On multiculturalism and assimilation

November 15, 2015

In Blog News

Terrorism has come about in assimilationist France and also in multicultural Britain. Why is that?

Kenan Malik

Sunday 15 November 2015 00.03 GMT Last modified on Sunday 15 November 2015 14.55 GMT

Flawed approaches to cultural diversity in both France and Britain have given succour to Islamism

How best to make people feel part of a wider society? Photograph: David Axelbank/Alamy

How best to make people feel part of a wider society? Photograph: David Axelbank/Alamy

We don’t yet know the full identities or backgrounds of the eight killers who carried out the carnage on the streets of Paris on Friday night. François Hollande has suggested that killings were organised abroad but with support from within France.

Whoever the Paris killers may eventually turn out to be, until now much of the problem of terrorism in Europe has been created not by foreign terrorists but by homegrown jihadis. The Kouachi brothers, for instance, responsible for the Charlie Hebdo killings in January, were born and raised in Paris. So was Amedy Coulibaly, the gunman who, that same weekend, attacked a kosher supermarket in Paris and killed four hostages. Three of the four suicide bombers responsible for the 7/7 attack on London tubes and a bus were born in Britain.

In the past, when London was seen as the capital of Islamism and of terror groups – Londonistan, many called it – French politicians and policy-makers suggested that Britain faced a particular problem because of its multicultural policies. Such policies, they claimed, were divisive, failing to create a common set of values or sense of nationhood. As a result, many Muslims were drawn towards Islamism and violence. “Assimilationist” policies, French politicians insisted, avoided the divisive consequences of multiculturalism and allowed every individual to be treated as a citizen, not as a member of a particular racial or cultural group.

So how do we account for the way that terrorism has been nurtured in assimilationist France too? And how different are French assimilationist and British multicultural policies?

Many of the French criticisms of multiculturalism were valid. British policy-makers welcomed diversity, but tried to manage it by putting people into ethnic and cultural boxes, defining individual needs and rights by virtue of the boxes into which people are put, and using those boxes to shape public policy. They treated minority communities as if each were a distinct, homogenous whole, each composed of people all speaking with a single voice, each defined by a singular view of culture and faith. The consequence has been the creation of a more fragmented, tribal society, which has nurtured Islamism. The irony, though, is that the French policies, from a very different starting point, have ended up at much the same place.
There are, it is often claimed, some five million Muslims in France, making it the largest Muslim community in western Europe. In fact, there are five million people of North African origin in France. Most are secular. A growing number have, in recent years, become attracted to Islam. But even today, according to a 2011 poll by the l’Institut Français d’Opinion Publique (Ifop), only 40% call themselves “observant Muslims” – and only 25% attend Friday prayers.

First-generation postwar immigrants to France faced, just like their counterparts in Britain, considerable racism. The second generation, again as in Britain, was far less willing than their parents had been to accept passively social discrimination and police brutality. They organised, largely through secular movements, and took to the streets, often in violent protest. In autumn 2005, riots swept through French banlieues and cities as youth and police fought pitched battles, much as they had in Britain two decades earlier.

During the 1970s and early 1980s, the French authorities had taken a relatively laid-back stance on multiculturalism, generally tolerating cultural and religious differences, at a time when few within minority communities expressed their identity in cultural or religious terms. The then president François Mitterrand even coined the slogan “droit à la differénce” – the right to be different.

As tensions within North African communities became more open, and as the far-right Front National emerged as a political force, so the “droit à la differénce” was abandoned for a more hardline assimilationist approach, with the problems of North African communities presented in terms of their “difference”. Few of the youth who rioted in 2005 saw themselves as Muslim. But the authorities portrayed the riots and the disaffection they expressed less as a response to racism than as an expression of a growing threat to France – that of Islam. In principle, the French authorities rejected the multiculturalist approach that Britain had adopted. In practice, however, they treated North African migrants and their descendants, in a very “multicultural” way – as a single community, and primarily as a “Muslim” community. Islam became symbolic of the anxieties about values and identity that now beset France.

A much-discussed 2013 poll conducted by Ipsos and the Centre for Political Studies Sciences (Cevipof) found that 50% of the population believed “the decline of France”, both economic and cultural, to be “inevitable”. Under a third thought that democracy worked well, while 62% considered most politicians to be corrupt. The report described a “fractured France”, divided into tribal groups, alienated from mainstream politics, distrustful of their leaders and resentful of Muslims. The main sentiment driving French society, the report concluded, was fear.


Faced with a distrustful and disengaged public, politicians have attempted to reassert the notion of a common French identity. But unable to define clearly the ideas and values that characterise the nation, they have done so primarily by creating hostility against symbols of alien-ness, the most visible of which is Islam.

The irony is that not only is France’s North African population predominantly secular, but even practising Muslims are relatively liberal in their views. According to the Ifop poll, 68% of observant women never wear the hijab. Fewer than a third of practising Muslims would forbid their daughters from marrying a non-Muslim. Eighty-one per cent accept that women should have equal rights in divorce; 44% have no problem with the issue of co-habitation; 38% support the right to abortion; and 31% approve of sex before marriage. Only on homosexuality is there a deeply conservative stance: 77% of practising Muslims disapprove.

Yet, far from including North Africans as full citizens, French policy has tended to ignore the racism and discrimination they have faced and institutionalised their marginalisation. Many in France look upon its citizens of North African origins not as French but as “Arab” or as “Muslim”. But the second generation within North African communities are often as estranged from their parents’ cultures and mores, and from mainstream Islam, as they are from wider French society.

Consider, for instance, the Kouachi brothers,. They were raised in Gennevilliers, a northern suburb of Paris. Cherif Kouachi, who appeared to mastermind the operation, only rarely attended mosque and appeared not to be particularly religious, but was driven by a sense of social estrangement. He was, according to Mohammed Benali, president of the local mosque, of a ‘‘generation that felt excluded, discriminated against and, most of all, humiliated. They spoke and felt French, but were regarded as Arabic; they were culturally confused.”

According to Benali, Kouachi was most affronted by the imam’s insistence on the importance of political engagement. “When the imam told everyone to enrol on the register of electors so they could take part in elections, and play their part in society, he refused. He said he wasn’t a French citizen and wanted nothing to do with the democratic process. He then walked out of the mosque.”

Kouachi’s story is not that different from that of Mohammad Sidique Khan, the leader of the 7/7 bombings in London. They are of a milieu caught not between two cultures, as it is often claimed, but between no cultures. As a consequence, some of them have turned to Islamism and a few have expressed their rage through jihadi-style violence.

There are aspects of both the multiculturalist and assimilationist approaches that are valuable. The multicultural acceptance of diversity and the assimilationist resolve to treat everyone as citizens, not as bearers of specific racial or cultural histories, are both welcome. And there are aspects of both that are damaging – the multiculturalist tendency to place minorities into ethnic and cultural boxes, the assimilationist attempt to create a common identity by institutionalising the differences of groups deemed not to belong.

An ideal policy would marry the beneficial aspects of the two approaches – celebrating diversity while treating everyone as citizens, rather than as simply belonging to particular communities. In practice, though, Britain and France have both institutionalised the more damaging features – Britain placing minorities into ethnic and cultural boxes, France attempting to create a common identity by treating those of North African origin as the Other. The consequence has been that in both Britain and France societies have become more fractured and tribal. And in both nations a space has been opened up for Islamism to grow.