November 7, 2005

Europe and muslim integration

PARIS -- As the riots sweeping poor suburbs of Paris spread to other parts of France, the simmering social problem that long has been taboo in much of Europe -- the Continent's inability to integrate its Muslim and African minorities -- is taking center stage.

On Saturday night and Sunday morning, the 10th straight night of violence, mobs continued to torch cars and vandalize buildings in the suburbs of Paris.

The human toll has been modest relative to the stark scenes of vandalism being beamed around the world. No rioters or police had died in the violence as of Sunday. Rather than confronting the well-armed police, most of the rioters are dodging them, working in small bands and quickly vandalizing vehicles and public buildings. Life in central Paris went on as usual, with tourists and residents clogging the streets, parks and museums.

Yet the unchecked violence is a blunt reminder that reaching an accommodation with its Muslim minorities is one of Europe's most pressing long-term problems, along with reviving a long-sluggish economy and dealing with an aging populace. Muslims account for an estimated 5% or more of the populations of France, the Netherlands, Germany and Britain and are heavily concentrated in big cities. In France, home to an estimated five million Muslims, the largest community in Western Europe, the rioters have been young men of Arab and African origin.

Italian opposition leader Romano Prodi warned that his country could fall prey to similar unrest in its poor areas. "Italy has the worst suburbs in Europe," he told reporters over the weekend. "Let's not think we're any different than Paris. It's only a matter of time."

This year is proving to be a watershed in the history of modern Europe's encounter with Islam. As a host of events have shown -- from the homegrown terrorists who bombed the London subways in July to the European Union's near rejection of a membership bid from Muslim Turkey and now the Paris riots -- Europe has failed to cope with the Muslims within and on its borders.

The rioting began Oct. 27 in Clichy-sous-Bois -- one of the many poor, immigrant suburbs that surround Paris -- after two teenagers of North African origin accidentally were electrocuted when they hid in a power substation after they thought they were being chased by police. The boys died. No other deaths have been reported.

The riots are turning into a leadership crisis for President Jacques Chirac. Some French observers are comparing the unrest to the student demonstrations that paralyzed France in 1968. Jean-Louis Debré, president of the French National Assembly and mayor of Evreux, Sunday called the rioting in his town "an episode of urban guerrilla warfare'' and called on the government "to make a great show of firmness'' in response.

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