|The US embassy has been conducting ‘outreach’ with mosques, such as London’s Finsbury Park mosque [GALLO/GETTY]|
New York, NY – As the presidential campaign begins in earnest, Republican contenders are stirring up racial animosities: Newt Gingrich calls President Obama a “foodstamp president”, and demands a federal law to preempt sharia; Santorum makes derogatory remarks about “blah” people and welfare, and warns of “Eurabia”; Mitt Romney declares that he will not have Muslims in his cabinet and that Obama is trying to turn the US into a “European-style entitlement society”; Gingrich agrees, but then attacks Romney for speaking French.
Scapegoating and race-baiting during a US electoral season are not new; as the campaign heats up, so will the rhetoric. The irony is that the negative rhetoric surrounding race, Islam and Europe is rising – just as the State Department is trying to counter the “nativist surge” in Europe by showcasing the US model of racial integration, and dispatching African-American and Muslim-American goodwill ambassadors to Europe to extol the civil rights movement.
For several years now, the State Department has been quietly trying to introduce its ideas around race, multiculturalism and affirmative action into European policy and activist circles, aiming to alter the discourse on Islam in Europe – and in some cases, actively trying to help “integrate” European Muslims. The WikiLeaks cables that probably stirred the most anger in European capitals were those where US diplomats castigated allies – France, Britain, Holland – for mistreating their Muslim minorities, and not doing enough to battle domestic extremism.
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In August 2006, a year after the bombings in London, the US embassy there sent a cable to Washington stating that “little progress” had been made in combating extremism, warning of rising tensions between the Muslim community and Her Majesty’s government (“HMG”). The US embassy in London then established a project of “Reverse Radicalism” focusing on “at risk” youth. The London cables also describe the US embassy’s efforts to reach “moderate” Muslim communities that “lack the institutional infrastructure to actively mobilise against radicalising influences”. Many among the British press were unhappy with the US embassy’s “secret campaign” to de-radicalise British Muslims, and especially with the embassy’s outreach to mosques considered “radical”, such as the Finsbury Park mosque in North London. US embassy officials and British public opinion don’t appear to agree on what constitutes a “moderate” Muslim.
But it is, perhaps not surprisingly, in France that the State Department’s assessments and outreach to Muslim communities have triggered the most outrage. The dispatches from the US embassy in Paris are blunt in their appraisal – “the French have a well-known problem with discrimination against minorities”. Some cables read like descriptions of a pre-civil rights United States: “The French media remains overwhelmingly white… Among French elite educational institutions, we are only aware that Science Po has taken serious steps to integrate.”
The thrust of the correspondence from the Paris embassy argues that the French approach to assimilation has not worked, because, of an “official blindness to all racial and ethnic differences”. And the fear is not only that young French Muslims will gravitate towards extremism – “the USG [United States government] takes seriously the potentially global threat of disenfranchised and disadvantaged minorities in France” – but that ethnic and racial conflict would weaken France. “We believe that if France, over the long term, does not succeed in improving prospects for its minorities and give them true political representation, it could become weaker, more divided and perhaps inclined toward crises… and a less effective ally as a result.”
“We believe that if France… does not succeed in improving prospects for its minorities and give them true political representation, it could become weaker… and a less effective ally as a result.”
– Leaked US diplomatic cable
The US embassy staff acknowledge France’s reluctance to accept the US model of integration or to “partner” with the embassy, but the cables describe numerous outreach projects (exchange programmes, conferences, media appearance) to raise awareness among state and societal actors about the US civil rights movement.
The response from youth in the banlieues to these programmes has been largely positive. Young French Muslims note that the US embassy’s outreach is different from the French government’s security-centred approach and shrill rhetoric about Islam and immigration (Sarkozy a few years ago threatened to clean up a cité with a Kärcher, a high-pressure hose). Widad Ketfi, a young blogger, who participated in an embassy-sponsored programme says she knows she was targeted by the US embassy because of her Algerian-Muslim background, but adds: “What bothers me is being the target of the French state.” These youths claim that French politicians will visit their enclaves only during election time, surrounded by security guards. “We’re waiting for the president of the republic, for his ministers,” observes Gilbert Roger, the mayor of Bondy, a gritty suburb in northeastern Paris. “And we see the ambassador of the United States.” The residents of Bondy, he says, “have the sense that the United States looks upon our areas with much more deference and respect”.
US diplomats expected resistance to these public diplomacy initiatives from the French establishment. “While direct development assistance from USG is not likely to be available for France,” notes one cable, requesting the availability of funds “to address the consequences of discrimination and minority exclusion in France” – stressing that, given France’s official discourse and self-image, “such an effort will continue to require considerable discretion, sensitivity and tact on our part”.
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And there has been a backlash from French officials and commentators. France has long viewed itself as being immune to US-style race politics, priding itself on providing refuge, since the late 19th century, to African-Americans fleeing discrimination, so depictions of the French republic as a prejudiced country in need of US aid and tutelage were not well received. The cable that drew the most indignant responses from French state officials was written by then US Ambassador Craig Stephenson, at the height of the civil unrest in November 2005: “The real problem is the failure of white Christian France to view its dark-skinned and Muslim compatriots as citizens in their own rights.” Speaking on a television show, former Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin scoffed [FR], “This [cable] shows the limits of American diplomacy,” adding that US diplomats were wrongly reading the banlieues crisis through their own history, and viewing France’s urban crisis through a religious prism.
The French didn’t like it either when US goodwill ambassadors drew parallels between the banlieues and the US South. When the US ambassador, Charles Rivkin, a former Hollywood executive, brought actor Samuel L Jackson, to visit a community centre in Bondy, and Jackson, addressing a group of youth, compared their struggle with the hardships of his childhood in segregated Tennessee, French media resented the comparison. Another awkward moment came at the unveiling of a painted mural for the civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr at the Collège Martin Luther King in Villiers-le-Bel, another restive Parisian suburb, when a group of African and Arab children stood around Ambassador Rivkin and sang “We Shall Overcome”.
As in Britain, segments of French society were displeased by revelations that the US had, since 2003, been deeply involved in the integration process – trying to shift the media discourse, to get French leaders to rethink their “terminology” and “intellectual frameworks” regarding minority inclusion; trying to generate public debates about “affirmative action”, “multiculturalism”, and hyphenated identity; pushing to reform history curricula taught in French schools, and working with French museums to exhibit the contributions of minorities. Left-leaning analysts opposed to US policies in the Islamic world saw this “Marshall Plan” for the banlieues as a diversionary tactic [FR]. One cable notes that, by improving the lot of French Muslims, the US embassy can alter French-Muslim perceptions of the US, to show that the US respects Islam and “is engaged for good in the Arab-Muslim worlds”. Other critics just don’t think US conceptions of race and integration can travel across the Atlantic.
More surprising was the negative reaction of some (neo)conservative voices in France, who tend to agree with the US right’s apocalyptic tone regarding “Eurabia” and Muslim immigration to Europe. Right-wing US bloggers and authors of books such as While Europe Slept and Surrender – that speak of Europe’s “smouldering Muslim ghettoes” and the imminent Muslim takeover of Europe – have long resonated with a segment of the European public. Yet many conservative-leaning French journalists and commentators expressed anger at this exercise in US “soft power”, saying that the “head-hunting” efforts, the grooming of future Muslim leaders constituted a “direct interference”, that was undermining the authority of French institutions and French sovereignty.
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France: Violating religious rights?
As in Britain, the Paris embassy’s efforts to empower “moderate” Muslim voices caused considerable anger. When it emerged that one of the Muslim organisations the embassy was supporting was the magazine Oumma.com – described by the US ambassador as a “remarkable website”, polemicist Caroline Fourest, author of a manifesto warning of the coming “Islamic totalitarianism”, charged that the US right and French Muslims were allying to undermine French laïcité.
Western states have a long history of intervening in the Muslim world to protect and empower religious minorities. This practice continues, in different forms to this day, but it is unprecedented for Western states – allies – to court or protect each other’s minorities. And yet the US is spending millions of dollars to win the hearts and minds of Europe’s disaffected Muslim communities, often vying with European states’ own local efforts.
These outreach efforts show that US diplomacy increasingly views the moral and symbolic capital of the civil rights movement as a form of soft power that can help improve the country’s image in Europe’s urban periphery, while imparting some US racial commonsense. But ironies abound: the efforts to exhibit US racial harmony and forestall ethnic conflict in Europe are taking place as political hopefuls whip up resentment of Muslims and African-Americans in the US. Imagine the reaction – in the current Euro-bashing climate – if it were revealed that the French government was pumping millions of dollars to help “integrate” African-Americans, and elevate the discourse on race in the US.
Perhaps the greatest irony of the State Department’s efforts to showcase the model integration of US Muslims, and to deploy the images and ideas of the civil rights movement in Europe, is that these efforts have been occurring against a backdrop of unfavourable media images of Quran burnings, anti-mosque rallies and accusatory Congressional hearings. The anti-mosque movement has now morphed into a broader “anti-Sharia” movement. Thirteen states from South Carolina to Arizona to Alaska have introduced bills banning Islamic law. The Texas Board of Education passed a resolution rejecting high-school textbooks that are “pro-Islam [and] anti-Christian”, and a similar campaign is underway in Florida. American Muslims are facing a rising tide of discrimination that will no doubt worsen as the 2012 presidential campaign progresses. As for the Democrats, maybe it is politically easier to be photographed with Muslims in Paris singing “We Shall Overcome” than to challenge the organised bigotry brewing at home.
Hishaam Aidi is editor, with Manning Marable, of Black Routes to Islam (Palgrave Macmillan 2009), and a fellow at the Open Society Foundation in New York. For more on US policy towards European Muslims, please see this longer study by Dr Aidi.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.