Fear will only fuel the riots

Britain and France must confront their own racism instead of trying to score political points

The rioting in France has led to attempts in Britain to explain how “the French system of integration has failed”. This is the mirror image of what happened in the summer when, after the bombing attacks in London, French commentators pointed to the incipient collapse of British multiculturalism. On both sides of the Channel, apprehensions are being put to rest by scrutiny of the other side’s shortcomings.
Comparing the two national methods of integration does not make sense, because the British model is neither better nor worse than the French one. Both countries, drawing on their histories and collective psychologies, have over time developed specific integration mechanisms. The British model allows diverse communities to develop, while the French model relies on individual integration. In France, a sense of full citizenship is encouraged, while in Britain citizens are able to retain their previous identities. Each model has its merits.

Even though the riots have nothing to do with religion, analysts and politicians seem determined to centre the debate around Islam, integration and identity. We are facing a case of political brinkmanship, a dangerous strategy that attempts to turn fears of Islam into short-term electoral advantage, using arguments that were once restricted to parties of the extreme right. There is a chronic inability to hear those Muslim voices that for years have been saying Islam is not the problem and that millions of Muslims have embraced their identities as Europeans, Muslims and democrats. The left and the right suffer from a lack of the political resolve needed to address pressing social issues. Perpetuating fear to win votes is easier than presenting courageous policies.
The street-level realities in France and Britain reveal startling similarities. Whether along ethnic or economic lines, the two models have created veritable ghettos. In both, communities remain isolated. The French suburbs, as well as the rich residential areas, are socially and economically isolated. In France, political discourse recoils in horror from “religious communitarianism”. But people are unable to grasp that another form of communitarianism is undermining society. Black, Arab and Muslim people are the least well-off and suffer for it.

The extent to which both models draw upon and promote xenophobia cannot be overstated. We must confront our own racism. Discriminatory housing and employment policies are nothing more than institutionalised racism. Social, not religious, concerns lie at the heart of the debate. To counteract the trend toward ghettoisation and racism, we must develop a political creativity, one that dares to take risks. Change is needed as a high priority in key areas.

The first is education: school curriculums have little or nothing to say about the history and traditions of many in society. If a curriculum does not recognise certain parents’ contribution to society, how can we pretend that it respects their children? To make matters worse, France recently passed a law calling for the “positive effects” of colonialism to be promoted in schools, while in Britain prominent figures such as Gordon Brown have argued for similar policies. Meanwhile, state schools are compounding inequality. Instead of creating anxiety over religious schools – which affect a tiny minority – would it not be more sensible to call for the reform of a whole system of education that generates inequality?

The second priority is the fight against unemployment and discrimination in the labour market. Unemployment rates among citizens of “immigrant origin” are far higher than among “native-born” citizens. It is of the highest importance to provide equal access to the labour market. Governments should act to establish equitable employment standards and penalise racial discrimination.

The third area of concern is housing and urban policy. Local authorities rarely dare to challenge attitudes to minority ethnic communities, but the objective of greater social intermingling can only be attained through a firm political commitment to confront discrimination head on. Such policies will be unpopular. Political parties are reluctant to promote them. We must launch national movements that crystallise grassroots initiatives promoting civic education and participatory democracy, focused on local projects that bring together citizens from various backgrounds. Confidence must be restored, in ourselves and in our neighbours.

No such policies are taking shape around us, either on the right or on the left. Those who consider themselves French or British are now being told that they are, first and foremost, Arabs, Asians or Muslims. How can individuals who have been swept to the margins of society avoid being attracted by the voices of literalism and radicalism? Trapped in a debate as impassioned as it is sterile about who is French and who is British, we can no longer hear the legitimate demands of certain citizens who really are French or British. The recent violence is an unfortunate reaction against the deafness of authority.

By avoiding the real debate – about equal opportunity and power-sharing – France and Britain are stigmatising people and destroying their sense of belonging, by encouraging fear and perpetuating a hold on power. Share they must, however; this is the lesson history will teach them.

This article was first published in The Guardian on Saturday November 12, 2005. Tariq Ramadan is a visiting fellow of St Antony’s College, Oxford, UK.