Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Paris Burning and the "Clash of Civilizations"

I felt compelled (before engaging my responses to the last post) to offer a few observations concerning the sustained violence and rioting in France among certain populations that feel that the French government is not respecting their rights.

Click here for the story from the perspective of the larger Arab community.
Click here for the response of French ultra-nationalist Jean-Marie Le Pen.

Beyond the ancillary concerns raised by this issue (such as the growth of the right in post Cold War Western Europe and the crisis faced by the French government), the main issue at stake here is the idea of the clash of civilizations.

That term, in its modern form, comes from a 1992 Foreign Affairs article by Samuel Huntington in which he argues that the civilizations of the West and the Arab world are so fundamentally different that their clash in violent conflict is inevidable. This assertion is predicated on the notion that religious ideals run at the heart of every culture and governmental system.

While I would be an idiot to deny that religion is a crucial aspect of culture and society, I must believe that, for most of the world, these personal beliefs can be curtailed in a secular form of government. I believe that governments must, for a start, be completely devoid of religious pretension or the hopes of imparting religious principles and dogma on a population. Unless this can be, no further progress can be made.

Does this smack of Fukuyama and his notion that the end of history comes with the triumph of liberal democracy. Yes and no. Liberal democracy is, in my opinion, the best and fairest way to govern. I cannot, however, agree that this is the final stage of the process. There are still many places where people are mistreated, underrepresented and generally shoved aside by a state that does not have their best interests in mind. Now, I do agree that states usually DON'T have the best interests of their people in mind, but at least with a liberal democracy, your chances seem to historically improve.

The French state is, for all of its problems, a secular one, as are a growing majority of governments in the Islamic world (if there is one thing you could never accuse Saddam Hussein of it is of being an Islamic extremist). The more specific issue here is how this secular state treats religious minorities. Can they legally be denied access to jobs, aid and the benefits of French citizenship. No, but it happens anyway. Do they come from parts of the world where things are a lot worse than they are in France? You bet.

Citizenship is, anymore, a more difficult subject to grasp. With borders falling and linkages of all sorts in place, saying that I am an " " is getting harder and harder. What makes one "French?" The fact of being born there? Living there? What can help to integrate these people into what appears to be a more closed society than our own?

What is clear, however, is that violence and rioting will not make conditions better for the people who most certainly have problems with their current situation. Did it ever occur to them that rioting only makes the police and the state more mad and less likely to compromise with leadership? On the other side, does the French government realize that sticking disaffected immigrants with no hope or prospects in delapidated housing projects is a recepie for disaster?

In a country with a revolutionary tradition and mythology like France, such measures should strike a particular chord with the leadership. Torch bearing mobs of people who want a bigger slice of the pie? Ring a bell?

What is to be done? Neutralize the radicals like the head rioters and the likes of Le Pen. Sit down with people, individuals and hear their concerns with the honest intention of making an equitable solution for all people involved. Remember the individual? The basis of society? Treat people as such and not just as a group to be herded and ignored and you take a step to progress.

Monolithic solutions lead to totalitarianism.

Only individual rights lead to peace.


Matt Jenks said...

"In a country with a revolutionary tradition and mythology like France, such measures should strike a particular chord with the leadership. Torch bearing mobs of people who want a bigger slice of the pie? Ring a bell?"

This could be the most insightful (and brilliantly worded) reminder to the French Government that I've read.

Another parallel that could be drawn here is the Crusades (sure, I'm stretching) but we can look back on that and say "Wow, THAT was a glorious success, now wasn't it?"

Better get Madame DeFarge knitting names into sweaters.

Aaron Cynic said...

I have a much longer comment that I'll be working on, but for the moment just a few thoughts...

Neutralize rioters? That will be done, there's no question about that. However sit down with people afterwards? No way. The business of governments is maintaining power. If that is through making the majority believe they live in a full democracy then so be it. If it's stamping on the masses with an iron boot than so be it. Remember, if real democracy broke out - it would greatly shake the power structure. That goes for any government.

Even though a government may claim to be secular - it is still very possible for the majority religion in that country to take hold in governmental positions. After all, look at the slow (sometimes) creeping in of evangelical Christian philosophy in our own government.

While rioting may make the state more angry and repressive, if actions continue on indefinately the hope is to make the state actually listen, as opposed to paying lip service to people's pleas. That's why unions worked initially in this country (bringing in the 8 hour workday, etc), it's why civil disobedience in the 60's worked. While heavy repression was leavied on the population, eventually those in power were forced to listen.

Just some short thoughts to a much broader based topic...

Matt Jenks said...

Dammit, Will. I'm stuck at work and need something to read that DOESN'T involve Terrell Owens or ring-closing metathesis reactions! And I can only amuse myself with geek quizzes for so long.