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Letting the Genie out of the Bottle in Europe – France as a Case Study

On October 27, 2005, violent riots broke out in the suburbs of Paris following the death of two Muslims of North African origin-electrified to death in the Clichy-sous-Bois suburb during a confrontation with police. Since then hundreds of young Muslims and North African natives living in the poor suburbs of the metropolis erupted in violent public protestation, fought with police, and damaged thousands of cars, businesses, schools, and even two churches in the municipalities of Lanes and Sate.[1] Almost immediately the riots spread to impoverished suburbs in Marseilles, Lille, Lyon, Toulouse, Nice, and Strasbourg. A wave of riots in Berlin, Bremen, and Brussels soon followed.[2]

The riots quickly changed from spontaneous acts of civil disobedience to organized demonstrations; protestors even utilized cellular phones, SMS (text messaging), e-mail, and Internet communication to coordinate their activities and information regarding police mobilization and government response.[3]

On November 7, Jean-Jacques Le Chenadec (61) died of injuries sustained when he was assaulted as he was trying to extinguish a fire set off by rioters in the northern Paris suburb of Stein. This was the first fatality of the riots. [4] The eleventh night of the protests saw a further escalation in the violence; in the Grigny suburb (south of Paris), ten policemen were wounded – two critically – when rioters fired on them with a shotgun. [5]

As a result of the violence, government officials from Britain, Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark, Austria, Japan, and Australia joined the United States and Russia in warning their citizens to avoid traveling to the suburbs of Paris and to be cautious if traveling in the remainder of the country. [6]

The French government reacted to the riots relatively late. On Friday, 4 November, Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin summoned fifteen young Muslims and North African immigrants representing the impoverished suburbs of Paris to find a solution that would quell the violence and return law and order. [7]On 5 November, government officials convened in order to discuss the steps they must take. De Villepin then called upon the various government representatives of the Muslim community in a special session to solve the public disturbances. [8]

Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy summed it up be saying “we are trying to prevent every act of provocation. Once we overcome this crisis and order on the ground will return, everybody should understand that there exists an environment of injustice in some of the neighborhoods.”[9] Sarkozy’s statement reflects the beliefs of both French politicians and the local communities that the main cause of the riots is the lack of education, employment, and housing in the poor suburbs that are primarily occupied by Muslims and North African immigrants. [10]In his speech in front of the national assembly on November 8, Prime Minister Villepin admitted that racial discrimination does indeed exist in France. He noted: “job-seekers with names of foreign origin do not always attain the same opportunities.” However, when asked in an interview with the French station TF1 if the riots were religious or ethnic in nature, he claimed that in his opinion “it is not the heart of the matter.” [11]

French President Jacques Chirac, who delayed an official reaction to the incident, publicly affirmed on November 7 that “safeguarding the security and public order of France is the number one priority.”[12] The following day (November 8) the government enacted a national state of emergency – originating from an old colonial emergency regulation from the war in Algeria (1955) – in 38 cities throughout France. This act, which is administered for the first time since 1961, empowers the provincial governors to impose a curfew “in all places where it is necessary” and to expel violators of public law from the republic.[13]

However, regardless of the ratification of the state of emergency and the fact that France intends to expel ten known agitators, the protestors continued to flood the streets and riot – albeit in fewer numbers, due to the curfew imposed in most French cities. The French government has refused to involve either the army or Special Forces in Counter-Terrorism in suppressing the riots, in order, apparently, to avoid giving the impression that the government has lost control of the situation.

Reactions of religious leaders

The Muslim community in France indirectly sympathized with the rioters and called upon the national government to legislate a program that will improve the situation of Muslims and North African immigrants, the primary dwellers of the suburbs. Still, expressions such as “White” and “French” versus “Black” and “Arabs”, did figure in calls to end the riots. [14]As many as fifteen Muslim religious scholars were recruited to assist French authorities in calling upon young Muslims to end the violent protests. [15]

Even the Union of French Islamic Organizations (UOIF) published a decree (Fatwa) that references the Koran and the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad: “it is forbidden for any Muslim to take part in actions that blindly attack public or private property or harm another’s life.”[16]

This decree was met with some hostility by various groups of French-Muslims. Dalil Abu Bakar, head of the Muslim Council of France and the Imam of the central Parisian mosque, argued that the decree compares Islam to vandalism and explicitly blames all Muslims for the riots, rather than only those who participated in them.[17]

Elsewhere in Europe

Regardless of the number of rampages and occurrences of arson of vehicles and businesses in various cities around Europe, most of the primary and peripheral factors that instigated the riots were treated with indifference throughout the continent. Most officials do not view a connection between these incidents and the riots in France, and in fact they believe that these are spontaneous occurrences committed by wild individuals who simply identify with what is going on. According to them, because of the unique circumstances that prevail in France (a combination of impoverished ghettos coupled with the friction between immigrants and local natives) there is no reason to be worried about the riots and its effects on other European domains.

In Belgium, for example, local police authorities played down the burning of vehicles in Brussels and said that these are isolated incidents; there is no cause for alarm (a reaction that was also typical in France during the early stages of the riots). [18]

In Germany, Ehrhart Koerting, the Interior Minister of the municipality of Berlin, claimed that there is no chance that the riots in Paris would spread to Germany. According to him, the isolated incidents that occurred in Germany were simply the result of a few youths taking advantage of the circumstances to sympathize with the French immigrants. He does not see any reason for the immigrant community in Germany to import the arson and violence that surfaced in France. Nadeem Elyas, head of the Central Council of Muslims in Germany, does not deny the emergence of riots within Germany’s borders, although he does believe that they won’t approach the severity of those seen in France. In his opinion, the friction between immigrants and locals in Germany is not as prevalent as that in France.

Professor Han Entzinger from the department of Immigration and Integration Studies at Erasmus University in Amsterdam agrees, claiming that European countries, let alone the Netherlands, have no reason to fear that the riots might spread to their countries, although he too does not rule out the possibility of civil disobedience, albeit in a more limited scope. He also supports the argument that the unique circumstances of poverty in the suburbs of Paris are the sole cause of the riots.

In contrast, the opposition leader in Italy, Romano Prodi, expressed doubt about the majority explanation of the riots in France and demanded that the Italian regime deal with the poverty in the suburbs of Italian cities in order to avoid the same cycles of violence that haunt France.

Karim Hassoun, head of the Belgian branch of the Arab European League (AEL) – whose branch was created specifically in response to the wave of racism that appeared in Antwerp in 2002 – warns that there exists in Belgium the same circumstances that caused the eruption of riots in France. [19]

Letting the Religious Genie out of the Bottle

The so-called French “Intifada”, a term coined by the Muslim immigrants in France as an analogy to the Palestinian uprising,[20] coupled with the terrorist attacks perpetrated by “Al-Qaeda” in Western Europe in recent years, have led to questions of the status of the Muslim community in Europe, both within these communities and without. There is no doubt that Muslims of various nationalities-but primarily from Arab countries-are the fastest growing population in Europe.

In France, for example, there are approximately six million Muslims (10% of the total population); this is in fact the largest Muslim community in Western Europe.[21] Most of the Muslim immigrants arrived in France from North Africa in the 1960s and 70s. They mostly settled in the suburbs of various cities, primarily in the north and northeast of Paris, in St. Denis and Clichy-sous-Bois.

During this period, France enjoyed substantial economic prosperity, and as a result encouraged the immigration of foreign nationals. During the 1970s, France was concerned with the family unit. The first generation of Muslim immigrants, who immediately secured employment in France, integrated well into French society. The second generation of Muslim immigrants – the same individuals seen today on the streets of France – was raised under unique circumstances created primarily by the long-term neglect by the various governmental regimes. This generation was born into high unemployment, decrepit housing projects, and high crime rates. These poor living standards, which this second generation felt was partly a result of the preference of French government and society for the “favored” citizens – Jews and Christians – led to a segregation between city centers and suburbs, and turned the latter into impoverished ghettos, where even police hesitated to enter.[22]

The physical segregation and emotional neglect felt by this community relative to Christian and Jewish residents also brought about a religious radicalization among Muslim immigrants, who complained about the government’s preference to construct synagogues and churches instead of mosques. This radicalization was influenced by additional factors: the racist treatment by French citizens, who viewed the Muslim immigrants – particularly those of Arab origin – as ethnic-religious foreigners, even those who were born and raised in France and whose mother tongue was French; the French law that forbade the display of “noticeable religious symbols” in government-run schools and other public institutions – exemplified by the expulsion of two Muslim sisters from school after they refused to remove their veils – was viewed as an act of “educational Apartheid” and a targeted assault on Muslims whose daughters are being forced to remove their veils in certain places. And if all this were not enough, the terrorist attacks in Madrid (March 11, 2004) and London (July 7, 2005) portrayed the Muslim immigrant, in the eyes of their French-Christian neighbors, as a potential terrorist. This perceived religious radicalization led to the mandatory display of veils in certain Parisian and other municipalities’ suburbs. In one Parisian suburb, the city council designated certain hours for women only in a public swimming complex in order to satisfy one radical Muslim figure.[23]

The Muslim awakening in France is heightened by the fact that other minorities that arrived during the 1970s and 1980s, such as Italians and Chinese, assimilated relatively easily within French society, and the second generation of these immigrants even attained senior positions in the regimes. In contrast, most of their Muslim counterparts refuse to assimilate in French society, and may even resent French culture.

The fact that both Prime Minister Villepin and Interior Minister Sarkozy have designated the Muslim and North African immigrants with labels such as “criminals”, “youth gangs”, “mobs”, and “indolent”, [24]underlines the fact that the French government has completely overlooked the roots of the problem. Casting the blame on the standards of education, unemployment, and the housing situation in the suburbs is an attempt by France-and Europe in general-to ignore the facts and turn a blind eye to the religious factor.

Unfortunately, the percentage of Muslims leading and participating in the current violent activities, such as the burning of churches in the cities of Lanes and Sate – and the supposed “retaliation” in the form of two Molotov cocktails[25] hurled at a mosque in the city of Carpentras would suggest that the religious factor does indeed need to be taken into account.

Putting the genie back in the bottle

It is fair to assume that France could have succeeded in quelling the riots-and returning the religious genie into the bottle-only by developing a comprehensive socio-economic policy to deal with the inequality, education, and housing in the poverty-stricken suburbs and to provide Muslim immigrants with equal opportunities. At the same time, such a policy must reevaluate immigration laws, track the freedom of expression as manifested by the instigators in mosques and other public domains, arrest and expel radical Islamic instigators involved in terror and the incitement of terror, and deny national refuge for such figures.

The wave of riots that broke out in the suburbs is not a new phenomenon in France; in the last ten years, the country has suffered similar demonstrations. In Strasbourg and parts of southern France, there have been hundreds of violent confrontations involving Muslim immigrants, North-African natives, and Arabs. However, it must be noted that such past occurrences never reached the scope of the recent riots and did not spread to neighboring European countries. The French “Intifada” is unique to anything Europe has beheld until now. The concern that it may spread to other countries and the possibility of its opening the door to Islamic terror movements, who are certainly willing to offer a helping hand, is fully justified.

In France, as elsewhere in Europe, radical Islamic figures are involved in community centers and other institutions in activities that, paradoxically, they would not be able to carry out in their countries of origin. The democratic way of life, and the protection of freedom of expression and civil rights, allow them to freely operate in metropolitan cities and impoverished suburbs inhabited by immigrants.

The day-to-day interaction between radical Islamic figures and immigrants, most of whom consider themselves second class citizens, allows the Islamists to exploit the demoralized immigrants and offer them an outlet through which to react to their feelings of neglect, which according to these radical teachers, is rooted in the suppression of Islam and the Muslim nation by Christians. It is their long-term objective to unite the Islamic community (differentiated from the Muslim community which is not necessarily religious) to form a nucleus that will ultimately lead to the establishment of a wider Islamic society within the country. This Islamic society will ultimately take over the “infidel” society where Muslim immigrants currently reside.

In the short-term, the goal of the more radical Islamist is to identify potential and recruit activists to perpetrate Islamic terror operations. For example, ‘Umar Mahmoud ‘Uthman Abu ‘Umar (“Abu Qatada al-Falastini”), a Jordanian immigrant of Palestinian origin received refuge in Britain in 1994. He has been described by European security officials as the “spiritual envoy” of Usama bin Ladin in Europe. Abu Qatada operated out of the Finsbury Park mosque in north London and is considered to be the primary advocate in Britain for the theory of Worldwide Islamic “jihad”. His sermons call for the forceful conquest, through armed jihad, of the “infidel” regimes in Arab countries, which he claims, have abandoned “Shari’a” (religious Muslim law) for the law of man and sold their countries to the enemies of Allah. He calls upon the Islamic nation to embark on an armed jihad against the Jews and against the United states, which, he says, defends the “infidel” Muslim regimes and occupies Muslim soil in the Arabian Peninsula and the Balkans. Regardless of his extremely radical incitement, it was only after eight years of unlimited radical Islamic activities, that British police raided his hiding place in south London and arrested him (October 2002). Britain is expected to extradite Abu Qatada to Jordan, but only after the latter promises not to execute the death sentence against him.[26]

Many view the accelerating demographic expansion of the Muslim community in Europe as an existential threat to the future of these countries, while others argue that this Muslim community represents a small minority, of which an even smaller number is regligiously radicalized. However, even if we are speaking of a relative small group of Muslim extremists, an examination of the operations of the more radical Islamic institutes and organizations around Europe-and the number of people who flock to their meetings and ceremonies-shows that this a growing phenomenon. In many mosques around Europe fundamentalist religious teachers preach to their constituents, most of who are immigrants, that Islam is under attack by the West and by the Jews and Christians, and that the only response is an armed confrontation.

Those voices are not the only ones who oppose the West and the foreign occupation of Islamic soil. Many Muslim immigrants share these intense feelings, at least in terms of Islam’s right to dominate its historic territory. In numerous European countries, Muslim immigrants commonly set out in public protestation of the European involvement in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, while we have yet to see any demonstrations by those same immigrants against anti-Western violence. Nor would it be an exaggeration to assume that in their hearts, many Muslim immigrants support the same Islamists that perpetrate terrorist attacks against the West.

Finally, it is imperative to realize that the fundamental problem facing Europe today is not the religion of Islam itself, but the way it is interpreted and followed by its leaders and believers. Many Muslim immigrants are worried about their lack of representation and power, which makes it that much easier for them to fall under the influence of Islamic fundamentalism. We have already seen this happen in the recruitment of Muslim immigrants-of French and British origin-to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.


[1]Dror, Mish’ani, “Mishteret Tzarfat: Yerida mashma’utit behekef ha-mehumot” (“French police: Significant decrease in the riots extent”), Ha’aretz, (November 9, 2005). Internet: spages/642921.html. (Hebrew); “ma’asei ha-alimut be-Tzarfat higi’u le-lev Paris” (“The violence in France arrived in the heart of Paris”), Reuters, (November 6, 2005). Internet: (Hebrew); “I’tiqalat wasi’ah wa-aa’mal al-‘unf tantaqil kharij mintaqat baris” (“Extensive arrests and acts of violence spread from Paris area”), aljazeera, (November 5, 2005). Internet: NR/exeres/4415D964-2D89-46B7-ACA9-43DFA2BED17B.htm. (Arabic); “Two schools burned in fresh France rioting”, Reuters, (November 5, 2005). Internet: storyID=101018+05-Nov-2005+RTRS&srch=france.

[2]”The violence in France arrived in the heart of Paris”, Ibid.

[3]”Chirac ya’qud ijtima’an tari’an li-muwajahat al-‘azmah” (“Chirac set an urgent meeting to deal with the crisis”), BBCARABIC, (November 6, 2005). Internet: (Arabic); “Faransa tata’aqab al-shuban bi-al-mirwahiyat wa-al-‘unf yantashir” (“France follows the youth with helicopters and the violence expands”), aljazeera, (November 6, 2005). Internet: (Arabic); “The violence in France arrived in the heart of Paris”, Ibid.

[4]”First fatality by the riots in France”, Reuters, (November 7, 2005). Internet:

[5]Franck, Prevel, “French rioters shoot at police, Chirac vows action”, Reuters, (November 6, 2005). Internet: 2005-11-06T235224Z_01_MAR227625_RTRUKOC_0_US-FRANCE-RIOTS.xml

[6]”First fatality by the riots in France”, Ibid ; Mish’ani, Ibid.

[7]Matthew, Campbell, “France hit by a burning rage”, The Sunday Times, (November 06, 2005), p.1.

[8]”The violence in France arrived in the heart of Paris”, Ibid.

[9]”The violence in France arrived in the heart of Paris”, Ibid.

[10]Campbell, Ibid.

[11]Mish’ani, Ibid.

[12] “French violence hits fresh peak”, BBCNEWS, (November 7, 2005). Internet:

[13]Jon, Boyle, “France invokes emergency riot powers”, Reuters, (November 9, 2005). Internet: type=worldNews&storyID=2005-11-09T111416Z_01_MAR227625_RTRUKOC_0_US-FRANCE-RIOTS.xml; Tom, Heneghan, “French youths riot again despite curfew threat”, Reuters, (November 8, 2005). Internet: NewsArticle.aspx?type=topNews&storyID=2005-11-08T083057Z_01_MAR227625_RTRUKOC_0_US-FRANCE-RIOTS.xml

[14]”al-Muslimun yash’arun bi-ightirab ‘an al-mujtama’ al-faransi” (“The Muslims feel ostracized from the French society”), BBCNEWS, (October 31, 2005). Internet: hi/arabic/world_news/newsid_4393000/4393796.stm. (Arabic).

[15]”Extensive arrests and acts of violence spread from Paris area”, Ibid.

[16]Prevel, Ibid.

[17]”‘Otzer layla hukhraz be-parvar shell Paris” (“A curfew was announced in a Paris suburb”), Ha’aretz, (November 7, 2005). Internet: (Hebrew).

[18]The violence in France arrived in the heart of Paris, Ibid.

Erik, Kirschbaum, “European cities on guard for French-style violence”, Reuters, (November 7, 2005). Internet: news/NewsArticle.aspx?type=topNews&storyID=2005-11-07T194017Z_01_MOL753215_RTRUKOT_0_TEXT0.xml&related=true

Kirschbaum, Ibid. [19]

Campbell, Ibid. [20]

Campbell, Ibid. [21]

Elaine, Ganley, “France moving to help Muslims worship”, AP, (November 9, 2005). Internet: [22] stories/F/FRANCE_MUSLIMS?SITE=RIPRJ&SECTION=HOME&TEMPLATE=DEFAULT

[23]Campbell, Ibid; Ganley, Ibid; “Memshelet Tzarfat tomekhet be-gerush talmidot she’atu ra’ala” (“The French government support the expulsion of two female students who display their veils”), Walla, (October 12, 2003). Internet: (Hebrew); Oliver, Roy, “Islam in France”, in Bernard Lewis & Dominique Schnapper (eds), Muslims in Europe, (London & New York: Pinter, 1994), p. 56.

[24]Mish’ani, Ibid.

[25]Mish’ani, Ibid.

Matthew, Bigg, “French police brace for possible unrest in Paris”, Reuters, (November 11, 2005). Internet: 2005-11-12T014005Z_01_HAR953036_RTRUKOC_0_US-FRANCE-RIOTS.xml

[26]Alexander and Swetnam, Usama bin Ladin’s al-Qaida: Profile of a Terrorist Network, pp. 7-8; Ed, Blanche, “The Egyptians around Bin Laden”, Jane’s Intelligence Review, Section: Terrorism and Insurgency, Vol. 13, No. 12, (December 2001), p. 21; Shaul, Shay and Yoram Schweitzer, An Expected Surprise, (Herzliya: IDC, 2002), p. 176 (Hebrew version); Without Author, “Akthar min ra’y – al-afghan al-‘arab bayna al-‘ams wa-al-yawm” (“More than one opinion: The Arab Afghans from yesterday to today”), aljazeera, (November 30, 2000). (Arabic); Without Author, “al-Shurtah al-baritaniya ta’taqil Abu Qatada” (“British police arrests Abu Qatada”), al-Quds al-‘arabi, 4181, (October 25, 2003), p. 1. (Arabic); Without Author, “Khutah li-naql Abu Qatada wa-nashitin islamiyin fi baritaniya li-sijn murih” (“A plan to move Abu Qatada and Islamic operatives in Britain to a ‘comfortable’ jail”), al-Quds al-‘arabi, 4269, (February 10, 2003), p. 8. (Arabic); Without Author, “Malaff baritani ya’tabir Abu Qatada al-‘adu raqam wahad wa-al-‘ab al-ruhi li-al-Qa’idah fi ‘Uruba” (“A British file considers Abu Qatada enemy number one and al-Qa’ida’s spiritual father in Europe”), al-Quds al-‘arabi, 4355, (May 22, 2003), p. 5. (Arabic).