What began as a protest against the deaths of two youths in the dilapidated North African and Arab-dominated Paris suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois has escalated into near urban warfare, opening up old wounds of racial, social, and economic discontent. Discrimination, rampant unemployment, poor education and a perpetual "second class" feeling have beleaguered the decaying French suburbs of Paris where Arab and North African French Muslims have lived for years.
But why haven't years of social programs helped to elevate the social and economic status of France's Muslim minorities? And why, in the United States, have Muslims and other minority groups fared so much better?
The answers may lie in a fundamentally different approach to immigrant inclusion and how nationality is defined. And while the U.S. also has faced its own share of minority unrest and protests, its basic historical identity as a nation of immigrants may be the reason such levels of violence and upheaval have not been a feature of the Muslim immigrant experience here.
Charles Kupchan, a senior fellow and director of European studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, says, "There isn't the same feeling of unrest. People coming to this shore are welcomed as Americans regardless of their skin color or creed. They feel a sense of belonging." The problems motivating the French rioters, he notes, are more than just a case of being poor or unemployed. "I think it is primarily a result of disaffection rather than deprivation. This is more about alienation, about the perceived sense that entering the mainstream is not a possibility."
Even France's Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin in a recent statement reluctantly admitted that discrimination is a "daily and repeated" reality in the poor suburbs, nourishing feelings of being a second-class citizen.
Kupchan says the underlying reasons for rioting stem from "subtle forms of ethnic discrimination. Even though [the North African and Arab minorities] are technically citizens, they are treated as second-class citizens who aren't French."
In France, the emphasis is on a national French identity where cultural deviation is not welcome. By contrast, in the U.S. over the past 30 years, there has been a greater acceptance for a hyphenated America, rather than a melting pot. The U.S. has seen a surge in ethnic pride where being, say, African-American, Arab-American or Mexican-American is generally accepted, even encouraged.
Of course racism also exists in the U.S. But Kupchan maintains that minority citizens are seldom accused of not being American. "You may hear people say `They're taking my job,' but not that they aren't American."
Even for immigrants with education and experience, doors remain closed. In a BBC.com article, various French pressure groups, like SOS Racisme, highlighted numerous cases of employers discarding applicants with a foreign name. According to a SOS Racisme report, "Some companies believe that to be responsible for marketing [for example], you must have roots in mainland France over several generations to understand the French consumer attitudes."
How "religious" are the roots of the unrest? Some French officials, including the controversial Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, whose harsh words are accused of setting off the riots, have hinted that Islamist extremists may be egging teenagers on to continue the violence.
Kupchan says for the vast majority of the French rioters, being Muslim is just a part of their identity, like being Arab, or North African, he explains, and not the prime catalyst for their overwhelming sense of frustration. "The Muslim community, if anything, is trying to stop the violence. There doesn't seem to be any ideological overlay."
The Union of French Islamic Organizations (UFIO) has tried to offset this perception, quickly issuing a fatwa (religious edict) condemning the violence. "It is formally forbidden to any Muslim seeking divine grace . to participate in any action that blindly hits private or public property or could constitute an attack on someone's life," according to the fatwa.
And though many conservative pundits continue to warn that an extremist movement to turn France into a strict Islamic nation is spurring on the rioters, most world leaders and Muslim groups say that's simply not the case.
Sayyid M. Saeed, Secretary General of the Islamic Society of North America, says France's history as a colonial power and the status of its immigrant population as unskilled workers are a more convincing rationale for the riots than religious unrest or fanaticism.
"[For centuries] France occupied North Africa, which struggled for its freedom. Algeria also fought a bitter battle with France for its independence," Saeed says. After Morocco and Algeria gained independence, many French unhappily returned to the mainland, Saeed says, embracing the lesson that either you were pure French, or from somewhere else. So consequently any Algerian, Moroccan or North African who migrated to France were [relegated to] the lowest rung of civilization and had great difficulty developing relationships."
And whereas a desire for education or high-end, high-paying jobs brought a majority of skilled Muslim immigrants to the U.S., Muslim immigrants to France "were not the elite of their home countries," Saeed adds. While the orientation of America is pluralistic, France is a country where speaking French and having a French identity are the ideal, he explains. "So respect for diversity is far lower than here."
Religious and cultural identities are better protected in the U.S., says Saeed. France's headscarf ban in its public school system (part of a general ban on "ostentatious" religious displays, including the wearing of kippot, turbans, and large crucifixes) is a glaring example of a choice to eliminate all displays of religion and culture rather than to embrace them.
"In America there has neither been encouragement nor discouragement [of the headscarf], and when in some minor situations a woman was harassed, we have been able to go to court and seek help, and we have received support," Saeed says.
He cites a recent case in Oklahoma where a principal dismissed a student for wearing the scarf. "It was not her parents or an Islamic organization that went to court on her behalf. It was a federal attorney who took the school to court and helped her get back in school."
As France cracks down on two weeks of violence by invoking curfews and declaring a state of emergency, the world watches to see what will emerge after the rioting is brought under control. Some French officials are now quietly admitting that their country just hasn't done a good enough job fighting the discrimination felt by its minority youth. The country faces a difficult and delicate battle to stem the violence and present sweeping proposals to lessen discrimination without actually rewarding the actions of the rioters.
"France will have to recognize that people with different orientations and religions must be respected and included," Saeed says. "And from the side of French Arabs and North Africans, they need to raise their generations to be French, but also to pass on the universal values of Islam."
Those Islamic values include living in peace in any community, respecting the laws of the country where one resides, and no forced religious observance. Peaceful civil disobedience and protest, as in most religions, are allowed in Islam. But as the UFIO fatwa warns, "This action, whether taken in a concerted or spontaneous way, must in no way contradict (Muslim) teaching or the laws governing communal life."