Soon after the riots last year in France, I was reporting in a big gloomy housing project outside Paris known as La Dalle: The Slab.
A cold wind rose off the concrete landscape. It was the kind of December day in France when dawn seems to slide into dusk. I was talking to a group of angry, restless kids led by a young man named Mourad, the French son of a Moroccan immigrant janitor.
Mourad’s life seemed relatively hopeful. He had avoided jail. He had a steady job. He carried himself with quiet dignity. But he was full of the rage that hadburned across the country for weeks. He said the riots had been inevitable, a clash between old nemeses: the youth gangs of the housing projects and the police who patrol the boundaries between the cobblestones of middle-class France and the cement of hostile hinterlands like The Slab.
"It’s very simple," Mourad said. "There is a border between here and Paris, between rich and poor. And you can never really cross it."
His words summed up the conflict. And they reminded me that, once again, I was covering a story about borders.
In the 1990′s, I covered the U.S.-Mexico border for five years. It was the best possible experience for an aspiring foreign correspondent. The border was mysterious, lawless and magical. It was the frontier where cultures collide and blend. And the global future in the making. Since then, I’ve racked up miles in Latin America, Europe and the Middle East. And I confess that I’m still obsessed with borders.
In some ways, I still feel like a border correspondent. I’m attracted to stories about migrants, outlaws, crusaders: people living on the line. And the obsession has turned out to be useful. Because what’s going on in Europe today is, literally and figuratively, a border story.
Immigration is one of the strongest forces at work on the continent and in the West. The desperate waves of illegal migrants hitting the Canary Islands, Sicily and Spanish Morocco powerfully resemble the dramas in South Florida and at the U.S.-Mexico line.
Throughout Europe, the profound impact of predominantly Muslim diasporas from Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia is the future in the making. Theoretically, the European Union has erased borders. But as the conflict over religious and cultural identity spreads, so do flash points and battle lines.
When I was a border correspondent, I learned to move between both sides, quickly and frequently, physically and mentally, while striving for balance. I learned to maneuver in gray areas. And I learned there was no substitute for being out in the field, on the street, at the line — talking with migrants and cops and desperados, the gatekeepers of the secret worlds.
Those lessons still apply. When I arrived in Paris as bureau chief of the Los Angeles Times, I went looking for the border. And I found it in a lot of places. Even on the Avenue Champs Élysées.
The Champs Élysées did not seem like a new story at first glance. But often the best stories are the ones on the street right in front of you. To me, the Champs Élysées was a frontier. A rare place where France’s different ethnic and social groups mixed. In particular, the avenue drew groups of black and Arab youths from immigrant housing projects on the edge of the capital and the edge of society.
The kids wandered, warily, through the glitter. Many of them were second- and third-generation French citizens, but they felt like foreigners. Their presence generated tension, suspicion, occasional violence. The police were out in force to keep worlds from colliding: a quiet but unmistakable Border Patrol.
Compared to the United States, the big difference of the migrant experience in Europe, of course, is the central role of Islam. It’s one of the main factors that make it difficult for societies to accept immigrant communities and for the communities to accept integration.
Lessons From the Border
After September 11, 2001, when it came time to plunge into the world of Islam in Europe, I was a neophyte — like so many journalists, academics and law enforcement officials at the time. But I tried to remember one of the lessons of the border. I tried to keep politics, ideology and theory at a healthy distance. You can’t ignore the cacophony of instant experts, ferocious pundits, and nonstop broadcasts, but it’s best to be wary of those voices — especially the loud ones.
Second, as in Latin America, I had great guides: police officers and prosecutors on the frontlines of the fight against terrorism. They are inveterate border-crossers. They have taught me about the anarchic, elusive reality of the extremist networks. I have come to admire the intellect, dedication and decency of antiterrorism investigators in countries such as Italy, Spain and France. They confront the medieval hatred of so-called holy warriors point-blank; that makes them tough. But their nuanced, tolerant view of Islam contradicts stereotype.
Those sources and others have shown me the dangerous forces converging on the streets of Europe: thug culture and radical Islam. With the same power as music or fashion or sports, those forces sweep up young people who feel marooned between their immigrant heritage and European societies in which hardly anyone who looks like them achieves wealth or power. So they reject the West. They find a defiant badge of identity in extremism, crime or both. We saw the results in the attacks of Madrid and London and the French riots.
The doomed swagger of some young holy warriors marching off to jihad reminds me a bit of a street gang in San Diego who became gunslingers for the Tijuana Cartel. I covered that story and its disastrous results, as the gang members ended up becoming embroiled in the still-unsolved assassination of the cardinal of Guadalajara in 1993. There are many differences, of course. But at some level, both stories are about young people plunging into a deadly world, driven by manipulative forces they don’t fully understand.
After the riots in France, a veteran French detective told me the horizon looked grim.
"There are only two idols in the projects today," he said. "Tony Parker and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. And unless you’re a really good basketball player, it’s easier to emulate al-Zarqawi."
Now that describes the reality of a violent, insular subculture, but it’s an exaggeration. There are bona fide role models in the Muslim and immigrant communities of Europe. Many are anonymous. They are working hard, minding their own business, being good citizens. Their influence was clear during the recent uproar over the caricatures of Muhammad. There was bloodshed around the world, but not in Europe. Despite alarmist predictions, Europe’s Muslims generally reacted with restraint and maturity.
And there are leaders out there. One is Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somali-Dutch legislator who is renowned and reviled for her crusade against the abuse of women and for a Muslim enlightenment. Some people question her approach, but I don’t think anyone questions her courage. It was ironic to interview her as she lived under 24-hour armed guard, a scene more reminiscent of lawless borderlands than genteel Netherlands. At the same time, the authorities struggled to arrest and convict the terrorists determined to kill her. This year, Hirsi Ali decided to leave the Netherlands and take refuge in Washington. But I think she will remain a strong voice against fear and fanaticism.
Another impressive border-crosser is Abd al Malik, a French Muslim rap artist and author. He’s from a notorious housing project in Strasbourg, a convert of Congolese origin. He went from small-time gangster to hard-core Islamic radical to Sufi moderate. He describes his epiphany like this: "I discovered that my Islam of the ghetto was just a ghetto of Islam." Today, Abd al Malik is a street intellectual who mixes the influence of Raymond Carver and Jacques Brel, of Voltaire and Dr. Dre. His music and books express a model of peaceful, enlightened Islam that is at home in the West.
Despite all of the anger and alienation, Malik and people like him in multiethnic migrant communities are producing some of the most energetic, creative and potentially influential culture in Europe today. And that is a hopeful border story.
Sebastian Rotella is the Paris bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times. In 2006 he won the German Marshall Fund of the United States award for reporting on European affairs for a series of articles about Muslims in Europe that were published between April and December 2005.