French Muslims and the "Politics of Assimilation"

August 29, 2006

Source: Foreign Affairs

It its September/October 2006 edition Foreign Affairs reported, "Over the past few years, terrorist bombings of the public transport systems of Madrid and London have sparked fears that Europe may be breeding its own crop of indigenous jihadists. Less understandably, those events have also sometimes been conflated with events such as the murder of the Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh by a deranged fanatic, last fall's riots in the French banlieues, and recent protests over disparaging cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad. Together, these events have been taken as evidence that the immigration and integration policies of several European countries have all failed. This diagnosis is glib and alarmist, and it overlooks more nuanced and encouraging sociological realities. What to do about homegrown Muslim terrorism is a serious question, of course, but it is not the only one worth asking. And too often it obscures a critical fact: that the vast majority of Europe's 15-20 million Muslims have nothing to do with radical Islamism and are struggling hard to fit in, not opt out. The problem of jihadism is largely distinct from the issue of Muslims' integration into the European mainstream. The complexities of integration are on dramatic display in France, now home to 4-5 million Muslims, the largest Muslim population on the continent. A nation that prides itself on its egalitarianism and universal democratic culture, France is struggling to live up to its principles and fully integrate its Muslims into all sectors of national life. Some French and foreign observers have interpreted last November's riots in poor, largely Muslim neighborhoods throughout the country as a skirmish in a broader clash of civilizations. Yet the strife had little to do with yearnings for a worldwide caliphate and much to do with domestic socioeconomic problems. Grasping what has sometimes gone wrong -- and what has mostly gone right -- with the integration of Muslims in France can thus offer clues to the challenges faced by Europe as a whole. The status of Muslims in France is at once much healthier and more problematic than most recent commentary lets on. France's experience with integration has been shaped by a unique combination of history, philosophy, and contemporary concerns, which together have produced a stop-and-start immigration policy and a wariness about Islam. Still, French sociologists agree that the integration of Muslims into French society has proceeded fairly well. Most Muslims in France -- half to three-fifths of whom are believed to be French citizens -- have adopted French cultural norms; they enthusiastically endorse republican values, including laïcité (the French state's aggressive official secularism). They tend to vote somewhat less often and somewhat more to the left than most of the French population, but socioeconomic variables, not religion, account for the differences. Their desire to assimilate has sometimes been met with a form of discrimination fueled by nativism and a deep distrust of Islam that has made it harder for them to find homes and jobs."