Francis Ghiles writes: Some French intellectuals and leading figures in the media argue that terrorism is the inevitable and extreme expression of a “true” Islam which entails the denial of the other, the imposition of strict rules in the guise of sharia law and ultimately jihad. Olivier Roy, a lucid analyst of his country’s politics, says that Muslims in France today are viewed as having Qur’anic software hardwired in their sub-conscious, which renders them incapable of assimilation into French society. Their only salvation lies in repeating their allegiance to France’s Republican values, preferably when pushed to do so on a live television show.
It is little understood, however, that the Republic’s cherished values of secularism and freedom of speech historically have a darker side. The civil liberties now idealised emerged during a period of colonial rule. As the historian Arthur Asseraf reminds us, France’s iconic freedom of the press law, passed in 1881 and still enforced today, was designed in part to exclude France’s Muslim subjects. The law protected the rights of all French citizens, explicitly all those in Algeria and the colonies, but excluded the subjects who were the majority of the population. In colonial Algeria, “citizens” were all those who were not Muslims, and the terms musulman or indigène usually overlapped. Muslim was a racialised legal category stripped of any religious significance.
Maybe the banlieues of today could be best understood as the Algeria of the 19th century: the legacy of French apartheid must be borne in mind when considering the problems of minorities. In the starkest indictment ever of French society by a senior government official, Valls said on Wednesday that “a geographic, social, ethnic apartheid has developed in our country”. The furious reaction to his remark hardly augurs well for a reasoned debate. Yet, in the banlieues of Paris, more than 50% of young people, often Muslim, are unemployed. They are hitting the glass wall between them and the workplace; prisoners with a north African father outnumber prisoners with a French father by nine to one for the 18-29 age group, and six to one in the 20-39 age group. This points to a massive failure of French society to integrate minority groups. [Continue reading…]