To the Editor:
Stéphanie Giry's upbeat portrait of the status of French Muslims ("France and Its Muslims," September/October 2006) offers a stark contrast to the state of affairs in the United Kingdom.
Giry points out how the French system of laïcité encourages assimilation and discourages ethnic or religious identification. The United Kingdom, along with Scandinavia, Germany, and the Netherlands, has promoted quite different policies toward integration, loosely called "multiculturalism" and involving a refusal to assert the superiority of local values. But authorities in the United Kingdom are discovering that a sizable percentage of their Muslim citizens have become angry, isolated, and dangerous.
Unlike the French dilemma that Giry describes, the British problem is not so much economic disparity -- British Muslims have done better economically than their coreligionists elsewhere in Europe -- as rising separatist feelings. In a Pew Research poll of Muslims conducted last spring, 81 percent of British Muslims said they were Muslim first and British second, compared with only 46 percent of French Muslims saying they are Muslim first, French second.
Understanding that separatist beliefs are antithetical to many mainstream European liberal values, the French are wary of political Islam in both its moderate and its radical forms. The British, by contrast, draw a distinction between words and deeds and refuse to prohibit extremist groups such as Hizb ut-Tahrir from operating within their borders, despite this group's advocacy of the caliphate, its refusal to recognize the British government, and its espousal of anti-Semitic and homophobic views.
The recent arrest of two dozen Muslims charged with plotting to blow up American airplanes traveling from London to the United States, however, has helped awaken British authorities to the terror threat that exists in their country. An example of this new awareness was the highly unusual warning in November by the head of the MI5, the domestic intelligence agency, that some 1,600 suspects in 200 terrorist cells were under surveillance.
The French have long adopted a no-nonsense, preemptive style in counterterrorism and intelligence, supplemented by an aggressive judiciary. French authorities have little patience for behavior like that of the British-born terrorist caught on July 21, 2005, who, having failed to detonate the bomb strapped to him in the London subway and being ordered by police to strip to the waist to prove himself disarmed, shouted, "I have rights!" And the French have been far quicker to deport those inciting others to radicalism, concentrating less on beefing up antiterrorist laws on paper than on acting quickly and decisively to forestall attacks before they occur.
The British often tout their experience in fighting the IRA, but the French have the more relevant experience of fighting the forerunners of al Qaeda in the mid-1990s, when the Paris subway was bombed several times by members of the Algerian extremist group GIA. The IRA had political goals that could, and eventually would, be addressed, involving land, security, and political rights in Northern Ireland; the radical Islamist agenda goes further, advocating the replacement of European laws and values with Islamic ones in the cities of Europe and the separation of European Muslims from their non-Muslim fellow citizens.
Despite French tactical successes against Islamic extremists, however, and despite the real progress that has been made in integrating Muslims into French society, there remain some causes for concern. Giry cites Emmanuel Todd's noted study of the high rate of intermarriage between Muslim women and native Franco-French men but omits mention of the intermarriage rate between Muslim men and Franco-French women, which appears to be much lower. The gender divide is the heart of the problem of ideological Islam and is also its Achilles' heel. Islamists simply do not believe in gender equality. This can play out in violent ways as the patriarchal values of the Muslim family clash with the independence of educated French Muslim women.
And while Giry is correct in noting that the Islamists still have not penetrated the hearts and minds of disadvantaged French Muslim youth, France appears to be at a critical moment. If the harsh tactics of the police are replaced by engagement and dialogue between angry youths and community outreach groups, then the Islamists may indeed be unable to prevail. Absent the ability of the next French president to generate reform and jobs in the banlieues, however, the Islamists will provide an alternative for the unemployed and disaffected.
The reality in Europe today is that young Muslims are becoming politically mobilized to support causes that have less to do with faith and more to do with group solidarity. The Iranian French sociologist Farhad Khosrokhavar describes the manifestation of global Muslim solidarity as an identity based on vicarious humiliation: European Muslims develop empathy for Muslim victims elsewhere in the world and convince themselves that their own exclusion and that of their coreligionists have the same root cause: Western rejection of Islam. Giry's core thesis is that the laïcité model, which insists on assimilation, provides the French with a strong barrier against the rising tide of group-identity politics that characterizes political Islam, and she is correct. But even this barrier may not be enough if the Islamist tide turns into a global tsunami.
Adjunct Fellow, Hudson Institute, and former Middle East Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, 1995-2000