My delightful French friends, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, are typically surprised when I share with them the success achieved by Muslims in America. According to the Pew Center, first generation Muslim immigrants “are highly assimilated into American society”; they are 40% more likely to have graduate degrees than the general public; and the majority have college degrees or are studying in college. Notably, Muslim American women have achieved higher levels of education and gender parity with respect to income than the general public.
By contrast, many of the recent Paris killers lived in a district of Brussels where youth unemployment among people of Muslim descent is 40%. In France, numerous studies have identified significant racism in hiring practices based on applicants’ names and appearance: if you are one of 5 million people of Muslim descent in France and your name is Muhammad, it’s much harder to get a job at a café or a chic luxury goods store, no matter your qualifications. Where first generation Muslim immigrants in America have run organizations from Texas banks to the Harvard Endowment, the French board room remains largely closed to those of Arab or African origin born and raised in France. In fact, joblessness among French citizens of Muslim descent is dramatically higher than for non-Muslims in France at every level of experience and education, ranging from 50% among youth to nearly 30% of those with graduate degrees.
The impact of the familiar discourses of French social and cultural exclusivism extends beyond economics. While many Europeans want to save women from Islam, the primary victims of the nearly 700 reported Islamophobic attacks in France in 2013 were — shockingly — Muslim women.
It was in this milieu that Starbucks opened its first cafés in Paris a number of years ago. Perhaps identifying an untapped labor market, the Seattle-based company started to hire French Arabs and Africans, many of Muslim descent, as baristas. Tellingly, the difference in the “face” of Parisian service was visible to me and several of my other colleagues that are frequent visitors to the city. Starbucks France has been embroiled in some negative press related to racism recently; even so, its efforts against discrimination, especially if they were programmatic, have been welcome.
As the rioting by angry French-Arab youth in the “banlieues” outside Paris ten years ago attests, however, incremental gestures are not enough. ISIS’s slick videos in German and French are aimed at what it calls the “grey zone” of disaffected, unemployed Arab, African, and European youth with little knowledge of Islam. ISIS has converted and recruited thousands of fully French, Belgian, English, Danish, and other European citizens of Muslim descent by luring them to what its videos brilliantly represent as a utopia of “equality” (a bitter irony, since by all reports the ex-Iraqi army officers running ISIS remain far from the front lines of battle).
How on earth has ISIS wrested from France the promise of “equality” to its citizens? If we’re to fight back against ISIS’s recruiting campaign, then social, cultural, and economic exclusivism should be part of the conversation. In America, too: the Pew Center states that Muslims in America are “solidly middle class” despite “significant” levels of discrimination in red states. Perhaps lessons from the more meritocratic sub-cultures in America — finance, technology, engineering, medicine, academics, and small business — should be applied more broadly in the U.S. and Europe. Or will ISIS continue to outsmart all of us, as bigotry rises not only in Europe, but now in America as well? For how long will young men and women facing racial discrimination, a sense of exclusion, and an endless discourse of cultural supremacy sit and stew? In America, violent gangs prey on the youth of places like Ferguson. In Europe, it’s ISIS. When will we stop feeding the pipelines of violence?
Perhaps Starbucks is on to something.