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Muslims and Democracy

A report I heard today on NPR’s “Morning Edition” notes that the Muslim population is now intermarrying with native French Christians at a faster rate than ever before in France, regardless of the fact that the 10% Muslim minority has been chafing under isolation and unemployment by the host society. The French have always been open to marriage with non-French partners. They invented a term for it, méti and métisses, to identify the children of mixed marriages. The Spanish have also been open to marrying across racial/ethnic barriers and their word mestizo and mestiza enshrine that fact. Consider the British in India for two long centuries under the brutal Raj, where one was ostracized if not outright exiled for fraternizing with native Indians of either sex. E.M. Forster’s 1924 novel, A Passage to India, depicts the stunted relationship between the Indian doctor, Dr. Aziz, and a naïve and vulnerable English woman, Adela Quested, against the backdrop of the Indian struggle for independence from imperial England. The bitterness of the struggle and the trial that ensues from Quested’s accusation that she was raped by Aziz in the Mirabar caves, captures English separatism at its root.

When I lived in Beirut, Lebanon as a child, I saw first hand the prominence of mixed French couples; there was no such thing as a French colony in the capital city. But the English, who helped create Lebanon (Syria, Iraq, and Israel) out of the remains of the Ottoman empire in the 1920s, preserved a well-defined and protected “English colony” to which few or no native Lebanese were admitted, except, of course, as servants and drivers. The same principle was maintained by the Americans who began showing up during Harry Truman’s notorious “Point 4” program in the late 1940s. Many were spies and State Dept. hacks sent over to thwart the rise of communism and the hand of the Soviet Union in the oil patch. Relationships across the race line were so strictly forbidden that the American embassy had full time informants to expose anyone caught in the act. It was believed that pillow talk could easily lead to divulging state secrets. But underneath Cold War paranoia was American racism, a stubborn and indestructible root of American thought.

It reminds me of how many of the original colonists to America returned once their fortunes were made; “home” was England, not the Indian-infested wilderness despised by the original Puritans. From early on anyone associating too closely with native people was condemned, isolated, subjected to torture, even execution. The progeny of such relationships were dubbed half-breeds, a term derived from the breeding of animals out of pedigree, a tainted and repulsive epithet that carried all the baggage of English fear and hatred of otherness. That attitude had passed into the American soul and was then applied to African slaves. Even though slave-owners from Thomas Jefferson on down wore paths to the slave quarters for sex, the children of such relations were considered accidents of nature and were ignored. Consider Sally Hemmings’ six children, sired by Jefferson at Monticello. Four survived and were mostly white in complexion; Jefferson ended up freeing them, the only slave family on which he conferred self-ownership; and Sally herself gained her freedom eventually. She was, it turns out, the half-sister of Jefferson’s wife.

My year in South Vietnam (1960-61) also allowed me to observe the widespread intermarriage of French men (many of them rubber plantation owners working for Michelin and other large tire manufacturers) and Vietnamese women, and the preponderance of métisses attending the écoles and lycées, and the Saigon branch of the University of Paris. After the French war against the Viet Minh ended in 1954, many of these mixed families returned to France or left Hanoi for the south, where they were accommodated by the remains of the colonial government. No such accommodation was remotely possible for Americans who might wish to consort with or marry local Vietnamese women, perhaps the most beautiful women in the world.

But this does not excuse the ghettoization of the Megrebin (north African Muslims) imposed by the French after the Algerian war. A flood of emigrants took advantage of an offer of citizenship after the French withdrew, and they found themselves herded into Marseilles and Paris, where they lived in internal exile – in the equivalent of projects in New York, high-rises meant to dissolve the naturally gregarious nature of Arab people. These towers became crime centers, incubators of gangs, delinquency, and drug addiction. As things worsened in the 1990s, and violence began to break out in the ghettoes in the north of Paris, the authorities got tougher. Nicolas Sarkozy, the new president, was their Rudy Guliani, and he sent in the police to beat up unemployed, embittered kids who had found their voices in burning cars and rioting in the streets. Marseilles was its own cauldron of hatred; as the emigrants turned downtown Marseille into a vast medina where old men gathered to talk, smoke water pipes, finger worry beads, and conduct a gray market in knock off Rolex watches and fake Vuitton bags. The cops routinely scattered the men who then convened an hour later and carried on as before. Arabs invented the market place, and it was impossible to erase this profound desire to meet and barter.

The history of modern Marseilles is the coercive push of Arabs from the center of town out to the exurbs, where grim, concrete towers awaited them. The edges of this old, colorful city are stippled with these towers, each hung with laundry from blunt little balconies, and men loitering below, smoking and gambling, festering from racial apartheid. Both large cities hid their Arab subcultures from the tourist world; both were ruthless in their effort to stamp out protest and rioting. Both created the rudiments of Arab rebellion, and led, no doubt, to the secret cells sending off willing youth for terrorist training in Yemen and Pakistan. France is no more innocent of persistent racism than is America and its long, tortured history of African-American abuse. Both represent a lofty set of ideals cherishing equality and freedom, and yet, despite the rhetoric, they harbor a dark and enduring legacy of impoverishment and inequality of their minority populations.

Modern democracy is complicated by these confusing, often contradictory emotions borne of imperialism and war. The majority population is educated to believe in the virtue and fairness of their governments, and they sing the “Marseillaise” and “God Bless America” with sincere passion. But this is only one side of power; the other harbors deep distrust and dislike for the otherness that has been allowed to enter its borders, whether by force or by invitation. And if the government is at times vilified for its racial abuse, it is a just reflection of the people’s own ambivalence toward others.


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