first_imgIt is not in Iraq that the clash of civilizations is being fought. Iraq is already clearly Arab/Muslim territory, and we are short-termers. Right now in Europe and particularly in France the population bomb, the demographic bomb and the cultural bomb are all exploding at once. This did not have to happen. It was avoidable. After two years in North Africa, in the Peace Corps and armed with passible French and pretty good Arabic, I spent two sabbaticals in France. Out of habit and the real warmth and friendliness of the North African community, I did most of my daily reading and writing in working-class North African cafes. Unlike the mainstream cafes that served French citizens, in the North African cafes the people talked to me, showed me pictures of their children and invited me to their homes. As much as one can generalize, these were wonderful, open and hopeful people. They had hopes for their own futures, but had given up any hope of being accepted by the French. They knew they would have to make separate lives. Marie-Claire would not marry Ahmed Zine. There are more than 5 million Arabs in France, and 18 million Muslims, Arab and non-Arab, in Western Europe. What is happening in France is the start of something terrible – for everyone. The French have never accepted the North Africans as equals. They occupied Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia. They fought to hold their colonies, but lost them in a very violent war with an Algerian insurgency. As independence was achieved throughout North Africa, waves of French colonials came back home. Many were angry and bitter; many felt betrayed and abandoned by France. Most kept their feelings of superiority, resentment and enmity toward the North Africans. For second and third generation colonials, France was not truly their home. They had been upper-class rulers and came to France, some for the first time, without a sou or status. These children of colonialism were often resented by French families who had lost their children in that losing war. Meanwhile, France, along with the rest of Western Europe, had a population problem, despite being nominally Catholic. They had to import cheap labor. North Africans fit the bill. They would work for very little, but at wages that seemed huge to them when compared with pay scales in their birth countries. A constant migration of men came to France to work in the factories, the fields and any other dead-end jobs the French did not want. After achieving some economic standing, some brought their families. It is their children and grandchildren who are filling the streets of France with their pain and rage. They have become a huge and angry underclass. The French complain that they just won’t assimilate. The French point proudly to their tradition of tolerance and to policies that were supposed to help the foreigners assimilate – such as secular education. They maintain that the recent outlawing of veils, scarves and religious garb in schools was to keep France fair and secular. But these bans of religious identifiers were total only in theory, only really for Muslims. Now the despised underclass that was locked out acts as if it no longer wants in. Today Muslim extremists are trying to organize the well-founded discontent of the young by saying that their culture is superior and Europe must convert to Muslim ways. This is, of course, attractive to oppressed underclasses – particularly to the young with their mixture of cynicism and idealism. From radical mosques in England, to discontent in Germany among the Turks, to a not terribly covert attempt to take back Spain, to the slums of every major French city, to the rural factory towns and mining centers, there is a festering and understandable rage. There is no good solution and probably not even an effective bad solution. The right wing wants them all to go home. That cannot happen. Just as so many the children of the colonials never knew France, these poor and angry youths are neither French nor North African. They have not lived in Tunisia, Algeria or Morocco, and if they went to North Africa they would be strangers in strange and undemocratic lands. The left wing wants them to be nice and patient and buy in to the dream of Liberte, Egalite, and Fraternite. That dream no longer seems either reasonable or feasible to the younger generation. This mixture of poverty, despair, crime and rejection awaited only the call to transcendent battle and glory. That call is coming from the militant Muslim fundamentalists. Neither soft tolerance of rioting nor draconian measures will work to tame or distract them. This is the part in a good op-ed piece where the wise author proposes the sound and sensible solution. I don’t have one. Twenty years ago, the immigrants would have gone through an open door into French society, but not today. There will be a multifaceted war in Europe, and religious culture will be its organizing principal though not its true cause. The only good news for us, as Europe struggles, is that most of our Muslim communities still buy into the American dream, and are far more represented in our middle class than the underclass. This is very good news for them – and indeed for us. This is the time for us to be educated by the terrible mistakes of the Europeans and to build bridges of understanding and doors to our mainstream. We have the chance, maybe the only chance in the developed world, to build a model of peoples and faiths living together with mutual respect and equal access to justice, society and success. If building democratic institutions in Iraq eludes us – as I fear it will – we can build those institutions here. That would be a far more attractive and relevant model to the Muslim world. Jonathan Dobrer is a professor of comparative religion at the University of Judaism in Bel-Air. 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