Saturday, March 03, 2007

Islam in France.

Some Americans, particularly in the conservative camp, think France's greatest problem is its Muslim population.
As we discussed some time ago, The Economist used this provocative image with the word EURABIA to speak about the caricature about Europe forming in America (about an ever-growing Muslim Europe-within-Europe—poor, threatening, unassimilated and hostile to the United States).
Estimates greatly vary. Some claim (such as the U.S Department of State) there are 5 to 6 million Muslims in France - about 10% of the population - while others (such as the French Ministry of the Interior) estimate a lower figure of about 4.1 million.
The reason why those numbers vary so much is that it is illegal in France to classify people by their ethnicity (for historical reasons), a taboo which has been a controversial issue in this year's presidential campaign.
Last week, a comprehensive poll on religion in France was released (available here in French). More than 90,000 French people were asked which religion they “felt closest to” and the results were quite challenging - only 3% of the total population said they "felt closest to" Islam. Quite different from the 10% given by the US Department of State.

As you can see on the map here below, there are great regional variations of course. Most Muslims are to be found in urban (the Paris and Lyons areas) and industrial areas.

The discrepancy may come from the confusion between the number of people with roots in Muslim countries and people of "possible Muslim faith". Even then, when many may follow some rites such as the Ramadan, they are necessarily strict observant Muslims (very few pray five times a day for instance).

Other interesting results:

  • 64% said "felt closest to"Catholicism.
  • 27.6% said "felt closest to"no religion.
  • 3% said "felt closest to"Islam.
  • 2.1% said "felt closest to"Protestantism.
  • 0.6% said "felt closest to"Judaism.

These results with regard to Islam confirm what we said in this post and this one when we talked about a book about the integration of French Muslims written by a French historian and an American political scientist, called “Integrating Islam: Political And Religious Challenges in Contemporary France”.

While the 2005 riots have shown that integration is a problem in France and even somewhat a failure, they have also shown that religion played no role. The problems are mostly social and racial but not religious.

If you need more convincing, here's an excerpt from an interview with historian Justin Vaisse, one of the authors of Integrating Islam (with Jonathan Laurence, a Brookings Institution book) on the French-language New York blog French Morning (translated by European Tribune)

There has been failure to get rid of these social relegation zones, ghetto phenomena, with unemployment, school failure, etc. But the religious dimension doesn't come into play. The police, the Renseignements Généraux (political police) emphasized, Islamism is not a factor in the riots. The proof is that when religious bodies, like the UOIF (Union of Islamic Organizations in France), tried to stop the violence, they failed. The UOIF published a fatwa and it had absolutely no effect on the number of cars that got burned.

The Mohammed cartoons affair didn't give rise to any incidents in France. Above all, the Islamic headscarf showed that Muslims in France respect the law. It's a sacrifice for some of them, for whom the headscarf id important, but first and foremost they show respect for the law.

What is certain, is that the French republican model has considerable advantages.


Claims for equality and social justice can take place within the system, rather as African-Americans based their claims on principles of the American model which were not being applied. Besides, it's visible that other countries, Great Britain, the Netherlands, are now looking towards the French system, because they went too far in the direction of multiculturalism. We think that France, with its secular model, can offer a new experimental ground for the meeting of Islam with modernity. It will transform Islam, but also, evidently, France too.

It seems to me that this last point is essential. The French secular system (la laïcité) also needs to adapt to this ever changing world and be somewhat more flexible. That's why I tend to favor breaking the taboo on classifying people by their ethnicity. It is important to have hard data and know exactly the problems we're dealing with in integrating people of other origins. The question needs to be addressed with care of course, particularly with regard to one's definition of a given ethnic background. This is all the more sensitive in a country such as France where there a lot more mixed couples than, say, in the U.S.


At 05:09, Blogger Tororoshiru said...

I just read this NYT article:

It seems that the intertwining of social and racial issues with religious ones isn't a specifically French phenomenon...


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