washingtonpost.com
Europe's Muslims
A year after the French riots, their alienation is growing.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

AYEAR AGO this week, riots erupted in mostly Muslim suburbs of Paris and other French cities, underlining the alienation of a subculture that makes up 8 percent of the country's population but has suffered from chronic unemployment and discrimination. One year later, that alienation -- and the threat of violence that comes with it -- appears to have worsened, not only in France but across Western Europe. French police are facing what some call a "permanent intifada" in Muslim neighborhoods, with nearly 2,500 incidents of violence against officers recorded in the first six months of the year. Some of these now take the form of planned ambushes: On Sunday a gang of youths emptied a bus of its passengers, set it on fire, and then stoned the firefighters who responded.

In Britain, the London bombings of 2005, which were executed in part by native-born Muslims, have been succeeded by this summer's arrest of another group of native extremists who allegedly plotted to blow up airliners. Two Lebanese residents of Germany were accused of trying to bomb passenger trains. The threat of violence by Muslims angered by perceived insults, whether from the German-born pope or the director of a Mozart opera, has become more frequent.

Europeans are slowly growing more aware that a major part of the global struggle against Islamic extremism must take place in their own countries -- and not just in faraway Afghanistan or Iraq. But their governments, media and political elites still appear to be a long way from coming to grips with the challenge. Rather than seeking to address the larger alienation of mainstream Muslims, European leaders often appear to do the opposite -- by challenging the culture of Muslims and defending gratuitous insults of Islam.

One recent but hardly isolated example came from Britain's House of Commons leader, Jack Straw, who criticized Muslim women for wearing veils and said he asked those who visited his office to remove them, on the grounds that they impede "communication." It's hard to believe that veils are the biggest obstacle to communication between British politicians and the country's Muslims; and it's even harder to imagine Mr. Straw raising similar objections about Sikh turbans or Orthodox Jewish dress. True, the Labor Party MP was reflecting -- or maybe pandering to -- the concern of many in Britain about the self-segregation of some Muslims. But veils -- which are also under government attack in France and Italy -- are not the cause of that segregation, much less of terrorism. Attacks on Muslim custom by public officials are more likely to reinforce than to ease the community's alienation.

Mr. Straw and other European politicians could contribute far more to combating radical Islam if they focused on those who actually foment intolerance among European Muslims -- as well as those in the mainstream community who promote prejudice against Arabs and South Asians and their descendants. Muslims in Europe should be invited to embrace the countries where they live on their own terms. They should be expected to respect laws and freedoms. But politicians would do better to work on dismantling the barriers Muslims face in getting educations and jobs rather than those that distinguish Islam from the secular majority.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company