation or the next. The softer Sufism with its saints and songs is being forced out by the fierce Wahhabisim of the Arabian desert. Radical clerics who rave against the Crusades stoke a sense of historical loss and victimhood which many Muslim youths have come to believe.
The old French colonialist, Louis Lyautey, said that Islam was like a “vast drum. Strike it in Bengal, and it resounds in Casablanca.” And that was said long before there was a social media to make the drum beat all the louder.
France, as did Britain, imported Muslims from their colonies to fill man-power shortages after World War II. Germany did too, but having lost their colonies after World War I, the Germans imported Turks to fill their rebuilt factories. At first it was thought that these laborers from Pakistan, North Africa, and Turkey would eventually go home. But they did not, and instead brought their families to Europe. Often these original laborers came from the most backward villages in Algeria or Morocco, Pakistan and the Anatolian heartland — men who would have trouble adjusting to life in Casablanca, Karachi, or Istanbul, never mind Paris, Manchester, or Berlin. Too many tended to hold themselves separate, send away to home for their brides and imams. A form of segregation, some of it unofficially imposed and some of it self-imposed, started to settle over these immigrant communities.
Europe’s churches are being abandoned as Christianity fades, but for many Muslims religion is the defining factor of identity — and this scratches the French with their strong ideas of separating religion from the state. Charlie Hebdo cut its teeth mocking the Catholic church and always held it a matter of principal to mock anything and everything.
Muslims in Europe tend to be poorer and less employed than their European hosts, and many say that Europeans do not fully accept them even when European-born.
“We are French nationals, but never treated as French,” a French Muslim lawyer told me some years ago. “We have a whole generation of people in France who belong nowhere,” he said. “Not to France, not to the home country.”
This is a great danger to the West, and the rise of nativist politicians and political parties can only grow this feeling of resentment among Muslim youths. Today these alienated youths are signing up for jihad in surprising numbers, and Europe is in for a long night of soul searching.
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H.D.S. Greenway is a former editorial page editor of the Globe.