It’s doubtless a mistake, as French government authorities insisted endlessly this week, to see the rioting by immigrant youth that has wracked France for the past two weeks as an expression of Muslim extremism, religious or otherwise. All the evidence indicates that the violence stems from feelings of alienation and frustration among immigrants and their offspring who were kept for too long at the fringes of society. The long-term solutions undoubtedly lie in policies that bring more inclusion, tolerance and jobs.
That said, it’s dangerously foolish to ignore the rioters’ Muslim identity altogether. The rioters were not directed by Islamic ideologues, nor were they motivated by Muslim religious doctrine, but they were gangs of Muslims striking out violently against the non-Muslim society around them; in today’s world, that should be enough to set red lights flashing. The rioters burst forth from much the same alienated European Muslim ghettoes that, for all the differences, spawned the Al Qaeda cells in Munich and Birmingham. The angry Muslim youths who were torching cars in Clichy-sous-Bois last week, more from alienation than ideology, were much the same as the alienated Muslim youth who were torching synagogues two years ago.
Like so much of the rage that drives Muslims into confrontation with their neighbors around the world, the rage of the French rioters has many roots. Religious doctrine may have little or nothing to do with it at this point. But that doesn’t mean the rage cannot be exploited or directed by extremists if it’s allowed to fester. In many corners of the world that are now hotspots of Muslim extremism, anger had its origins in economic or nationalist resentment. Poverty helped fuel the rage of Egypt’s Muslim extremists. The Chechnyan war began as a purely nationalist conflict. Only gradually have the various separate conflicts been woven together into something resembling a global jihad, and the links remain only partial. But they are real. And the same thing could happen in France.
To say this is not to advocate punitive, exclusionary measures against Muslims. On the contrary, acknowledging the danger of an extremist Islam arising in the immigrant ghettoes reinforces the urgency of reaching out. Europeans need to bring their Muslim minorities into the mainstream and make their societies whole again.
Americans watching France’s troubles from afar should not congratulate themselves that this is not our problem. America does not have Muslim ghettoes, but nearly every one of our allies does. We have a deep interest in seeing Europeans succeed in addressing the crisis of their European identity. The experience of the last two years, since our invasion of Iraq, should have taught us something about the perils of international isolation. We need France — and Germany, Spain, Holland and England — to be healthy, functioning democracies. Otherwise we stand alone.