Tuesday, February 3, 2015

1721. Why Most of French Muslims Did Not Observe a Minute of Silence for Charlie Hebdo

By Steven Erlanger, The New York Times, February 2, 2015
Public housing in Clichy-sous-Bois, a largely immigrant suburb of Paris was the scene of weeks of riots 10 years

CLICHY-SOUS-BOIS, France — In the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo attacks, France has begun a defensive but potentially decisive debate over what it means to be French — and whether that definition can make room for its vibrant, growing Muslim population.

At its core, the debate is about whether the French sense of identity has become so intertwined with secularism that the country is failing to honor its ideals as it becomes a multicultural society in which Islam is taking a more prominent place.

By law and tradition, citizens are meant to be judged as individuals without reference to race, religion or gender in the service of the republic’s ideals and its motto: Liberty, Equality, Fraternity. That aspiration, dating to the French Revolution and deeply embedded in French life, was given a powerful voice in the large demonstrations of national unity following the January killings of cartoonists, police officers and Jews by homegrown Islamist radicals.

But these ideals, and the French Republic itself, can feel distant and empty to disaffected Muslims, who traditionally see little distinction between religion and public life. They often view the state’s values as foreign, even blasphemous, imposed on them like a form of cultural colonialism, and sometimes used as a pretext for racial and religious discrimination.

“What is really under challenge here is the notion of France as a totalitarian democracy,” said Andrew Hussey, a Paris-based professor who wrote “The French Intifada: The Long War between France and Its Arabs.” Republicanism here is “a totality, like Communism was, and also sacred,” he said.

France is a country, he said, of “enlightenment fundamentalists” demanding “the imposition of a whole identity.”

It is in places like Clichy-sous-Bois, a tough and heavily immigrant Paris suburb, where the gap is most visible between the French Republic of civics lessons and daily life for the mostly Muslim population.

Prime Minister Manuel Valls was criticized for describing the situation in ghettos like Clichy as “territorial, social, ethnic apartheid.” But in the 10 years since rioting against the police and the state started here, and then spread nationwide, prompting promises of reform, life has worsened: more crime, more unemployment, more poverty, more alienation and now, more radicalization among Muslim youth.

The young people here scoff at the ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity, calling them “du pipeau,” or hot air. They do not feel equal or fully free, and they have little sense of national solidarity.

As M’hammed Henniche, the head of the Union of Muslim Associations of Seine-Saint-Denis, which encompasses Clichy, said, “France is the country of the Declaration of the Rights of Man. But that’s all it is, a declaration.” Muslims, he said, feel freer to pray, eat, dress and live as they please in Britain, a monarchy, than in the French Republic.

As in other banlieues, as the heavily immigrant working-class suburbs are known, many young people here refused to comply with a state-mandated minute of silence for the journalists at Charlie Hebdo, whom they regard as having offended Islam.

A 14-year-old who would give his name only as Louins said angrily: “They don’t respect us, and then during a minute of silence we’re supposed to honor them? How can someone render homage to someone who doesn’t respect us? We can’t.” He told his professor: “I’m going to make a minute of silence for Palestine.” His friend Burak agreed, then added: “Stop the hypocrisy.”

Mr. Valls and President François Hollande have announced new civics lessons in the public schools to reinforce republican values, including “laïcité,” which translates roughly as secularism.

But if you are a Franco-Algerian stuck in the banlieues, Mr. Hussey said, with a fractured identity that is neither French nor Algerian, and you speak a bit of Arabic but not much, Islam can become “the only part of your identity that seems real.”

He added, “It’s great to feel you’re a soldier in this larger battle, and what you’re fighting is the big republic that imposes all these things on you” — unemployment, non-halal school menus, a ban on the full veil and minarets, a paucity of mosques and a pervasive sense of being “écarté,” or rejected.

Mariam Cissé is deputy mayor of Clichy-sous-Bois. Ten years ago, her cousin, Bouna Traoré, then 15, was one of the teenagers who were electrocuted while hiding from the police in a power substation, and whose deaths set off three weeks of rioting nationwide, with more than 9,000 cars burned, nearly 3,000 arrests and 56 police officers wounded.
Since the riots, “there are some new buildings and parks,” said Ms. Cissé, 29. “But after that, what? What?”

The unemployment rate is 40 percent in Clichy, one of the poorest towns in France, with half the population under 20; there is a housing shortage, and there was no unemployment office here until last year, she said. It is only about 10 miles from central Paris, but there is no major road and still no mass transit station, despite a decade of promises.

“In no other developed country one sees towns so close but at the same time so far away,” she said. “One can’t continue to be 15 kilometers from Paris as the bird flies and yet need at least an hour and a half to reach the capital.”

The separation and alienation of youth is inevitable, she suggested. Some French lawmakers said “these youngsters no longer deserve to be French because they no longer adopt the values of the republic,” she said.

“But France must assume its cosmopolitanism,” she continued. “One can’t welcome all sorts of people in the country without accepting their differences.”

Gilles Kepel is the great political scientist of the banlieues, having written three books about them, most recently “Passion Française — The Voice of the Ghettos,” as well as a report for the government. For him, the target of Islamic radicals is not France, per se, but Europe and its growing Muslim minorities. France, with the largest number of Muslims in Europe and the largest number of those traveling to Syria and Iraq for jihad, is an obvious focus.

But the effort to radicalize “nonetheless builds on things that are French,” Mr. Kepel said. Not just poverty and exclusion, he said, but the offense taken “even by Muslims who drink wine” over the cartoons of Muhammed, and then the French Republic’s full support for the cartoonists. As important, he said, is the unhealed wound of the French-Algerian war of independence and then of the Algerian war against Islamists.

Dominique Moïsi, a political scientist, said that the country needed a new clarity about its values. “We need a new enlightenment, to reinvent the republic,” he said, to better “correspond to the diversity of France.”

The fundamental question is “to accept and practice the values of the republic,” Mr. Moïsi said. “But what does that mean? Respect for the other, giving reality to liberty, equality, fraternity. Freedom yes, but within limits. Equality, yes, but with limits to inequality in France. And fraternity is really missing.”

Ms. Cissé, the deputy mayor of Clichy-sous-Bois, put the problem simply: “France has trouble changing,” she said.

“Integration, immigration — these are taboo, and at the heart of the program of the National Front and the republican right. Now they must become national issues,” she said. “We have to confront these so-called problems so that one can travel as one wishes, practice our religion when and as we want, just like the others. And have a job, truly, because work is important.”

Otherwise, she said, “France will be engulfed, in the years to come, in these same problems of 2005 and 2015.”

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