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2005-11-09

The Roots of Civil Unrest in Europe: Robert Fisk and Behzad Yaghmaian on Post-Colonial Muslim and Arab Immigrants

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As the civil unrest in France approaches the end of the second week, we look back at a critical moment in French history that is still being felt today: the country’s colonial rule of the North African nation of Algeria. We speak with British journalist Robert Fisk about the French rule of Algeria and the country’s war of independence and with Iranian-born author and professor Behzad Yaghmaian, who spent two years traveling in the Middle East and Europe following migrants from Muslim countries. [includes rush transcript]

  • Behzad Yaghmaian, an Iranian-born author and professor living in the United States. He is the author of the new book "Embracing the Infidel: Stories of Muslim Migrants on the Journey West," it will be published later this month by Delacorte Press. He wrote the book after spending two years traveling in the Middle East and Europe following migrants from Muslim countries.
  • Robert Fisk, veteran war correspondent and the chief Middle East correspondent for the London Independent and author of several books. His latest is "The Great War for Civilization: The Conquest of the Middle East."

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: As we continue to look at the uprising in France and whether it will extend beyond the borders throughout Europe or beyond, we’re joined in our studio right now in New York by Behzad Yaghmaian. He is an Iranian-born author, professor living in United States, the author of the new book, Embracing the Infidel: Stories of Muslim Migrants on the Journey West. We welcome you to Democracy Now! You teach at Ramapo College in New Jersey, but you have spent several years in the immigrant communities from Turkey to Paris. Can you talk about your understanding of what’s happening and this latest news of the expansion of the uprising to Brussels, to Berlin?

BEHZAD YAGHMAIAN: Yes. In my opinion, at the heart of the riots in France are France’s post-colonial and migration policy and the failure of the republic to deliver to the public liberty, fraternity and equality. But similar problems exist across Europe, actually. There is a migration crisis in Europe that has been growing extensively in the past few years. And sooner or later there’s a potential and possibility of same types of riots and uprising occurring in different places.

In France, what we have been seeing is a combination of class, ethnicity, race and religion and cultural dimensions that gave rise to the riots that we have seen now. Of course, the comments by the Interior Minister ignited the riots, but there were deep-rooted causes that brought about the continuation of the riots: The alienation of the youth, the — France has continued to look at the post-colonial subjects as colonial subjects. That is, migrants from Algeria and other parts of Africa that were controlled by France are still considered as non-French, although they carry French documents, and that is reflected in the way they are treated economically, socially and politically.

And in the past few years in France, in the past ten years and in other parts of Europe, perhaps less, there has been a religious component added to that; that is, Islam and the association of every Muslim man with potential terrorism. That is, to be a person carrying an Arabic name and being a Muslim, you are automatically a potential terrorist. And that suspicion and fear is not only a fear and suspicion that is ignited by the authorities, but also by the media and by the public at large.

AMY GOODMAN: What about the communities, the elders in the communities holding peace marches, issuing fatwas against the uprising?

BEHZAD YAGHMAIAN: The elders — in my opinion, the elders in the community are tired. Their time is over. What matters is the young people — 17, 18, 20 — they have their whole future ahead of them, and what they have seen is the impossibility of living under these post-colonial subjective conditions, so they want to make a point. In fact, what is happening, the riots are a cry to be heard. They want to be heard. They want to tell the world that they exist and what their conditions are. In the past ten-fifteen years, there has no way for them to be heard. They’re using this to echo their voice, to tell that they want a difference.

They want to become French. They are French, but they want to be treated as French. They want not to be discriminated because of being Muslim. That is, they don’t want their Islam and the religion to be used as a pretext for discrimination. And in many ways, it’s stigmatization that is very hurtful, to be picked up by the police, to be harassed by the police, to be looked at by the public in a very different way and suspicious way.

AMY GOODMAN: What about the areas beyond France?

BEHZAD YAGHMAIAN: Yes. I believe there’s a high potential for the spread of this type of rebellion and rioting in other parts of Europe. Let’s take a look at one country, for example, that has not actually had any riots in the past few days: Spain. Spain has had a very serious problem with African migrants that enter the country illegally.

You probably saw in the media that in the beginning of October there were riots in the two French enclaves in Morocco. A number of sub-Saharan Africans who were camping in the woods and in the hills around the two enclaves were trying to barge in and actually enter the enclave. The enclaves are separated from Morocco by two ten-feet fences, razor-wire fences. So in the attack, ten people were killed in two incidents, and there are reports that two of the people were killed by the Spanish soldiers and by the Moroccan soldiers. In response to that, the Spanish government has brought warships to the area and has planned to build a third fence. Put yourself in the position of being fenced out in that manner.

Within Spain, there are a number of Africans that live illegally. What they do is this: When they enter Spain, they throw away their documents. And since they have no nationality, Spain cannot deport them. They are there. They are illegal. They cannot get jobs. They live in clandestine conditions. And many of them actually have to adhere to petty crime. They sell drugs. They pickpocket. And they are a ripe population for revolt. And incidents in France may give them an example of how they could be heard. They want to become documented. They want to have citizenship to be able to work. That is why many of them actually were on the road for a number of years and risk their lives in order to get to Spain. Their conditions in Spain are not better than what they were in their country of origin. So you have that situation there.

You have similar situations, probably not as severe, in Italy. There’s a large number of Muslims and Africans living clandestinely in Italy going from one place to another looking for jobs. But they’re being treated very viciously by the police, very suspiciously by the public, and they’re not able to sustain themselves. That also is a prime population ready to revolt at any moment. So I really see unless European Union changes its attitude towards migration and unless it comes up with a new policy towards migrants and Muslim migrants, in particular, there is no possibility of averting the uprisings in other parts of Europe.

AMY GOODMAN: We are also joined by Robert Fisk in our studio. As the civil unrest in France enters its 14th day, we want to look back at that critical moment in French history that’s still being felt today: The country’s colonial rule of the North African nation of Algeria. To talk about the French rule of Algeria and the country’s War of Independence, we’re joined by British journalist, Robert Fisk. He has been the Middle East correspondent for various papers, most recently over the years the London Independent, for about 30 years. He’s based in Beirut, Lebanon, and has written a new book, The Great War for Civilisation: The Conquest of the Middle East, and in it, you spend many, many pages on Algeria

ROBERT FISK: Many bloody pages, Amy, yes. That’s right, yeah. I mean, it’s impossible to see the crisis in Algeria today, the crisis in France today, without going back to the War of Independence, which lasted from between 1954 and 1962, which eventually gave Algeria not freedom in the democratic sense, but freedom from imperialism, from colonialism. And you’ve got to realize that the wounds of that war were never healed. The Algerians who fought for the French, the Harki, were never forgiven by the Algerian government or people, the pieds-noirs, the vast number of French colonial people who lived in Algeria, who regard it as their home, whose parents and grandparents were born there. By the way, you keep calling it a French colony. The French, of course, regard it as "France metropolitaine." It was part of metropolitan France, but the Algerian "natives," quote/unquote, didn’t have equal rights. The pieds-noirs have never forgiven the Algerians for throwing them out, effectively, of the country.

And one of the things we’re not actually talking about now, but which we should be, is that many of the areas where this violence is taking place around Paris and other large French cities are areas where lower middle class French people who were pieds-noirs from Algeria now live. So what we actually have is we have Algerian youths setting fire to cars outside the homes of the people who were expelled from Algeria in 1962. You need to realize that it is, in this sense, there’s a civil conflict going on here, not just a minority objecting to their treatment by the country which is supposed to be their country now, their citizenship.

And what happened, of course, during that war was that the wounds were never healed, since no one wanted to heal them. What we had was a French government that, first of all, said, 'We will never leave Algeria; it's part of France,’ then negotiated with those who wanted freedom, and then, having done this negotiation, effectively ratted on their own French citizens and let them leave in penury and squalor on ships back to France, where in many cases they had no family and no friends. So in a sense this is a continuation.

And we need to remember that these infamous murders, which is what they were, by the French security authorities in 1961 were carried out when the head of the French police, the Paris police, was, in fact, a man who had served the Germans loyally under Vichy, who had assisted in the deportation of French Jews to Auschwitz and who later was imprisoned for war crimes. This is another element, which has now been forgotten, of this 1961 massacre.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain that.

ROBERT FISK: Well, I’ve just done it, Amy. What we have is that during the period of the 1960s, a large number of French officials had served loyally under the Vichy regime, which was set up under the Germans as part of their agreement of the surrender of France in 1940 after the German invasion of France. And until the Vichy regime was effectively taken down in 1944, the large number of bureaucrats who served under the Vichy government of the Petain, Philippe Petain, who was a hero of the First World War and became the great anti-hero of the Second World War, they continued in office so that many of the French police chiefs at the time of the 1961 massacres in Paris were ex-Vichy officials who had deported Jews to the concentration camps.

AMY GOODMAN: And then you have people like the fierce rightist, anti-immigrant Jean-Marie Le Pen, who actually —

ROBERT FISK: He’s getting boring. It’s his daughter you want to watch, but anyway. carry on. Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: But didn’t he serve in Algeria?

ROBERT FISK: So did President Chirac, and won medals for his service in Algeria, as General Ariel Sharon, now Prime Minister of Israel, constantly points out to President Chirac. Most of the older French leaders or most of the old statesmen of France did have a role in the Algerian war. What’s interesting about France is that the French government’s attitude towards war is quite different from the British or American, because unlike the U.S. administration and the titchy little administration of our own dear Mr. Blair, many French politicians served in Algeria and have seen war, which the Bush administration has either not done or chosen not to do and which the Blair administration is too young to have done. So you do have in France a great fear of war and violence. Mr. Sarkozy, I believe, has not seen war, which is why he’s prepared to use these disgusting phrases like "racaille" — "scum," translated into English — about the rioters, when quite clearly there are major problems here that need to be addressed, and calling people scum only overheats these problems. I think Mr. Sarkozy will be thrown to the wolves, by the way, because French governments always give in to violence, without exception. Always. And I think Mr. Sarkozy will be set out to be put out to dry and forgotten because of this.

AMY GOODMAN: Behzad Yaghmaian, before we go to break, your final comment on that connection between the older generation of the French leadership and the young immigrants who are rising up today, many whose parents are, if they are not themselves, from Algeria.

BEHZAD YAGHMAIAN: Yeah. There is definitely continuity in terms of the way both generations are treated. The young generation, as Robert was actually explaining, sees itself very correctly in the guise of what happened to their grandparents. It’s the same colonial policies, it’s the same attitude towards the subjects that are now being repeated now. The heavy-handed policy by the police. And that is reflected in the anger that the young people actually feel and the frustration that they have. And that’s actually one of the main reasons for these riots.

AMY GOODMAN: Interestingly, the parents, the grandparents who were part of the resistance in Algeria, now telling their grandchildren or their children to calm down.

BEHZAD YAGHMAIAN: It is always the case. In my experience with the case of Iran, those who participated in revolt against the Shah are now — have become very conservative, and they are telling their children, actually, to be careful with their lives and to step down and not to do much. So the older generation actually has become tired. It is the new generation that has to fight for the future. They need to live in France.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Behzad Yaghmaian, I want to thank you for being with us, and we’ll have you back again to continue this discussion, his new book, Embracing the Infidel: Stories of Muslim Migrants on the Journey West. And we will continue with Robert Fisk, author now of The Great War for Civilisation. One of the things Robert Fisk talks about in his book, in talking about Algeria, is this famous film, The Battle of Algiers. We want to go to a section of that film and compare it to something right here in the United States.

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