January 25, 2015 11:35:50 pm
The North African community in France is about three- to four-generations old and more integrated than sub-Saharan or Turkish immigrants. The group consists of at least six million people, counting only immigrants and the second generation born in France; it is even larger if the third and fourth generations are included. They may be hit hard by unemployment, but on the whole, young people of North African ancestry are about as integrated into French society as their counterparts from indigenous, working-class backgrounds. Many of this community have found their place in the business world, in NGOs, in the administrative sphere and, to a lesser extent, been elected at the local level.
But the recession in Europe has produced a social dead end, even more acute in France because of other roadblocks. The fiscal deficit has shrunk room for manoeuvre: neither national nor local government has the means to initiate socio-economic programmes to bridge the divide between the poorest immigrant neighbourhoods and the mainstream. The segregation of immigrants from southern countries and pervasive unemployment have contributed to youths from such communities failing at school and growing involved in drug trafficking and other misdemeanours. With no employment prospects or hope of a better life in France, these youths have formed a sub-culture that is often hostile to the host country and impervious to dialogue (as evidenced, for example, by their refusal to engage with or argue on issues linked to the colonial history taught in schools).
The marginalised youth of North African or sub-Saharan ancestry seek to reconstruct a wounded identity through a self-assertion that contradicts the traditions of moral and religious freedom in France. They promote in their neighbourhoods a certain kind of communitarianism, which we answer by reiterating equality for all and a formal secularism that runs counter to these assertions. How, indeed, can we reconcile the freedom of expression of cartoonists and the ban on wearing headscarves in schools, which may be seen as another expression of identity?
A few young people from the latest generation of the North African diaspora are fighting both the host society and their parents. Denied regular religious expression, they are compelled to turn towards a radical form of Islam, which leads them to promote an authoritarian and misogynist moral order in poor neighbourhoods. This radical minority has initiated, among the most desocialised youth, a movement of conversion to Islam. Identifying with an imaginary community, radicalised young people of North African ancestry as well as new converts have become part of an Islamist drift, which is drawn to violence and civil wars in the Middle East. Some of them, especially those who have done time in jail, go from radical Islam to jihad, inspired by groups like al-Qaeda and the barbarian practices of the Islamic State.
It is striking that the black and North African youth who had protested against police discrimination in the riots of November 2005 did not express solidarity with protesters in Tunisia, Morocco and Egypt, who took to the streets during the Arab Spring of 2011, in a quest for democracy and employment. It is possible that the school dropouts of northern Europe could not identify with the educated youth of North Africa, who wanted to bring about change in countries under authoritarian regimes. The protests of the Arab Spring seemed to push the less privileged into backward and literalist forms of Islam. They began to emulate the darkest practices of terror groups like al-Qaeda and now the IS.
These elements also contributed to the tragedy that has now bloodied France, especially given the poor monitoring of who passes through the borders and the spread of lethal weapons. Terrorists struck with the intent to destroy Charlie Hebdo, one of the few places free from all conformism, a satirical magazine that did not hesitate to lampoon hypocrisies in the Catholic Church as well as in Judaism and Islam. If its cartoonists paid a heavy price, it may be because many French intellectuals, inhibited by the enduring guilt of colonialism, do not dare address the misconduct of individuals who belong to minorities that trace their origins to former colonies. It may also be because our conception of religion, which is too ethnocentric, cannot comprehend the import of the cartoons for French Muslims. There is no need to reduce freedom of expression, but just as we have judicial redress for expressions of racial hate, we could have appropriate legal provisions against expressions of religious hate.
The writer is with CNRS, Sciences Po, Paris, and visiting scholar at the sociology department, Pune University
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