Saturday, November 05, 2005

The Suburban Intifada

France has frequently been a seismograph for social upheavals that later manifest themselves elsewhere. But what is happening now in the suburbs is someting new.

By Rudolph Chimelli

(my translation of "Die Vorstadt-Intifada", Süddeutsche Zeitung, 04.11.2005 17:59 Uhr)

France has a long history of training itself to be accustomed to lawlessness. For centuries, angry farmers have dumped imported food goods on the asphalt, without anyone ever being held accountable for it. Striking workers detain their bosses, and no-one complains about the wrongful deprivation of personal liberty.

Fishermen block harbors and receive higher catch quotas. "Grim reapers" (faucheurs) defend the national culture by clear-cutting test fields of genetically-manipulated crops. And above all the small eruptions of tangible interests shines the last reflected glow of great revolutions against the established order. Governments have foundered on truckers' toll-gates. Even in the time of the Résistance and near-civil-war for Algérie française, the idea that there could be a higher legitimacy than that of the reigning circumstances gained strength.

The rioters in the burning suburbs know nothing of all this. But a substrate of such collective experiences has penetrated their consciousnesses: not much will happen to one, if one throws rocks and firebombs at the cops, sets cars alight, and destroys traffic signals. A gang member can easily handle two months with or without probation, since his biography consists of failure at school, unemployment and lack of vocation, boredom and drug crime. Such a rebel does not wish to be integrated into society. He hates it.

Longing for Rebellion

France has frequently been a seismograph for social upheavals that later manifest themselves elsewhere. But what is happening now in the suburbs is someting new, alone in terms of the extent of the unrest. Since the beginning of the year, 30,000 cars were burned and 9,000 police cars attacked, not only around Paris, but also near Lille and Marseille, as well as in Alsace.

Only security experts realized what was happening. Jaded by the rough customs of social conflicts, the political powers and the media tended for a long time to dismiss these occurrences as an ugly routine, as an agitation that would die out again on its own. Rather late they noticed that Henry Miller's Quiet Days in Clichy were long past.

Frequently overlooked in all this are the decisive changes that new techniques introduce. Frustrated youths are no longer isolated loners, who two years ago little by way of means of self-expression except spray-paint. Now they find themselves in the Internet, where some cleverer than they know how to articulate their amorphous longings for rebellion. Tirades of hate on the television screen lead the surfers to radical organizations and to virtual religious wars. Even the instructions for making weapons are provided. Cell phones in turn make the tactical direction of a riot possible, in a way that earlier was unimaginable for both police and gang leaders.

"We, the Muslims"

These gangs have barely any understanding of the Koran and the teachings of Islam. The suburban intifada has no directly political aims. It is therefore scarcely to be ended by concessions (which ones?). It doesn't enjoy the sympathy of the Muslim majority in these quarters, who suffer the most from the violence, just as the terror attacks in London or Madrid mostly caused disgust among them. Nonetheless, the nights of fire strengthen the perception of different categories: "We, the Moslems" on one side, "the others" on the other side of a rift that is getting deeper. After the horror of September 11 and the attacks in the London subways, an ambivalent feeling began to emerge even among the moderates: The Americans deserved it, or the Brits, anyway.

Explosives, atom bombs, and social tensions have their critical masses. The worst-case scenario is the continued decay of a society into ethnic, religous, national, rich, and poor splinters. Again France is in the vanguard with its at least 5,000,000 Muslims. There, the limits of the well-functioning multicultural neighborhood have in many cases been reached. In suburbs like Vénissieux near Lyon, the proportion of immigrants and their children comprises 50 percent. There, the pressure to conform among the immigrants is greater than the pressure from secular France to assimilate.

England recently experienced the clash between blacks from the Caribbean and Muslims from the Indian subcontinent. Other European countries have been spared the explosions, although the potential discharges from time to time in small episodes. The Netherlands have a million Muslims. In Switzerland, one tenth of the population lived in Kosovo. Germany is also familiar with the problem of parallel societies. In the big cities are compact Turkish communities, whose members want to be Turks in Germany and not Germans. A passport doesn't change that, any more than French citizenship by birth prevents the rebels of Clichy from booing the Marseillaise in the nearby Stade de France.

A Conversation among the Deaf

What can the Europeans do about the French sickness? In any case they must prevent whole quarters of their cities from becoming, like Clichy-sous-Bois, enclaves that the police can no longer enter. Police beats on foot and in the daytime, in the course of which the police officers can get to know the residents, were long ago stopped because they were "provocative". The identification of gang leaders didn't take place. Now they must look for unknown suspects by the light of flames. Even more important is that the opinion leaders stop lying shamelessly to themselves and to the citizens. The dangerous groups recruit among Muslims, not among Hindus or Buddhists.

In no case does that mean that the Muslim faithful are more asocial or more criminal than other groups. They must be treated with respect, and especially with understanding. For among the deaf no conversation is possible, and especially not the much vaunted dialog of civilizations. It can only be successful if each participant understands the categories of thought of the other participant, as well as one's own. Both sides have an obligation. That of the immigrant is necessarily greater. They must not only learn the language of their new home, but, even more importantly, the cultural grammar.

(SZ, November 5/6, 2005)