November 7, 2005

Islamists End Up Encouraging Isolation From Secular Society

Culture Clash
Muslim Groups
May Gain Strength
From French Riots

Islamists Try to Mediate Peace
But Encourage Isolation
From Secular Society
A Minister 'Plays Rambo'As France enters its 12th night of rioting, Islamic organizations like the Tabligh, which originated in the 1920s in India, stand to benefit from the unrest and emerge strengthened from it. The Tabligh advocates a strict adherence to Islam but also a disengagement from society.

While gangs of disaffected youths, mostly from Muslim families, continue to rampage, burning thousands of cars and ransacking entire neighborhoods, some of these organizations are positioning themselves as mediators who can bring back the order the government has been unable to restore.

These groups don't preach violence, but they do advocate something that is troubling Europe's secular democracies: that Muslims should identify themselves with their religion rather than as citizens. Effectively, they are promoting a separate society within society and that brand of Islamist philosophy is seeping into many parts of Western Europe. Countries from France and Germany to the United Kingdom and the Netherlands haven't succeeded in integrating their Muslim minorities -- and Islamic organizations have carefully positioned themselves to fill the breach.

The riots "are a blessing for them because it gives them the role of intermediary," says Gilles Kepel, a scholar who has studied and written extensively about the rise of Islam in France. That, in turn, puts them in a stronger position "to force concessions from the state," such as demanding a repeal of the law France passed last year banning headscarves from public schools, he says.

The past year is proving to be a watershed in modern Europe's encounter with Islam. As a number of events have shown -- including last year's assassination of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh by a Muslim radical and the bombing of the London Tube by home-grown terrorists this summer -- Europe has failed to cope with the Muslims within its borders.

In France, legions of North African immigrants were taken in amid the post-World War II economic boom to fill low-skilled jobs. But the country did little to integrate these newcomers, neglecting to ensure they received language training, for instance. Authorities assumed they eventually would leave. They didn't. By the 1990s, many factory jobs were moving to cheaper countries, and joblessness soared in immigrant communities.

As France has failed to integrate these immigrants, Islam has filled the void. In many Paris suburbs, women now wear headscarves. Those who don't are often harassed. At school, Muslim boys increasingly refuse to mix with girls during sports activities or on field trips. Hospitals are under pressure not to have male and female patients in the same wards. Such disagreements are walling off Muslims from France's staunchly secular society and creating a ripe environment for radical Islamic groups.

The violence in France is a stark reminder that reaching an accommodation with Islam is one of the Continent's most pressing problems. Low birth rates and Europe's geographic position just north of the Muslim world means that increasing numbers of its citizens will be Muslim in the future. Muslims account for an estimated 5% or more of the populations of France, the Netherlands and the U.K., and are heavily concentrated in and around big cities.

Home to large contingents of first- and second-generation North African immigrants, the "banlieues," as France's troubled suburbs are called, are rife with delinquency, drug-dealing and crime amid grinding poverty and double-digit unemployment. In Clichy-sous-Bois, nearly 50% of the population are immigrants. France's 9.8% jobless rate is even worse in places like Clichy; by one estimate, unemployment is 40% among foreign-born residents of France aged 15 to 29.

Islamic organizations like the Tabligh and others have thrived on the accompanying despair. On Saturday afternoon, Magid and fellow members of the Tabligh wearing robes, skullcaps and long beards were milling about on the edges of Clichy-sous-Bois's projects -- decrepit towers that are sometimes referred to as "chicken coops."

The Tabligh has been active in Clichy-sous-Bois for about 15 years. Its power center is the local mosque, a huge brick hangar-like building that welcomes hundreds of worshipers each day. Nothing on the outside suggests a place of worship, but a metal door opens onto a vast carpeted room where people kneel and pray.

Magid, who earns his living as a judo instructor, says he has stepped up his proselytizing since the rioting began.

Islam and mainstream France are often at odds because French society is built on a strict separation of state and religion, he argued, which doesn't fly in the banlieues. "In France, secularism means you have to fit in or you're not French. They are always telling us: 'You Muslims are strangers,' " he said. This feeling of rejection has angered young men, Mr. Iquioussen said, stirring a desire to shut out French society.

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