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The roots of the riots

November 09, 2005|Robert S. Leikin | ROBERT S. LEIKEN is director of the immigration and national security program at the Nixon Center in Washington.

THE RIOTS IN France should be no surprise to anyone familiar with that country or, for that matter, with Western Europe. For more than a decade, police officers, firefighters and ambulance drivers have faced stones or firebombs even as they perform their jobs in the French Muslim ghettos. And the young Muslims living in these banlieues outside Paris, Lyon and Marseilles are no less alienated than those living near Amsterdam, Barcelona and London.

In the summer of 2001, three cities in northern England erupted in rioting, and in November 2002, Antwerp, Belgium, also saw widespread violence in Muslim neighborhoods.

Strictly speaking, it is not immigrants who are doing the rebelling but their adolescent and young-adult children and grandchildren. In the United States, the revolt of the second generation may mean Latino gangs such as Mara Salvatrucha. But in Europe, the great fear is that second-generation Muslim rebels may become recruits for jihad. That is exactly what happened in the case of Mohamed Sidique Khan and his comrades, who died bombing the London Underground in July. And that was also the case with Mohammed Bouyeri, who assassinated Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh just a year ago.

Already the Paris riots have produced copycats not only in French cities but in Belgium and Germany. That's not surprising, as the socioeconomic and cultural dynamics are common across Western Europe

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday November 10, 2005 Home Edition California Part B Page 11 Editorial Pages Desk 0 inches; 16 words Type of Material: Correction
Riots: In a commentary Wednesday, Robert S. Leiken's byline was incorrectly spelled as Robert S. Leikin.

Though the census in France, like most European countries, does not inquire into religion, there are believed to be about 5 million Muslims in France, and close to 20 million in Western Europe. Continued immigration and high fertility will double that population by 2025, according to the CIA's National Intelligence Council.

Across Europe, colonial history and immigration networks have combined to bring specific Muslim minorities to each country. Thus, France hosts North Africans, Britain has South Asians, Spain has Moroccans, and Germany is primarily home to Turks. These tight-knit communities often share a language, ethnicity and Islam -- and in bad times, resentment travels fast.

In France, Muslims make up as much as 10% of the total population; in the Netherlands, it is more than 4%; in Germany and Belgium, about 3.7%; and in Britain, roughly 3%.

But in all these countries, the Muslim underclass lives a life without much opportunity for work, in subsidized housing, reliant on free healthcare and generous unemployment checks.

Young Muslims born in Europe, who in most countries are citizens, are entitled to welfare and won't be enticed off it by jobs and wages inferior to those of their factory worker parents. While second-generation Muslims suffer disproportionate unemployment, Eastern Europeans are pouring in by the millions to take low-wage jobs.

The young Muslims' parents and grandparents, like their counterparts all over Europe, came as guest workers in the boom years of the 1950s and '60s. They were supposed to be transitory but, as the saying goes, "there is nothing more permanent than a temporary worker." After the boom turned to bust, ethnic and human rights organizations argued they not only had a right to stay in Europe but that they could bring their families in to be with them. Quietly, without anyone noticing or planning it, lone workers imported solely for their labor became communities with customs, traditions and a religion that often did not fit seamlessly into Europe.

As citizens of a nation of immigrants, Americans tend to idealize the process of assimilation, as though people can change countries like sweaters. But even in countries such as ours, the transition can be painful to both newcomers and their hosts. European countries are ethnic nations, which makes it doubly hard for them to treat immigrants or their children as their own.

A French research group recently conducted a study in which two resumes, identical except for the name, were submitted in answer to want ads. The resumes with French names received five times the responses of the Arab ones.

It is such discrimination, not Islamic fervor, that is seen as sparking the riots. But will some of the fury be focused into jihad?

Actually, mainstream Muslim organizations have tried to mediate the conflict. So has the French offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, the organization that gave birth to Islamism. But the mediators turned into targets. Dalil Boubakeur, the government-backed imam of the Paris Grand Mosque, had his car pelted with stones when he went to console the town where the outbreak started.

Can Muslim elders rein in the rioters? If not, the jihadists stand at the ready. The rioters have been receiving Internet and cellphone text messages of warning, coordination and encouragement, apparently from extremists. The jihadists may wish to encourage the riots until the French suppress them, leaving angry young men to conclude that rioting begets only prison (where many will fall under radical Muslim influence) and that terror is the answer.

Left angry, desperate or coldly calculating, these radicalized young people, like any European citizen, would be eligible for visa-free travel to the U.S.

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