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What 7th-Century Arabia And 1980s America Say About France's Urban Woes

Article illustrative image Partner logo La Duchère, French housing project near Lyon


PARIS - In Paulo Coelho's book The Alchemist, the shepherd Santiago travels to the ends of the earth seeking a treasure that was close by all along. And sometimes, too, we find the key to understanding what is happening in our country today by reading about things far away.

Two scholarly articles published last week, concerning events distant in time and place, shed light on what is happening in the troubled banlieues, on the outskirts of French cities -- and on French Education Minister Vincent Peillon's recent remarks about depenalizing marijuana. The first article explains why the education level of black Americans stopped progressing toward equality with whites in the 1990s.  The second article discusses the expansion of Islam in the seventh century A.D.

Let us go first to the United States. In the 1970s, American blacks gradually reached the same level of high school education as whites. The difference between the proportion of young people graduating from high school in the two groups fell from 9.2 % in 1967 to 4.4 % in 1986. But since then, the difference has increased again; and the reasons for this reversal have largely remained a mystery.

But now, William Evans, Timothy Moore, and Craig Garthwaite, American economics professors, have a quantifiable explanation: the rise in the use of crack cocaine. Crack arrived in New York, Los Angeles, and Miami in 1982, and then spread over the rest of the country through links among drug gangs.

For example, crack reached Detroit in 1985 and Denver in 1988. The three researchers track this spread by looking at the rise in the number of deaths from cocaine, which was noticeable once the "rocks" appeared.

Crack, which was both cheap and potent, led to the appearance of a flourishing and competitive market. The number of murders and of people incarcerated skyrocketed. Naturally, the victims of these murders and those who were sent to prison were mostly black young men from poor backgrounds.

The education level of young black Americans decreased in close correlation with the emergence of crack. Why go to school when it is easy to get a job where no diploma is necessary? Why work hard to build something when jail or a bullet is their most likely future?

The economists believe that crack explains "40 % to 73 % of the decline in the education level of black men between 1986 and 1996."

Back in time 

Now let us visit the Arabian Peninsula in the seventh century. We already know that Islam, unlike Christianity, first developed where there was no state. Two other traits have been identified by the three authors of the second article: Stelios Michalapoulos, a Greek professor teaching at Brown University; Alireza Naghavi, an Iranian-born naturalized American citizen who teaches at the University of Bologna in Italy; and Giovanni Prarola, an Italian, also at Bologna.

Islam spread most easily in unequal ethnic groups and societies, and along trade routes. The inequality, which arose mainly from differences in the fertility of the land, led the poorest people to attack caravans, destroying trade, which made everyone poorer. "Any credible movement trying to unite these diverse populations would have to offer moral and economic rules to deal with the underlying economic inequality. Islam was such a movement."

The same elements—a struggle against inequality, a need for security, and a rapid rise of Islam— are found again in the empire of Mali in the 13th century.

Let us now return to France of 2012, or more precisely, let us visit our impoverished suburbs, which are increasingly troubled. Here the Muslim religion is expanding rapidly, sometimes showing disturbing signs of fundamentalism.

Perhaps we need to look at these changes in a new light. Drug trafficking is tearing apart many of these suburbs. The state has de facto withdrawn from some of them, and violence has taken over. Wide disparities in income are very visible.  A high school student waiting for the bus might see his former grade-school classmate driving by in a BMW. The dealer is replacing the teacher as an emblem of social mobility.

When economic hope disappears, religious hope takes over. Since its beginnings, and more than other religions, Islam has been a response to insecurity and to the rise of inequality. It is time for us to open our eyes.

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