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.
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.
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.
"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.
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 in France 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, Reuters reports.