x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Robert Leiken’s Angry Muslims

Robert Leiken’s impressively researched survey of second-generation Muslim immigrants in France, Britain and Germany is both structurally flawed and highly engrossing,

Tavistock Square the day after the 7/7 London bombings. PA
Tavistock Square the day after the 7/7 London bombings. PA

To many westerners, European Muslims are a dangerous collection of angry activists, indoctrinated by jihadist leaders, trained in Al Qaeda camps, and now hiding in sleeper cells while they prepare more terrorist attacks like the London underground bombings of 2005.

In Europe's Angry Muslims, Robert Leiken - an immigration expert at the US Center for the National Interest - sets out to see if there is any truth in this caricature. The book focuses on the second generation of immigrants in the continent's three countries with the biggest Muslim populations: France, Britain and Germany.

The Muslim population of each has its own unique personality, derived partly from the immigrants' place of origin and partly from the way the host country has dealt with its newcomers.

The "best" situation - at least, according to Leiken, and at the time he wrote the book - had been in France, where Arabs, West Africans, North Africans and people from the Caribbean tend to be concentrated in dreary banlieue ghettos but where religious-based protests are almost nonexistent. After the book was published, a young Frenchman of Algerian ancestry murdered seven people in Toulouse, claiming to be inspired by Al Qaeda. Meanwhile, in the worst case - Britain - the stereotype appears, at least in Leiken's pages, closer to the truth.

As Leiken writes, "Violent jihad in Europe derives both from Inside (from inequality, racism, poverty and generational conflict) and from the Outside (from foreign sources, messengers and inspirations)."

The author undertakes impressive research, knocking on doors, peeking inside communities, digging into the archives, and tracing the history of Islamic migrations.

France might be expected to suffer the worst problems, because of its relatively large number of Muslims (10 per cent of the population), its nationwide ban on wearing headscarves in schools, and lingering resentment from the Algerian war of independence.

The immigrant banlieues are dreadful places to live, without malls or Metro stops. They are cut off from the more fashionable part of Paris by what Leiken calls "unbridgeable chasms of highways", and their housing projects are "spectral towers of reinforced concrete". As well, various government officials, including Nicolas Sarkozy, have found Islam-baiting to be politically useful - although how much it may have helped the French premier won't be known until next month's election runoff.

It should be no surprise that riots broke out in the banlieues in October 2005 and continued for five months. Except that the rioters weren't rebelling against western culture. About 25 per cent were unemployed complaining about the lack of jobs, and more than one-third "were minors, sometimes as young as 10, seeking thrills."

Indeed, the leaders of the nation's main Islamic organisation, far from urging defiance against the headscarf ban, "merely requested that the law be applied 'softly'." As Leiken points out, "the rioters were clothed in hooded sweatshirts".

Why wasn't there more religion-fuelled anger? Maybe because France's laïcité policy of a rigid and thorough separation of church and state - the same policy under which headscarves are banned - also steers immigrants into a channel of assimilation. In particular, the public schools have served as a melting pot, Leiken asserts. And the language and other skills learned in a heterogeneous school can offer the second generation (although probably not the first) the possibility of good jobs and entrance into the mainstream.

"The protesters were not raising the green banner of Islam," the author says, "but demanding to come under the drapeau tricolore" - the tricoloured French flag.

Britain, by contrast, went to absurd lengths to prove its multicultural tolerance, granting political asylum to all sorts of violence-spouting preachers and even supporting them with generous benefits. (However, Leiken's argument is somewhat undermined by Britain's repeated efforts to jail and deport the radical Muslim cleric Omar Mahmoud Mohammed Othman, also known as Abu Qatada, who was rearrested earlier this month.)

Far from urging assimilation, Britain encouraged the immigrants to maintain their distinct communities. And that may have been exactly the problem, Leiken says. This attitude turned London into "Londonistan", a dual geographic entity where the first generation of immigrants lived physically in England but psychologically in their native Pakistan. Most important, the men returned to their original village to marry and then dragged their new wives back to England to live.

The children of those marriages, like many second generations anywhere, rebelled against their parents' suffocating folk culture. Yet they were obviously outsiders in their adopted country, walled off by discrimination and often unable to find jobs. "The second-generation British Muslim, lodged between traditional and modern, tribal and urban, was an acute case of a 'marginal man'," the book says.

Thus, when some began preaching against the sexual promiscuity of the West or against Europe's failure to protect fellow Muslims in Bosnia, they found a ready audience among the confused, twice-alienated second generation.

And that audience acted on the sermons. From a single mosque came Richard Reid (the so-called London "Shoe Bomber"), Zacarias Moussaoui (supposedly the "20th hijacker" who never made it to the September 11 terrorist attacks), Ahmed Ressam (who tried to blow up the Los Angeles International Airport in 2000 to herald the new millennium), the alleged murderer of American journalist Daniel Pearl, and several more. All that, of course, is in addition to the British-bred Muslims who killed 52 people and injured 700 others when they bombed London in July 2005.

"Germany lands somewhere between Britain and France," according to Leiken. It has the second-largest Muslim population in Western Europe, after France, and a particularly high number of ethnic-German converts. As in England, the Muslim immigrant community maintained close ties to its native land - in this case, usually Turkey - and the men brought their brides back to an enclave where the new country's language need never be spoken.

But Germany added its own unique ingredient to the festering brew: an ongoing debate over what it means to be German. Was citizenship "the birthright of the German Volk exclusively, transferred only by blood"? Or was it a question of allegiance, conferred by law? Could the children of Turkish immigrants be German citizens if they were born in Germany? Could the parents be nationalised citizens, if they chose? And if not, why should these immigrants and their second generation feel any loyalty at all to a country that didn't want them? Wasn't the apparent tolerance of multiculturalism really a way of saying: You're not one of us?

Infamously, it was in Germany that Mohammed Atta and his colleagues plotted the September 11 terrorist attacks. Yet these plotters were not immigrants, they were transients, stopping in Hamburg just long enough to make their plans.

Germany itself wouldn't become a terror target for six more years, but Leiken warns darkly that the worst may be yet to come. "Germany's young Turks, converts, and other sympathisers may be forming a strategic reserve for Al Qaeda and the Taliban," he says. Because of strong public opposition to German participation in the war in Afghanistan, "Those organisations regard Germany as a weak link in Nato's Afghanistan deployment," and they may hope that another bombing could pressure the Berlin government to withdraw its troops.

Leiken's mix of activist and academic backgrounds - he has been a scholar at such prestigious think tanks as the Brookings Institution, the Carnegie Endowment, and Harvard University's Center for International Affairs - has clearly infiltrated his writing style, for both better and worse. The writing can be colourful, as when he describes "the pallid, lonesome housing projects, the cités that hover by the terminus of French cities like colonnades of ghosts." However, he can get repetitive and bogged down in too much detail.

Structurally, the book's pieces are in all the wrong places. It begs for a chance to establish its themes - preferably at the beginning of the entire volume, and also at the start of each individual country section. The brief "Finale" provides a decent summation, but it's too late and distracted by the addition of a feeble, overly political conclusion. Then there's the "Guide for the Perplexed", which provides a passable explanation of the various strands and history of Islam, but why is it shoved between the chapters on France and Britain? Wouldn't it be more logical as an appendix?

Perhaps most jarring is the title. The book itself, by separating three distinct national cultures and acknowledging more, belies the title's implication that all the people who believe in the same religion on an entire continent could be lumped together. Still, those flaws should not altogether discourage readers. This is an important and engrossing investigation into a population that will continue to play a pivotal role in the world.

Fran Hawthorne is an award-winning US-based author and journalist who specialises in covering the intersection of business, finance and social policy.