[OPE-L] Letter from France: In Europe, Islam fills Marxism's old shoes

From: Rakesh Bhandari (bhandari@BERKELEY.EDU)
Date: Wed Dec 29 2004 - 11:31:27 EST

        Letter from France: In Europe, Islam fills Marxism's old shoes

Craig S. Smith International Herald Tribune

Thursday, December 30, 2004

PARISWhen Azzedine Belthoub was growing up in the shantytowns outside
of Nanterre, France, 40 years ago, the people who came to take the
young North African kids to swim in the community pool, to register
them for school and give them candy and comic books, were Marxists.
The French Communist Party offered a political voice for the working
classes, including the growing number of North African immigrants
imported to fill labor shortages after World War II.
.Today, Islam plays that role, especially in France, where men like
Belthoub, wearing long beards and short djellabas, reach out to the
poor and disillusioned in the country's working-class neighborhoods.
.Young Arabs and Africans here have turned to Islam with the same
fervor that the idealistic youth of the 1960s turned toward Marxism.
."Now, religion has become our identity," Belthoub said last week,
sitting in a friend's apartment in a largely Muslim suburb north of
.The question is whether Islam in Europe will follow the same path
that communism did here, shedding its revolutionary extremism,
electing mayors and legislators and assimilating itself into normal
democratic political life.
.As with Marxism in the 1960s, Islam in Europe has its radical fringe
and its pragmatic mainstream. The latter is much the broader, intent
on expanding Muslims' political power in French society. It has
consciously mimicked many of the tactics of the left, including
organizing summer camps where urban young people learn the tenets of
the movement.
.The narrower stream, but in many ways the more potent one, draws its
inspiration from the fundamentalist clerics of Saudi Arabia and seeks
to isolate its adherents from the surrounding society. Although
predominantly pacifist, it contains a militant fringe analogous to
the violent Marxist groups that operated in Europe decades ago.
.That militant fringe makes headlines, though, and colors the whole
movement, both in the way young Muslims understand their faith and in
the way the larger society sees and deals with Islam, just as the
bombers and kidnappers of the Red Brigades and the Baader-Meinhof
Gang did to European communism in the 1960s.
.But the eventual evaporation of hard-line Marxism in Europe may
offer clues to how the Islamist trend could play out. Disowned by the
pragmatic left, Europe's militant Marxist fringe was isolated and
repressed, while governments pursued social policies that to some
measure addressed the grievances of the poor and dispossessed, which
had animated the radicals.
.Islam's growth in Europe as the most vibrant ideology of the
downtrodden is part of a wave of religiosity that has swept the Arab
world in the past 30 years, propelled by frustration over feeble
economies, uneven distribution of wealth and the absence of political
.Like communism, it represents for many of its devoted adherents a
transnational ideology tilting toward an eventual utopian vision, in
this case of a vast, if not global, caliphate governed according to
sharia, the legal code based on the Koran.
.But the religion's appeal reaches beyond the communities of Arab and
African immigrants born to the faith. There are an estimated 50,000
Muslim converts in France alone today. Many of these people have
taken up the religion as a way to define themselves against
traditional European culture, whose values they reject for economic
or spiritual reasons.
."Islam has replaced Marxism as the ideology of contestation," says
Olivier Roy, a French scholar of European Islam. "When the left
collapsed, the Islamists stepped in."
.Islam's role is not entirely accidental. The political left reached
out to Muslims in the 1970s as other groups moved up and out of
Europe's working-class neighborhoods. In France, Socialists and
Communists alike established associations in the housing projects,
attracting many young, politically active Arab men.
.But those alliances withered, as frustrated Arab youths turned away
from politics. In France, the rupture followed several defining
events, including the 1981 bulldozing of an immigrant shelter in a
suburb of Paris by the local mayor, a Communist. That betrayal was
followed by the disillusionment of a 1985 civil rights march that
brought little concrete action.
.Communist cadres, meanwhile, resisted the rise of young Arabs within
their party. By the end of the decade, when a young Arab was killed
during a demonstration in Paris, the left's credibility in that group
was dead.
.Islamic organizations soon began channeling the frustrated youth
toward religion.
.The map of France's Islamists today largely matches that of the
country's Marxists from decades ago. Many predominantly Muslim
municipalities are still under Communist-led administrations, but
Islamic organizations are now the active ones.
.Islam's institutional presence has since blossomed. Europe's first
generation of Muslim immigrants made do without mosques, halal
butchers or easy access to the pilgrimage to Mecca; the current
generation has all those things, along with a plethora of educational
texts, video and audio cassettes and conferences to expand their
knowledge of Islam.
.The Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks only increased interest in the
religion, and the growing institutions have met surging demand.
."We're rejected everywhere, and so the only place we feel at peace
is in our religion," said Issam el-Zryouly, 19, whose family moved to
France from Morocco when he was 6. Like many of his peers, Zryouly
has redefined himself as a Muslim after a few years of drug use and
petty crime.
.But Islam's role as a beacon for the downtrodden may wane, in part
because of its very success: The necessary compromises with the
surrounding community that are inherent in economic and political
participation could dull its edge and sap its momentum, as they did
for Marxism.
.Beyond the militant minority, the inward-looking fundamentalists are
by definition politically insignificant. Once the more mainstream,
upwardly mobile Arab or African young people move out of their
working-class neighborhoods, "they aren't perceived as Muslim any
more, and the vast majority aren't interested in using their religion
as a social and political marker," says Gilles Kepel, author of "The
War for Muslim Minds."
.Islam as an ideology of the repressed may hold its allure only so
long as immigrants' economic and political dislocation lasts.
.E-mail: pagetwo@iht.com

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