Terror attacks in France just keep on coming. In late September, two people were seriously wounded in a knife attack by a young Pakistani refugee outside the former office of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, which had just republished cartoon caricatures of Muhammad. In 2015, the initial publication of the images sparked an attack that outraged much of the West—the massacre of 12 people at the magazine’s newsroom. In mid-October, an 18-year-old Chechen Russian refugee who had grown up in France beheaded Samuel Paty, a teacher, for having shown the cartoons in a civics class devoted to free speech. Paty was slaughtered for “blasphemy” just outside his school in the Paris suburb of Yvelines. The country was still reeling from his brutal murder when, less than two weeks later, a 21-year-old Tunisian killed three people and injured many more at Notre Dame Basilica in the southern city of Nice. The assailant, who had been in the country less than a month, slit the church sacristan’s throat, cut a woman’s neck so deeply that the police described it as an attempt to decapitate her, and stabbed a third victim multiple times; she died after staggering out of the neo-Gothic church. Only four years earlier in that same city, another Tunisian had driven a truck into crowds celebrating Bastille Day on July 14, killing 86 people.
Since 2015, more than 250 people have been killed in terror attacks in France by militant Islamic groups or those inspired by them. Most of northwestern Europe has increasingly become what Hugo Micheron, a French expert on Islamist terror in Europe, calls a “land of Jihad.” Some 6,000 people living in Europe went to fight for the Islamic State in Syria. Now without their own territory, Islamic extremists have increasingly focused their fury on Europe, and in particular, on France. More attacks must be anticipated, he and two other experts on Islamist extremism warned this week during an online seminar sponsored by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. For many varied reasons, France has become what he called militant Islam’s “perfect enemy.”
While the Pew Research Center in Washington estimates that Muslims constitute roughly 5 percent of Europe’s population, the Muslim share of France’s population is around 9 percent. With a total national population of 67 million, France has Europe’s largest Muslim population. France is also home to Europe’s largest concentration of Jews (450,000), another frequent target of both Islamist and right-wing extremist fury. Militant Islamists also resent what they perceive as France’s strong Christian identity and Catholic legacy at home, and in foreign affairs, Frances’s former occupation of Muslim lands and involvement in North African and other Middle Eastern conflicts.
Above all, France has long been considered a champion of laïcité, a strict form of secularism that since enactment of a 1905 law has separated religion from public life. Laurence Binder, a French expert on Islamism and member of the UN Security Council’s CTED Global Research Network, said that France has long insisted that it will not be governed by divine law and that the state must be a “neutral arbiter” that values all regions equally. While insisting in theory that the state not interfere with religious conduct or dogma, laïcité at the same time insists that no single religion or sect should impose its own beliefs or practices on another. This ideological pillar of the republic— France’s own secular faith—runs diametrically counter to the Salafists’ or Islamist fundamentalists’ insistence that their literal-minded, intolerant interpretation of Islam, or God’s law, trumps all.
While Islamists have long depicted France as inherently and historically hostile to Islam, the latest militant Islamist attacks are different from their predecessors in intriguing respects, suggesting a shift in which Muslims are most susceptible to radicalization and how and where they are being radicalized. The most recent attacks seem to have been sparked by two events—the opening of the trial of those accused of helping perpetrate the 2015 Charlie Hebdo attack and the magazine’s decision in September to republish the satirical Muhammad cartoons.
While several analysts have noted that none of the recent assailants was known to French intelligence or believed to be affiliated with the Islamic State, al-Qaida, or any of the well established Islamic terrorist groups, the growth of “homegrown” extremists and the speed of radicalization among refugees in France pose a particularly thorny challenge to French law enforcement. (The New York Police Department identified homegrown militant Islamists as a terrorist threat as early as 2007.) The perpetrators all expressed a religious, rather than political agenda, said Binder. All claimed to be acting in defense of the prophet; all expressed radical views on social media before their attacks, and perhaps, had even self-radicalized in this milieu.
With the collapse of the Islamic State’s geographic caliphate in the Middle East, the Internet has become the territory of choice for many young, isolated Muslims adrift in a foreign country like France, says Gilles Kepel, a French political scientist and expert on Islam and the Arab world whose work has influenced President Emmanuel Macron. Kepel said that several of the perpetrators of the seven attacks in France within the past year appear to have emerged in what he called the “radical Islamosphere” of social media.
While many analysts, particularly those on the left, attribute the rise in attacks to racism, poverty, and discrimination—with perpetrators being jobless Muslims who hail from broken homes or live in impoverished, crime-ridden neighborhoods—Micheron, a postdoctoral research associate at Princeton’s Institute for Transregional Studies, says that new research challenges this explanation. “The map of European jihadism does not overlap neatly with the map of socioeconomic marginalization,” he said. “In fact, most foreign fighters came from relatively well-off areas.”
Consider Belgium, which, like France, has been a terrorist haven and frequent target. Roughly 90 percent of Belgian fighters who went to fight in Syria or Iraq came from Brussels, Micheron noted; 10 percent came from Hove, among its wealthiest municipalities. Almost none came from Wallonia, Belgium’s poorest region.
What these young terrorists do share, however, are hometowns or adopted hometowns that have a “history of Islamic activism.” In other words, while their radicalization may appear to have been rapid, they may well have been influenced by the teachings of a charismatic radical imam or by association with members of an activist Islamist cell. Thus, Micheron advocates paying greater attention to “the socio-religious and socio-cultural dynamics the past twenty years.” Of particular concern as future terrorist breeding grounds, he says, are Belgium, and of course, France.
The challenge of containing and countering such radicalizing physical and digital spaces—be they social media sites or towns or neighborhoods known for hosting Islamist activists—has long preoccupied Macron, a young president elected with over 66 percent of the popular vote in 2017 based partly on his pledge to reform France’s sclerotic political and economic systems.
On October 2, Macron gave a major speech defending France’s secular values and laying out his strategy for combating not only violent jihadism but also the ideology of Islamist extremism that he claims has increasingly taken root in parts of France. The speech, three years in the making, according to diplomats who work closely with the Élysée, clearly identifies jihadist groups and nonviolent Islamists who seek to “separate” Muslims from the rest of the French nation, as well as their often secular political allies, as the republic’s enemy. He outlined key elements of a new law likely to be debated in December or January to counter the growth of militant Islamist ideology and the cultural chasm it has created inside France. Vowing to fight “Islamist separatism”—Islamists’ demands to run their own schools, hospitals, institutions, and associations according to their own, anti-French values—Macron said that France would not yield to such pressure and intimidation. He pledged to fight what American journalist William Drozdiak calls the “ghettoization” of the Muslim community. “Macron will not tolerate the development of a state within a state,” said Drozdiak, author of a new biography of Macron, The Last President of Europe.
But the speech, which included a defense of Charlie Hebdo’s right to publish the cartoons and description of other measures that Macron has enacted in the wake of the terrorist attacks to bolster security have further divided an already-polarized nation and enflamed the far right’s anti-Islamic political narrative.
Critics, including many in the French- and English-speaking media, have accused Macron of racism and enhancing political polarization. But many French citizens are as troubled as he is by the radical warning signs he identified—the refusal of Muslim men to shake a woman’s hand, the imposition of alternative times for men and women at public pools and on athletic fields, and the suppression of “anti-Muslim” videos, articles, cartoons, and books, along with the spread of religious schools and demands by Muslim parents for even young girls to wear the “niqab,” a veil that covers the entire face and body. The new law would severely restrict most home-schooling to help ensure that children are not “indoctrinated” by values and norms that deviate from those of France’s national curriculum. It would permit the central government’s local representatives to overrule decisions by mayors and other local officials that they believe contradict French policy and norms. Foreign-based imams would no longer be able to train clerics in France. Macron’s ambitious goal is to create what he has called “Enlightenment Islam,” or a truly French Islam.
Another controversial element of the speech was Macron’s assertion that Islam is “in crisis” throughout the world. Though Macron was careful to differentiate between Islamists—that is, Islamic extremists—and Muslims in general, Islamists and their often secular or left-wing apologists criticized the statement as further evidence of his alleged Islamophobia. But Macron’s speech was also self-critical, acknowledging that French Muslims often experience discrimination, disenfranchisement, and inequality in work and in housing, and that the legacy of France’s occupation of Algeria and its former colonies continues to weigh heavily on the national soul.
Public opinion has continued to diverge sharply since the attacks. But Micheron notes that French Muslims are also divided. While 75 percent say that they are comfortable with assimilation or integration into France’s secular society, 25 percent say that they are not. “Twenty-five percent of some 6 million people is a very large number,” said Matthew Levitt, an expert on Islamist terror at the Washington Institute who moderated the panel. But 75 percent who want to integrate into French society and share French values and norms “is also a very large resource.”
Some scholars say that divisions between the Muslim and non-Muslim communities in France are destined to decline over time. The birth rates of Muslims and non-Muslims, for instance, are slowly converging, and the intermarriage rate between Muslims and non-Muslim citizens is Europe’s highest. But Macron, who faces a tough reelection challenge from the right in 2022, is taking no chances. He knows all too well that while 32 attacks have been foiled in the past five years, French voters are likely to remember those that succeed—and the politicians who were in power when they happened.
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