The Arab Media on the Unrest in France

Warning - the Conflict Could Get Worse

How is the Arabic-speaking press reporting on the rioting of young people in French suburbs? Attention focuses on the economic and social problems facing immigrants, but those on the Muslim side are also coming in for criticism, reports Götz Nordbruch

Arab woman reads newspaper, photo: AP
Many in the Arab press are reporting on the protests in France with an eye to the racism and discrimination experienced by immigrants in French society

​​"Is the issue here a problem with terrorist Muslims or with a racist state that deals with its poor in a manner not fundamentally dissimilar to that of the Apartheid system in South Africa?"

Faisal al-Qasem, the moderator of a talk show on al-Jazeera, is well known for his provocative questions. His choice of guests also contributes something to the huge popularity of his program.

Last week, Abderrahmane Dahmane, the commissioner for immigration from the French governing UMP party, was pitted against Haithm Manaa, spokesperson for the Arab League of Human Rights.

The program dealt with the recent unrest in France's banlieues, a story that has been attentively covered in the Arab press. Their reaction to the unrest has focused particularly on racist discrimination as well as the economic and social problems besetting the population of these suburbs.

Discontent with the status quo, which throws up numerous hurdles for young people of Arab or African decent, should have been enough to warn authorities of a possible escalation of the conflict.

"The revolt of 2005 reminds us of the student revolution that France experienced in 1968. That marked the beginning of the end of the de Gaulle era. This time, however, the immigrants are taking the leading role, and events could transform from chaotic violence into organized political violence," warned the Egyptian weekly newspaper "Uktubar" in a commentary on the repercussions of the crisis.

Deadly duo

In addition to criticizing the racism and discrimination evident in French society, various media sources have also vigorously admonished the country's Muslim organizations. The practice of insulating the Muslim community from French society, as has been promoted by associations such as the Union of Islamic Organizations in France (UOIF), has been condemned by numerous commentators.

The fatwa (an Islamic legal pronouncement) issued by the UOIF in order to stem the unrest, might, in fact, be sending out a totally wrong signal.

"Instead of adhering to the laws of the French Republic, Muslims in France (according to the views of this organization) should base their actions on fatwas from the Muslim brotherhood. A host of middlemen and mediators belonging for the most part to Islamic groups have appeared on the local scene and present themselves as alternatives to state authority," wrote Amir Taheri in the daily newspaper "al-Sharq al-Awsat".

"It is unclear who was there first. But militant Islamism and a just as militant fear of Islam form a deadly duo leading France into uncertain waters."

A model for the Arab Gulf states?

The reports on the French riots, however, are not solely concerned with the situation in France, but rather reflect on the consequences and lessons they pose for other regions in Europe and the world as a whole.

photo: AP
Burning cars in France – a possible scenario for the Arab Gulf states?

​​With an eye on the disadvantages facing second and even third generation immigrant youths in France, commentator Hussein Shabakshi suggests that the Gulf states could learn from the "French lesson".

"A large population of Asian workers lives in the Gulf states, and many work under extremely difficult conditions. If this situation is allowed to continue or even worsen, it could result in serious conflicts," just like those we are now observing in France, he wrote in "al-Sharq al-Awsat".

Expressing similar views, Burhan Ghalioun emphasizes the international dimension of this "revolt of the marginalized" in an article on "al-Jazeera Online". In light of the problems associated with continuous immigration in industrial countries, there can be no talk of purely national solutions.

"The establishment of international peace and security requires serious negotiations at a global level. Only when all peoples can participate in discussions is it possible to find mutual solutions to all the world’s problems," stresses Ghalioun.

Emergency measures from the time of the Algerian War

In this context, many Arab commentators find the history of colonialism is more topical than ever. The disparaging remarks made by French Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy about the young people involved in the unrest, and, in particular, the reactivation of a state of emergency law first enacted in the early phases of the Algerian War have only compounded the situation.

"It is truly astounding that in its initial reaction to the crisis, the French government decided to meet with the imam of the Paris mosque, in order to emphasize its 'appreciation of the Islamic community'," comments Nahla al-Shahhal in the "al-Hayat" newspaper.

"In the process, they gave no thought whatsoever to the provocative nature of this step nor to its symbolic significance, which could have consequences diametrically opposed to the government's intentions. Things have gotten so bad that a state of emergency has been declared across France, in which the government had to resort to an old law drafted to deal with the conflict surrounding the Algerian struggle for national independence."

"This law was specifically created for the carnage in Algeria. Its infamy results from that black day in October 1961, when a peaceful demonstration of thousands of workers and Algerian immigrants – families with women and children – was suppressed in a horrible bloodbath." Some 200 Algerians were killed in Paris on that day.

Götz Nordbruch

© 2005

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