The terror attacks in Paris will likely exacerbate the challenges faced by Muslim communities in Europe, particularly as extreme right-wing political parties in the region begin to politicize the tragedy that saw 12 people killed at the headquarters of a French satirical magazine. The real problem is not a lack of willingness by Muslim communities to assimilate to European culture but rather the systemic discrimination that prevents many from integrating into societies in Europe, experts said.
Said and Chérif Kouachi, the French-born Algerian brothers who were killed in a Friday raid by police, reportedly targeted Charlie Hebdo’s Paris offices while shouting “Allahu akbar” and “We have avenged the prophet.” In previous high-profile instances such as these, politicians have been quick to level the blame on Islam and, specifically, the failure of Europe’s Muslims to assimilate to the culture of the societies where they reside. Extreme right-wing parties around the continent are already using such talking points to advance their political agendas, Claire Adida, an assistant professor of political science at the University of California at San Diego, said.
Nigel Farage, the leader of the British far-right U.K. Independence Party, argued Thursday that a “fifth column” of European society was to blame for the killings and that Britain had “encouraged people from other cultures to remain within those cultures and not integrate fully within our communities,” according to the Guardian.
Deploying that narrative is a far easier task than the much more difficult and nuanced effort of addressing the socioeconomic challenges faced by many immigrant communities in Europe, Kathleen Cavanaugh, a lecturer of international law at the Irish Center for Human Rights at the National University of Ireland in Galway, said. “Even a cursory background check of one of the two brothers involved in the shootings suggest that being part of an impoverished, disadvantaged background and having an exaggerated sense of humiliation and victimhood was more of a compelling factor to taking up arms than any religious ideology or indeed the wish to set up a caliphate in France,” she wrote in an email.
The Kouachi brothers were born in eastern Paris and grew up in an orphanage in the western city of Rennes after their parents died. Chérif worked a series of menial jobs over the years, including delivering pizzas and selling fish, reported the New York Times. Said, who was believed to be the “aggressor” in the massacre, was described as unemployed by the French interior ministry. “The socioeconomic deprivation that accompanies many immigrant communities has proven to be great recruiting platforms for those who are using religion as a means of exploiting the vulnerability of the dispossessed,” Cavanaugh said.
The killings should come as a wake-up call to the French government, Adida said. “The French political center has to take its head out of the sand and realize that there is systematic discrimination against a vulnerable population and that this discrimination is ... contributing to the vicious cycle of [Muslim] nonintegration,” she said.
France has the largest Muslim population in Europe, with 5 million, or 7.5 percent of the population, according to the BBC. A large portion of this population faces day-to-day discrimination along with broader, institutional forms of disenfranchisement, said Mayanthi L. Fernando, an associate professor of anthropology at the University of California at Santa Cruz, whose work focuses on Islam and secularism in France. “The problem here is not a lack of willingness among a large number of French Muslims to integrate -- many would say they are already integrated -- the problem is they are not accepted as legitimately French by the rest of the white, Christian majority,” she said.
A 2010 Stanford study, co-authored by Adida, found that Muslim French citizens face discrimination on the job market, with their Christian peers receiving two-and-a-half more opportunities than equally qualified Muslim candidates. France’s ban against religious attire in schools has also been seen by human rights groups such as Amnesty International as a form of discrimination against Muslims by outlawing expressions of their faith.
“I would say that the very framework of assimilation and integration is the problem in France and Europe,” said Fernando. “The problem is that on one hand they are asked to prove their integration in the French mainstream, but on the other hand they are facing discrimination day to day and institutionally.”
This dynamic is only going to get worse as politicians “inflame” existing public prejudices against Muslims, which will result in a rightward shift of French society, she said. Mosques in France have already been targeted in the aftermath of the attack. Many Muslim women are also being urged not to go out in their veils over fears they might be the targets of reprisal attacks, according to Fernando.
“The French really need to figure out how to make Muslims part of Europe’s future,” Adida said. “If this is what comes out of this tragedy, that at least will be for the better.”