Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Letter from France: In Europe, Islam fills Marxism's old shoes

Letter from France: In Europe, Islam fills Marxism's old shoes
Craig S. Smith International Herald Tribune
Thursday, December 30, 2004

PARIS When Azzedine Belthoub was growing up in the shantytowns outside of Nanterre, France, 40 years ago, the people who came to take the young North African kids to swim in the community pool, to register them for school and give them candy and comic books, were Marxists. The French Communist Party offered a political voice for the working classes, including the growing number of North African immigrants imported to fill labor shortages after World War II.

Today, Islam plays that role, especially in France, where men like Belthoub, wearing long beards and short djellabas, reach out to the poor and disillusioned in the country's working-class neighborhoods.

Young Arabs and Africans here have turned to Islam with the same fervor that the idealistic youth of the 1960s turned toward Marxism.

"Now, religion has become our identity," Belthoub said last week, sitting in a friend's apartment in a largely Muslim suburb north of Paris.

The question is whether Islam in Europe will follow the same path that communism did here, shedding its revolutionary extremism, electing mayors and legislators and assimilating itself into normal democratic political life.

As with Marxism in the 1960s, Islam in Europe has its radical fringe and its pragmatic mainstream. The latter is much the broader, intent on expanding Muslims' political power in French society. It has consciously mimicked many of the tactics of the left, including organizing summer camps where urban young people learn the tenets of the movement.

The narrower stream, but in many ways the more potent one, draws its inspiration from the fundamentalist clerics of Saudi Arabia and seeks to isolate its adherents from the surrounding society. Although predominantly pacifist, it contains a militant fringe analogous to the violent Marxist groups that operated in Europe decades ago.

That militant fringe makes headlines, though, and colors the whole movement, both in the way young Muslims understand their faith and in the way the larger society sees and deals with Islam, just as the bombers and kidnappers of the Red Brigades and the Baader-Meinhof Gang did to European communism in the 1960s.

But the eventual evaporation of hard-line Marxism in Europe may offer clues to how the Islamist trend could play out. Disowned by the pragmatic left, Europe's militant Marxist fringe was isolated and repressed, while governments pursued social policies that to some measure addressed the grievances of the poor and dispossessed, which had animated the radicals.

Islam's growth in Europe as the most vibrant ideology of the downtrodden is part of a wave of religiosity that has swept the Arab world in the past 30 years, propelled by frustration over feeble economies, uneven distribution of wealth and the absence of political freedom.

Like communism, it represents for many of its devoted adherents a transnational ideology tilting toward an eventual utopian vision, in this case of a vast, if not global, caliphate governed according to sharia, the legal code based on the Koran.

But the religion's appeal reaches beyond the communities of Arab and African immigrants born to the faith. There are an estimated 50,000 Muslim converts in France alone today. Many of these people have taken up the religion as a way to define themselves against traditional European culture, whose values they reject for economic or spiritual reasons.

"Islam has replaced Marxism as the ideology of contestation," says Olivier Roy, a French scholar of European Islam. "When the left collapsed, the Islamists stepped in."

Islam's role is not entirely accidental. The political left reached out to Muslims in the 1970s as other groups moved up and out of Europe's working-class neighborhoods. In France, Socialists and Communists alike established associations in the housing projects, attracting many young, politically active Arab men.

But those alliances withered, as frustrated Arab youths turned away from politics. In France, the rupture followed several defining events, including the 1981 bulldozing of an immigrant shelter in a suburb of Paris by the local mayor, a Communist. That betrayal was followed by the disillusionment of a 1985 civil rights march that brought little concrete action.

Communist cadres, meanwhile, resisted the rise of young Arabs within their party. By the end of the decade, when a young Arab was killed during a demonstration in Paris, the left's credibility in that group was dead.

Islamic organizations soon began channeling the frustrated youth toward religion.

The map of France's Islamists today largely matches that of the country's Marxists from decades ago. Many predominantly Muslim municipalities are still under Communist-led administrations, but Islamic organizations are now the active ones.

Islam's institutional presence has since blossomed. Europe's first generation of Muslim immigrants made do without mosques, halal butchers or easy access to the pilgrimage to Mecca; the current generation has all those things, along with a plethora of educational texts, video and audio cassettes and conferences to expand their knowledge of Islam.

The Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks only increased interest in the religion, and the growing institutions have met surging demand.

"We're rejected everywhere, and so the only place we feel at peace is in our religion," said Issam el-Zryouly, 19, whose family moved to France from Morocco when he was 6. Like many of his peers, Zryouly has redefined himself as a Muslim after a few years of drug use and petty crime.

But Islam's role as a beacon for the downtrodden may wane, in part because of its very success: The necessary compromises with the surrounding community that are inherent in economic and political participation could dull its edge and sap its momentum, as they did for Marxism.

Beyond the militant minority, the inward-looking fundamentalists are by definition politically insignificant. Once the more mainstream, upwardly mobile Arab or African young people move out of their working-class neighborhoods, "they aren't perceived as Muslim any more, and the vast majority aren't interested in using their religion as a social and political marker," says Gilles Kepel, author of "The War for Muslim Minds."

Islam as an ideology of the repressed may hold its allure only so long as immigrants' economic and political dislocation lasts.


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