Muslims now feel better in France than Britain

I am unburdened here of the guilt and rage that has corrupted so much that was good about Britain
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The Independent Online

I write this from Paris. Most unusually, this is my second trip to France this month. Some readers will recall me saying that I don't find France an easy country to visit, and latterly had given up on visiting the much-lauded rural areas where I was too often treated with obvious contempt by people who assumed I was an Algerian. My children felt unwanted too, as villagers stared at them darkly, arms folded across their chests, refusing to smile or return greetings, some neglecting to serve us in shops. My blue-eyed husband was always welcomed.

I write this from Paris. Most unusually, this is my second trip to France this month. Some readers will recall me saying that I don't find France an easy country to visit, and latterly had given up on visiting the much-lauded rural areas where I was too often treated with obvious contempt by people who assumed I was an Algerian. My children felt unwanted too, as villagers stared at them darkly, arms folded across their chests, refusing to smile or return greetings, some neglecting to serve us in shops. My blue-eyed husband was always welcomed.

In modern London I don't get such blatant racial prejudice, and there didn't seem any point in paying good money to experience it in France.

My Muslim contacts in France often envy us in the UK, where they feel the state has not tried to crush religious and ethnic identities, enabling Muslims to grow in confidence, pride and influence, unthinkable they say, even now in France. Although French politicians and policy makers are changing their approach, there is still an unassailable conviction that all immigrants and their children in La Republique must see themselves as French, and only French. (It's funny though, all the English lifestyle refugees in France who are flooding in for the wine, food, rustic farmhouses and better health services are immune from this injunction to assimilate completely).

In return, France does offer Muslim intellectuals and artists a real place in the nation – something which is still a long way off in Britain. Nevertheless, French Muslims and the expectations of their country often collide and disillusionment on both sides is palpable.

Last month while making a film for Channel 4, I met two French female academics at Leicester University. They told me in France they would not get jobs in universities if they insisted on wearing the hijab. Here, young women in hijab are now seen in almost every conceivable position and although some do get abused, on the whole the country has accepted that this is a choice which, if made freely, is no business of institutions.

Racism, lack of opportunities and indifference to the need for effective race-equality laws for too many years have created an underclass of second- generation migrants in France who seem more angry and hopeless than many of our own such people in the northern towns of Britain. Young Muslim men, living in the poorer banlieus, see forced integration as a violation of their rights by a former colonial country which retains its historical cultural arrogance. In some ways they are right.

Remember what James Baldwin wrote to his nephew in The Fire Next Time: "Be clear, dear James, about the reality which lies behind the words acceptance and integration. There is no reason for you to try and become like white people and there is no basis for their impertinent assertion that they must accept you."

A forthcoming book, The Making of a Terrorist by Abu Samad Moussaoui, gives a vivid account of this alienation. Abu is a younger brother of Zacarias Moussaoui, the suspected 20th hijacker of 11 September, and now in US custody.

Zacarias had ambitions, a French girlfriend called Fanny – his "secret garden" he called her – and intelligence, but destiny took him away from what he might have been. His Algerian mother taught him no Arabic and no pride in his background. She failed him repeatedly. Racism stalked him, and when Fanny's parents rejected him, his humiliation turned to hatred of whites. He became easy fodder for ruthless Islamists. Yes, he was responsible for turning to al-Qa'ida, but he might not have taken that turning if life had not been so utterly disappointing.

But suddenly even such Muslims feel a new, unexpected sense of attachment to France, pride even. The war and Jacques Chirac's stand has uplifted this embittered group. Their country is theirs after all; it did not surrender to the bullying US. Old Europe stood firm, led by the French. I spoke to a group of unemployed Muslim men in Marseilles last week, and they were jubilant and (take this) deeply sorry for us British Muslims having to live with such a dishonourable leader who put the US regime before his own people, especially Muslims.

I feel fortified too here in France and, yes, those previous resentments have unexpectedly vanished from my heart. I am unburdened here of that awful guilt and rage that has corrupted so much that was good about Britain before this sell-out by Blair. You don't have to be a European Muslim to feel this freedom and assurance. The feisty former publisher Carmen Callil wrote this week in the New Statesman: "I am in France to get over my grief. Grief for Iraqis, grief for Britain, grief for the USA."

Paris this weekend has added immensely more courage and optimism. Two reasons. I am here on invitation by the British Council with writers such as Tom Paulin, Caryl Phillips, Bernadine Evaristo and Linton Kwesi Johnson to discuss and describe frontiers, migration, integration and identity. On the French-speaking side are wonderful speakers and writers from the Caribbean and Africa, including Francophone Arab nations. At the hub, one extraordinary stream of agreement is emerging. We are indeed European, all of us, as well as the myriad other identities we have inherited or acquired. And collectively we do not wish to concede this identity to the might of the hyperpower.

But even more significant is the growing consensus among the Muslims here that, although we are against the war, we cannot bear the idea of yet another Islamic male theocracy taking charge in Iraq. Some clerics are already running amok in Iraqi hospitals forcing wounded and broken women and their nurses into burqas. In Afghanistan, oppressing women is back again. In the provinces of Pakistan the influence of the Taliban and warlords is unspeakable. Last month, in Larkana, Sindh, a young girl, caught up in the music at a wedding party, danced a little. She was beaten, her hands were cut off by her uncles and then she was stoned to death.

As European Muslims, we must challenge the forces of conservatism on all sides: George Bush and Muslim and other fanatics, wherever they are. In Britain, Islamic conservatism is growing unchecked. I have recently had abusive letters from an Abu Luqmaan who says I am a "Kaffirah" – an unbeliever, a cur, because I am a Shia Ismaili. He says this is the official view of the British Society of Muslim Lawyers. I asked him for, but haven't yet had, a letter from Allah, the Prophet or the Angel Gabriel authorising his society to make such judgements.

They have these Stalinists in France too (though less influential than in Britain, I think) and it has been great meeting progressive Muslims who are fighting back with enviable panache. The French Moroccan novelist Fouad Laroui, for example, says boldly: "We need a Muslim Spinoza and a Muslim Voltaire to release us from the power of the so-called leaders, the clerics, the superstitions. Every Muslim must be allowed to feel he or she has a direct link with Allah without interference from any community or religious leader." Other equally radical ideas have been coming thick and fast here in Paris, and I feel for the first time that France is now one of my places too.

y.alibhai-brown@independent.co.uk

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