Belfast Telegraph

Migrants must respect our values or we face constant civil war

By Mary Kenny

Algeria: that was the political obsession when I was a young student in France back in the 1960s. All the political thinkers and activists we admired were champions of an independent and free Algeria - freed from French colonial dominance, and marching towards the sunny uplands of a liberated, secular, republican future. Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, glamorous movie stars like Simone Signoret appeared in street marches in solidarity with the new Algeria, and against those reactionaries and old colonialists who argued otherwise. We students read and admired Frantz Fanon, the Afro-French liberationist philosopher.

Even De Gaulle came to agree, and he accorded independence to Algeria. And that was that. Except there was one issue that no one factored into the picture - neither the progressives who supported a free Algeria, nor the ultra-conservatives who thought Algeria should still be French: Islam.

Nobody, back in the 1960s, could have even conceived of the idea that what was gestating, underneath the surface, from that time onwards was an extraordinarily energetic and assertive revival of Islam, not just in Algeria, but all across North Africa and the Middle East. Fanon, in describing his vision of the future for the oppressed peoples of colonial rule, does not mention religion once as a force to be considered.

Perhaps the story of the brothers Said and Cherif Kouachi is one of the long outcomes of France's, and the West's, failure to foresee and to understand how Islam would be used, and indeed perverted, as a dominant force of our time? Born in Paris to Algerian parents, the Kouachis grew up in an orphanage in Brittany - by anyone's measure a bad start in life. They drifted into dead-end jobs and got involved in petty crime, until, it seems, they found a cause that would bind them and affirm an identity in a society that was often alien to them. Influenced by radical imams, they found al-Qaeda and Isis, and when they carried out the Charlie Hebdo killings they proclaimed that they had avenged the insults to Allah.

The desperate events of a fortnight ago, with subsequent killings of hostages in a Jewish supermarket, were a malign illumination of the conflicts within French society, and to some extent, within a wider European agenda. The Kouachi brothers were a terrible and tragic example of the way in which many host societies have failed to integrate and to socialise alienated young Muslims who have turned, instead, towards Syria, Iraq and Pakistan as the source of their values.

(There are nearly five million Muslims in France and a high percentage of them are young.)

When I was a young person, the French had a confident view of their own values. "Civilisation Francaise" was part of every student's agenda: you not only learned the language, you were taught that France's civilisation was, if anything, superior to others. Incomers to France had to be "made into Frenchmen" - a French republican view that went back to Ferry and Gambetta in the 19th century when they set out to repress regional languages and unify the state.

Even in benighted Algeria, we learned that France had brought schools, hospitals and roads to these colonies, as part of the "civilising mission". This may have been an over-confident view, because as the years followed, it was corrected, and replaced with a greater sense of "colonial guilt", and, perhaps a compensatory feeling that Europeans should bend over backwards to accommodate the victims of colonialism, going back as far as the Crusades.

All very well-meaning, but when a society loses confidence in its own values, it subsequently fails to integrate incomers into the host culture. From the 1990s, debates took place in France about the wearing of the burka, and indeed, the practice of female genital mutilation. There were, at that time, differences between feminist groups as to whether female circumcision should be accepted "as part of their culture", or whether it should be deplored as an assault on women.

Gradually, the latter view came to prevail, but it was a close-run thing for some time, when multi-culturalism dominated the agenda. Eventually, too, the burka was banned in public places, but it was hotly contested, and there is still a debate to be had as to whether a liberal state should dictate dress codes.

Set adrift, often growing up alienated or in ghettoised suburbs, and insufficiently integrated into the host culture, it's small wonder that many young Muslims did not feel an allegiance to French society or British society for that matter.

Wave upon wave of Muslims from Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia came to France in the boom years of the 1960s and '70s, until France had more Muslims than any other European country. By 2013, a survey found that more than a quarter of French citizens thought that Islam was "incompatible with French society". And there are movements in Germany, in the Netherlands, and in Scandinavia which echo these reactions.

Of course there are peaceable and decent Muslims who do integrate: Muslims in Ireland have been, in general, model citizens who have become part of the fabric of Irish life. But other parts of Europe are a lot more troubled and France is perhaps at the peak of this anxiety - the sensational publication of Michel Houellebecq's new novel, Soumission, imagines a France in 2022 which has been totally Islamised.

The 'Charlie Hebdo' killings and their aftermath are surely a frightening warning about how violent divisions can occur. We can't turn the clock back, but Europeans must replace a misjudged multi-culturalism with an insistence that in any society, the host values must be respected and prevail, and incomers must integrate with the traditions of that host society.

The alternative is a permanent civil war.

Belfast Telegraph

Popular

From Belfast Telegraph