Walter Laqueur: After France

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Mr. Laqueur, a historian, is the author, inter alia, of "A History of Terrorism" (Transaction, 2001).]

The riots in France have died down, and European politicians and observers are putting forward optimistic scenarios (at least in public) that rule out any encores.

The Germans, for example, argue that ethnic upheavals won't happen there if only because their housing conditions are different. It's quite true that Germany didn't put up high-rise buildings in the suburbs. Muslim concentrations in Germany happen to be mostly in the inner parts of big cities. But housing conditions were not the only and perhaps not the most important cause of the troubles in France.

Future street violence in Europe is hard to predict because it depends not only on "objective" social factors but also to a considerable extent on how conditions are perceived by a generation of young, uprooted and discontented males (there were no young women among those arrested in France). Riots break out not so much in the poorest and most disadvantaged areas but where the best organized and most violent street gangs are. The quarters dominated by the drug dealers, however, remained quiet since the upheavals would have been bad for business.

The reaction of the authorities matters, too. If their reaction is slow, clumsy and weak, conviction naturally grows that there is no reason to be afraid of a government backlash. The young rioters in Paris often complained about the lack of respect shown to them. But there is another side of the medal: respect for the government and its institutions. Most of the rioters were under 18, knowing that for any crime short of murder they will be kept in prison for a few days at most. If respect for authority is low or nonexistent, violence is of course more likely to escalate....

Integration of Muslims in Europe has failed so far and multiculturalism is discredited. The exhortations of European politicians that the new immigrants should make a greater effort to get integrated in their societies are pointless, and the self-criticism sometimes heard -- most often, that Western governments did not make a real effort -- are misplaced. Even if a greater effort had been made and more money invested, the majority of new immigrants from Islamic countries have no wish to accept Western values and the European way of life. If there has been ghettoization, it happened because they wanted to be among themselves not because anyone imposed it on them.

All this does not necessarily mean that Europe is facing a violent confrontation that will last as long as one can see ahead. Over time successive generations of immigrants will accept many features of the European way of life (not necessarily the most positive), and as their number is growing and as they will emerge even as the majority in European cities, they will be drawn into the political process. In Britain they are wooed very actively by the Trotskyites, but this will not take them very far. Other parties are bound to follow, and once there is the chance for them to attain their political, social and religious aims through political means, the attraction of violence could be lessened. There still will be tension among the various immigrant communities. There will also likely be -- and indeed is already -- a backlash from native populations who feel themselves turning into strangers in their own home.

A new Europe is emerging. So what will it be like? A fascinating question, not the Europe of merry old England, of la douce France and the Germany of the Classics and Romantics. Various scenarios will be discussed, some admittedly more likely than others, ranging from the infusion of new blood to a tired Europe bringing a new cultural and economic blossoming to the decline of Europe to Middle Eastern and North African conditions and standards. Watch this space.

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Jason KEuter - 12/11/2005

Islam and Democracy Compatible?

To pretend that Islam can survive in its present form in a democracy is absurd. Christianity was radically altered by democracy. To say that within liberal, secular society the influence of the church on people’s lives has been reduced considerably is a gross understatement. To say that the hold religion exercises on people within liberal secular societies has been virtually wiped out is far closer to the truth. Religion within modern, secular societies is entirely voluntary, and most people have chosen to opt out.
If people continue to practice religion, they are free to choose among many, a fact that has a decidedly liberalizing effect on most religions; as a result, religions that are too restrictive lose out to religions that accommodate themselves more easily to the marginal role religion plays in a secular society. Even in relatively hyper-religious America, people “profess” faith but are really not dominated by it, at least not in the sense that they somehow exempt themselves from the modern and secular world.
Islam and most Muslims put forth a decidedly backward vision and Islam survives as a dominant institution because it relies on coercion; Muslims may protest that they are faithful, but I then ask, if this is all a matter of faith, why not stop using violence and the threat of violence and allow Islam to be a choice for the “faithful”? The answer is one few are willing to give: because Islam is a messianic religion that seeks to bring the whole world into its fold, and while it demands tolerance from others, it views non-Muslims as infidels worthy of the sword. The intolerance of Islam, both for those outside it and those within it, is utterly incompatible with a liberal, modern and infinitely more humane secular political and social order. Tolerance and self-determination are the essence of democracy. The only tolerance Islam allows is one in which the individual determines that he, and everyone else, must be Muslim or perish.
To get an idea of the degree to which Islam is incompatible with democracy, the only religions in the west that rely on the same kind of coercion and brainwashing to prevent people from escaping them are cults. As for organized religions in the West, they have easily reconciled themselves to being important on Sundays, and probably more important for socializing than sermons. Until Muslims make religion equally insignificant in their own lives – and there’s little pressure in the European societies hosting large Muslim populations that they do so - the new Europe we can expect will be one where Muslims more effectively and adroitly learn to use the democratic process – with the ultimate aim of destroying it. At this point in history, European democracies must act in accordance with a fact, and a major paradox, of democratic life: that in order for it to work its citizens must be very tolerant – except toward the violently intolerant. As Rousseau warned, the person who believes his neighbor is damned can never live in peace with that neighbor.

Jason KEuter - 12/11/2005