Understanding Violence

Issues of interpretation arise more centrally in other recent instances of crime and violence in France and other European nations. While Muslims are the main component of the immigrant poor across Europe, and especially in the legendary French banlieues, they are by no means the only group, nor are the poor defined exclusively by religion. In recent rioting in France, we find activity by black Africans of Christian origin as well as by poor whites, chiefly of southern European origin. Moreover, a young man from a Muslim family may have virtually no sense of religious identification. In all societies, people have multiple identities from which to choose, and religion may or may not occupy a primary place.

The racial angle should be stressed much more than it customarily is. Most observers note a change in the consciousness of European ethnic groups in the late 1980s, and unquestionably, some people did turn vigorously to Islamic loyalties, but racial identification continued to be powerful for many. This was true in France, which, given its colonial past, inevitably has a substantial population of African descent, drawn either from Africa itself or from the Caribbean. While the French refuse to count the membership of their ethnic or religious groups, estimates of the country's black population run anywhere from 2 to 4 million. Many of those would also be counted among the nation's Muslims, but religion is not necessarily the major factor in deciding their self-identification. Blacks, like Muslims, also suffer from racism, they feel an enormous sense of exclusion from mainstream society, and they have often been involved in urban unrest. The black French population has virtually no political representation, nor do they have any presence in the corporate world.

Violence against French white residents might thus be incited by racist sentiment as much as by religious fervor. In one incident in 2005, white students demonstrated in Paris against proposed education reforms. The march was disrupted by hundreds of black and Arab youths who beat and robbed many demonstrators, not through any concern about the political issues involved but explicitly from anti-white prejudice, to take revenge against privileged white people. In response, leading thinkers issued a petition denouncing antiwhite violence and pogroms of a kind that has become quite common. On New Year's Day, 2006, "a gang of some forty young, mostly Arab men terrorized a Nice-Lyon train, sexually assaulting and robbing passengers, car by car." Similarly, while U.S. media accurately report the grave dangers facing Jews traveling in or near immigrant areas of France, Jews may be in no greater peril than are white French people of any religious persuasion.51

French conditions are not unique. In Muslim areas of Britain, people of Pakistani descent define themselves not against Christians or infidels but against whites, and the term need not have hostile intent. British boxer Amir Khan happily recalls attending a mixed school where he had lots of white friends. But it also becomes a hostile racial epithet, as when a young British woman whose dress fails to meet local community standards encounters shouts of "white bitch" or "white slag." Riots erupt between Asians and whites, or (more frequently in recent years) between Asians and blacks.52

In Sweden too, we observe conflicts of race, culture, and ethnicity rather than religion. The country has now become accustomed to frequent violent crimes by immigrants of Muslim origin, usually directed against white old-stock Swedes. As Christopher Caldwell remarks, this represents a conscious choice by gang members: "White Swedes in the center of Stockholm are easier marks—identifiably middle class and unlikely to have developed the habit of defending themselves aggressively." In no way should any of these comments be seen as trivializing or underestimating the violence or criminal activity, but they do raise questions about the origins of minority unrest, and specifically its religious character.53

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