French Muslim leaders reject blame for riots

French Muslim leaders denounced on Thursday efforts to blame Muslims and Islam for recent riots in the country’s rundown suburbs and said they saw worrying signs of growing prejudice against their faith here.

Many young rioters may have been from Muslim backgrounds, but their violent outburst was a protest against unemployment, poor housing and other bias they faced because of their foreign origins, they told journalists.

Urban violence, which some politicians in France and some media abroad portrayed as a kind of Muslim uprising, fell back to normal levels on Thursday after three weeks in which 9,000 vehicles and many buildings were set on fire.

“They didn’t act like that because they’re Muslims, but because of the misery they’re living in,” said Kamel Kabtane, rector of the Grand Mosque of Lyon in eastern France.

“There weren’t just Mohammads and Alis in those groups (of rioters) – there were Tonys and Daniels too,” said Dalil Boubakeur, the Paris Grand Mosque rector who is also head of France’s official Muslim Council (CFCM).

When the riots broke out after the accidental deaths of two youths apparently fleeing police in a poor Paris suburb, some conservative politicians publicly suggested radical Islamists were either behind the unrest or exploiting it to win new supporters.

When little proof for that emerged, some then began singling out polygamy – which is illegal but practiced among some black African immigrants – as a factor slowing integration here.

“This problem is tiny,” Kabtane said of polygamy, which unofficial estimates say concerns about 15,000 families around the country. “They just want to start a controversy.”

Reuters, 17 November 2005