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August 26th, 2004
Young, Muslim, and French
Interview with Fawaz Gerges
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August 26, 2004: Fawaz Gerges, professor of International Affairs and Middle Eastern Studies at Sarah Lawrence College, and author of the forthcoming book THE JIHADISTS: UNHOLY WARRIORS, discusses secularism in France and how it impacts the Muslim community with host Mishal Husain.

MISHAL HUSAIN: Dr. Gerges welcome to WIDE ANGLE. The veil is a very current issue in France at the moment. School’s just about to start and this ban on headscarves will come into effect. Why is it that France sees a need for a law on this at this point?

FAWAZ GERGES: I think one point must be made very clear: secularism is the official ideology of the French republic. The ethos of secularism inspire and inform political life in France. Let’s take the United States, for example, the American system institutionalizes the separation between the sacred and the political but it does not dismiss or discriminate against, you might say, the religious imagination. The French system obviously does and I think the decision to ban the veil is more of a secular fundamentalist decision. This tells you about the nature of the French republic.

MISHAL HUSAIN: So would you say that the French state feels threatened by the veil?

FAWAZ GERGES: I think the decision to ban the veil and the debate, the ongoing debate, masks a bigger concern. I think the veil itself is the tip of the iceberg. The French political class is worried about the so-called Islamization and ghettoization of the Muslim community. And in particular the French right and the French center basically fears that conservative Muslims are trying to create an authentic Muslim community. They’re trying to Islamicize the Muslim community in France, and prevent the community from being fully integrated in the social fabric of France.

MISHAL HUSAIN: And would they see something like the headscarf then as the first step –

FAWAZ GERGES: Absolutely

MISHAL HUSAIN: Along a dangerous road?

FAWAZ GERGES: And this is really what we need. We need to contextualize the decision to ban the veil within a broader strategy on the part of the French ruling class. I think it’s a first step in a long and risky strategy. Using state power in order to undermine the influence of conservative Muslims on the community, and also to roll back the conservative Islamist tie. This is really the strategy. The veil is the tip of the iceberg. It masks bigger concerns on the part of the ruling class in France.

MISHAL HUSAIN: One of the things we see in France is the fact that the young people seem to be much more religious than their parents — some of the young women for instance, wearing veils that their mothers never did. Why do we see that happening?

FAWAZ GERGES: I think it’s assertion of identity; it’s assertion of culture. It’s a return to the roots as one French young Muslim man said [in the film]. And I think this is very natural. Also I would argue that the world situation is highly volatile. There’s a perception that Islam and Muslims are under attack. There’s the so-called war on terrorism — the invasion and occupation of Iraq. I think all these factors contribute to the assertion or reassertion of their identity. They want to go back to their roots, discover their past.

MISHAL HUSAIN: So why more of a return to the religious roots rather than the countries that their parents came from?

FAWAZ GERGES: Let’s remember that Islam represents the most vital and comprehensive identity in the Arab and Muslim world. If you ask any particular Muslim, it’s not just their religion. Islam is a compressive set of ideas that encompass the social, political, and the personal. And when you say assertion of identity — it’s an Islamic identity. This is one of the most powerful drives for Muslims everywhere including Muslim communities in Europe and the United States. And as the Muslim French woman [in the film] put it, “if I am asked to choose between my religion and my country I will choose my religion, Islam.” This tells you about how Islam plays a highly important role in Muslims lives. And because it’s a comprehensive religion it encompasses every aspect of life including the social, the political, the cultural Islam. Identities highly in flux are highly complex. We live in a highly globalized world. Cultures are in flux. France is a great country. The French culture is a great one. France is a very vibrant democracy. It should not fear the assertion of local identities by some of its people. Actually this is to France’s credit that some of its people and minorities feel that they are French, but at the same time they want to be true to their religions and their cultures and all their identities.

MISHAL HUSAIN: And yet what we see in the film is that not everyone feels French. That there … that there is an element of Muslim society which feels disenfranchised, which feels isolated. How does the government deal with that?

FAWAZ GERGES: Absolutely. This is why the question is: Do you legislate to deal with the cultural aspects such as the veil or the headscarf? Or do you really focus on the practical, real issues that lie at the heart of marginalization and exclusion? I would argue that the reason why many Muslims in France feel excluded and feel not part of the system, feel more Muslim than French, is because they are excluded, they are unemployed, they are marginalized. This is not to suggest you won’t have some people who will stay all their lives in France and feel they’re not French. That’s normal. The big question on the table is the following: you can help to integrate the bulk of the community by helping to close the gap — the socio-economic and political gap — that exists between the Muslim community in France and other main stream communities.

MISHAL HUSAIN: But if you end up with a community that perhaps is in danger of being radicalized, what are the dangers in that?

FAWAZ GERGES: Common sense tells us that [when] you have unemployment, exclusion, alienation, and marginalization — these are the terrible, horrible, dangerous stuff in militancy and extremism. It’s not just the employment [issue] — it’s alienation and marginalization. And I think what lies at the heart of the problem here is that you have so many young Muslim men who feel excluded and marginalized and, as a result, they tend to be radicalized and estranged. And there’s a fear here, a real fear exists, that they would drift away towards militancy and extremism. Many young Frenchmen, British, young Muslim men, and German as well, and others in the 1980’s and 1990’s went to Afghanistan and joined the mujahadeen to fight first against the Soviets and then of course they turn their guns against the United States. So there is a real danger here that the further alienation and marginalization and exclusion of many members of the French community could have some serious security considerations and repercussions in France and beyond.

MISHAL HUSAIN: Including actually increasing the risk of terrorism? Is that what you think?

FAWAZ GERGES: I don’t know whether it will increase the risk of terrorism but I fear that if history is a guide that common sense tells us that this particular rage would likely manifest itself in highly volatile and dangerous practices. Terrorism is one manifestation of further alienation.

MISHAL HUSAIN: There’s also a danger with this perception of the issue, isn’t there? Many Muslims would say that they don’t want to be seen as synonymous with a problem or synonymous with terrorism?

FAWAZ GERGES: Absolutely. Let’s remember that unfortunately after 9-11 now we see everything through the lens of terrorism. What we’re talking about here, really it’s a minor issue. It’s not a real issue here, but there is a danger and the sense [that a] danger exists because you have the American war on terrorism. You have the invasion and occupation of Iraq. You have the ban against the veil. You have other steps taken by French, British, and German governments. All these factors could basically coalesce … converge to produce a major problem. And here I want to suggest that the French decision is very contagious. You have local authorities in Germany who now have passed legislations in order to prevent teachers from wearing the veil in German schools even though Chancellor Schroeder is against these local decisions. And it seems now the tendency in Europe — in Spain, in Germany, in Britain, in France is to legislate more to deal with the question of security and restrict the personal freedoms of Muslims further. In this particular sense, Mishal, I think the bombing in Madrid served as a wake up call for European governments in order to deal with this mental, political Islam. Unfortunately, by not dealing with the root causes, socio-economic and political alienation, but rather by restricting the personal freedoms of Muslims and restricting Muslim immigration. And these acts and steps in Germany, in Spain, in England, and in France could basically fuel political Islam and increase and intensify militancy and extremism.

MISHAL HUSAIN: So if there are such big issues at stake what do you make of the view we have from the French politician in the film. He says that he thinks this is something that could lead to a civil war even?

FAWAZ GERGES: I don’t believe that. I think this is a highly inflated statement. I don’t think we’re talking about civil war here. I think we’re talking about a highly intense, vehement debate taking place in French society. And again, to reiterate, France is a highly vibrant democracy. And so far the debate has been channeled through institutional mechanisms. Let’s hope this particular debate remains channeled through institutions and does not go underground. The danger lies in the fact you asked me about radicalism — the danger lies in the fact that when your position basically gets used and abused by fringe militant movements or it goes underground. As long as the French government and French institutions absorb and allow Muslims to express their views, and listen to Muslims and deal with their complaints and grievances I don’t think we’re going to see any major civil war or any major security problem in France. Let’s remember here the decision to ban the veil is just one element in a highly complex and volatile situation. I would argue that the war on terrorism and the invasion and the occupation of Iraq have much more insidious effects on the question of terrorism and the security of the west than banning the veil. Banning the veil, you might say, just complicates the process. It adds highly volatile cultural factors into a dangerous political situation. That’s what it does. On its own it’s not a big issue but if you basically add it to what’s happening and the world situation, it basically complicates, exasperates, it widens the cultural gulf between the east and the west.

Fawaz Gerges, professor of International Affairs and Middle Eastern Studies at Sarah Lawrence College

MISHAL HUSAIN: Let me put to you, then, the view that we had from the Muslim Imam in the film. The more you attack headscarves, he said, the more headscarves you will have. What do you think of that?

FAWAZ GERGES: Absolutely. I think you’re going to see tens of thousands of Muslim girls and women wearing the veil in the next few months and next few years. And this is why I tend to subscribe to the idea that the decision itself could produce the opposite results from the intended consequences. It could Islamasize French society or the Muslim community further. It could fuel political Islam and supply more ammunition to conservative Muslims in France who would like the community not to be fully integrated into mainstream French society.

MISHAL HUSAIN: Which would be exactly the opposite of the aims that are behind the law?

FAWAZ GERGES: This is the paradox. The irony is that if history serves as a guide, some of the great political decisions basically have produced the opposite results from the intended consequences. And this is why — when you deal with this highly cultural, volatile subject … ideological — why not deal with the root causes of the alienation and estrangement and marginalization of the Muslim community in France. Because if you do that, if you help the community to be fully integrated in socio-economic terms, I don’t think the veil itself is an issue. It’s a tiny superficial issue in the end.

MISHAL HUSAIN: Our film shows a whole variety of opinions about the veil from Muslims, from the French government. What do you think is going to actually happen now on the first day, for instance, that the ban on veil comes into effect in schools? What is going to happen?

FAWAZ GERGES: What’s likely to happen is a major collision, a major confrontation between students and school officials. I am not really very worried about this particular collision or confrontation because I think France is very viable democracy. And so far, fortunately, the debate is being challenged through institutional means. Let’s hope that this particular debate remains channeled and institutionalized through the French political system and does not go underground. This is really where the danger lies.

MISHAL HUSAIN: And yet clearly feelings have run very high over this. We’ve just had one French politician talk about the possibility of civil war. That’s the kind of language we’re hearing associated with this issue.

FAWAZ GERGES: Well absolutely. I think what this particular decision has done is to add a highly dangerous cultural factor into the current volatile political situation. And as you know culture is a very dangerous thing, especially given the current situation — the war on terrorism, the war in Iraq … the perception by many Muslims in Europe and in the world that there is a systematic onslaught and campaign against Islamic Muslims. And yes, I believe that the implications are not just vital in France; that the reverberations of the decision and the aftermaths go beyond France, [to] Europe and the world as well.

MISHAL HUSAIN: Given that context would the French government have been best to leave this issue alone for the moment? To leave the veil as something in the realm of the personal rather than the political?

FAWAZ GERGES: Initially, I was a little sympathetic to the official French point of view. I mean the idea of empowering Muslim girls and women — this is a wonderful idea — and this is basically the rhetoric of the official position. But the more I talked to Muslims, the more I talk to Arabs and Muslims in France and the world, the more I think and reflect on the decision, I fear that the decision could have the opposite results from the intended consequences. Several points here: how about the personal choice freedoms of Muslim girls and women? Let’s ask them what they want. I mean this violates their personal choice. Secondly, let’s remember here that the Muslim community in France now feels besieged … on the defensive … being attacked. I think even now liberal Muslims feel that they are being profiled. I think this basically not only violates the freedoms, the personal choices of Muslim girls and women, but also it deepens the sense of alienation and powerlessness on the part of many Muslims in France.

MISHAL HUSAIN: But on the question of personal choice the French government would say that perhaps that issue is only partially relevant because they would feel that some of these girls are being forced to wear the headscarf by fathers, by brothers, by their communities.

FAWAZ GERGES: That’s why, initially, I felt a little sympathetic. I felt that somehow there could be some bullying, some peer pressure, and that some girls and women tend to be pressured by their elders, male elders, brothers, and fathers. But I think the issue is much bigger than that. I think, as I said, the debate over the ban on the veil goes beyond the question of the veil itself. It seems to me that the French political class is trying to basically dismantle political Islam and the rising influence of conservative Muslims over the French Muslim community. And I think banning the veil is not the answer. And let’s remember that the veil is not the only decision. There are other steps taken by the French government. The French government in the last few months has expelled several radical preachers to their countries of origin because of their radicalism and because, according to the French government, they are violating the freedoms of Muslims in France. And also the French government is trying to create its own version of official Islam by sponsoring moderate Muslim groups. So in this particular sense let’s not lose sight of the bigger issue. The bigger issue, in the eyes of the French political class, is the easternization and ghettoization of the Muslim community in France. And I think going after this highly volatile and dangerous, culturally loaded, issue has the potential to explode. I mean in France and outside France.

MISHAL HUSAIN: Would you accept the argument though that this isn’t an outright ban on the veil. That this is a restriction on the wearing of the veil in school at a crucial point in the development of young people, and in an environment where the French tradition is very much that every one should be equal?

FAWAZ GERGES: I see the logic of the argument. In fact, deep down, I sympathize with the idea. I tend to be suspicious of all veils, physical, political and social. Personally I would feel deeply saddened and hurt if my daughter were to wear a veil — but that’s not the issue. I think at the heart of the issue is the question of personal choice, the question of freedom, the question over expression of religious ideas and practices. And also the idea that this is a highly dangerous cultural factor that has implications in France and beyond France. And let’s remember you have highly volatile situation in Europe and in the world. And you add this cultural element and then the situation becomes much more dangerous and much more loaded.

MISHAL HUSAIN: But wouldn’t it be better in a modern European society to deal with these issues now rather than later on down the road where potentially they’ve exploded into a much bigger context?

FAWAZ GERGES: I think the debate is very healthy. I think the debate is very healthy because it seems to me that this is one of the major exercises whereby the Muslim community in France and Europe basically tries to assert itself — tries to advance its ideas. But my fear here is that the intervention of the state — using state power — legislative, in order to ban the veil, in order to roll back political Islam, in order to weaken the influence of conservative and devout Muslims. Let’s ask Muslim girls and women — what do they want? Let’s talk to them. Let’s talk to the community. I think legislating by the state from top down has insidious implications. And this is why I fear that the decision itself, even though you might say the decision is well intentioned, even though you might say the decision is meant to empower Muslim girls and women, it could have the opposite results from its intended consequences on their lives eventually.

MISHAL HUSAIN: You see this from an outsider’s perspective, of course, you are an American. Would you accept that perhaps in France because of that history of la�cit�, of secularism, that that’s at the very heart of the modern French state. There’s a different set of issues in France, a different set of ideals that need to be cherished and protected.

FAWAZ GERGES: Absolutely. The French system differs dramatically from the American system. Even though the American system institutionalizes the separation between the sacred and the political it does not discriminate against the religious imagination. The French system does. And I think the decision itself to ban the veil shows the extent of the secular fundamentalist nature of the French republic. And we can talk about the merits that these systems … it seems to me that the American system is much more encompassing. That the Muslim community in the United States has not encountered the same difficulties as its counterparts in France, in England, in Germany and other places. And this is a testament to the fact that the American system basically tolerates the overt expression of religious sentiments and differences. It’s really this particular idea — the idea that because America was established by people who basically escaped religious discrimination and persecution. And this is what really makes the American experience unique. And this is why America is very attractive to many Arabs and Muslims, because of their ability to exercise their religious sentiments and symbols. And here I want to really go beyond this particular debate and address the question of why they hate us so much. As you know, in the United States after 9-11 the big question was and is — why do they hate us so much? I think this question is nonsensical because the overwhelming majority of Arabs and Muslims are deeply attracted to America and deeply attracted to the American idea. The American idea that respects and tolerates the overt expression of religious practices and sentiments. Why do they hate us so much? The question should be why do they hate American foreign policy so much? Not why do they hate Americans so much.

MISHAL HUSAIN: But if we compare the situation in France to America’s Muslim community this is a community that has had its own significant difficulties since September 11th. Do you think that we could see the kind of polarization between Muslim and the mainstream, if you like, in the states that we see in France? Not now, maybe further down the line.

FAWAZ GERGES: I think this is a very important question. I think before 9-11 the Muslim community in the United States was experiencing an awakening. Many Muslims in America were able to climb the socio-economic ladder. And I think the community itself flexed its muscles in the 2000 presidential elections and many members of the community whom I talked to talked about a new era, a new growth, in 2000. I am deeply saddened and alarmed by the dramatic turn of events since after 9-11. I’ve talked to many Arabs and Muslims in the United States and they are terrified of the consequences. The Muslim community in the United States now feels besieged, on the defensive, and stereotyped. It feels profiled. Many Muslims in America now basically wonder: why are we being harassed? Why are we being profiled? Why do we … are we being stopped at airport and searched? Why for example, the label of terrorism has been stamped on our foreheads for no other reason except that some Muslims committed hideous acts against their fellow Americans?

MISHAL HUSAIN: But does that context mean that Americans should look very close at the experience of countries like France, where clearly attitudes have become very entrenched? And we see that in the reactions to the issue of the veil.

FAWAZ GERGES: I think the leading politicians in the United States and institutions basically have criticized the French decision to ban the veil. THE NEW YORK TIMES, in a leading editorial made it very clear that decision itself was short-sighted. American politicians have said so. And this is a testament to the unique American experience; an experience that tolerates the overt expression of religious symbols and practices.

MISHAL HUSAIN: So it could never happen in the United States?

FAWAZ GERGES: What’s happening in the United States now is an entirely different situation — the question of security. The entire Muslim community in the United States now appears to have become suspect in the eyes of their fellow Americans. The arrest of hundreds of Muslims in the aftermaths of 9-11, the regulations in the United States, the practices on daily basis, and I think the community itself, feels a sense of pain, powerlessness, and shock as a result of the situation after 9-11. And I think what we need to understand here is that the earthquake of 9-11 and its aftershocks have shaken the very foundation of the Muslim community in the United States. In the sense now that the community feels as besieged, as on the defensive, as its counterparts in France, in Germany, in Britain because of the so-called war on terrorism … because the community appears to have become suspect in the eyes of their fellow Americans. And here I want to go beyond this particular question to say that the Arab and Muslim community in the United States is the only community that is a fair game to racist commentary in the United States now. It feels vulnerable. You can say anything about Arabs and Muslims in the United States and get away with it. This does not happen in Europe. And this is again a testament to the complex nature of the debate in Europe. So it’s not really all a rosy picture in the United States here. Let’s remember that 9-11 hammered a deadly nail in the idea of integrating the Muslim community in the United States. So while the American system respects and tolerates and guarantees the overt expression of religious differences, 9-11 and its aftershocks have really done a great deal of damage to the Muslim community and their role and their existence in the United States.

MISHAL HUSAIN: Let’s talk about the people that we meet in the film and the stories that we see from them. There are many faces of Islam and France that we see, from Manal who wears the headscarf, to Besma who you know would never do that. How do you think the French state should deal with the reality of a multi-ethnic France today and a multi-religious France today?

FAWAZ GERGES: One point must be made very clear, and thanks for your question. I think neither Muslims nor France is a monolith. Let’s remember that the idea — we talk about Muslims, about the French, I think it’s very misleading. And I think it’s essential for us to make distinctions, as you said, nuances, instead of talking about the French republic as I have been doing myself. We should be talking about political groups, social groups, class interests, ideological interests. Let’s remember, I mean many French men and women … French women basically have opposed the decision … the French left, human rights organizations, progressives. So it’s not just all the French who support the decision.

MISHAL HUSAIN: So broadly, something like 70 percent of the people in France support the idea today of banning the veil?

FAWAZ GERGES: Yes, Absolutely. But France is not a monolith. There’s a debate taking place. It’s a vibrant, highly democratic society. But yes, absolutely. Your documentary shows the complexity of French society and the complexity of the Muslim community in France itself. Why not talk to Muslim girls and women? Why not allow them to express their own sentiments to dress whatever they want. But I basically subscribe to the idea that the debate over the veil is the tip of the iceberg. The bigger issues are outside the debate and unfortunately I think the French republic is going about it the wrong way. And I think again, since we’re talking about French politics, I don’t think we can understand President Chirac’s decision to ban the veil, except within the context [that] he’s trying to please the right and the center. The right and the center in France, which are basically terrified by, you might say, the overt expression of Islamization in France, because these particular sentiments, in the eyes of the right and the center, threaten the French way of life. So again there is tremendous politics buried under the surface and we must basically understand the politics behind the decision.

MISHAL HUSAIN: Tremendous politics clearly, but aren’t the ideals of the French state at stake if you have French citizens growing up like Manal, who says very clearly in the film, my religion means much more to me than the French state or being French. I mean these are really issues to address. The veil may be just a symbol but there is a real issue there.

FAWAZ GERGES: Absolutely. I think there are real issues — not just in France, in England, in Germany, and the United States itself — the question of integration. How do you really help integrate minorities, not just the Muslim communities? And I think the debate over the veil in France also raises the question of the future of Muslim minorities in Europe and the United States. And the question is how do we help to the Muslim communities to integrate in Europe and the United States? Do we help this particular process by forcing the issues, by legislating, instead of focusing on the ideological aspects, that is, the veil itself. Provide more educational opportunities, more employment opportunities, opening up the system, integrating the rising numbers of young unemployed young men? Let’s remember unemployment among Muslim … young Muslims in France is almost 30 percent.

MISHAL HUSAIN: So you think the big economic issue should come first?

FAWAZ GERGES: Oh absolutely. The socio-economic and political issues must come first. Just talk to the French and see young men who are unemployed and they tell you they are being excluded. They are being discriminated against, marginalized, unemployed. They cannot find a job. This really lies at the heart of the crisis of Muslim monitories in Europe. And when you tackle the socio-economic situation then it’s much easier to tackle the ideological aspect — that is, the veil and the Islamization — because this is an ideological issue. It’s not a socio-economic issue that you can really put your hands on.

MISHAL HUSAIN: We certainly hear that from young Muslim men in the film who say that they’re being discriminated against. Is there any argument that that perhaps they’re isolating themselves from the mainstream of French society? That perhaps they need to do more?

FAWAZ GERGES: The question is how do they isolate themselves from French society when they cannot get jobs? When they apply to jobs and they say they are discriminated against because of their names, their race, their religion. At least we should listen to them. And also the idea of separation — there’s a wall of separation between the Muslim community — not just in France, in England, in Germany, and other places — and mainstream communities. And the question is how do you integrate these particular communities? You do so by providing opportunities. By reducing the sense of alienation and marginalization. And this is what I call an effective recipe in the long term, rather than a focus on highly loaded cultural issues which complicate the process of the integration of the Muslim community in France. I think if you listen carefully to the rhetoric of the French political class they say: well, listen we want to help integrate the Muslim community in France. But if you talk to Muslims, in fact this particular decision, far from helping to integrate the Muslim community, could end up isolating, excluding, alienating, and estrange the young French Muslim men and women from the system. And this is where the danger lies.

MISHAL HUSAIN: Just put this in context for us, how big a community in France are we talking about here?

FAWAZ GERGES: We’re talking about a big community of almost five million Muslims who live in France. The French State does not really stress this particular aspect because it believes in equality; that all individuals and citizens are French rather than really Muslims. Yet the community itself feels it’s very much … it’s a Muslim community. It felts that it is marginalized. It feels excluded. Unemployment is very high among young Muslims in France. And this is why I think you cannot on the one hand say that we believe every one is a citizen. On the other hand you have a leading major minority community that feels marginalized, excluded, and has not been able to climb the socio-economic ladder as the mainstream French communities.

MISHAL HUSAIN: The fact that they’re not really counted by the French state — does that tell us something about French thinking?

FAWAZ GERGES: Yes! I think it tells us about the psychological and mental state in which, at least, the French political class think. I think they want to bury this particular issue under the carpet. You can’t do that. The Muslim community in France exists. It’s a major community in terms of numbers and also in terms of social weight. And this is why if you want to take a decision to ban the veil — because you want to integrate this particular community into the social fabric French society — yet at the same time is the French state taking major steps to help a community integrate in terms of socio-economic needs and means? There’s a major gap between the rhetoric of the French political class and the reality on the ground. In particular in this case the reality of the Muslim community.

MISHAL HUSAIN: So if minorities aren’t counted in their ethnic groups in France — what does that tell us about the thinking?

FAWAZ GERGES: Well I think it tells us a great deal about the psychological aspect of the French political class. I think the French political class would like us to basically think that this particular minority does not exist. It would like to bury this particular issue under the carpet. You cannot do that because it exists. It’s a large community and the community itself feels marginalized and excluded from the mainstream French society.

MISHAL HUSAIN: But the French argument to that would be that they’re taking steps to form these councils, which will be like the political face of Muslims in France. That they’re taking steps to talk about the veil in schools. That there are urban regeneration projects going on. This isn’t a community that’s being ignored. It’s in the headlines everyday.

FAWAZ GERGES: I think the French are trying very hard to find ways and means to help integrate the Muslim community. But I think the veil itself is not the answer. Creating an official Islam is not the answer. It seems to me that now the French republic is doing exactly what our governments in Pakistan have done in the last 50 years. It creates a form of official Islam. And in fact official Islam has exploded in their faces and the faces of Arab governments in the last few years. Osama Bin Laden is basically an extension, was an extension of official Islam in Saudi Arabia. These are gimmicks. The real issues remain the socio-economic and political situation. How do you provide major socio-economic opportunities for young Muslim men and women? How do you open up the political process? How do you create more educational opportunities? In the United States they take so-called affirmative action to help the African-American community get integrated, become less excluded. Of course the Muslim community cannot be compared to the African-American community. But what I’m talking about here … instead of basically going about the issue in a very superficial way let’s talk about the real practical recipes here. What are the most effective means and mechanisms that help the Muslim community in France gets integrated? The most effective mechanisms are the socio-economic level and the political levels? Provide employment for the unemployed French, I mean, Muslim youth, which number almost 30 percent. These are the issues. I’m not suggesting the French state is not trying to do so much, but for the last 30 years little has been done. And many members of the community feel excluded. And the question is how do you help them to get fully integrated?

MISHAL HUSAIN: We do see some positive examples though in the film, people like Besma, people like Hagi, who have … have worked hard and found their place in French society.

FAWAZ GERGES: Absolutely. I think there are many successful examples. I think we are basically misleading our audience if we say that somehow we can talk about the Muslim community as a model. There are thousands and thousands of examples whereby Muslims have become professionals, are very successful on the literary scene, educational scene, the economic scene, but I’m talking large numbers of the community who tell you they feel excluded and marginalized. And the question is, How do you bring them in, into the system? This is the question. And on the table there are two basically paradigms. Do we bring them in by legislating in terms of socio-economic and educational aspects? I’m suggesting let’s focus on the material, practical aspects that lie at the heart of the crisis which is faced by the Muslim community in France. Not on the ideological aspect, the cultural aspect, that is the veil.

MISHAL HUSAIN: But would you accept that in order to get at that point where you can offer more economic opportunities — that in schools you need to have this level playing field where students are visibly all equal. Where you don’t have students wandering around covering their heads, perhaps making other people feel uncomfortable.

FAWAZ GERGES: I don’t know really how you deal with this particular situation but my understanding is that if you deal with the question of exclusion, alienation and marginalization, I don’t think there’s an issue there. Could it be somehow be that the Islamization of the Muslim community is part in parcel of the social exclusion and marginalization of the community? Could it be somehow that many of the girls and women who are wearing the veil basically come from highly poor and marginalized families? Could it be that the further modernization, or rather inclusion, of the Muslim community basically provides the answer to the question — I mean creating this wall of separation? This is what I’m trying to think about. I’m suggesting we should really fly higher in order to understand the complexity of the situation instead of saying, somehow, if we ban the veil we basically deal with the issues. I wonder. My fear is that in fact it could have the opposite results. And if it does it has ramifications for the Muslim community in France and beyond as well.

MISHAL HUSAIN: Do you think that this whole issue of the veil has also got out of reporting — in the sense that it’s a very big topic in France, outside France, and yet if you look at the figures it’s something like 1,000 school girls in France who’ve gone to school wearing the veil.

FAWAZ GERGES: Absolutely it’s a very tiny, minor issue. And this is … why would you create a problem where a problem does not exist? Why do you use state power in order to create this huge debate in France and outside France? Why do you basically provide ammunition to conservative Muslims who are trying to create an authentic Muslim community? But this is why I again come back to the big question. I think the debate over the veil is the tip of the iceberg. There are bigger issues involved here. And I think the French decision should be seen as one step in a long and complex process in order to weaken the influence of conservative Muslims over the community and dismantle the so-called political Islam that is the influence of conservative radical Muslim clerics over the Muslim community in France.

MISHAL HUSAIN: Is there an element of Islamaphobia in the French approach? That would be what many Muslims think.

FAWAZ GERGES: That’s how it seen by Muslims in France. I think many Muslims in France believe that a wide spread racism, xenophobia, and Islamaphobia exists in France. And this is why they tend to be excluded and marginalized from the mainstream.

MISHAL HUSAIN: Is that fair do you think?

FAWAZ GERGES: I think it exist no doubt about it. That is, widespread Islamaphobia exist, and I think in particular — I think the French right is terrified about the rise of Islamist or the expression of Islamist sentiments and symbols, which in the eyes of the French right, basically threaten their way of life. Many Muslims in France believe there’s widespread racism and xenophobia and islamaphobia involved in the debate itself. And they say why, for example, focus on the veil? Why not focus on the question of exclusion, the question of maginalization, the question of employment, and the question of the lack of economic and political opportunities? They argue that the debate really has diverted them to the wrong sphere.

MISHAL HUSAIN: Do they have a point?

FAWAZ GERGES: Absolutely and this is why I believe that — I think the most effective mechanisms to deal with the question of the minorities in France and everywhere else is to deal with the real practical issues. The question of exclusion, marginalization, and employment. The question of opening up the political and social sphere to integrate the tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, of young men and women who tend to be unemployed.

MISHAL HUSAIN: The French buzzword for so long in dealing with its immigrants and its minority communities has been integration. That’s been the way they’ve wanted to approach this and wanted to treat everyone equally.

FAWAZ GERGES: First of all, you cannot legislate using state power to force people to integrate. And secondly, what we need to understand here is that most Muslims in France are basically second and third generations. They speak French, they were born in France. Why does he have to feel forced to get integrated into French society? They don’t even speak Arabic. They read the Koran in French and so on and so forth. And I think this is a legitimate question. And many Muslims in France argue too, why do we have to make all the concessions ourselves? Does French mainstream society help us to do so? Are we being integrated? Are we being included in mainstream French society? I think there are two points of view here. On the one hand it seems to me that the French political class now is trying to legislate, to force the question of integration, to put it on the table. On the other hand, I think it should do more on the socio-economic and political sphere rather then on the ideological sphere.

MISHAL HUSAIN: The other element to this whole question of integration is also where the community’s heading demographically. This is a very fast growing community.

FAWAZ GERGES: I think the Muslim community in France, like in the United States, is the largest growing community. And this tells you about the extent of the situation. This is not going away. This will be with us forever in a way. That is, French society has become truly multi-ethnic, multi-religious, multi-cultured. And the question is; to what extent should the state legislate in order to force integration? And could it be, somehow, that banning the veil could in fact — far from really helping the Muslim community to integrate — in fact intensify alienation from the system?

MISHAL HUSAIN: And how would that happen? In your view, what are the dangers of banning the veil as is about to happen in France?

FAWAZ GERGES: Well I think there are several issues involved here. I think the Muslim community in France feels profiled, excluded, and marginalized. And I think it feels — as a result not just banning the veil — it feels also on the defensive. And I fear that this particular debate and its aftermath could really fuel political Islam. It could supply ammunition to conservative Muslims to say, listen we are not being integrated — our religion and culture is being attacked by the French state. So I think there’s a real danger here that this particular decision and the ongoing debate could supply ammunition to militancy and radicalism. It could play into the hands of conservative and reactionary Muslims who would like to maintain the walls of separation between the Muslim community and mainstream French communities as well.

MISHAL HUSAIN: Would you go so far as to say it could fuel terrorism?

FAWAZ GERGES: Let me be blunt about it. I don’t think that the debate over the veil is as vital as the war on terrorism, or as the invasion occupation of Iraq, or as you might say, the real issues of unemployment and alienation and marginalization. It’s an important element but that’s not the issue. Could it somehow … could be decision and its aftermaths supply ammunition to fringe movements, and help these movements infiltrate the Muslim community in France? This is a legitimate question. Could the decision and its implications — further alienation of Muslim young men and women — basically help these French movements recruit foot soldiers? These are legitimate questions that need to be put on the table. And this is why it seems to me that using state power in order to legislate on a highly loaded cultural question could have the opposite results from the intended consequences. It could fuel political Islam. It could supply more ammunition to conservative Muslims and it could help fringe militant groups to infiltrate the Muslim community in France and recruit foot soldiers.

MISHAL HUSAIN: So how is how is all of this being viewed so far, say in the Middle East?

FAWAZ GERGES: One point must be made very clear. The reverberations of this particular debate go beyond France, beyond Europe, into the Middle East. I think the overall response or responses in the Arab and Muslim world have been highly negative, highly volatile. Many Muslims, many Arabs, and many Muslims in Egypt, in Iran, in Pakistan, in Yemen, believe this is not an isolated act on the part of the French government. This is another proof, they say, of the hostility and enmity of the west towards Islam and Muslims. And they say — listen it’s not just the veil — look the Pope advising Catholic women not to marry Muslim men, because they’re different, they’re Muslims. A few days ago one of the leading aides of the Pope said, “Listen, Turkey is a Muslim country of 17 million people in permanent conflict with Christian Europe, and as such it could not be integrated into mainstream European community.” And Arabs and Muslims say — look at the war on terrorism! Look at the invasions and occupation of an Arab and Muslim country! And I thinking … this particular debate — the veil is seen in a broader context as part and parcel of an onslaught against Islam and Muslims. And this is highly dangerous because I think it widens the cultural gulf between the so-called west and the so-called world of Islam.

MISHAL HUSAIN: It seems that the French government is in an impossible situation. There’s a danger of fueling political Islam and acting on this issue, on the one hand, and on the other hand there’s the danger of eroding the secular ideals that are the very foundation of the French state.

FAWAZ GERGES: This is why I wonder about the wisdom of the decision itself, even though you might say that secularism demands that there are no overt expression religious sentiments and practices in public schools. I wonder if the disadvantages outweigh the advantages? In particular, the personal choices and freedoms. I mean Muslim girls and women. We have been talking about the political and security implications. How about asking French girls and women their personal choices? Their freedoms are being violated. And this is a highly serious situation. Ironically, Al Quaeda has also tried to use the decision to ban the veil in order to show itself as the champion and defender of Islam and Muslims. Iman Zwahari, Bin Laden’s deputy, in a videotape said the decision by the French government to ban the veil shows the west’s enmity towards Islam and Muslims. And Zwahari, of course, warned of consequences. Of course I don’t believe that Iman Zwahari and Osama Bin Laden could use this particular decision to recruit more soldiers into their suicide squads, but surely it supplies them with more ammunition to use in their crusade against the west. It supplies them with more arguments to show that there is a clash of cultures in civilizations between east and west. And this is how Al Quaeda has been trying to use and abuse this particular decision like many other situations it has been trying to abuse.

MISHAL HUSAIN: How would you say that the situation for Muslims in France today — and the issues that affect them — are different from the issues for Americas Muslims today?

FAWAZ GERGES: American Muslims have been able to climb the socio-economic ladder. They have not been as excluded and marginalized as their Muslim counterparts in Europe. American Muslims have found it much easier to adjust and adapt to the American system. The American system is an open system, in sense that America was founded by immigrants, and Arabs and Muslims are no exception. And I think the most important element here [is that] the American system respects and tolerates the overt expression of religious practices and symbols. And this is really unique to the American experience. And this is why the Muslim community in the United States has found it much easier to get integrated into the social fabric of American society, even though after 9-11 the Muslim community faces, truly, some existential questions.

MISHAL HUSAIN: But it’s also easier, isn’t it, for the United States because the Muslim community is much smaller than it is in France. The United States is much bigger.

FAWAZ GERGES: Absolutely. And also the system itself … the system has mechanisms to really integrate its minorities and its immigrants. I think in this particular sense we cannot talk about the American system, except now we have to mention the 9-11 earthquake and its aftershocks. I think the Muslim community in America is going through very difficult times indeed. And the community itself feels besieged and on the defensive and I’m really shocked by the how the community has turned into itself — has turned inward as a result of 9-11 and the aftermath of 9-11. And it’s a shame. Not only [because] the Muslim community plays a vital role in American life but [because] the Muslim community in the United States could serve as the first defense line against terrorism to protect its adopted country. Yet the community itself now appears to have turned inward; its members are terrified. They’re terrified by the rising, widespread Islamaphobia in the United States. And I fear that we’re going to witness a much more pronounced Islamaphobia in the United States than ever before. I think the very future of the Muslim community in the United State, according to many Muslims, is on the table now. Many American Muslims are terrified. They are besieged. It’s a trauma … the community is undergoing a trauma as a result of the 9-11 earthquake and its aftermath. Some colleagues of mine, academics, are terrified to have Arabic newspapers in their class less they are stopped by a police officer. They’re terrified to read an Arabic book at an airport because they’re terrified. The community itself feels that now it’s suspect by its fellow Americans, and the community feels that the terrorism label has been stamped on its forehead for no other reason except that other Muslims committed abusive act against other fellow Americans.

MISHAL HUSAIN: Fawaz Gerges, thanks for joining us on WIDE ANGLE.

FAWAZ GERGES: It’s my pleasure, thanks for having me.

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