French Lessons in Londonistan

French Lessons in Londonistan

Mini Teaser: Washington has much to learn from its European ancestors, who have struggled with, fallen victim to and at times overcome jihadists in their own lands.

by Author(s): Gilles Kepel

  MUSLIMS HAVE been landing on the shores of Britain and France for decades. And, as these populations arrived and settled in the Republic, Paris pursued a policy it believed would eventually lead immigrants to full cultural integration into French society. Meanwhile, London, facing a similar influx of foreigners, attempted to create a full-fledged multicultural polity. The former emphasized that what was shared between the new arrivals and their native hosts was crucial, their differences secondary. The latter argued that the British needed to respect the uniqueness of their immigrant neighbors-whether national, religious or ethnic-and that such a stance was at the core of a harmonious political system. In color-blind France, built on a long tradition of a strong, centralized state and the successful assimilation of southern and eastern Europeans-who have been migrating to the country since the nineteenth century-religious identity was not to interfere in public life. Under the French tricolor, state and nation were fused into the cradle of the one and indivisible Republic. In race-aware Britain, with Anglicanism as its established church, there was always room for different nationalities-English, Welsh, Scottish, Irish-under the Union Jack.

The French and British experience as colonizers-and the ways in which those under imperial rule would come to see their occupiers-haunt the place of Muslim immigrants on both sides of the Channel. The Moslems of the British Raj lived as a minority among Hindus and struggled to maintain a separate identity through religious movements like the Deobandis (founded in India in 1867 and ancestors of the present-day Taliban). The political economy of the Raj was based on communalism, with Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims (and Sunni and Shia) fighting against each other. London fanned the embers of religious discord to keep military expenses low and the number of redcoats at a minimum. Divide and conquer.

At the end of the day, the British approach led to the bloody partition of the Raj between India and Pakistan; Karachi was homogeneously Muslim (though sectarian strife would soon rise among Sunni and Shia, and civil war would pit liberals against extremists), New Delhi became multicultural with a caste flavor.

The French colonies were something altogether different. Unlike the Deobandis of India, North and West Africa possessed no similar religious movements that struggled to maintain a separate Islamic identity in the face of a hostile non-Muslim majority. The French policed, at a high cost, every village of Algeria and Senegal, just as the gendarmes did in Provence and Corsica. Thus, France's immigrants were ignorant of the kind of self-imposed apartheid that could be transported and implemented on French soil. The North and West Africans who migrated to France after World War II came from Muslim-majority countries and felt no need to enhance their religious peculiarities. Bachelors perceived themselves as temporary migrants. Families, most of them coming from Algeria, had no special claim to be religiously different. And after the end of the Algerian War in 1962, immigrants quietly and smoothly acquired the French citizenship to which they were entitled-to the furor of their leaders back home. For the musulmans who comprised a majority of the French colonial empire, the best possible future, according to the dominant French narrative, was to become French one day.

Such a grand récit was, of course, not implemented in colonial days-for the promise of citizenship was part and parcel of a workable imperial dominion. But in the end, as soon as the former colonized set foot on French soil in their new migrant-worker garb, they took Paris at its word, and France paid its colonial debt through a process of cultural and political integration that ran parallel to the process of turning earlier immigrants-Italians, Spaniards, Portuguese, Poles, et al.-into members of the Republic.

No such transformation was possible, however, for those British subjects moving from the peripheries of the empire to its island center. In Britain, one is born English, end of story. When Muslims started to migrate en masse from the former colonies, they became Commonwealth subjects with voting rights, and their "Islamness" turned out to be a kind of nationality of its own, albeit under the umbrella of what would later become British citizenship. Clearly, one could never hope to become English.

America-immigrant nation extraordinaire-is facing its first experience with homegrown Islamist extremism. How the United States conceives of and approaches the threat on its shores will clearly etch out the future of its relationship with its Muslim population in all of its complexity. Washington has much to learn from its European ancestors, who have struggled with, fallen victim to and at times overcome jihadists in their own lands. At its core, this is a question of culture-the approach to "other."


THE IMPERIAL experience serves as a backdrop to the markedly contrasting ways that London and Paris have approached the immigration dilemma. France has created an intermingled culture, which is being forged on a daily basis between the native Gaul and the immigrant Arab and Berber. It revolves around two French obsessions: the bed and the dinner table. Your average young Muslim girl is interested in living and having children with a French gouer, a North-African colloquial term meaning "infidel"-i.e., non-Muslim. (Gouer is itself a corruption of the classical Arabic kuffar, used in immigrant slang to designate a French native. They are also known as fromage, or "cheese"-ironically the same synecdoche that was used in the neocon-coined "cheese-eating surrender monkeys.") These women would loathe the very idea of an arranged marriage to a fellah (peasant) cousin from the far away bled (North Africa) with his unrefined manners and pedestrian French. By the same token, the most popular national dish of France-the country of gastronomy par excellence-regularly confirmed by opinion polls, is couscous, the semolina-based traditional dish of North Africa, now fully assimilated by French palates. And even beyond the confines of culture and marriage, what is Catholic France's holy trinity of the most popular heroes, in survey after survey? The soccer player Zinedine Zidane (of Algerian-Berber descent), tennis player Yannick Noah (of mixed Cameroon-Alsatian descent) and filmmaker Dany Boon (of North-African-Muslim descent), who converted to Judaism at the time of his wedding to his Sephardic wife.

For the most part, this emphasis on integration-though not without its faults-has worked pretty well in France. Western Europe's biggest "Muslim country" (the current numbers hover around 6 million people) has not seen a successful terrorist attack on its territory since 1996. All plots were uncovered; their perpetrators jailed or deported. An efficient intelligence service, well trained in Arabic and Muslim politics, played an important role, and special legal rules-such as the ability to keep terror suspects in custody-allowed for great ad hoc efficiency.1 This successful counterterrorism policy could never have worked without the cultural acquiescence of the vast majority of French citizens and residents of Muslim descent. They cooperate because they would simply never trade their decades-long effort and investment in becoming full-fledged French citizens-even in the face of latent xenophobia and social discrimination-for the vagaries of Islamist radicalism, which would make all of them suspect, and offer a political space for the extreme Right.

Much of this French success has to do with how the term "Muslim" is used in political parlance, where the preference is for expressions like "of Muslim descent" or "from Muslim culture." This stems from the French notion of laïcité-loosely translated as "secularism"-which has been a backbone of French culture ever since its implementation under the Third Republic in the early twentieth century. To resist the overwhelming influence of a Vatican-aligned, reactionary Catholic church that interfered in both education and politics, the French government passed a law separating church and state in 1905, severing the historic link between Paris and Rome. The French conception of religion in the public sphere is thus quite different from the ascriptive understanding of religion found in Britain or America-a difference illustrated by the fact that the British national census asks respondents to define themselves in religious terms. By contrast, its French laïque counterpart merely defines religion in sociological and cultural terms, provided the concerned individuals agree on that identity to which they are, by the by, entitled to be indifferent-even hostile.

Thus, in France, a community that would encompass all "Muslims" a priori is politically impossible-and without that, there can be no political brokers or "community leaders" who monopolize representation of "Muslims" (or at least pretend to do so). This was no more evident than in the French government's attempt to reconcile the differences between Islamic factions by creating the French Council of the Muslim Faith (CFCM) in 2003. The hope was to make peace between different Islamic groupings so as to facilitate the free exercise of Muslim religion, organize pilgrimages to Mecca, ensure access to halal foodstuffs in the army, corporations and restaurants, and build mosques by which practicing Muslims would have the same rights and advantages as believers in other faiths. At the same time, then-Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, who professed an "open" understanding of laïcité that relied more on religious leaders as role models, wanted to use the CFCM as a go-between with practicing Muslims.2 But the differences between Islamic factions, be it because of their doctrinal tenets or the fierce competition between the foreign states that influence some of them (Algeria, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Iran, etc.), never allowed the CFCM to emerge and find a role that would resemble other united religious mouthpieces, whether the Bishops' Conference or the Representative Council of French Jewish Institutions (CRIF). Overall, the dominant narrative in France has always been to be French first and foremost. Religious identity continues to take a backseat to citizenship in the Republic.

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