As Muslims call Europe home, isolation takes root
Monday, July 11, 2005
By Ian Johnson and John Carreyrou, The Wall Street Journal
TORCY, France -- Mourad Amriou slowly warmed up the crowd inside a small
mosque on the outskirts of Paris, giving the congregation a pep talk after
the Friday evening prayer.
"Just nearby here are Fatimas and Mohammeds who are drinking," said the
beefy 26-year-old former rapper, using generic names for Muslim women and
men. "Can you believe it? Just around the corner, going to nightclubs. Do
you accept it?"
There were murmurs of disapproval as he continued. Life, he said, should
center on mosques. Not just for prayer, but for everything from language
classes for children to social life. Otherwise, he said, Muslims will become
indistinguishable from their French neighbors. "Society has to be based on
Islam," he told the gathering.
In France and across Europe, messages like this are finding a broad
audience. Compared to the deadly subway and bus bombings that rocked London
last week, they may sound mild. There is no call for jihad or violence and
the message is delivered by local citizens, not outside agitators. Yet the
message is radical: People who are different are held in contempt. Mingling
with mainstream society is frowned upon. Society should be founded on one
religion: Islam. Magnified by the power of demographics, messages like Mr.
Amriou's are presenting a profound challenge to Europe's secular
Europe is undergoing a massive population shift -- some say the largest in
more than a millennium -- as Muslims from the Middle East and North Africa
cross the Mediterranean in search of work and a better life. The Muslim
population of Europe is increasing dramatically; in countries like France,
it is already about six million, or 10 percent of the total, and could
easily double in percentage terms in the coming 20 years.
Declining birthrates mean that Europe needs these immigrants to stay
vibrant. And indeed, many of them have integrated successfully, gaining
education, wealth and prestige. Yet across the continent, some of Europe's
Muslims are drifting off into separate troubled societies. In some European
cities, nearly half of Muslim youths drop out of high school and
unemployment rates are high. Racism is on the rise, helping to drive Muslims
back into their communities. The situation was crystallized in a report last
year by the French domestic intelligence agency, which surveyed 630
communities with a heavy concentration of Muslim migrants. Half of them, the
report said, are "ghettoized" along religious lines.
In Paris, this parallel society is centered in a string of suburbs along the
capital's northern and eastern fringes. There, amid housing projects slapped
up a generation ago to accommodate a booming immigrant population, the signs
of fundamentalist Islam are on the rise. Women who don't wear headscarves
are harassed. People who consume food or beverages during the month of
fasting, Ramadan, are publicly criticized. And some families refuse to let
women be treated by male doctors or nurses.
This development is a paradox to many sociologists, who figured that such
behavior was confined to newcomers who brought it with them. With time, the
theory went, immigrants would moderate their views. Instead, it is Europe's
second- and third-generation Muslims who are the most radical.
"Often young Muslims in the West are unmoored from their traditional beliefs
and ripe for recruitment by radicals," says Olivier Roy, a leading expert on
political Islam and an adviser to the French government.
Those recruiters sometimes come in the form of jihadist preachers who
encourage acts of terrorism like Thursday's bombings in London, which killed
at least 49 people and wounded 700. While police haven't identified any
suspects yet, their investigation is focusing on European-based Islamic
extremists. A network of terrorists drawn from the fringes of Europe's
Muslims staged spectacular attacks in Madrid and the murder of a Dutch
filmmaker last year. Four of the lead actors in the Sept. 11 attacks on the
U.S. became drawn to terrorism in one of Germany's radical Muslim
Laying the groundwork for such radicalization is the seductive idea of
political Islam, which preaches a Utopian view of society where all citizens
are part of a just and fair "umma," or community of Muslims. In this world,
the separation of religion and politics is heretical, and Europe's Muslims
-- now representing between 5 percent and 10 percent of the continent's
population -- need to be walled off from Western culture.
Such views are popularized by the Muslim Brotherhood, a Cairo-based
organization that is the progenitor of many major radical Islamic groups. In
the 1950s and 1960s, the Brotherhood established a beachhead in Europe after
it was banned in many Middle Eastern countries. Although its formal
structures have weakened, its matrix of ideology has taken hold in Europe,
strengthened by a network of Brotherhood-inspired organizations.
In France, the organization the Brotherhood loosely spawned is called the
Union of French Islamic Organizations, or UOIF as it is known by its French
acronym. Mr. Amriou is one of the UOIF's thousands of unpaid activists. In
recent years, the UOIF has become one of France's most powerful Muslim
organizations, but also its most controversial because of the views it
spreads. The UOIF says it is a moderate group and denies any links to
But many observers remain unconvinced. Dounia Bouzar, a prominent French
Muslim social scientist, initially supported groups like the UOIF. In a book
she wrote in 2001, she argued that they are valuable mediators between
mainstream society and Muslim migrants. Many perform social services, such
as after-school tutoring, day care or women's activities. With time, they
would help Muslims integrate, she argued.
After watching the developments of the past few years, however, Ms. Bouzar
has changed her view. Instead of integrating Muslims, this all-embracing
form of Islam builds a cocoon in which people have little contact with
mainstream society, she says. Education is often stunted and the chance of
professional success limited, she says.
"It's a vision of society that separates people into two camps, Islamic and
non-Islamic," says Ms. Bouzar. "They have a need to Islamicize everything."
In many parts of the world, the word "suburb" conjures a vision of
single-family homes with yards -- a mixture of country and city where the
better-off live and commute to the city to work or shop. In France, the
equivalent word "banlieue" is synonymous with poorly maintained housing
projects filled with immigrants or the poor. To the north and east of Paris
are a string of these banlieues, such as Aubervilliers, Saint-Denis, La
Courneuve, Stains and Torcy. They lie just outside a vast ring road, the
aptly named "peripherique," which slices the prosperous capital off from its
Mr. Amriou quips that he "immigrated to France at the local maternity ward."
He grew up in a housing complex in La Courneuve nicknamed "the city of four
thousand" for the number of units in it. It was a slum upon completion. Now,
40 years later, it is being torn down. It was recently in the news after an
11-year-old boy was killed there by a stray bullet.
Mr. Amriou's father was initially happy to get a flat in the complex. He had
moved to France from Algeria in the 1960s to take a job in construction. He
brought over his wife and soon had a large family to house. Mr. Amriou was
born in 1977, the youngest of 10 children. The parents encouraged their
children to go to school and to get jobs. But Mr. Amriou's father was busy
all day long, working at a job where he had little chance for promotion. Mr.
Amriou says he became dismissive of his father's efforts to fit in and
boasts that he "couldn't control me anymore."
Mr. Amriou felt that French society was against him. His father's generation
came to Europe to fill low-skilled jobs. There was no effort at integration
-- for example, the immigrants didn't receive language classes -- because
the host governments expected them to return home one day. But work was
plentiful and many migrants accomplished their main goal: saving money and
sending it back home. Mr. Amriou wasn't so lucky. By the time he came of age
in the early 1990s, low-skilled jobs had migrated to the developing world.
Unemployment in the banlieues skyrocketed and now in many regions is over 20
percent. Despite his high-school diploma, he couldn't get a job. He says he
went to prison twice for drug possession.
One August night in 1999, he says he was hanging out with friends on a
square, drinking beer and smoking marijuana. A man on a bike approached. He
was a member of the Tabligh, a Muslim sect that originated in 1920s India
and has spread around the world, preaching strict adherence to Islam but
also a disengagement from politics or society. Mr. Amriou's friends ran away
from the missionary, but Mr. Amriou decided to stay put.
The older man sat down and made small talk. The stars were bright that
night, Mr. Amriou says, and he mentioned that he liked astronomy. "He said
to me: 'You like creation, but did you wonder about the creator?' I had to
admit I hadn't thought of that."
The two men talked until dawn. They met day after day for a week. By the
second week, Mr. Amriou was, as he puts it, "re-Islamicized." He got rid of
his jeans and T-shirts and started wearing the white gown and skullcap that
he wears today. He cut his hair but let his beard grow thick and long. He
quit smoking, drinking and started praying five times a day.
After his re-conversion, Mr. Amriou quickly gravitated to mosques run by the
UOIF. There he shed the apolitical beliefs of the Tabligh and began to learn
about current events and Islam's role in them. The key message is that
everything in life, including politics, has a religious dimension. The
separation of church and state, Mr. Amriou says, is "un-Islamic."
Mr. Amriou's rebirth was part of a religious awakening that started in the
late 1980s and spread quickly among Europe's Muslims. A turning point was
1989. The Berlin Wall fell, ending the Cold War -- an event that many
Muslims saw as due in part to the actions of Islamic holy warriors, the
mujahedeen, who through the 1980s had fought the Soviet Union to a
standstill in Afghanistan. That was also the year Iran's paramount leader,
Ayatollah Khomeini, issued a religious opinion, or fatwa, calling for the
death of the British writer Salman Rushdie, whose novel "The Satanic Verses"
in part criticized and satirized Islam. Fatwas are traditionally only valid
in the Islamic world, so Khomeini's fatwa implied something profound: Europe
was part of the Islamic world. It was a revolutionary change that now is
accepted by many Islamic theologians and thinkers.
The trend accelerated in the 1990s with the advent of the Internet, allowing
young people to plug into a growing pan-Islamic movement that was inspired
by orthodox Muslim groups, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, and backed by
wealthy donors in Saudi Arabia and other oil-rich states. Girls began to
wear headscarves and boys collected audio and videotapes of preachers who
advocated a stripped-down form of Islam that emphasized the culture's past
glories and a handful of simple religious regulations.
The effect on Paris's banlieues was dramatic. People living and working
there recount how personal freedoms were restricted as the new ideology took
Nacera, a 27-year-old clerk living in Paris who asked that her last name not
be used for fear of harassment, recalls that era. Like many Muslim children,
she attended a mosque to study the Quran. She liked learning classical
Arabic and counts the time there as one of the most memorable of her
By the time she was a teenager, however, things began to change in her
banlieue of Stains. As the Muslim community became more established, mosques
began to pop up. Many were normal places of prayer, but others offered an
agenda on how to behave. Her family's mosque, frequented by Mr. Amriou, fell
into the latter category.
"It used to be that at weddings people would mix and dance," she says. "Then
we weren't allowed to mingle. It was an accumulation of little things."
The religious fervor hit her youngest sister, who started wearing a veil.
She quickly gave up school and married. Her brothers began to collect
religious videos and books by Middle Eastern religious authorities on how to
be a good Muslim.
After repeated requests by stalwarts at the local mosque and pressure at
home, Nacera started wearing a veil and was urged to marry and have
children. But she was a few years older than her sisters and had already
started to work. About two years ago, she realized she wanted a career. To
do so, she says, she had to break with her family.
"I felt I needed my own territory," says Nacera. She left Stains for a new
home in the south of Paris. "I didn't want everything decided for me by the
Others notice similar changes. Jocelyne Clarke, a teacher at a high school
in Aubervilliers, says it is becoming harder to organize field trips and
cultural outings with her students because Muslim boys and girls refuse to
mix with the other sex. Some Muslim students have walked out of class during
readings of Voltaire because the 18th-century author was scornful of
religion in his writings, she says.
Two years ago, the city council of Aubervilliers gave in to Muslim
associations' demands that it close off the municipal pool to men at certain
times of the week so that Muslim women could bathe in private, in keeping
with the Quran's admonition that women dress and behave modestly. The city
council also agreed to put up curtains over the pool's big bay windows,
which give onto the street.
In Saint-Denis, El Mostafa Ramsi says junior high-school students brought to
tour the neighborhood's famous basilica, where most of France's kings are
buried, have refused to enter the church on the grounds that it is "an
impure place." Mr. Ramsi, 46, who emigrated to France from Morocco when he
was 20 and now serves as the local representative of a center-left political
party, says parents of children who attend the local elementary school have
asked for translations of parent-teacher meetings in Arabic. "It shows that
they couldn't care less about integrating," he says. "They don't even make
the effort of learning French."
Nadia Amiri, a 45-year-old Algerian immigrant who works in the central
office of France's state-run hospital association, says the divisions go
beyond schools. Hospitals are under pressure not to allow men and women into
the same wards -- even as visitors. If carried out, that would require
separate Muslim hospitals, she says. Doctors are also increasingly asked by
fathers to issue their daughters virginity certificates.
The UOIF is an amalgamation of several Islamist groups with roots in the
Muslim Brotherhood's initial European toeholds of Munich and Switzerland.
The group came to prominence in 1989 when a major event took place in
France: Two girls were ejected from school for wearing a headscarf. The UOIF
began to organize protests and quickly established itself as the force to be
reckoned with in the banlieues. Until then, France's Muslim organizations
were divided along national lines. The Grande Mosque of Paris, for example,
is still openly financed by the Algerian government and its head is an
Algerian civil servant.
The UOIF instead advocated an "Islam de France" that was also part of the
growing pan-national Islam. The group receives extensive funding from Arab
countries. Even today, UOIF officials say, one-quarter of its annual budget
of 2.75 million euros, or $3.3 million, comes from donors abroad, especially
Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait. But the UOIF projects a
modern, global image, inviting speakers from around the world to its annual
The UOIF joined other French Muslim groups in denouncing the London bombings
last week. It said it wrote a letter to the British ambassador to France
expressing "its firmest condemnation of these odious and inhuman acts."
Lhaj Thami Breze, the UOIF's president, says the UOIF supports democratic
society. If there is a conflict between Islamic law and French law, Mr.
Breze says French law takes precedence. However, the UOIF encouraged Muslim
schoolgirls to wear bandanas instead of headscarves last year to circumvent
a new law banning overt signs of religious affiliation at public high
schools. The UOIF opposes the law, arguing that it violates Muslim girls'
freedom of choice.
"We've made a huge effort to adapt our Islam to France," says Mr. Breze.
"The people who still call us fundamentalist ... haven't bothered to come
see us in a while and don't know how much we've changed. We've matured and
come of age. We've reached respectability."
Mr. Breze says the UOIF has made a formal break with the Muslim Brotherhood.
He acknowledges that one of his predecessors in the 1980s was a member of
the brotherhood but says the UOIF has had no links to the group since the
1990s. Yet, UOIF preachers and activists often cite Tariq Ramadan, the
grandson of Muslim Brotherhood founder Hassan al-Banna and son of Said
Ramadan, the man who brought the brotherhood to Europe, as their theological
role model. Though based in Geneva, the influential Mr. Ramadan has a home
and office in Saint-Denis, not far from the UOIF's headquarters in La
Courneuve. Mr. Ramadan's prolific writings are ubiquitous at the UOIF's
Two years ago, government officials drew up plans for an elected body called
the French Council of the Muslim Faith to represent the country's estimated
six million Muslims. But they ran into a problem: who should vote? French
citizens don't register their religious affiliation, so there were no
official lists of Muslims.
The solution: Mosques would elect the representatives, with bigger mosques
given more votes. That helped the UOIF, which boasts many large mosques
thanks to generous sponsors in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states. The
result: the UOIF won control of 12 of the 25 regional councils that
represent the central council across France, thrusting it into a position of
power. That forced the French government to recognize the UOIF as one of its
main points of contact in the Muslim community. In new elections last month,
the UOIF didn't fare as well as in 2003, mainly because other French Muslim
groups copied its strategies to organize and mobilize their followers. The
UOIF lost control of six of the 12 regional councils it had presided over.
But it continues to wield significant influence and obtained the vice
presidency of the central council.
French officials concede they are taking a calculated risk in dealing with
the UOIF but say it's part of a strategy to co-opt and soften the
organization. Even though it might not represent the views of most Muslims,
the UOIF is by far the best-organized of France's Islamic organizations and
has the most reach in France's troubled ethnic neighborhoods.
"I never said the UOIF was for integration," says a senior official in the
French Interior Ministry. "But they accept the rules and they want to play
Inside UOIF mosques, the talk isn't of integration, but of how to protect
oneself from harmful French society. Activists like Mr. Amriou help keep the
message simple: The mosque is safe; the outside world is dangerous.
One Friday evening, he stopped by the new mosque in Torcy. The head of the
mosque is a Senegalese convert named Ibrahim who had met Mr. Amriou at a
UOIF conference. The group holds frequent religious revival meetings, which
are chances to make contacts and buy books and videos by well-known Islamist
preachers. Ibrahim had invited Mr. Amriou here to help set the tone in the
Mr. Amriou's visit was part of his daily routine. His life, as he likes to
put it in English, is "speed, speed, speed" -- hurrying to work, to prayer
and to a UOIF mosque to help out with organizational work or to hold a
lecture. Married, he has no children and holds odd jobs like repairing
computers and selling phone cards at a store. That leaves plenty of time for
religion. He orbits Paris in his small Fiat, living in one banlieue, working
in another, praying in a third and spending free time at the UOIF
"I'm tres speed today," Mr. Amriou said as he unzipped a thick wool jacket
that he'd worn over his gown against the cold. The prayer room was about
two-thirds full with 90 men sitting cross-legged or kneeling. The few women
who had come were in an adjoining office listening through the door. After
settling into a director's chair and adjusting the microphone, he launched
into his pep talk.
After telling about how he was saved, he moved on to a broader point: the
need to enforce orthodox Islam on all French citizens of the Muslim faith.
After half an hour, he took a few questions and then mingled with the crowd.
Over tea and sweets, Mr. Amriou did some damage control for the UOIF. A UOIF
preacher had been publicly accused of anti-Semitism and some of the members
were worried and wondered what to think. "He said nothing unusual," Mr.
Amriou said with a shrug. He clicked on his cellphone, bringing up a picture
of a Palestinian boy allegedly killed by Israeli troops. He showed it to the
men and they nodded in agreement, anger crossing their faces. The preacher's
questionable remarks were forgotten.
A few moments later, Mr. Amriou's busy schedule caught up with him. He made
a quick getaway from the mosque and hopped into his car for a drive home
along the rim of Paris. Mr. Amriou used to try his hand at rap music and
even cut a single. As he drove, he listened to Zacharia, a young boy he is
mentoring who has learned most of the Quran by heart. Mr. Amriou taped him
singing the Quran at his home and popped in a cassette.
Mr. Amriou drove by one of the prisons where he had been held. It was now
nearly 11 p.m. and the traffic was light. Paris glowed on one side of the
highway, while prison floodlights blazed on the other. Mr. Amriou turned up
"Listen," Mr. Amriou said. "His singing is beautiful, but it is even better
when you know the meaning of the Arabic."
"This is my path," sang Zacharia. "With sure knowledge I call on you to have
faith in Allah, I and all my followers. Glory be to Allah! I am not among
On the Outside
In France, foreign youths from predominantly Muslim countries have a
particularly high rate of unemployment. Rates for ages 15-29:
Foreigners from North Africa, Sub-Saharan Africa and Turkey 40 percent
Foreigners (all nationalities) 26 percent French by birth 16 percent French
by naturalization 15 percent
Note: Data are from 2002
Source: Advance excerpts from "Integrating Islam: Political and Religious
Challenges in Contemporary France
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