Published Jan. 14, 2015, in The Waterloo Region Record.
One should be appalled but hardly surprised by last week’s jihadist attacks in Paris.
This has been only the latest and most outrageous of a series of assaults occurring internationally in the cause of trying to incite conflict between the Islamic world and western modernity. That France was the site of these most recent provocations does have some particular implications, however.
It is the western nation with the largest Muslim population and proportion (about eight per cent) and until now has seemed to be the one most dedicated to ignoring potential problems from that source.
The days of sweeping Islamic alienation under the carpet are probably at an end, as free speech in the media has become the focus of the debate and national values are now at stake. Moreover, the spectre of Marine Le Pen and the far-right National Front looms to concentrate the minds of France’s mainstream politicians.
The challenges France faces are not really unique to them. Much of Europe is concerned with a demographic predicament of a stagnant economy, an aging population, declining birthrate, an overextended commitment to social welfare programs, the lack of natural resources, and ineffective absorption of immigrants (typically Islamic) that threatens previous ethnic homogeneity, unlike immigrant societies in North America. Collectively these problems imperil the euro currency, and suggest that past liberal immigration policies on the continent are now politically toxic for governments.
One would like to hope that the “feel good” moment of unity marches and candle lighting over the weekend will have enduring implications. The threat to free speech by the Charlie Hebdo murders does not appear to be something France can continue to avoid, and certainly a more assiduous approach by security forces will follow. Neither should the nation continue to ignore the dilemmas of minority alienation and the economic problems of immigrant enclaves in poor suburbs (the banlieues), which effectively become segregated.
Part of the concern results from government policies to provide job security, but this can deter employers from new hiring, lest they are unable to easily dismiss unsatisfactory workers. Many French take pride in the government’s colour blind policy that doesn’t permit the counting of the population by race, ethnicity or religion, but also prevents the availability of statistics to show the comparative experience of different groups. In fact, employers who wish to discriminate against minorities before interviewing them can usually do so by name or address.
The truth is, many Caucasian French have little contact with newcomers, and are even afraid to venture into their neighbourhoods. The resulting inequities could be addressed by affirmative action programs, but data are not able to be collected to justify them.
Another fundamental issue reflected in the attacks is anti-Semitism within the Islamic community, particularly among the uneducated and disadvantaged. The problem is not so much with Islam as with the culture surrounding it, which is steeped in conspiracy theories about Zionism authoring the misfortune of Muslims. The second attack at the kosher supermarket was the third instance in recent years of mass killings at Jewish sites by French jihadists. Much more common are assaults and vandalism of Jews and their property by Muslims, particularly if the Jews are dressed distinctively as many religious people do.
The result of this is that many Jews no longer feel safe and are emigrating — frequently to Israel — in record numbers. On a related matter, this Islamic anti-Semitism underscores why a binational Arab-Israeli consolidation into one state is a Trojan horse that would never be acceptable to Israelis. It is of course true that only a tiny minority of French Muslims are committing acts of violence, but there has been little tangible evidence of others in their community openly and unambiguously challenging them in a demonstrative way. It has been suggested that there is a climate of fear and intimidation among moderate Muslims incited by the radical elements.
However, only by having their legitimacy challenged by other Muslims within their own community might the extremists be chastened. Those who already feel victimized by the establishment, are unlikely to be influenced by outsiders.
Accordingly it is vital that Muslim religious leaders loudly and unequivocally take the lead in discrediting what has been alleged is a perversion of their faith. Otherwise, they will be stigmatized and identified with the radicals, as has already begun to happen.