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


IN THE UK, things were happening quite differently. From the beginning of mass migration in the 1950s, British Muslims organized as such and started to establish mosques on British soil. The segregated experience of the Muslim community under the Raj was duplicated in Britain, except this time the majority population was not Hindu, but the white English working class with its beer-on-tap-and-bacon culture. Meanwhile, intra-Muslim sectarian and denominational strife led different groups to create their own enclaves. The Deobandis wanted to have their own places of worship, as did the Barelvis, a Sufi-oriented sect considered heretic by its rivals, with a special reverence for the Prophet Muhammad. The same went for the Ahl-i-Hadith, a puritanical group close to Saudi Wahhabism. When British authorities tried to provide brick-and-mortar mosques to replace makeshift prayer rooms, they faced upheaval. The Deobandis, for instance, refused to pray behind a Barelvi imam who sang the praises of the Prophet in terms the Deobandis saw as close to idolatry, and things degenerated into fistfights as the disparate sects tried to control the pulpit in the so-called cathedral mosques. Though this might seem to echo Sarkozy's futile attempts to mediate between the different Muslim groups in France, there is one key difference: for British Muslims, that religious identity has always come before all others, whatever the infighting between different sects may be. In France, it was the wide array of available identities-Islamic, Algerian, working class, unionized, leftist, laïque and what have you-that made the concept of Muslim categorization secondary at best.

This secluded British-Muslim religious identity led to a far more introverted social life than was the case for North Africans in France. Though curry may have replaced fish and chips in British stomachs, the practice of seeking a consort in the extended family (biradari in Urdu)-which led fathers to travel yearly to Mirpur or Punjab so as to bring back to Manchester or Bradford suitable, non-Anglophone husbands for their British-born and -educated daughters-perpetuated a cultural isolation.

It is this insular Muslim practice that led to Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses; a frontal attack on that immigrant seclusion. The book aimed to undermine it with a vitriolic criticism of the religious tenets of Islam. In particular, it mocked the Prophet and his many wives, describing his abode as a brothel. Though the names were changed, and the novel was a work of fiction, Rushdie wanted to rock the foundations of British-Muslim life, and force his coreligionists to reconsider their self-segregation and begin to integrate into British society. But his ambitious project backfired. Far from serving as a liberating cri de coeur, The Satanic Verses only reinforced the grasp of radical mullahs on their communities. The parochial old-timers who knew little English and who had no real interaction with British authorities (except when they traded their vote banks for community control) proved incapable of taking up Rushdie's challenge. And they gradually were replaced by better-groomed, younger preachers, some of whom had links to radicalized international Islamist organizations.

The book burning of The Satanic Verses by the Bradford Council for Mosques in front of the city hall of that derelict Yorkshire Victorian city in 1989 was originally intended to express to the larger public the pain and suffering of Muslims who felt insulted by Rushdie's blasphemy of the Prophet Muhammad. But it produced quite the opposite effect on TV viewers: book burners were seen as fanatics performing an auto-da-fé tantamount to the Spanish Inquisition or Nazi Germany, and they got no sympathy from the press. British perceptions of Islam's fanatical response were cemented a month later on February 14, when Ayatollah Khomeini sent a valentine to Britain in the form of a fatwa condemning Rushdie, his publishers and his translators to death. The leader of the Islamic Republic was attempting to regain his status as the champion of oppressed Muslim masses worldwide-a status that had been seriously challenged by the victory of U.S.-backed Sunni jihadists in Afghanistan, who had compelled the Red Army to pull out of the country on the following day-February 15. On the British political stage, the infamous fatwa meant that all of a sudden, the UK (and the rest of Europe and the world by the same token) had become part of a virtual Dar al-Islam (abode of Islam) where the rules of sharia-or Muslim God-inspired law-would apply, punishing blasphemy (or, for that matter, "insult to the Prophet") with death.

The Rushdie affair was in a way quintessentially British. It happened in the context of a political scene divided along communalist lines, and it triggered reactions from community leaders and ordinary believers who felt threatened in their imposed and self-imposed seclusion, a situation that made them unable to distance themselves from the defensive attitudes of their peers.

On the other side of the Channel, where men and women of Muslim descent were not organized in this way, and where imams retained far less influence than their opposite numbers in Great Britain, the Rushdie affair did not mobilize any Islamic outbursts, save for a tiny group of radicals led by two recent converts to Islam, the grandchildren of Maurice Thorez, the deceased strongman of the French Communist Party, who took to the streets in front of journalists who widely outnumbered them.


NEVERTHELESS, 1989 was also a watershed year for Islam in France, and it pinpointed the difficulties of the traditional republican and cultural-integration model. While the French were supposed to be celebrating the two hundredth anniversary of the fall of the Bastille and the triumph of Enlightenment, and the rest of the world was focused on the end of the Communist era, the French press was obsessed with an entirely different affair. Three teenage female pupils of Muslim descent had entered their classes at a middle school in a northern Paris banlieue wearing hijabs, the Salafist "Muslimwear" that was steadily imposed on Muslims worldwide-through the expansion of Wahhabism and the Muslim Brother subculture-into the expression of Islam in the public sphere.3 This piece of cloth placed hijab-wearing French public-school students in a cultural cluster and separated them from their classmates-on the basis of a proclaimed religious identity.

It seemed the decades-long French philosophy of laïcité had come back to haunt the country. Its detractors saw this policy as insensitive to cultural differences. And this view was not confined to Muslims in France. Americans and Brits alike mocked the country as closed to the other, draped in the rags of its past glory, an obsolete singleton in a globalized world. And the goal of cultural integration was lambasted as "assimilation"-a term with particularly bad connotations, no more so than in some Jewish circles, where it is tantamount to "cultural genocide." The stakes were high, the debate highly political. Both the French branch of the Tablighi Jamaat-an Indian Islamist movement preaching cultural seclusion from the non-Muslim environment-and the local Muslim Brothers supported the girls, and in the case of the latter, used the affair to pretend that they were the choice representatives of a "Muslim community" that was in the making on French soil. They changed their name from the Union of Islamic Organizations in France (UOIF) to the Union of Islamic Organizations of France, in an attempt to show the professed new stage the group had reached in its process of asserting Islamic identity in France. As one of its leaders explained to me, they no longer considered France a land of temporary residence for "Muslims"; many now called it home. Hence, it was no more a part of Dar al-Solh (or "abode of contract"), a foreign territory where Muslims could stay temporarily and where sharia was irrelevant. It had become part of Dar al-Islam, where sharia applied for Muslims who so wished.

If sharia was not state implemented, it was the right of every French "Muslim" to enact the laws. The three hijab-wearing pupils were the first manifestation of the UOIF's new policy-its bid to be the community leader of the "Muslims of France" and the champion of an exemplary cause.

As much as the Rushdie affair was evidence of the contradictions of Britain's relationship with its Muslim citizens, the hijab affair was typically French. It could never have taken place in the UK, where it had long been common practice for schools to welcome the hijab, segregate Muslim female pupils from sporting and swimming classes with their male counterparts, and so on and so forth.

The question then for Paris was whether "liberty" should come first, or was education to provide a space free from political, religious and similar statements-based on the other tenet of the Republic: "equality"? When the UOIF and their fellow travelers from the multicultural Left-along with the allies they made on that occasion among the Catholic clergy, Protestant pastors and some conservative rabbis-made their claim in the French public sphere, they used the political language of freedom. They cast themselves as the opposition to the authoritarianism of the Jacobin, laïque fundamentalist, assimilationist state. Some Islamist militants even took to the streets wearing a yellow star under their hijab or beard, implying they were persecuted like the Jews had been by the Nazis (that line was difficult to carry on and introduced confusion into the minds of some otherwise anti-Semitic and anti-Israeli radicals). Yet, when Muslim youths were instructed to wear the hijab by the Tablighis, Salafis or Muslim Brothers, it was not a matter of freedom, but of religious obligation. Notwithstanding such internal contradictions (of which the French press and public debate were largely unaware), the hijab affair poisoned the educational environment. Endless litigation and demonstrations that benefited radicals who portrayed themselves as victims of state repression followed. However, in spite of all this apparent distaste for laïcité, in the end there was very little support for the hijab cause, and certainly no mobilization of an improbable "Muslim community" that the UOIF and its ilk wanted to bring to life. The fact that during this time the Algerian civil war-which subsequently spilled over into France-was fully aflame, and still French Muslims largely ignored the call to jihad, is the starkest evidence of how little sway these radicals held over the so-called Muslim community.

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