Study: French Riots Not Caused By Islamists

BRUSSELS — The urban riots that shook France to its core last year were not sparked by Islamist fanatics and had little to do with the radicalization of the country’s Muslim youth, says a new report by the International Crisis Group. Instead, the independent Brussels-based grouping blames the violence on political frustration and social deprivation among Muslim communities and the heavy-handed tactics adopted by French police in deprived suburbs. Almost 9,000 cars were torched and 3,000 people were arrested in October and November after two African youths were electrocuted fleeing police officers. The center-right government responded by declaring a state of emergency and imposing a curfew in the worst-hit suburbs. The rioting, which lasted 20 days and nights, was the worst civic unrest in France for almost four decades and led some commentators to declare that the country was teetering on the edge of a civil war between its indigenous population and largely Muslim immigrant communities. “France faces a problem with its Muslim population, but it is not the problem it generally assumes,” says the ICG in its latest report, citing French concerns about the security threat posed by a five million-strong Muslim population mobilized by radical Islam. “In fact, the opposite is true: paradoxically, it is the exhaustion of political Islamism, not its radicalization, that explains much of the violence, and it is the depoliticization of young Muslims, rather than their alleged reversion to a radical kind of communalism, that ought to be a cause for worry.” French interior minister and likely presidential candidate Nicolas Sarkozy caused a storm shortly after the start of the disturbances by describing the rioters as “scum” and promising to clean up one of Paris’ most notorious suburbs with a high-powered vacuum cleaner. French President Jacques Chirac was also pilloried for telling the alienated youth that they were all “sons and daughters of the republic” — despite all evidence to the contrary. The ICG report accuses French politicians and trade unions of failing to deal with the problems faced by the country’s Muslim communities. But it also takes Muslims to task for shying away from politics and not organizing themselves into a cohesive political force. “Muslim immigrant populations are not participating in French politics,” says Robert Malley, Crisis Group’s Middle East and North Africa Program Director. “There is currently a dangerous political void, particularly within the unemployed or underemployed youth in suburban areas. Political frustration is assuming a violent expression, taking the form of jihadi Salafism and riots, and is feeding off precarious social conditions, in terms of employment and housing, social discrimination and the s stigmatization of Islam.” A small minority of rioters were swayed by radical Islamist propaganda, but the vast majority was not motivated by religion, says the ICG, a highly-respected conflict resolution group headed by former Australian foreign minister Gareth Evans. The unrest in the suburbs last year “took place without any religious actors and confirmed that Islamists do not control those neighborhoods,” claims the study. “There were no bearded provocateurs behind the riots, and no bearded ‘older brothers’ to end them.” Rather, the ICG says the rioting resulted from a profound feeling of abandonment among France’s immigrant communities, who often suffer from high levels of poverty and unemployment. Ignored by politicians, living precarious lives in poor tenements, often the victims of virulent Islamophobia and police aggression, some young Muslims see violence as the only means of expression left to them, says the report, which was published Thursday. The theory that alienation, rather than religious extremism, lies at the roost of the rioting, appears to be backed up by interviews with young Muslims from the Paris suburbs. “France has betrayed the young people of the suburbs,” one unemployed 24-year-old told the BBC in a program titled “Europe’s angry young Muslims,” which was aired Wednesday. “When you’re called Ali you can’t get a job. The French don’t accept Islam. Politicians promise us mosques and so on, but at the same time they smear us and call us terrorists.” The study, the first in a series on Islamism in Europe, urges the French government to use less coercive police tactics in deprived neighborhoods, to re-introduce community policing in suburbs that have become no-go areas and to abandon the idea that institutionalizing Islam as a religion will quash the emergence of radical groupings. It also advises mainstream political parties to become more active in underprivileged suburbs and Muslims to set up political parties and local associations to channel their discontent peacefully.