Invisible Cities

Accounts of contemporary Muslim Europe resemble journalistic explorations of black America thirty years ago, in the sense that it is easy to dwell on poverty, crime, and the world of the underclass as if that were the only reality. Not long since, European visitors to the United States were shocked to discover prosperous middle- and upper-class African-Americans, as professionals, businesspeople, and corporate leaders. In modern Europe too, some Muslim communities have done very well socially, and Britain in particular has a thriving middle class of Pakistani origins. A recent lord mayor of Manchester was Pakistani-born Mohammed Afzal Khan, while the country has corporate tycoons like Sir Anwar Pervez. A rising star in London's Metropolitan Police is Assistant Commissioner Tariq Ghaffur, a Muslim of Pakistani descent. Even in France, where segregation seems best established, some Muslims do very well. In recent political feuds over regulating illegal music downloads, the most visible advocate of a free Internet has been teenaged student Aziz Ridouan, founder of the Audionautes and a hero to technologically sophisticated youth. Of such backgrounds are hightech careers made.6

Even so, large sections of Europe's Muslim population do find themselves confined to underclass conditions, living in poverty and having little opportunity of improving their lives. Muslim immigration historically focused on the areas of traditional heavy industry where work was easy to come by. Often, idealistic governments had tried to construct special communities for workers in these industries, apartments, and housing projects that followed the urban planning ideas of the time. From the 1970s, however, these areas were the hardest hit by a sharp economic downturn and a major reorientation away from older manufacturing industries. Some countries were able to absorb these changes: Britain, especially, coped relatively well because of the radical free market traditions established under Margaret Thatcher, who curbed the power of the labor unions. France and Germany, however, kept their labor markets tightly regulated, and unemployment soared. Immigrant and low-skilled labor were the primary victims. What had been intended as model towns and suburbs swiftly slid into poverty, while old-stock white residents left if they possibly could. The late 1980s proved another difficult period, and Europe recovered slowly from the global recession of 1990-1992. Repeatedly, we will find the years around 1989-1990 marking a major rise in urban disaffection and protest, and at the same time a new rise in self-consciousness and militancy among new ethnic populations.7

By the 1990s, Muslims were likely to be living in classic ghettos surrounding the shuttered shells of traditional factories, and it was in this setting that the new generation of European-born Muslims grew up. Though it is tempting to speak of ghettos, that word is misleading if it implies separated areas within the larger city, since in reality many of the most troubled sections stand outside the older city boundaries. But whatever their exact geographical location, these communities have acquired a very strong foreign identity, which marks them off radically from the urban mainstream.

Sweden offers a model example of the failed hopes of the 1960s and the making of what Stefano Allievi has aptly called "invisible cities." Nationally, the Swedish economy is doing exceptionally well, but some of the communities built during that earlier industrial boom have been left far behind. Around Malmo, with a population that is almost 40-percent foreign or foreign stock, the once-vaunted working-class housing projects have declined badly, leaving the newer immigrant residents as the chief victims. As Christopher Caldwell remarks, the Rosengard project "appears to be all-immigrant. The public schools have virtually no ethnically Swedish children." In another area some miles from the port of Gothenburg, "70 percent of the residents were either born abroad or have parents who were. The same goes for 93 percent of the schoolchildren." And in this context, immigrants are very likely to be of Muslim origin. "Forty percent of the families are on outright welfare, and many of the rest are on various equivalents of welfare that bear different names. Far below half the population is employed." As in other European cities, the concentration of immigrants in the schools need not in itself create problems, but when coupled with poverty, high crime, and deep alienation, the gulf between teachers and pupils becomes dangerously wide, and immigrant communities become notorious for failed or problem schools.8

Europe's Muslims are disproportionately young and underedu-cated, and in the context of largely stagnant European economies, they suffer acutely from social ills and dysfunctions. Apart from having the largest Muslim population, France has probably done the worst job of integrating it and has most successfully created an urban underclass. The worst social deprivation is found in the immigrant communities surrounding Paris, the suburbs or banlieues, where work had been so easy to come by in the 1960s. By the end of the century, though, employment had shrunk and the residential areas were declining fast. In the words of the Economist, they were "home to rain-streaked concrete high-rise estates; multiple faiths, tongues and colors; and the usual cocktail of joblessness, broken families, truancy and drug-dealing." Clichy-sous-Bois had become "Clichy-sur-Jungle." Adding to the irony of the situation, these areas bear names hallowed in the most ancient days of France, when they were the estates and monasteries of the Merovingian and Carolingian kings. The ancient royal church of St. Denis is now surrounded by sprawling housing estates, mainly populated by people of north African stock.9

Making the similarities to Third-World societies even stronger, the areas that Gilles Kepel calls les banlieues de ¡'Islam also have a very young age profile. In Aulnay, over 40 percent of the population is under twenty-five. And as in contemporary north Africa, Muslim communities across Europe have very high levels of unemployment and underemployment. At the time of the riots by Arab and African youth in 2005, France's national unemployment rate was 10 percent, but the youth rate was 23 percent, and in the banlieues, usually over 40 percent.10

Other European countries fare little better. Among Berlin's 180,000 Turks, the unemployment rate is presently over 40 percent, compared with a citywide average of 17 percent. Some immigrant communities in Sweden commonly report unemployment rates of around 50 percent. In Britain, a government report in 2004 found that "Muslims are more likely than other faith groups to have no qualifications (over two-fifths have none) and to be unemployed and economically inactive, and are over-represented in deprived areas." British men of Muslim origin have an unemployment rate three-and-a-half-times higher than old-stock residents. British children of Pakistani or Bangladeshi ethnicity are more than twice as likely to be poor as the national average—far higher than the white population but also greatly exceeding the rates for other nonwhite immigrant communities such as Hindus, Sikhs, or Parsis.11

Aggravating a sense of grievance against the wider society is a common perception of the strength of racism and of pervasive discrimination. Such charges need to be sifted carefully, since as we have seen, some European Muslims have prospered, and the success of many Asians of non-Muslim origins means that we cannot be dealing with a simple color line. The Chinese in particular have flourished. Britain's south Asians have produced an impressive number of tycoons and entrepreneurs, and Asian-owned businesses contribute mightily to the British economy, particularly in London. Even so, the annually published "Asian Rich List" is heavy on Hindu and Sikh names, on Patels and Singhs rather than on Muslim Khans or Mohammeds. Europe's wealthiest Muslims are more likely to have made their fortunes elsewhere, usually in the Arab world, and to have brought their wealth with them rather than struggling up from humble beginnings.12

In contrast, ordinary Muslims trying to enter the system face multiple obstacles, not least in the language used to describe them. Even thirty-year-old men born in Germany or the Netherlands still face the terminology of "immigrants" or "foreigners," and there seems little prospect that this practice is changing even for the third European generation. Time and again, conversations with urban Muslims produce the same despairing phrases: with a name like mine, I couldn't even get an interview; they would take one look at my name and I'd have no chance; with my name, I could never get a sales job. As journalist Henri Astier observes, in modern France, Ali and Rachid are much less likely to get ahead than Alain or Richard. In consequence, it is much more difficult to create a professional or entrepreneurial class. The overall unemployment rate for France's university graduates is 5 percent; for graduates of north African origin, it is over 26 percent, and very few north Africans hold senior ranks in the French corporate world. And while French people of Muslim origin find it hard to enter the mainstream society, hostile stereotyping prevents them from developing businesses within their own communities, which could serve as a base for later progress. Entrepreneurs who set up stores specifically targeted at Muslims—for instance, marketing halal foods—run the risk that banks and suppliers will stigmatize those areas as ghettos, as candidates for urban renewal, and withhold credit. The French situation recalls the plight of America's struggling black entrepreneurs in the mid-twentieth century.13

As in the United States, urban communities suffering multiple social deprivation tend to develop a strong sense of neighborhood in which outsiders are clearly identifiable and readily identified as enemies. Also, a sense of exclusion or rejection promotes a sense of solidarity among the young, who find few obvious role models in the mainstream. The only universal heroes are stars of sport or popular culture. In contemporary France, one of the few popular idols whose appeal crosses boundaries of race and religion would be a football megastar like Zinedine Zidane, born in Marseille of a Maghrebin family. In Britain, even Asian Muslims who are thoroughly disaffected with most forms of Britishness remain committed to cricket, a game long acclimatized in the Indian subcontinent.

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