Terror in Paris: The Plight of France’s Muslim Community
By The Editors | November 18, 2015
A fter the recent terrorist attacks in Paris, R&P interviewed Jonathan Laurence, a political scientist who studies the politics of Islam in the West, particularly in France and Europe.
Jonathan Laurence is an associate professor of political science at Boston College and a nonresident senior fellow in foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution. He is the author of The Emancipation of Europe’s Muslims and Integrating Islam. This conversation was conducted over email and has been lightly edited.
R&P: You have written extensively about the Muslim community in France. In the aftermath of the Paris attacks, what do you think is important to keep in mind?
JL: November 13’s assault on Parisian civilians is a terrible blow, but solving the problem has less to do with “immigrant integration” than with finding the right counter-radicalization and counter-terrorism tools.
ISIS attracts and recruits vulnerable individuals at the margins of society, including many recent converts to Islam. To better combat radicalization, the government will need to enhance and multiply the efforts that it began after January’s attacks on Charlie Hebdo and the kosher supermarket. On the one hand, there is an understandable institutional void—Muslims “settled” in mainland France only 30 or 40 years ago. But French authorities have been trying for 20 years, since the first Gulf War, to address areas like the lack of prayer spaces, of religious education, and of France-based imams and theologians—a vacuum that has left some of these people vulnerable to the cult-like attraction towards ISIS and its worldview. A lot of progress has been made—the number of Muslim places of worship doubled since 2001, and there are now religious chaplains in some public institutions like the armed forces.
R&P: These terrorist attacks come during renewed debates about immigration and refugees. How does France’s colonial past, and earlier waves of immigration, shape its current plight?
JL: Among former European empires, France has the longest history of sustained occupation in the Arab-Muslim world, going back to Napoleon’s expedition to Egypt, the nineteenth century annexation of Algeria, and decades-long protectorates and mandates in Tunisia, Morocco, Syria, and Lebanon. After decolonization in the 1950s and early 1960s, it became home to the largest Muslim population in Western Europe—more than 5 million today. Even as citizenship and integration have made strides over the last 50 years, it retains this potential to be proportionately more affected by the geopolitics of the Arab world. That is not true for every foreign policy issue. In fact, French Muslims have not collectively mobilized around the war in Syria, just as they did not hold protests against French support for Tunisian President Ben Ali or Egyptian President Mubarak (or al-Sisi). The colonial baggage may hamper French policies towards Islam because the government does not want to be seen as returning to the days of the Directorate for Arab Affairs.
R&P: France has been the repeated target of violence this year. Why France? And how do you think the nation can better combat radicalization?
JL: France is central to this issue because it has the largest Muslim minority in Western Europe and is a regional bellwether for the ups and downs of minority Islam. Why have more than 1,850 French citizens defected to the “Islamic State”—nearly half of the Europeans estimated to be in the region? Part of this is France has pursued an “anti-Islamist” foreign policy for at least 25 years. Paris supported the generals against the Islamists in 1990s Algeria, and became the target of GIA bombs in 1995 and 1996 at the height of the Algerian civil war. That was, by the way, at a time when headscarves were still permitted in French schools —a right exercised by fewer than 2,000 girls annually. The last decade of French politics burnished the country’s anti-Islamist credentials—and sealed its place of prominence in the sights of contemporary terrorist movements. This began with the enthusiastic participation in war against the Taliban, continued with the legislation prohibiting headscarves in public schools in 2004 and niqabs in public spaces in 2011, and the sanctuary given to Charlie Hebdo. All of this has been interpreted and framed by Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and similar groups to be a continuation of the country’s war on Islam. With President Hollande’s intervention in Mali two years ago and this year’s bombardment of ISIS targets in retaliation for the January attacks, the government has made countless enemies in the international terrorist scene.
It will have to ensure adequate religious infrastructure to create a safe space for everyday, banal Islamic life in France; improve consultation and political representation among French Muslims; and increase resources available to non-governmental professionals who help families and colleagues intervene to try and interrupt or reverse radicalization processes. The Justice Ministry has also undertaken a major initiative to contain the spread of terrorist ideologies in prisons by segregating the most heavily radicalized from the general population. This is a controversial decision, but it was made after consulting “best practices” in Europe and the United States.
R&P: Within French society, how does the interplay of the state and religion affect the discussion around Islam?
JL: Whereas the United States was founded with expectations of minimal state interference in religious life, modern France has always been on guard against the inverse: the intrusion of religion upon public life. This has led to periods of extreme anti-clericalism, during the Revolution of course, but also in the period leading up to and immediately following the 1905 law formally separating church and state. The Church has not fully recovered, and it has been a tentative political actor in French republican life. The perceived “public” nature of the Muslim religion—visible signs of religious belonging, audible calls to prayer—have thus struck a negative chord in French society. Of course, there are communities of religious believers who enjoy full religious freedoms. But the emergence of Islam-inspired terrorism over the last 20 years has made it difficult to gather political consensus to bring the Muslim communities fully into national church-state institutions.
JL: It is “Islamic” in important ways: It identifies itself as such and it bases its political project on a selective reading of Islamic texts and history. That may be why it seems appropriate to so many to call it by its initials—whether ISIS, ISIL or Daesh. In 1930s Germany, of course, a party claiming to represent socialist workers also appropriated several group agendas and exclusive use of the descriptor “German.” But today they are commonly known by the abbreviation, “Nazis.”
R&P: In U.S. politics over the weekend, there was renewed rhetoric about a “clash of civilizations” between the West and the Muslim world (though French President Francois Hollande disputed this characterization on Monday). What is your response to this rhetoric?
JL: The notion of a civilizational clash seems right but the deep cleavage is not, as Samuel Huntington argued, at the “bloody borders” of conflict in the Islamic world. It is a civilizational conflict within Muslim-majority countries themselves, a division that has now been imported to Muslim minority communities in Europe. How else can we understand that Belgian and French citizens of Algerian or Tunisian origin intentionally murdered their fellow Muslims—two sisters from Tunisia, a Moroccan architect, an Algerian musician—on Friday night? Unlike January and February in Paris and Tunis, where ISIS assassins targeted exclusively non-Muslim groups (although some Muslims were still killed), the “commandos” from Molenbeek murdered indiscriminately in a city with more than 1.5 million Muslim residents. That is an attack on the shared concept of “civilization” itself, not a clash of competing models.
R&P: This week, in the wake of the attacks in France, a growing list of U.S. governors and politicians are calling on the United States to not accept Syrian refugees. What do you think of this American reaction?
JL: I was hoping this was “just” the result of the primary season underway, and thought that candidates struggling to differentiate themselves were engaged in a race to the bottom on all issues having to do with foreigners in general and Islam in particular. But more than half of the country’s governors seem to have also caught this fever—and not all of them are planning to contest the Republican nomination. Recent polling data suggest there has been a shift in public opinion about Islam and Muslims, for which ISIS’s broadcast-quality brutality is at least partly to blame. But ruling out asylum for victims fleeing a war zone and discriminating on the basis of religion seem to be about as un-American as it gets. It’s also a shirking of responsibility to bear some of the consequences of our military operations in the region over the past decade. We did not contribute to regional stability, to put it mildly, and to have accepted mere tens of thousands of refugees when Turkey and the EU are taking in millions feels disproportionate.
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