“France’s Failure,” declares the cover story of this week’s Economist
over the photograph of a firefighter vainly trying to douse a torched SUV somewhere
in, well, France. Exactly which part of France is anyone’s guess, since in the
past fortnight more than 6,000 cars, as well as numerous buses, supermarkets,
kindergartens, churches, community centers and the like have been set ablaze by
rioters from Lille, in the extreme north of the country, to Perpignan, near the
Spanish border. The rioters have been young, male, and — for the most part — members
of France’s very angry Muslim and West African minorities. If they wanted to be
heard, they have succeeded. Nothing like this level of violence has occurred in
France since the fabled student riots of 1968. But the rebellion of ’68 was considered
“fun,” part of the legend of the ’60s, rock & roll, miniskirts, Che Guevara, pissing
off the fuzz and getting laid like crazy. Many who took part in it are now distinguished
reporters and writers and filmmakers and government ministers. It’s unlikely the
same will be said of the current crop of rebels. Which is just part of the problem.

The Economist’s cover has a kind of all-purpose feel to it. It’s easy to imagine the magazine running an almost identical photograph (massive explosion, flames) from Iraq under the headline, “America’s Failure.” Ditto for the West Bank and Gaza — that would be “Israel’s Failure.” Blown up buses and underground stations in London? “Britain’s Failure.” More smoldering vehicles in Belgium, Denmark and Germany, a few hundred dead commuters in Madrid, along with a stabbed filmmaker and cowering politicians in Holland? Why not simply lump them all together and call it “Europe’s Failure”? Down under, where Islamists were just arrested for plotting to blow up a nuclear power plant? “Australia’s failure.” Bali, where nightclubs are incinerated on an annual basis? “Paradise’s Failure.” You get the picture. No matter where you look, there’s an awful lot of failing going on, and, according to much of the media, the root cause almost always seems to be the West’s inability to integrate, placate, soothe or deal justly with some sort of aggrieved Muslim population.

It’s good that the West is self-critical. But take self-criticism too far and it becomes outright masochism. When Shiite Muslims go on their annual religious pilgrimage and beat themselves with iron chains and slice their foreheads open with swords, we think it primitive and peculiar. On the other hand, we have our own, slier forms of self-flagellation. What must certain Muslims, especially when they read our better newspapers and magazines and blogs, think of us? Why are we always so eager to depict ourselves in the most sinister light? Why the panting fetish for the news story (Abu Ghraib, Hurricane Katrina) that will make us look really, really bad? When Nicolas Sarkozy, France’s interior minister, referred to the people who set fires and then stone the firemen who extinguish them as “scum,” much of the press, here and in France, was profoundly offended. How dare he say such a thing? The proper word for such people, according to the press, is “youths.” (But where does that leave “youths” who don’t stone firemen?) In the new France, not only must people resign themselves to the fact that their car or business may be destroyed overnight, they must be extremely polite about it afterward as well.

It’s true that many of the “youths” are unemployed, particularly the darker-skinned ones who claim business owners discriminate against them because they have the “wrong” kind of names — Mohammad, or Abdul. On the other hand, I’ve been to Morocco, where some of them are from, or where their parents are from, and every other person seems to be unemployed. Not much rioting in Morocco, however. For some strange reason, Muslims only seem to feel the urge to express themselves politically in non-Muslim countries, or in Muslim countries under occupation — i.e., when there are a lot of infidels around. Sans infidels, this whole business of demanding your rights and blowing yourself up or sounding off about what a loser the local commander-in-chief is just seems a lot less attractive. And if you’re an imam in Damascus or Jedda or Fez or some place like that, you don’t go on in your Friday sermons about the shocking failures of your government, its repressive political practices, intrusive and discriminatory secret services. Nope, you only do that if you’re an imam in some infidel dog of a town like Amsterdam or Los Angeles.

Ironically, the biggest beneficiaries of the riots in France
are likely to be the imams and the mosques — Islam’s influence, in short, will
have grown yet again. To judge from the French news broadcast, Le Journal
(available in the U.S. on cable), which simply cannot show enough peace-loving
mosque footage, Islam, not Catholicism, is now the religion in France that matters.
The church is dead, and the state, in the form of its enfeebled president, Jacques
Chirac, has literally had a stroke. Whether or not the riots are a form of jihad,
or a new kind of intifada, or have much of anything to do with Islam per se, the
fact remains that many of the rioters are Muslim and identify themselves as such.
French Muslims burn cars, destroy community centers, terrorize the locals and
shoot at police, and, once in a while, shout Allahu Akhbar! while they’re
doing it. Then their imams step in and lead the calls for peace, harmony and mutual
respect. Either way, Muslims are the story.

The poet Philip Larkin once wrote about how age pushes people “to the side of their own lives” as a new generation takes over. As they see what’s occurring in France and elsewhere, many Europeans must privately feel that something similar is happening to them. Only in this case, they’re being shoved. Not simply because of age (though that’s a factor — one out of every three babies born in France is now said to be Muslim), or because they’re a dwindling majority surrounded by a swelling minority. It’s also because they’re no longer sufficiently patriotic or violent or worked up about anything of consequence to count as “news.” That’s fine — ideal, in fact — when no one else is either, but such is no longer the case. And for a white Frenchman who’s technically a Catholic but probably an agnostic, it must be depressing to open the newspaper each morning and read yet another headline about an alien creed that seems intent on imposing itself on his country. If it’s a really “class” newspaper like Le Monde, the editorial will probably inform him that the fault for this state of affairs is largely his own and that he will soon be expected to pay the price economically while redoubling his efforts to be exquisitely sensitive about all things Muslim. How long he’ll put up with this, that is the question.

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