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Boulevardes of broken dreams

By Jeremy Jones

Night after night, we have witnessed shocking scenes of violence and wanton vandalism in French cities. Hundreds upon hundreds of vehicles set on fire, institutions such as libraries and gymnasiums attacked and destroyed, urban populations afraid to venture out into the streets.

There was general agreement that the perpetrators were overwhelmingly male, most likely unemployed and, by and large, alienated from an ill-defined "French culture". While some in the media left it at that, most observers added that they were first or second generation immigrants, predominantly from Africa. Analysts generally added that they were Muslim.

It is not unreasonable to conclude that the rioters were likely to be poor, unemployed and unconnected to French history and social mores. But these factors are not sufficient explanations of the rioters’ motives, given that there are, unfortunately, many people in France (and elsewhere) in similar situations.

The outstanding French philosopher Alan Finkelkraut noted, "in France there are also other immigrants whose situation is difficult — Chinese, Vietnamese, Portuguese — and they’re not taking part in the riots... Therefore it is clear this is a revolt with an ethno-religious character..."

Finkelkraut went on to argue that the riots were "directed against France as a former colonial power, against France as a European country, against France with its Christian or Judeo-Christian tradition . . ."

The relevance of ideology to the rioters is a subject of considerable contention, with some commentators such as the respected B. Raman at the South Asia Analysis Group submitting "all indications point to the involvement of some Pakistani, Algerian and Moroccan members of the London-based [Hizb ut-Tahrir] (HT) in violence by sections of angry Muslim youth..." Many others have pointed to an identification by the rioters with both or either the anti-Israel violence since 2000 and the terrorists attacking Shi’ites and westerners in Iraq.

A number of observers have reported hearing repeated references to "Jihad" by the rioters. Michael Radu argued in FrontPage magazine, "the riots increasingly and alarmingly suggest that Islamist radicals see criminality as an opportunity for recruitment, while criminals see Islam as a legitimiser", a problem he argued is far from unique to France.

French discussion of any problems specifically related to Muslim immigration has suffered from the interventions and repugnant far-right agitations by Jean-Marie Le Pen. It also suffered from a Machiavellian trend within French leftist intellectual culture that forgave medievalism and anti-social activity from immigrant groups they believed shared their anti-Americanism and anti-capitalism.

After confronting scenes of rioting, anti-police violence and religious incitement, even Prime Minister Domenique de Villepin came around to acknowledging that the "French model" of immigration was under the spotlight and in the dock.

Professor Paul Schnabel, the cautious and considered director of the Netherlands Social and Cultural Planning Office, discussed the subject in Melbourne recently with a small group of Australians working to promote social cohesion in Asia and the Pacific. Noting that the Netherlands has, after France, the highest proportion of Muslims of current European Union members, he reflected on some country-specific issues for the French, some European issues and on why Australia is in a far healthier position vis-à-vis integration of minorities than most other countries.

The Netherlands has to come to terms with decades of viewing foreign workers as temporary visitors, either filling short-term gaps in the labour market or seeking a safe haven from troubled homelands. If the Dutch are unsuccessful in bringing immigrant communities, some of whom are in their third generation as residents of Holland, into a meaningful engagement with their culture and institutions, the problems of social cohesion will only become greater. At present, a number of Dutch public figures take unprecedentedly dramatic security measures, not so much out of the very real concern of international terrorism but due to identifiable threats emanating from local immigrant and minority religious communities.

In Australia, the revelation that men arrested and charged under counter-terrorism measures included individuals associated with hate-preaching of political Islamism did not surprise many observers. But there appeared to be genuine shock when it became apparent that many of those involved were either born or grew up in Australia.

Australia is not Britain, with its cricket-loving home-grown terrorists, and much less France. It is nevertheless a reality that there are individuals and organisations on our country’s soil who propagate contempt for our democratic institutions, self-righteous anger at those who have a measure of economic or social success and hatred for our way of life.

Unlike in the European countries, successive Australian governments have worked to promote integration, positive cultural diversity and a sense that nationality, ethnicity or faith does not preclude anyone from being a genuine Australian.

I had the opportunity recently to speak at the Multicultural Eid Fair and Festival in Sydney, which is the largest single annual gathering of Muslim Australians. My observations and experiences would support the view that the overwhelming number of Australian Muslims are comfortable with that identity and value, rather than despise, what defines us as a nation.

Ideological zealots and supporters of the very worst elements in world affairs are also present in Australia. But it is encouraging to encounter a growing awareness of who these people are and why their activities are as, or more, harmful to the well-being of Muslims than they are to others who call this country our home.

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