Sunday, April 16, 2006

The French Approach to Muslim Discontent

Dr. Khaled Batarfi
France has been a strong supporter of Arab causes after King Faisal’s state visit and crucial meeting with President Charles de Gaulle days before the 1967 Arab-Israeli War.

France’s stand against the war on Iraq and the larger US-led campaign to fight terror with terror won it lots of credit in the Arab and Muslim world. However, the pretty image was stained lately by a couple of major events: The law prohibiting hijab in public schools, and the recent riots in its poor Muslim neighborhoods. Both exposed the deep-rooted racism toward the French of Arab origin and Muslim background. As public polls showed, most French applauded the hijab ban and don’t think highly of their Muslim fellow citizens. This hurts.

Dr. Pascal Boniface is the founder and director of the Institute for International and Strategic Relations. He is also a consultant on strategic issues for the French defense and foreign departments.

I met him recently with members of the International Relations Committee of the Jeddah Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

He was mostly on the defensive during our exchange. The majority of French people, he insisted, are not racist. Only a small minority thinks of Islam as a problem and considers French Muslims inferior. The hijab issue was taken out of context and blown out of proportion. Most French believe in multicultural and multiracial secular society. In fact that is why they supported the hijab law!!

On the recent riots, he advised not to believe the American media. Yes, a majority of the rioters happened to be Muslims; the rest were black. But the issue was about social problems, not Islam. Solutions are on the way to address all causes of discontent, like unemployment, inequality and racism.

I asked: If Muslims form 10 percent of the population, what is their representation among decision-makers in all branches of power, including the media? And are they consulted when it comes to decisions affecting their lives?

To be honest, he said, Muslims are not represented well in the corridors of power. When Boniface was a professor in the university, few Muslims were among his students. Most joined the workforce as soon as they finished high school if not earlier. Poverty might be a reason, but there might be other causes.

The same absence can be noted among the elite. This is a real problem that needs to be addressed, urgently. Boniface said the French authorities are working on quick fixes for the social problems that produced such anger and unhappiness among the Muslim population. But we also need to look at the larger picture and work at the strategic level, he said. In a way, the riots were a blessing in disguise. Now, no one can ignore the obvious and delay actions any more. The danger is clear and present to all.

Consultations are going on with the leaders of the Muslim community on how to face radicalism and fanaticism. The same debate is going on in the elite circles. Intellectuals and experts are looking at ways to give more education, empowerment and representation to all minorities, especially the biggest, Muslims. Actions are already being taken, Boniface said. In the next election, for example, Muslims figure in the list of liberal candidates. One of them is already heading a list. In public TV and media, we are looking for better representation. Muslim and black producers, actors and presenters should get more and better opportunities. Now we have Muslim scholars appearing on public TV. More windows of opportunities are on the way ... soon.

But of course these steps are not without resistance, Boniface conceded. As you know, there are groups who feel that greater presence means stronger influence. In a democracy, governments can’t just take actions without considering all voices and opinions. Let’s hope that justice and sensibility prevail. It is high time we gave Muslims fair representation in education, government and media.

I wrote last week about how the British try to solve the problems of their Muslim minority in cooperation with Islamic councils. Meeting with Dr. Boniface was a good opportunity to check what is going on on the other side of the Match Canal.

We all have minority issues. The first step is to come out clean about them. We can’t solve a problem no matter how small if we don’t admit its existence. Thorough study must follow, involving all concerned parties, giving them equal access and respect.

Solutions are mere paperwork if not executed. This is the hardest part and it needs a strong and determined leadership to work it out.

There is no simple solution to complex problems. But the easiest and most obvious first is to communicate with the right people, the right way. Great ideas and thoughts will flow from there.

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