Gjesteskribent

Simon Kuper har en lang artikkel i Financial Times som spør om det virkelig er Eurabia vi står overfor. Han tar Paris-bydelen Belleville og byen Dreux som eksempler på en helt annen fremtid. Artikkelen bør leses grundig. Den reiser helt andre perspektiver enn et «når de blir majoritet»-scenario.

Immigrant Muslims in Belleville

by Simon Kuper

Anyone wanting to understand the situation of Muslims in Europe should visit Belleville. The rundown Parisian neighbourhood just east of the city centre is packed with couscous restaurants, Islamic bookshops and French citizens of Arab origin. About 1.5 million nominal Muslims live in the Paris region, more than in any other European city.

But the narrow streets of Belleville are also packed with people of Chinese, Jewish, sub-Saharan African and middle-class French origin. A class of children pours out of a kindergarten: toddlers of four different colours hold hands while their teachers issue commands in French.

The Moroccan novelist Abdellah Taïa lives in the Belleville building on whose steps, according to legend, Edith Piaf was born. (In truth, «The Little Sparrow» was born in a local hospital.) «I’m even overjoyed to go to McDonald’s,» says Taïa, as he pours a version of Moroccan mint tea reinvented by a posh French tea house. «The servers are white, black, Arab, Chinese. It’s almost too philosophical-existential an experience, to see this mélange». On Taïa’s street, the vagrants are French, Algerian and Portuguese. There is a café for white creative types run by Arabs and frequented in the mornings by Chinese businessmen. By the metro around the corner, older Arab men consort with Chinese prostitutes.

Of course not all Muslim life in France or Europe resembles Belleville. In the ethnic ghettos outside Paris, more of which later, nominal Muslims can grow to adulthood without ever entering a white French person’s home. Yet Belleville matters. A commonly depicted future scenario for Europe is of «Eurabia», where a religious Muslim majority runs the continent. But most French political scientists and demographers think the Belleville scenario of «mélange» is more likely.

Certainly «Eurabia» has had more publicity, especially in the US. Bernard Lewis, a famous scholar of Islam, cited the number of immigrants from Muslim countries, and their relatively high birth-rates, to conclude: «Judging by current trends, Europe will have Muslim majorities in the population by the end of the twenty-first century at the latest.» The US author Bruce Bawer writes in While Europe Slept: «Many think France will be the first western European country with a majority Muslim population – and thus the first to experience full-fledged sharia law.»

The recent Reflections on the Revolution in Europe: Immigration, Islam and the West, by the FT’s political commentator Christopher ­Caldwell, is the most nuanced and sophisticated statement yet of the Eurabia thesis. In the Eurabia scenario, French president Nicolas Sarkozy’s recent attack on the burka is just another skirmish in the «clash of civilisations» between east and west. But in the Belleville scenario, Sarkozy’s speech means something very different.

Muslims arrived in France in large numbers in the 1960s, mostly from north Africa. France now has perhaps five million people of Muslim origin, about 8 per cent of the population. French concern about the situation probably peaked between 2001 and 2007. This was the period of September 11, the Iraq war, the Madrid bombings, the banning of the Islamic veil in French schools, the murder of the Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh by an Islamic fundamentalist, the London bombings, the riots in Paris’s ethnic ghettos and finally the Danish cartoon crisis.

Often, Muslims were the news. There were flashpoints everywhere. Even Belleville had its own cartoon crisis. In 2006, the café La Mer à Boire, an undiscovered treasure with a terrace on a quiet hill overlooking Paris, ran an exhibition of anti-religious cartoons called «Neither God Nor God». Local kids broke a window and made threats. Eventually the whole thing fizzled out. But it did look uncomfortably like a miniature clash of civilisations.

Yet there are two main reasons the Belle ville scenario looks more likely than the Eurabia one. The first is demographic: no serious demographer expects Muslims to become a majority in any western European country. The second is attitudes: only a tiny minority of French Muslims appears to want to establish a medieval caliphate in Europe. In surveys, most French Muslims say that they feel French. Their concerns are overwhelmingly «French», such as making a living. Many of them no longer observe Islam. And although here and there Muslims have made France a little more north African or Islamic, the influence seems to be more the other way: Muslim immigrants are being infected by Frenchness.

. . .

First, the demographics. In Belleville you see women of Arab origin pushing prams. But you also see the white French artistic couples who have recently colonised the neighbourhood pushing Bugaboo strollers. That Muslims are grinding out babies ready to take over Europe is an outdated canard. The Eurabia authors worry about declining European fertility, but in fact the Muslim decline is much sharper. In 1970, women in Algeria and Tunisia averaged about seven children each. Now, according to the CIA World Factbook, they average fewer than 1.8. The French rate is almost exactly two. Parisian demographers Youssef Courbage and Emmanuel Todd demonstrate in their 2007 book Le Rendez-vous des Civilisations that after most men in a country become literate, eventually a majority of women becomes literate, and then fertility plunges. This demographic transition has now happened in most Muslim states. At last count Algerian women living in France averaged an estimated 2.57 children, or only slightly above the French rate. Moreover, the fertility rate of north African women in France has been falling since 1981. Eurabia is not a demographic prospect.

The other problem with forecasting numbers of European Muslims in 2100 is the presumption that sixth-generation European Muslims will still be a foreign body here: Islam as a bacillus that even secular former Muslims carry around, forever dangerous. This ignores the transition affecting many nominal Muslims in France.

A trope of Eurabia literature is the muezzin’s call to prayer echoing off European roofs. You don’t hear it much in Belleville. As elsewhere in France, the neighbourhood’s Muslims appear short of mosques. On a street corner opposite a café, you find an abandoned pair of slippers and steps leading down to one of the cellar «prayer rooms» where most religious Muslims in France pray. The law of 1905 – cementing the separation of church and state – forbids the Republic to pay for religious buildings. In fact, there doesn’t seem to be much demand. Probably less than 5 per cent of French Muslims attend mosque every Friday, write Jonathan Laurence and Justin Vaisse in their study of Muslim integration in France, Integrating Islam.

Farhad Khosrokhavar, director of research at France’s Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, estimates that 15 to 20 per cent of French Muslims do not practise Islam at all. Fasting during Ramadan is considered a basic duty of the religion, yet only about 70 per cent of French Muslims even claim to do it. In short, European Islam has many of the same problems as European Christianity. That’s the difficulty of Caldwell’s portrayal of an assertive Islam facing a crumbling Christianity: «When an insecure, malleable, relativistic culture meets a culture that is anchored, confident and strengthened by common doctrines, it is generally the former that changes to suit the latter.»

Sometimes it’s Islam that changes. Patrick Weil, French political scientist and author of How To Be French: Nationality in the Making Since 1789, recently visited Aubervilliers, a largely ethnic minority suburb of Paris, for the funeral of a young Arabic actor killed on his moped. Songs by Billie Holiday and Charles Aznavour were played, even though there is no singing at Islamic funerals, after which an imam spoke and prayed. Finally the dead man’s illiterate grandmother, born in Algeria, approached the coffin to touch the body. «You mustn’t touch!» said the imam, following Islamic doctrine. The grandma touched anyway. The funeral was a typical mélange of Islam and France, says Weil.

. . .

True, the mélange of Belleville isn’t the whole story of Islam in France. Take the train an hour west of Paris to the poor town of Dreux, and you see something that at first glance looks more like Eurabia. Dreux in places resembles an Arab town in the rain. About half the town’s 32,000 inhabitants are of foreign origin. They mostly didn’t choose to live in an ethnic ghetto. But when the local factories began to shut, the white French found it easiest to get jobs elsewhere.

French people of Arab origin often struggle with employment. That’s partly because they generally have little education, and partly because of discrimination. In 2004, Jean-François Amadieu, a sociologist at the Sorbonne, sent out 500 CVs replying to ads for sales jobs in the Paris region. The CVs were identical except in one regard: some applicants had north African names, and others traditional French ones. The white male French names received five times as many job offers as the north African ones. When Amadieu repeated the exercise in 2006, the ratio was 20:1.

Some French Arabs do rise. Even Dreux has its own «beurgeoisie», as the growing French-Arab bourgeoisie is known. («Beur» is French slang for son of an Arab.) Khosrokhavar estimates that 20 to 30 per cent of French nominal Muslims are now beurgeoise. In Dreux, they live in villas with gardens in the city centre.

Yet even Dreux is not Eurabia. There are more veils on the housing estates than a decade ago, as many younger people discover Islam, but it’s not the case that masses of fundamentalist Muslims are gathering here preparing to take over a loathed France. Poverty, not religion, is the main preoccupation of French nominal Muslims, polls consistently show. In a survey by the Pew Research Center in 2006, for instance, 52 per cent of French Muslims said they were «very worried» about unemployment. Only about a fifth said the same about the decline of religion or the influence of pop culture. Few French Muslims profess to care much about foreign political issues such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Only about 12 people come to meetings of Dreux’s pro-Palestinian group, says Olivier Roy, France’s leading scholar of Islam, who, peculiarly for a member of the French intellectual elite, lives in central Dreux.

Roy is a diminutive, dishevelled man who looks more like a small-town shopkeeper than a French intellectual. He studies Muslims both in books and in his daily neighbourhood life. Rummaging in his living room, he unearths a copy of Dreux’s local newspaper and leafs through to the birth announcements. Nine of the babies in the paper have at least one Muslim parent. Three are products of mixed marriages. «It’s typical,» Roy says. He turns to the page listing prayer times, for the local mosques as well as churches. «It presumes that Muslims read the local paper,» explains Roy. «These people won’t wear Salafin clothing or beards. But they will go to prayer. They want to have halal food at schools, but they don’t want Muslim schools.» Roy says younger French Muslims are often seeking an Islam that is both strict and French, different from the muddled traditional Islam that their parents brought from villages in north Africa. This is not a clash of civilisations, says Roy. Instead, religion is detaching from culture: you can now come from a French-Arab family and not be Muslim. Or you can be Muslim and French – even if other French people don’t see you as French.

. . .

How Muslims become French was explained to me two years ago in Dreux by Leila Laouati, French daughter of Algerian parents. Despite having a degree in international relations from the Sorbonne and being multilingual, in 10 years of job-hunting she had failed to find a good post in France. Occasionally, she encountered overt racism: one interviewer expressed doubt about whether she could work with French people. «But I am French,» Laouati replied. It did no good. When we met, she was about to leave for a job in Japan. She is still there now.

Laouati told me her parental home was like a «little Algeria». But Dreux Arabs younger than her had become «petits français», she said. «They are much better integrated. They know very little of Maghrebian languages. They all watch French TV. Arab TV would bore them to death.» They eat steak rather than couscous, she added, have Turkish or black friends, and speak French to their children. «They live like petits français even if they don’t know any white French. It’s a different version of petit français.»

Surveys bear her out. Muslims in France consistently report strong identification with France. In a poll in 2005 by the US state department, for instance, 95 per cent expressed a favourable overall opinion of France. In a Gallup poll two years later, 46 per cent of Parisian Muslims said they identified «very strongly» or «extremely strongly» with France – exactly the same percentage as those in the national population. Indeed, French Muslims are far more likely to identify as «French» than are British muslims as «British». Weil explains: «In France we are very good at cultural identification: making people feel members of the same community. We are very bad at fighting economic discrimination.»

What sets most French Muslims apart from the French mainstream is less their religion than their social and economic circumstances: poor isolated housing estates with high rates of crime. Scholars such as Roy and Weil agree that the riots in Paris’s ethnic outskirts in 2005 were not a «European intifada» of fundamentalist Muslims attacking the west. Rather, they were a sort of Marxist uprising of poor French people who were demanding – in the anarchic French revolutionary tradition – the socio economic status that they thought should come with being French. Roy has noted in the riots «the complete absence of Palestinian flags, references to wars in Iraq or elsewhere in the Muslim world, or even symbols of Islam». The rioters were banging at the French door, saying, «Let us in too.»

. . .

If you drew up a composite profile of the average French European Muslim today, it would look something like this: she has two or three children, who attend non-religious schools. She is relatively poor but generally content, although angry about discrimination. She feels more religious than a decade ago, but doesn’t wear a headscarf, although she has friends who do. She opposes terrorism, although she probably knows terrorist sympathisers. She votes socialist, and worries about economic issues more than about anything in the Middle East.

Gradually, most French politicians have come to accept this view of French Muslims. Sarkozy often takes a hard line on ethnic minorities – in 2005 he called the Parisian rioters «scum» – but he does not seem to foresee Eurabia. As he once said, if we conclude that Islam is incompatible with democracy, what do we do with the millions of Muslim French citizens?

Since 2007, French Muslims have slipped from the news. That has helped usher in a new stage, one that Roy calls «formatage»: a religion, in this case Islam, is reformatted to fit the dominant social norms. One example of formatage in France was the banning of the veil in schools. Another, writes Roy, is the evolution of a new kind of French Muslim wedding: it takes place in the mosque, but with the couple hand in hand, the woman dressed in white and holding flowers – just as in a French Christian wedding.

During formatage, writes Roy, society throws out aspects of the religion that it considers «barbarous» (such as amputation of criminals’ hands) or simply «weird» (such as the veil). Formatage can be done from below, or imposed from above. Some resist it: many French Muslims opposed the banning of the veil in schools, even though the interior ministry estimated that less than 1 per cent of Muslim girls wore headscarves to school. But most people accept the new format. Otherwise it would not hold.

In June, Sarkozy embarked on a new stage in the formatage of Islam. He attacked an item of clothing that few French people ever see: the burka. «It’s a sign of abasement,» he said. «The burka is not welcome on the territory of the French republic.» In August, a swimming pool in outer Paris banned a woman from swimming in a «burkini», a head-to-toe swimsuit. When the Republic starts engaging with such marginal phenomena, we are probably in a late stage of formatage. You can spend hours on the Boulevard de Belleville and never see a burka. The interior ministry has estimated the number of French women who wear burkas at precisely 367. About a quarter of them are converts, as was the woman banned for her even rarer burkini. (The most extreme forms of Islam are for some reason disproportionately attractive to converts.)

What is happening now is that the Republic is drawing the borders of French Islam. France has accepted the presence of Muslims – «We are a mixed country. It’s done,» Roy told me – and now it’s setting limits. The Republic had already stamped on flirts with terrorism and on imams who praised wife-beating. Now «weird» clothing is out, too. Muslims can remain Muslims if they wish, but they are also to be turned into «petits français», like those toddlers in Belleville holding hands with their Franco-Chinese and white pals. It’s the same path followed by the Italians, Jews and Poles who have come to France at different times in the past 150 years. All were once considered alien. All have since been assimilated.

Many French Muslims relish the prospect. In Dreux I met a beurgeoise woman who worked for the council and who told me in impeccable French: «Me, I am of immigrant origin. I came from Morocco, so I have a double identity. But my children are French, full stop. Their history is here.»

Or as the writer Abdellah Taïa says in his Belleville studio: «If I feel anguish in the evenings, it’s not because I’m Arab or Muslim.»

Immigrant Muslims in Belleville
By Simon Kuper

Simon Kuper is an FT writer based in Paris