15, of Clichy-sous-Bois, a gritty suburb (banlieue)
north of Paris. Pursued by a police patrol probably on a routine
inspection, the two youths took refuge in an electric transformer, where
they were electrocuted.
Over the next few days, confrontations took place between
some residents of Clichy and law enforcement, but these were eased by
community leaders. Then, on October 30, a tear gas grenade hurled in the
vicinity of a local mosque filled with worshippers put a match to the
powder. In the midst of the holy month of Ramadan, the violence that began
in Clichy exploded across France.
On November 8, a state of emergency was declared and
extended for three months by vote of the National Assembly. From Lille in
the north to Marseille in the south, the riots touched more than 300
communities, resulting in at least three dead and dozens of injured.
Over three weeks, more than 14,000 buses, cars, trucks,
and motorcycles were torched. Altogether, the damage to property was
estimated at close to a quarter of a billion dollars. Some 11,200 law
enforcement officers deployed around the country made 2,900 arrests.
The rioters were young men whose parents, for the most
part, had immigrated to France from North and sub-Saharan Africa in the
1950s and 1960s. Growing up in the bleak, isolated world of the banlieues,
they had been denied access to good schools and decent jobs, subject to
constant denigration, and excluded from the political system. They were the
most visible evidence of France's failure to integrate its minority
That they were capable of violence came as no surprise.
During the 1990s, disturbances had broken out in a number of banlieues.
This was a significant turn from 1983 and 1984, when marches and
demonstrations were held to protest racism and demand equality. But the
extent of the uprising in the fall of 2005 pointed to a deeper crisis, a
profound rupture in French society.
Without memory, without dreams, without public voice, the
rioters made fire their means of expression, and what it expressed was the
bankruptcy of the country's universalist ideal of liberty, equality, and
Did it matter that most of the youths were Muslims, at
least by heritage?
Some leading right-wing voices in the American media were
convinced that it did. Daniel Pipes, for example, began referring to the
riots as the "French intifada," and he was not alone. For a while, Fox News
reported the violence over a banner that read, "Muslim Riots." By and large,
however, the mainstream media minimized the significance of Islam in telling
Nowhere was this more the case than in France itself,
where the media ceaselessly underestimated the significance of the rioters'
Muslim identity. Many of the leading newspapers and TV channels attacked the
foreign media for allegedly reducing the riots to a "clash of civilizations"
that served the politics of President Bush.
The French media were, in this regard, largely driven by
a political vision based on two or three themes: patterns of racism and
discrimination, the collapse of the French model of social integration, and
the failure of the banlieue as a model of urban planning. While
perfectly evident, this left little room for an alternative to the
explanation that the riots were simply the doing of notorious delinquents,
organized gangs, or idle young people. The socioeconomic rhetoric that
dominated the discussion never dealt with the malaise of a body of
disenfranchised youth increasingly attracted by radical Muslim identities.
Part of the problem was that because French Muslims have
come to regard the French media as hostile territory (not least because of a
prevailing tendency to associate the religion of Islam with the political
agenda of Islamism), they often refuse to talk to reporters. During the
riots, French television had great trouble finding young people in the
banlieues to interview.
To make matters worse, some journalists from the public
network France 2 were attacked, and some others from the private network TF1
were roughed up and their vehicle set on fire. Not that this prevented
foreign journalists from taking over a hotel in Clichy-sous-Bois and
conducting business as usual - proof that the
rioters were discriminating in their rage.
It's worth noting as well that a certain spirit of
competition took hold among the banlieues, with many youths boasting
that they had gotten CNN, the BBC, or TF1 to come to their districts, while
others "only" got the press or local television. Such "co-production of
violence" by the media has been a subject of considerable interest to French
sociologists. (The most blatant example of this occurred in 2000, when
journalists working for the private network M6 were discovered to have
actually paid some youths to torch a car so they could film it live.)
Any enumeration of factors that contributed to the riots
needs to take account of the provocations of the minister of the interior,
Nicholas Sarkozy. During the three weeks of rioting, Sarkozy was constantly
on television explaining his security policy and justifying his use of the
word "scum" (racailles) to describe the rioters and his speaking of
the need to "pressure clean" (nettoyer au karcher) the banlieues.
These two formulas were the object of great public commotion, and were
continually repeated on all the TV and radio stations, foreign and domestic.
Uniquely, Sarkozy blamed fundamentalist Muslim groups in
the banlieues for causing the riots -
though he hurriedly denied this on an official trip to Muslim lands
afterwards. Speaking on al-Jazeera while in Qatar, for example, he said, "I
do not accept the association of Islam and the terrorists;" and "This was
not a problem of Muslims, this was a problem of delinquents;" and "Islam is
a religion of peace."
While Sarkozy was pouring oil on the fire, the official
leaders of the Muslim community in France were proving their ineffectuality.
Most notably, the National Council of Muslims in France (NCMF), a
representative body of ethnic Muslim groups established at Sarkozy's urging
in 2003, made repeated appeals for calm, but to no avail.
The NCMF has very little legitimacy with Muslims on the
ground for two reasons. First, its chosen representatives are very much
bound to Muslim regimes abroad at a time when most French Muslims feel
themselves to be French. Second, the council has no real power to counteract
the state's failures, such as through the appointment of Muslim chaplains in
public schools, hospitals, prisons, and the military, and the establishment
of private Muslim schools (which do not exist in France).
Islam, with nearly five million adherents constituting
eight per cent of the French population, is the second largest religion in
the country, and its treatment on different terms from Christianity or
Judaism has created a persistent sense of injustice among the Muslim
faithful. By not addressing the unequal treatment, the NCMF failed to
establish any credibility for itself.
After the tear gas grenade was hurled near the
Clichy-sous-Bois mosque, the council's president, Dr. Dalil Boubekeur of the
Great Mosque of Paris, went there to show solidarity with the local imam,
who had demanded a public apology from the president of the republic.
Boubekeur was very badly received by the enraged community and had to be
evacuated by security officers.
Explaining that fumes inside the mosque had led many of
the worshippers to believe that it had been tear-gassed in order to get them
to leave, the Clichy imam, Abderrahman Bouhout, told me, "If a church or a
synagogue had been attacked, the next day the minister would have come and
issued a public apology...but we Muslims are not
Acknowledging that he might have aggravated the situation
by claiming, in scores of radio and television interviews, that the grenade
had exploded inside rather than outside the mosque, Bouhout said that acting
otherwise would have "changed nothing regarding the action and anger of
Muslims gassed in the midst of praying. They are completely furious. When
the apologies didn't come, it became possible for their children to want to
avenge them." In fact, many of the youths I interviewed in and around Clichy
insisted that the mosque had been attacked intentionally
- a hypothesis that cannot be verified.
Another Muslim institution that sought to calm the waters
was the Union of the Islamic Organizations of France (UIOF). The strength of
the UIOF is substantial - 250 affiliated mosques
out of 1,000 - and its prestige, while declining,
remains considerable, thanks to its opposition to the 2004 law prohibiting
Muslim girls from wearing head coverings in public schools and its general
defense of traditional Islam.
Associated with the Muslim Brothers, the conservative
Islamic movement that originated in Egypt, the UIOF has at its disposal the
only center for theological education in Europe equipped to dispense
religious decrees, or fatwas. On November 6, this center promulgated a
special fatwa that read in part, "The UIOF expressly requests all Muslims in
France to facilitate a return to civil peace, bearing in mind the following
Koranic verse: God condemns destruction and disorder and rejects those who
bring them about." This was widely disseminated on many French and Arabic
websites as well as on al-Jazeera and other Arabic satellite television
Also calling for calm was the theologian Yusuf al-Qaradawi,
a widely respected religious authority who heads the website
Qaradawi also asked that the authorities quickly address the wounds
caused by racism and employment discrimination.
Besides these institutional leaders, a handful of
prominent Muslim intellectuals and preachers such as Tariq Ramadan came
forward to diagnose the implications of the riots for politics and for the
social integration of increasingly radical Muslim minorities throughout
Europe. Finally, a great array of anti-violence, pro-peace associations,
both Islamic and leftist, vigorously denounced the French state and its
injustices on behalf of the rioters, whose despair they said they
All these reactions were the visible face of the Muslim
leadership in the media. But on the ground, where the cameras don't go, such
figures have little weight compared to new leadership cadres that possess
real legitimacy - indeed, that monopolize the
moral capital in the banlieues. These
include informal groups of Islamist hardliners (wahabis and salafists), but
above all the members of the Muslim renewal association known as the Jama'at
Although the media were largely unaware of it, the
Tablighi did a lot to calm the violence in many neighborhoods. As one whom I
found praying at the Clichy-Monfermeil mosque told me, "These youths who
wish to smash everything, who respect nothing and no one, they are enraged.
But they respect us because they see that we are on the right path and
- when they need anything - money, help,
someone to listen - they know that we are there
and that we will help them, and that changes everything."
Today, the fundamentalist preachers of the Tabligh
movement can be found in more than 100 countries. They have been present in
France since 1960, generally coming from India and Pakistan via London in
groups of between three and five men (called Jama'a). They began by
traveling around the country making followers among the first immigrants
from North Africa in an effort to restore religious practice.
But since the end of the 1980s, the movement has given
priority to the immigrants' children, creating a web of local, regional,
national, and transnational connections in all parts of France. This
international Islamic network - the largest in the
world according to the scholar Gilles Kepel -
grows larger by the day.
The Tablighi can be recognized by their appearance:
beard, prayer beads, short wooden baton, and the short, sleeveless
over-garment called the gandoura Their commitment is unconditional
and their investment in preaching is powerful. The frequent efforts of their
families to get them to reduce their involvement in the movement are
The newly militant male adherent cuts himself off from
the world. Often, he stops watching television and listening to music, makes
new friends, avoids sexual promiscuity, goes out little, and prays a lot.
Like a hermit, he devotes himself to regular fasting, to meditation and
study. He makes good use of his un- or underemployed status to improve his
faith and practice.
Animated by an extraordinary faith and little concerned
with their public image, the rigorist new-style preachers of the Tabligh
have, since the 1980s, devoted themselves above all to the banlieues,
where the immigrant communities of largely Muslim origin seem easiest to
bring to the right path. The sites of the riots of the 1990s such as Vaux en
Velin, Mantes la Jolie, and La Courneuve were and remain prime loci of the
Tabligh mission of leading back to God lost youth who by their destructive
acts soil the image of the Muslim religion of which they are the unconscious
During their missionary sorties in the banlieues,
the Tablighi teach a rigorist and intransigent model of their religion based
on the life of Muhammad. They look for lost souls in the darkness, netting
"clients" in whom they seek to awaken a faith dormant in a consumer society
where money is king. They appeal to them by evoking the conditions of their
lives in the urban ghettos that the French republic seems to have abandoned.
In my view, the Tablighi actually legitimize
discrimination in order to encourage youth to join their ranks. They demand
disengagement from politics. And while they never justify or encourage
violence, they surf the riots to recruit the rioters. In effect, these new
local leaders propose their form of Islam as a substitute for the French
For the past decade, the Tabligh movement has been under
the surveillance of the state intelligence service, which is particularly
interested in the most zealous preachers - those
who once spent four months in India or Pakistan with the presumed goal of
fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan. The concern is that these will create
more militants like the 150 young French Muslims whom French authorities
have identified as having gone from training camps in Afghanistan to
Pakistan, Bosnia, Chechnya, and Iraq - and who
have, in a few cases, been linked to the 9/11 attacks on the United States.
The majority of the latter came from the banlieues
that were burning last fall. Those militants who passed from the Tabligh to
violent Islamism do seem to have put some distance between themselves and
the movement. Evidently, they have been hunted down by other recruiters. But
the pronounced sectarianism of the Tablighi preachers I have encountered in
the banlieues has led me to conclude that joining the Tabligh is a
first step towards Islamist militancy.
Three factors can be taken to explain the riots and the
potential transition of riotous youth to radical Islam and even to