In the wake of the massacre of 17 people in Paris last week, some have questioned the role that immigration played in bringing radical Islam to France. Some are even calling for a moratorium on immigration to France from Muslim countries to avoid further terrorist attacks. Although it’s necessary to look to the history of immigration in France to understand how this happened, it’s wrong to think that changes to immigration policy now will make a difference. The damage has already been done.
The truth is, the men who launched these attacks in the name of Islam were French citizens. They were born and educated in France. They didn’t recently immigrate, and they didn’t import terrorism from a foreign land where they were raised. They were radicalized at home, in France. This is why cutting off immigration from North Africa, where most of France’s Muslim population comes from, or other Muslim countries, will not change the strained state of affairs in France among its citizens, or insulate them from further terrorist attacks.
The Kouachi brothers and their accomplice were motivated by religion, as are Islamic terrorists around the world. However, the context in which homegrown western terrorism occurs is important to understand so we can learn from these mistakes. In the case of France, the French Muslim men who join radical Islamist movements often do so in the context of growing up in a country that has never wanted them and whose strong adherence to the principles of Universalism has excluded them from mainstream society.
Fifty Years of Terrible Foreign and Domestic Policy
The divisive atmosphere in France between the Muslim and non-Muslim populations has been the work of over 50 years of catastrophic foreign and domestic policy toward France’s former colonies in North Africa. The colonies’ struggles for independence and the ensuing waves of immigration to France set the stage for a disaffected Muslim diaspora that feels at home neither in France nor in the Maghreb.
French colonial rule in North Africa was always treated as a “civilizing mission” to help the natives. In reality, it minimized the Arab and Berber populations, relegated their languages to secondary and tertiary status, and brought French wealth and secular society to North Africa as a “civilized” alternative to the established Muslim way of life. The battles for independence in the 1950s and ’60s were bloody, brutal, and full of deceit by both France and the emerging North African governments. Algeria was by far the worst and most volatile of these battles, with a high body count and terrible reports of systematic torture on both sides.
More than half a century later, the memories of these events still echo in the French collective mind, although France’s mainstream culture tries to ignore it. In 2012, on the fiftieth anniversary of Algerian independence, there was little reporting on the events that led to an independent Algeria. One radio station applauded itself for reporting on it at all, although their coverage was paltry. Bringing up the war can be hazardous. Friends of mine have been warned in France to be careful talking about Algeria because the French will not take kindly to it; they would rather pretend it simply didn’t happen.
Economic Importation and Segregation in France
The children of North African immigrants are also aware—and wary of—of this history. While teaching in Montpellier in 2012, I brought up the Algerian war to my college students as a loose parallel to the United States’ involvement in the Vietnam War and the controversy it caused at home. Some of my students from Algerian and Moroccan families exchanged shocked looks. They couldn’t believe that a professor was taking the Algerian war seriously and bringing it up in a university setting. It was startling for my students to hear it compared to the Vietnam War. I had done something perhaps none of them had witnessed before: I questioned the infallibility of France’s colonial presence in the Maghreb.
The decades after independence brought several waves of emigration from the Maghreb to France. Workers came to reinvigorate the labor force that had been depleted in World War II. In the 1960s and ’70s, immigrants lived in shantytowns on the outskirts of major cities. Later, low-income housing was constructed after more families arrived and the immigrant population swelled. Tenements were built far outside downtown areas and always at the end of public transportation lines. These “suburbs,” the banlieues, are much more like our inner cities in the United States. Unemployment is high, the standard of living is low, and police checks are frequent. Immigrants are geographically separated from mainstream France—out of sight, out of mind.
The North African immigrant community also experiences a sort of metaphorical segregation. Since the French Revolution, France’s society and political structure has been based on the principles of Universalism, wherein all citizens are considered the same before the state. While this may sound sensible, it means the French government can’t acknowledge any differences between citizens. For example, it has refused to the sign the E.U.’s Charter for Regional or Minority Languages. Their reason for doing so is that it would require acknowledging that France has minority ethnic groups, which would violate the tenets of Universalism. By pretending that all its citizens are exactly the same, France ignores the differences that do exist and require attention. In doing so, they have created a much greater divide than there otherwise would have been.
Equality before the state requires individuals to approach the government as secular citizens, including when in government buildings and schools. This is what sparked the Muslim headscarf controversies in France that culminated in banning headscarves in schools. Whereas in America we have laws that protect the freedom of individuals to express their religious beliefs, in France laws protect people’s right not to have to see others express their religion in public. Religion, according to the state, belongs firmly in the private sphere. This is yet another way in which France isolates its massive Muslim population, whose families come from countries where Islam, far from being a private matter, is the state religion.
Although minorities should not be singled out by the state, neither should they be ignored. Refusing to acknowledge that they exist leads to alienation and the creation of parallel communities—just as Britain’s staunch multiculturalism has done. Last year it was revealed that British social workers in Rotherham had been ignoring a problem of chronic gang rapes perpetrated by Pakistani Muslim men against more than 1,400 young girls. The social workers said they failed to report the crimes out of fear of being accused of racism. While Britain refuses to require any sort of assimilation into British society, France tries to whitewash its citizens to make them blend together, requiring absolute assimilation. Both systems produce a similar result: disaffection and isolation from the mainstream culture.
The Middle Ground Between Forcing and Ignoring Assimilation
America should take note of this dilemma when it comes to immigration, assimilation, and the Muslim community in the United States. We must find a middle ground between the extreme multiculturalism of Britain, where the state allows parallel Sharia courts to mete out justice according to Islamic law, and French Universalism, which forbids even asking questions about religion, ethnicity, and race in its official census.
For the most part, America has struck a healthy balance. We require some level of assimilation but also insist on the separation of church and state while allowing individual differences and protecting religious liberties. However, we should be on alert, because this balance can easily slide.
France has made a series of dangerous mistakes that immigration reform can’t fix. They have alienated a community of Muslims five million strong, and the youths in this community are doubling down on their Muslim identity. Because radical Islam considers itself at war with the West, it appeals to young people who want to reject the Western culture and society they feel has rejected them. So they turn to a fundamentalist interpretation of Islam, often finding their inspiration in prisons, where Arab youths are frequently radicalized. As the French prime minister to the U.S. said in an interview this week, this gives them a raison d’être.
Turning toward religion as a salve to social injustice is not a given. In the 1980s, second-generation North Africans tried to blend in with mainstream French culture. They wanted to get into clubs, to drink, and to dance. They just wanted to be “French.” Today, things are different. There has been a revitalization of religion in the banlieues, in part because of the prominence of Islam in the public eye since September 11. Muslim youth in France are practicing religion more devoutly and more openly than their parents’ generation. It is a sort of provocation, a statement of rejecting French—that is, western—culture and society.
Islamic terrorism is a worldwide phenomenon and occurs regardless of the marginal status of its practitioners. However, France is uniquely positioned to have problems with homegrown terrorism because of an unwillingness to engage its Muslim population or even to attempt to integrate them partially. It is difficult to assimilate people whose existence you refuse to acknowledge.
What’s done is done in France and it may be too late to repair it. But it’s not too late for the rest of us to learn from these mistakes. France is an example of what happens when you ignore a problem, when you think you can just build tenement housing on the outskirts of the city and throw away the key. This breeds contempt, radicalization, and, among a growing number of French Muslims, loyalty to something greater than the state.