PARIS, Nov 17 (Reuters) – 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.”
France’s 5-million strong Muslim minority is the largest in Europe and makes up 8 percent of the population here. Most Muslims live in the rundown suburbs rocked by the unrest.
Finding someone to blame for the unrest is a hot political issue here because of looming presidential elections in 2007. Most experts see it resulting from the failure by governments of both left and right to integrate immigrants in recent decades.
Many French Muslims are culturally Islamic but not very religious. French media mostly called the rioters “youths” while foreign media described them more frequently as Muslims.
At a major conference on Islam in Vienna that ended on Wednesday, several speakers mentioned the French riots together with last week’s terrorist bombings in Amman that killed 54 people, even though there was no link between them.
In fact, French Muslim leaders called for peace and imams often sought out young rioters to persuade them to calm down.
Mohammad Bechari, head of the National Federation of French Muslims (FNMF), said Muslim leaders were concerned about the rioting but disagreed with the way many local officials turned to religious leaders to try to calm the youths down.
“We refuse to be sub-contractors,” he said.
“When French farmers go out on protest, they don’t turn to the Catholic Bishops’ Conference to intervene,” Kabtane added.
Boubakeur said politicians should “stop Islamising all problems concerning Muslims … We don’t want to be the scapegoats for the failures of integration policy.”
Bechari complained about what he called “a very strong rise in Islamophobia” and said xenophobic acts — such as verbal and physical attacks on Muslims and their property were rising.
“We just want to be treated like everyone else, like the Catholics or the Jews,” he said
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