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Gangs in Search of an Ideology By: Michael Radu
FrontPageMagazine.com | Monday, November 14, 2005

Of the Muslim rioting that began in poor suburbs of Paris on October 27,  Mohammed Rezzoug,  caretaker of  the  municipal athletics center  in  Le  Blanc-Mesnil  says,  "It's  not  a political revolution or a Muslim revolution... There's a lot of rage. Through this burning, they're saying, 'I exist, I'm here.' "[1]

Obviously, Mr.  Rezzoug is well integrated in French culture -- or  at least  in its  habit of theorizing ad nauseam over everything. However, things in France are not what they used to be -- hence the shift from Rene Descartes' famous dictum, "Cogito ergo  sum"  ("I  think,  therefore  I  am")  in  the seventeenth century  to Mr.  Rezzoug's "They burn, therefore they are."

And burn  they do.  Youth gangs,  overwhelmingly French-born and Muslim,  have engaged  in a  nation-wide rampage that by November  8  had  burned  5,000  vehicles,  a  few  schools, kindergartens, police  stations, shopping  malls,  and  post offices.  Police officers have been wounded and an older man beaten to  death.   Some 800  individuals have been arrested and a  curfew locally  imposed to  stem this  anomic wave of gang violence  that is  spreading all  over  France  --  and beyond.   But the  riots increasingly and alarmingly suggest that Islamist radicals see criminality as an opportunity for recruitment, while the criminals see Islam as a legitimizer.

There are gangs, and there are Gangs...

The Independent  tells of  how in  one Paris suburb, Aulnay- sous-Bois,  20-year-old  Abdelkarim,  the  caid  (leader  in Arabic) of  the local  gang, boasts  of the  2,000 euros  he makes  on  each  car  stolen:  "You  want  prostitutes,  DVD players, jewelry?   I  can get anything you want."  His talk is of  poverty, discrimination,  and dreams  of his family's Morocco, but  also of  his anti-Semitism  and hashish habit. "'Look around you -- there is nothing here.  We live four to a room.   Our  parents go to work like zombies.  But we have nothing. Even  the  jobs  around  here  go  to  people  from elsewhere.   This parking  lot is  like our living room,' he said.   One of his friends . . . held a mobile phone.  'Come and look,'  he gestured, laughing.  It was a short film of a Chechen  guerrilla   cutting  off  the  head  of  a  Russian soldier."[2]

If one replaces names like Abdelkarim or Karim with Pablo or Deshawn and Aulnay-sous-Bois with Watts or South Bronx, with a few  extraordinary exceptions  we have  a similar profile: uneducated young  men from broken families, deep involvement in criminality, contempt for their parents' low-paying jobs, identification with  gangs, resentment  of outsiders  --  in short, the lost urban youth of the West.  When a father from Aulnay-sous-Bois complains,  "How am I supposed to inculcate the work  ethic in my son, when his friends have Nikes given to them  by their  drug-dealer fathers?"  that should  sound very familiar to many parents in urban America.

However,  while American  gangs  like  the  Hispanic  Mara Salvatrucha, the Jamaican Posse, and the Crips or Bloods are racist (anti-white,  anti-Hispanic or  both, as the case may be), violent,  and antisocial,  their  exclusive  goals  are money and  turf control.   That is also true of their French (or British)  confreres, but  in the  latter cases  Islamist beliefs play  or could soon play a decisive justifying role.

These exceptions,  however,  are  essential  if  we  are  to understand the  importance of  the events  taking  place  in France's cities  these past  weeks.   The most  important of those exceptions  are the  gangs' religious identity and the elite's cultural  attitudes.   The criminally  dysfunctional youths of  la banlieue  are made  more potent  because  they operate in  an increasingly  dysfunctional society, which in the United  States may  be local  but in France is national. And, as  a  British  observer  put  it,  "Mexicans  are  not Moroccans (think  religion). .  . .   Nor  are the  fires of disintegration already  burning, as  they are  in  [Interior Minister Nicolas] Sarkozy's France."[3]

Abdelkarim says "From my window I can see the Eiffel Tower . . .  .   But Paris  is another world.  This is Baghdad."  He exaggerates  (so   far),  but  should  be  taken  seriously. Especially  when   Jean-Louis  Debre,  the  Speaker  of  the National Assembly and  mayor  of  Evreux,  seems  to  agree, calling the  unrest "a  true episode of urban guerrilla."[4] Meanwhile, the police union chimed in with its own alarmism: "Nothing seems to be able to stop the civil war that spreads a bit  more every  day across  the whole  country," it said, advocating the intervention of the army.[5]

The "Evil Minister"

Naturally enough,  for the  hoods in  the  banlieues,  "Ever since Sarko  came into  the government, life has been s--t," said Abdelkarim's  friend Kamel, age 16.  "He treats us like dogs. Well,  we'll show  him how  dogs can  react."  On this point, he and the outspoken minister, who talks of "cleaning out"  the   racaille  (riff-raff),  are  speaking  the  same language.   The latter  sees the riots as a clear attempt by the gang  leaders to keep control, which he is determined to regain.   The problem  is that the false sense of victimhood felt by the gangsters is shared by many more Muslims.  Thus, Murad, a  Moslem leader  in Aulnay,  says  "Islam  has  been insulted [by a tear gas canister  which landed in front of a mosque]  and nobody  has yet  asked forgiveness. . . .  If
there would  have been  a tear  gas canister  in a church or synagogue, Sarkozy  would have  gone there to apologize."[6] (Never mind  that  on  November  7  a  church  in  Lens  was firebombed and no Muslim apologies were forthcoming.)

Worse still,  the leftist  opposition -- socialists, Greens, communists,  human   rights  activists,   and  most  of  the intellectual elites  also agree with Kamel, that the problem is not  the gangs  of arsonists  but "the  system": law  and order, the police and, especially, Sarkozy.

Le Monde  writes, "To  the provocations  of Nicolas  Sarkozy answers the  stupidity of  teenagers, who  ruin the  fragile economic  tissue  and  burn  the  buses  borrowed  by  their families.   Some of  the arsonists were victims of a system, before becoming  small  mafiosos  taking  advantage  of  the situation."[7]    So,  the mayhem  was an  "answer"  to  the Interior Minister's  calling the  criminals  "criminals  and hooligans"?   Criminality becomes  "stupidity" and criminals become "victims."   It is precisely this kind of language to which philosopher Jean-Francois Mattei refers below:

The betrayal of the language: when one does not have the courage to  face things,  one speaks  to better  obscure them.   We apply  the usual  meaning  of  words  to  the violence  we   know  in   the  urbanized  banlieues  and elsewhere.   In France  one does  not speak  anymore  of 'riots'   but    of   'harassment   actions';   not   of 'delinquents' but of 'youths'; not of 'drug trafficking' but of  'parallel economy';  not of  'policemen' but  of 'provocateurs'; .  . .  not of  'lawless zones'  but  of 'sensitive neighborhoods';  not of  'infringement of the right'  to   work:  but   of  'movement   of  legitimate demands.'[8]

Or from  the statement  of the  "anti-racist" MRAP (Movement against Racism and for Friendship among Peoples):

MRAP has  compassion for  the victims of the riots [but] the words crime or riot are never used.  Instead, all is explained  through   "social,  ethnic   and  territorial 'apartheid,' the refusal to respond to a social fracture expanded by  an ethnic one.  If police were attacked, it is because  there  are  'tensions'  between  this  daily victimized population and police.  As for law, well, the only thing  to do  is check  the  circumstances  of  the deaths of the two teenagers self-electrocuted [in hiding from the  police at  a power  station, which set off the riots] and  of the tear gas canister falling in front of a Clichy  mosque.  Most importantly, MRAP demands 'total mobilization against  racist discrimination' and against "any racist  exploitation of these dramas and sufferings generated by violence.[9]

And then there is the communist newspaper L'Humanite:

Nicolas Sarkozy's arrogance evidently has no limits. . . .   After having  deliberately lit  the fuse, he happily surveys the  damage, and wants time to think about it. . . .   The  suburbs are  not a special case.  The suburbs are  France,   the  France  that  suffers  at  work,  is unemployed. .  . .   The  future of  the French model of social justice  -- of  all our  futures --  lies in  the suburbs.   That is  why Nicolas  Sarkozy wants  to break them. .  . .   Rather than endless images of burnt cars, we must give a voice to the suburbs.  And we must listen to them![10]

Once again,  criminals have  nothing to do with it. In fact the banlieues  "are  France."    And  it  was  the  Interior Minister's fault  for insulting  the rioters.   As  for  the leader of  the opposition,  Socialist Party  leader Francois Hollande, he  made it  clear that he considers "intolerable" Sarkozy's words.   His  party asked President Jacques Chirac to make  "strong gestures"  and "apologies" in order to calm the violence.[11]

All of these "analyses" and solutions coming from the French Left -- the very same Left that was in power for most of the past quarter of century--are unconvincing, to say the least. The Left did try to "solve" the Muslim immigrant problem the only way  it knows:  by spending.   Clichy-sous-Bois' mayor, Claude Dilain,  a socialist  and the  vice-president of  the French Convention of Municipal Authorities, is said to be "a proactive mayor,  setting up  free soccer training for local youth, appointing youth leaders as mediators and making sure that the  community's  waste  collection  service  functions properly. Clichy-sous-Bois is an amalgam of schools, daycare centers, welfare  offices, parks  and a  college that  looks like something  out of  an architecture  competition.    The community library  is currently sponsoring a writing contest themed 'I  come from  afar, I like my country.'"[12] Result? The current wave of violence started in his very town.

As for the minister, his answer is quite simple: "I ask that we assess  correctly the fundamental role of police presence in the suburbs.  The police are the Republic's police.  They keep order in the republic.  If they don't do it, what order will replace them? That of the Mafias or fundamentalists." [13]  Obviously, it is the latter.

Enter the Islamists

For many  years, in  the Paris region, Islamist ideology has tried to  take advantage  of unemployment and unrest. "It is time to  open our  eyes."[14] Now,  youths  crying  "God  is great" rampage  and demand  that areas  where Muslims form a majority  be   reorganized  on   the  basis  of  the  millet (religious community)  system of  the Ottoman  Empire,  with each millet  enjoying the  right to  organize  its  life  in accordance with  its religious beliefs.  In parts of France, a de  facto millet  system is  already in  place, with women obliged to  wear the  hijab and  men to grow beards; alcohol and pork products forbidden; "places of sin" such as cinemas closed down;  and local  administration seized.  The message in the  suburbs  is  that  French  authorities  should  keep out.[15]  Who will replace them?  We have already some clear indications:

Suddenly 'big  brothers' --  devout bearded men from the mosques  who   wear  long   traditional  robes   --  are positioning themselves  between the  authorities and the rioters in  Clichy-sous-Bois, calling  for order  in the name of  Allah.   As thousands  of voices  shout 'Allahu Akbar'  from   the  windows   of   high-rise   apartment buildings, shivers  run down  the spines  of  television viewers in their seemingly safe living rooms.[16]

Those citizens have good reasons to worry indeed.  First, in France (as  well as in Denmark, the United Kingdom, Germany) Muslims are  wildly over-represented  in prisons.  In France they make  a majority  of inmates, and in jails close to the banlieues as much as 80 percent.[17]

Second,  Islamist   terrorists  from   France  (and   Spain, Netherlands, and Belgium) have a profile quite distinct from that of  their counterparts in the Muslim world, inasmuch as they contain  a far  more  significant  number  of  (usually petty) criminals.   The available data suggest that Islamist criminality in  France has a history at least a decade long. Thus, Khaled  Khelkal, considered the mastermind of the wave of bombings  in France  in the  mid-1990s, who  was shot  by police in  1995, became  a hero in the banlieues.  Born near Lyons to  Algerian parents, Khelkhal went to the prestigious La Martiniere  lycee in  that city  but, he claimed, dropped out and  engaged in  a criminal  career because he could not "tolerate being  marginal and rejected by the others" -- and because he  chose to  follow the  example  of  his  brother, Nouredine, who  was already  in jail  for armed robbery.[18] More recently,  two French-born  Algerian and  two  Tunisian immigrants were  arrested in July 2005 for alleged terrorism and  links   to  the   main  Algerian   Islamist   terrorist organization, which  is part  of the  Al Qaeda nebula, while also being linked to a prostitution racket.[19]

How many  of  the  hundreds  arrested  so  far  will  become Islamists once they complete their ridiculously short prison sentences --  usually a  few months  -- and  how that prison time will  help them on their path remains to be seen.  What is clear  is that  the mass of present arsonists will vastly reinforce the ranks of Islamists in France and beyond.


The reasons  for all  this are  often attributed  to factors like "alienation  from both  parental roots  and country  of origin,  and   the  society   in   which   they   live."[20] Sociologists call this phenomenon re-Islamization, and it is increasing in  intensity among  second and  third generation
Muslims in  Western Europe.   Those  young Muslims  who were born in  Europe lost  their ties  with the  country of their parents, while  at the same time their families suffered the same disintegration  as  their  native  ones,  with  parents losing  control   over  their   children,  to  gangs  and/or Islamists.   Hence,  such  youths  are  no  more  Algerians, Moroccans, or  Pakistanis, but  neither are  they French  or British.      Therefore   Islam,   however   understood   or misunderstood,  becomes   the  default  identity.    Indeed, complaining  of   high  unemployment  and  using  it  as  an "explanation" of  Muslim violence  and refusal  to integrate misses the  point.   Leaving aside  the obvious  fact  that, since they  are mostly  teenagers  and  thus  should  be  in school, not on the job market, these youths, "French against their will,  products of Arab-African immigration, intend to maintain their  cultural and  religious specificities.   Far from wanting  to mix  and integrate in a scared France which confuses indulgence  with tolerance,  they continuously look to  their   close  origins,   due   to   modern   means   of communication, and  refuse to  come out  from their identity ghetto."[21]

Second, unemployment  is not  a result  of "discrimination." Hence, when  Hugues Lagrange  of l'Observatoire sociologique du changement  (CNRS) claims that "the main reason for these tendencies  [to   violence]  lies  in  the  unemployment  of unskilled youths,"[22]  he misses  the irony.   Could  it be that they  are unemployed  because, instead  of  staying  in schools, they  prefer to  skip or  burn them and thus remain unskilled?

None of  this is  to say  that unemployment,  which has been running at 10 percent in recent years for those who actually want to  work, is  not a major problem in France. It is, and that  is   the  result  of  France's  massive  rejection  of capitalism.  A   recent  poll   shows  that  61  percent  of professionals,  68  percent  of  employees,  70  percent  of industrial workers,  a majority  of merchants  and artisans, and 60  percent of  youths between  18 and  34 years  of age oppose  it.[23]   That  and   many  Muslims'   rejection  of integration are the two main reasons why it is so hard to be optimistic about  any  short-term  improvement  in  France's situation -- and indeed Europe's.

Why Europe, and Not France?

The fundamental  problems of  the French  banlieues are  far from unique.   Romano  Prodi,  the  leader  of  the  Italian leftist  opposition,   has  already   stated  that   similar developments in  his country  are  a  matter  of  when,  not if.[24]     Nor  are  the  European  elites'  confusion  and inability to  leave political  correctness behind  different from France's.    The  even  more  serious  problem  is  the "democratic deficit"  within the  European Union.   Brussels and many  national elites  show disregard,  if not contempt, for the  anxieties of  the majority,  and for  reality. A recent  EU   Commission  paper   echoes  the  French  Left's approach. As  The Guardian reports: "In an attempt to ensure that the vast majority of peaceful Muslims are not portrayed as terrorist  sympathizers, the  paper says: 'The commission believes there  is no such thing as 'Islamic terrorism,' nor 'Catholic', nor  'red' terrorism.  . . .  The fact that some individuals unscrupulously  attempt to  justify their crimes in the  name of  a religion or ideology cannot be allowed in any way  . .  . to  cast a  shadow upon  such a  religion or ideology."[25]

This, after the very same commission identified a "crisis of identity" among  young people born to immigrant parents as a key danger.  "The document  describes radicalization  as  "a modern kind  of dictatorship",  likens it  to neo-Nazism  or nationalism, and says the internet, university campuses, and places of worship are tools of recruitment.  It says second-generation immigrants  often feel little connection to their parents'  country   or  culture   but  may   also  encounter discrimination in  European countries.[26]   In  short,  the commission correctly  identified the nature of the threat -- Islamist terrorism  -- but  lacked the  courage to  name it. How very Brussels!

France has long been seen, and still sees itself, as a model for Europe.   The  present developments  may well prove that Francophiles are right, but not for the reasons they usually have in mind. Geography, size, and its number of Muslims all make France  a pivotal element in what amounts to a cultural conflict of  continental dimensions.   Following  the Madrid bombings of  3/11/04 and the London bombings of 7/11/05, the riots in  France force  the old  continent to  realize  that there is  a "Muslim  problem" related  to, but not just, the Islamist terrorist  problem.   So far,  only hesitant  steps have been  taken toward  recognition of the former.  France, Denmark, Switzerland,  Netherlands, and Austria have already witnessed,  through   the  political   rise   of   populist, nationalist  parties,  what  happens  when  governing  elite denial of the problem persists. In democracies, someone will always offer  a solution  when the  public demands one.  The present spectacle in France is not encouraging.


[1] Molly  Moore, "Rage  of French  Youth  Is  a  Fight  for Recognition: Spreading  Rampage in Country's Slums Is Rooted in Alienation  and Abiding  Government Neglect,"  Washington Post, Nov. 6, 2005.

[2] Hugh  Schofield,  "La  Haine:  Schools,  synagogues  and hundreds of  cars burn.  It's Paris  2005," The Independent, Nov. 6, 2005

[3] Niall  Ferguson, "You shouldn't have to burn cars to get a  better  life  -  ask  my  Bolivian  cleaning  lady,"  The Telegraph, Nov. 6, 2005.

[4]  "Les   violences  urbaines  gagnent  du  terrain,  1300 vehicules incendies," Le Point http://www.lepoint.fr/static/afp/francais/journal/une/051106191936.ore1nwav.htm

[5] www.telegraph.co.uk, Nov. 7, 2005.

[6] C.  G., "L'islam ne joue pas un role determinant dans la propagation des troubles," Le Figaro, Nov. 5, 2005.

[7] " Modestie et ambition, " Le Monde, Nov. 5, 2005.

[8] Jean-Francois  Mattei, " Philosopher Violences urbaines, crescendo dans la barbarie, " Le Figaro, Nov. 3, 2005

[9]  MRAP,  " Violences:  une  insurrection  previsible  qui appelle des ruptures, " Nov. 4, 2005, at www.mrap.asso.fr.

[10] Editorial, L'Humanite, Nov. 7, 2005

[11]  " Banlieue   :  le  PS  interpelle  Chirac.  Le  Parti socialiste a  reclame vendredi du president de la Republique des "gestes forts" et des "excuses" afin d'apaiser le climat de violence  de ces  derniers jours,  Reuters/Liberation.Fr, Nov. 4, 2005.

[12]  Rudiger   Falksohn,  Thomas   Huetlin,  Romain  Leick, Alexander  Smoltczyk  and  Gerald  Traufetter,  "Rioting  in France. What's  Wrong with  Europe?" Der  Spiegel,  Nov.  7, 2005, at www.Spiegel.de.

[13] Nicolas  Sarkozy, Notre  strategie est  la  bonne",  Le Monde, Nov. 5, 2005

[14] Ivan  Rioufol, " Cites: les non-dits d'une rebellion, " Le Figaro, Nov. 4, 2005.

[15] Amir  Taheri, "Why  Paris is  burning," New  York Post, Nov. 5, 2005.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Farhad  Khosrokhavar, L'Islam dans le prisons (Balland, Paris 2004), p.11

[18] Jean-Marie Pontaut and Khaled Kelkal, " Itineraire d'un terroriste, " L'Express, Sept. 26, 1996.

[19] Colette  Thomas, La  France sur  le qui-vive, Sept. 26, 2005, at www.rfi.fr.

[20] Stephen Castle, "Europe speeds up plan to clamp down on suspects," Belfast Telegraph, July 14, 2005.

[21]  Jacques   Myard,  " Assez  d'angelisme,  adaptons  nos methodes repressives sans mollir, " Le Figaro, Nov. 4, 2005.

[22] Cecilia  Gabizon, " Emeutes  : des meneurs au profil de recidivistes, " Le Figaro, Nov. 5, 2005.

[23] Herve Nathan, " Le capitalisme n'a pas la cote chez les Francais, " Liberation, Nov. 4, 2005.

[24] Prodi:  "Qui le  periferie peggiori  d'Europa"  Per  il leader dell'Unione  "non siamo  diversi da  Parigi,  e  solo questione di  tempo". Le  soluzioni: edilizia  e  protezione sociale  ,   Corriere  dela   Sera,  Nov.   11,   2005,   at www.corriere.it.

[25] Nicholas  Watt and  Leo Cendrowicz, "Brussels calls for media code to avoid aiding terrorists," The Guardian , Sept. 21, 2005.

[26] Stephen Castle, "Europe speeds up plan to clamp down on suspects," Belfast Telegraph, July 14, 2005.

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Michael Radu is Senior Fellow and Co - Chair, Center on Terrorism and Counterterrorism, at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia.

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