In some sense the real “clash of civilizations” is not taking place on the battlefields of Iraq but in the streets of the Europe. As of writing this post, Arab and Muslim youth throughout France have been rioting for ten consecutive days in what is one of the biggest displays of civil (and not so civil) unrest in France in many decades. Obviously taken aback by the intensity and spread of this violence, the French government has been slow to respond effectively and there is a growing realization that France’s relationship with its Muslim immigrants has reached a boiling point.
Much of France’s troubles (and all of Western Europe’s) can be traced to the low birth rates of native Europeans, which coupled with the aging of Europe’s population jeopardizes current standards of living unless young workers can be added to the European economy. This of course means immigration, and in the case of Europe much of this immigration is coming from the primarily Islamic societies of Northern Africa; societies with no history of democracy or any of the basic freedoms that we in the West take granted. While no doubt the material standards of living for most of these immigrants is higher than in their home countries, many of these people feel largely isolated from European society. Claims of racial discrimination and police brutality, high rates of unemployment amongst the low-skilled workers, and heavy-handed (although justifiable) policies to maintain Europe’s commitment to the separation of religion and state, such as the French ban on head scarves, have created deep bitterness.
In addition to their socio-economic woes, it appears that there are few moderate voices coming from within these Muslim communities that can help reconcile more reactionary religious and cultural beliefs with secular European values. And just like the state of Israel, where the country will ultimately face the choice between being democratic or being Jewish (because Jews will eventually be a minority within their own territory given demographic trends), many European societies may in the future face a similar dilemma if current trends continue: maintain their Western democratic liberal values or be forced to marginalize a growing Muslim population within their own borders. The task European governments must confront is how to successfully assimilate these people into their societies and persuade them to embrace the full range of Western norms and values.
With home-grown Muslim extremists responsible for the recent carnage in London and the brutal murder of a Dutch artist critical of Islam, along with the Madrid bombings (carried out by a Moroccan group), I suspect that European leaders are going to make actively engaging their Muslim populations a top priority since even a small core of hardened extremists can lead to terrible results. While no doubt many of the young men rioting in France have taken part in the mayhem for the sheer thrill of looting and pillaging (in the 1992 L.A. riots many of the rioters were also the worst sort of opportunists), the scale and duration of the riots point to serious and widespread grievances, some of which are certainly legitimate. I would not be surpised if France decided to reconsider its rejection of the EU Constitution and work harder for Turkey’s ascension to full EU membership.
In the United States we face a similar demographic situation (though not to the same extent since our birth rates are higher), but the vast majority of our immigrants come from Mexico and the rest of Latin America; societies with at least a modicum of democratic experience. In addition, these immigrants are overwhelmingly Catholic, which helps them blend into America’s religious mix relatively easily, and having been exposed at an early age to American pop culture they do not experience such intense culture shock. Americans from Latin American are entering the middle class and professional ranks as well as the political establishment, with Alberto Gonzales as Attorney General and Ken Salazar as senator of Colorado. As a society, we have accepted the waves of illegal Latin American immigrants with only modest disapproval, as evidenced by the fact that Spanish is almost an official language throughout much of the country; even President Bush gives his weekly radio addresses in Spanish. While some people may complain about the “alien invasion”, our political establishment is not serious about curbing this immigration (even in areas where they should) and it is now a firmly established fact of American life.
Ironically, the fate of Europe may well be more connected to the fate of the Middle East than is the United States. And whereas the Bush Administration has been largely unsuccessful at convincing most European leaders to take a greater interest in the Muslim world in their own “backyard”, my guess is that pictures of the Parisian suburbs burning surely will.