Blame games

Standoff between police and rioters, Croydon, London, 2011. Wikicommons/ Raymond Yau. Some rights reserved.As the soul searching
sets in after the Paris attacks, pundits will zoom in on France’s policies
towards immigrants and minorities. But a look into history cautions against
hasty blame games.

As more details are emerging about the perpetrators of the Paris attacks, much of
the discussion in the coming weeks will unavoidably focus on the alleged
shortcomings of integrating immigrants and minorities into European societies.
Similarly to the attacks on Charlie Hebdo earlier this year, it turns out that
some, or even most, of the terrorists were born and raised in Europe.

This realization should
forbid simplistic confounding of Syrian refugees and terrorism; of the kind found
in Niall Ferguson’s demagogic analogy between contemporary Europe and the fall of
the Roman Empire allegedly overrun by “barbarians.” Yet the perpetrators’
European upbringing does urge a closer look at the social situation in France’s
infamous banlieues once more.

Public debate in
France, but especially outside of France, is prone to searching for national
particularities that can help explain why the grande nation appears more
vulnerable to Islamist terrorism than its neighbors. A first obvious answer,
which perhaps goes without saying and is hence discussed only rarely, is
France’s greater military engagement in Syria—rendering the danger a little
less acute in, say, Germany, Belgium, and the Netherlands. But since this says
nothing about the origin of the terrorists, questions persist as to the role
and treatment of ethnic or religious minorities in European societies.

The blood had barely dried
on the Paris’s streets before German journalists began to ask whoever appeared
near a microphone why France had ‘failed’ in its policies towards ‘integrating
immigrants’, implying that this failure was the chief culprit for radicalizing
young French Muslims.

The British media’s
variant of the same reflex typically points to France’s long-cherished ‘republican
model’. According to this reading, the unwillingness of the French to admit the
importance of ethnicity and race, alongside their secularism and their
assimilationist desires, has exacerbated tensions in the suburbs, effectively
by brushing under them under the carpet.

Prohibiting the
collection of ethnic statistics, this argument holds, covers up real problems and, by disallowing ethnic
identity politics, hinders the emergence of moderate community leaders, whose
absence then leaves the field open for radicals. The implicit contrast here is
with Britain’s ‘model’ of multiculturalism, which assorts people into boxes
that allegedly channel minority politics in a more benign fashion. This
British-French dichotomy already informed the British reading of Paris’s
suburban unrest in 2005 and will now doubtless reappear.

Although intelligent
observers do not fail to note that London had its own riots in 2011 and that the
perpetrators of the attacks on the London Underground in 2005 were also born
and raised in Britain, for some reason this insight does not lead them to
reformulate their stance. Instead they persist in seeing a direct link between
these alleged ‘models’ and countries’ vulnerability to homegrown terrorism. Yet
a look across boundaries and into the past, reveals the tenuous nature of this
causal relationship.

If one looks at the numbers of jihadist fighters that each European country had sent to Syria and
Iraq by December 2014, then the per-capita list was led by Belgium, Denmark,
and Sweden. The Belgian connection in particular is emerging clearly in the recent Paris
attacks. Yet, no one would point to the extraordinary ‘failure’ of a supposedly
typical Belgian, Danish, or Swedish ‘model’ of immigrant integration. It seems
strange to single out France as having a specifically ‘French problem’—apart
from its more assertive military role abroad.

It is also worth noting
that, until not so long ago, much of the European left cheered French
republicanism for being less exclusionary towards minorities than other ‘models’.
In the early twentieth century, African Americans celebrated an alleged absence
of racism in France. As late as the 1990s, French citizenship conferred on the
basis of place of birth was contrasted favorably with Germany’s exclusionary
practices, which still treated third-generation immigrants as eternal ‘foreigners’.
So, if anything, the explanatory burden must account for when, how, and why a
‘model’ once hailed for being conducive to swift ‘integration’ supposedly
turned into a vehicle for exclusion and marginalization.

Concentrating
on alleged overarching national ‘models’ as an explanation for homegrown Islamist
terrorism is misleading. This is not to exonerate malign, misconceived, or
simply ineffective government policies towards minority incorporation. They
surely are part of the story. But focusing on a specific French ‘model’ of
assimilationist republicanism which allegedly helped breed homegrown Islamist
terrorism is to miss the much wider European and global context for Friday’s
attacks

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