Terror in Paris: the fate of the Muslim community in France
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 Muslims in Europe and Integrate Islam. This conversation was conducted via email and has been slightly edited.
R&P: You have written a lot about the Muslim community in France. In the aftermath of the Paris attacks, what do you think is important to keep in mind?
JL: The November 13 assault on Parisian civilians is a terrible blow, but solving the problem is less about “integrating immigrants” than finding the right counter-radicalization and counter-terrorism tools.
ISIS attracts and recruits vulnerable individuals from the margins of society, including many recent converts to Islam. To better fight against radicalization, the government will have to strengthen and multiply the efforts it undertook after the January attacks. Charlie Hebdo and the kosher supermarket. On the one hand, there is an understandable institutional void: Muslims “settled” in the metropolis only 30 or 40 years ago. But French authorities have been trying for 20 years, since the first Gulf War, to remedy areas such as the lack of prayer spaces, religious education and imams and theologians based in France – a void that has left some of these people vulnerable to sectarian attraction to ISIS and its worldview. Much progress has been made: the number of Muslim places of worship has doubled since 2001, and there are now religious chaplains in some public institutions such as the armed forces.
R&P: These attacks come during renewed debates on immigration and refugees. How does France’s colonial past and earlier waves of immigration shape its current situation?
JL: Among the ancient European empires, France has the longest history of sustained occupation in the Arab-Muslim world, dating back to Napoleon’s expedition to Egypt, the annexation of Algeria in the 19th century, and decades of 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 – over 5 million today. Although citizenship and integration have made progress over the past 50 years, they retain the potential to be proportionally more affected by the geopolitics of the Arab world. This is not true for all foreign policy issues. In fact, French Muslims have not collectively mobilized around the war in Syria, just as they have not organized demonstrations against French support for Tunisian President Ben Ali or Egyptian President Mubarak (or al-Sissi). The colonial baggage may hamper French policy toward Islam because the government does not want to be seen as reverting to the era of ruling 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 counter radicalization?
JL: France is at the heart of this issue because it has the largest Muslim minority in Western Europe and is a regional indicator of the ups and downs of minority Islam. Why have more than 1,850 French citizens defected to the “Islamic State”, almost half of the Europeans estimated to be in the region? This is partly because France has pursued an “anti-Islamist” foreign policy for at least 25 years. Paris supported generals against Islamists in 1990s Algeria and became the target of GIA bombs in 1995 and 1996 at the height of the Algerian civil war. It was also at a time when the headscarf was still authorized in French schools – a right exercised by less than 2,000 girls a year. The last decade of French politics has reinforced the country’s anti-Islamist credentials and sealed its prominent place in the crosshairs of contemporary terrorist movements. It began with enthusiastic participation in the war against the Taliban, continued with legislation banning the headscarf in public schools in 2004 and the niqab 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 as a continuation of the country’s war against Islam. With President Hollande’s intervention in Mali two years ago and the bombing of Islamic State targets this year in retaliation for the January attacks, the government has made countless enemies on the international terrorist scene.
It will have to ensure an adequate religious infrastructure to create a safe space for the everyday and banal life of Islam in France; improve consultation and political representation of French Muslims; and increase the resources made available to non-governmental professionals who support families and colleagues to intervene in an attempt to interrupt or reverse radicalization processes. The Ministry of Justice has also undertaken a major initiative to contain the spread of terrorist ideologies in prisons by separating the most radicalized from the general population. It’s 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 game of state and religion affect the debate around Islam?
JL: While the United States was founded with the expectation of minimal state interference in religious life, modern France has always been on guard against the opposite: the intrusion of religion into the public life. This led to periods of extreme anticlericalism, during the Revolution of course, but also in the period immediately preceding and following the 1905 law formally separating Church and State. The Church did not fully recover and it was a provisional political actor in French republican life. The perceived “public” character of the Muslim religion – visible signs of religious affiliation, audible calls to prayer – has thus struck a chord in French society. Of course, there are communities of religious believers who enjoy full religious freedoms. But the emergence of Islamic-inspired terrorism over the past 20 years has made it difficult to build political consensus to fully integrate Muslim communities into national institutions of state and church.
R&P: There has been a lot of debate this year about whether the Islamic State is really “Islamic”. What is your opinion on the discussion?
JL: It is “Islamic” in an important way: it identifies itself as such and bases its political project on a selective reading of Islamic texts and history. Perhaps that is why it seems appropriate to so many people to call it by its initials, be it ISIS, ISIL or Daesh. In 1930s Germany, of course, a party claiming to represent socialist workers also appropriated several group agendas and the exclusive use of the descriptor “German”. But today they are commonly known by the abbreviation “Nazis”.
R&P: In American politics this weekend, there was a renewal rhetoric of a “clash of civilizations” between the West and the Muslim world (although French President Francois Hollande disputed that characterization on Monday). What is your response to this rhetoric?
JL: The notion of a clash of civilizations seems right, but the deep divide is not, as Samuel Huntington argued, at the “bloody frontiers” of conflict in the Islamic world. It’s a clash of civilizations in Muslim-majority countries themselves, a division that has now been imported into Muslim minority communities in Europe. How else can we understand that Belgian and French citizens of Algerian or Tunisian origin intentionally murdered their Muslim compatriots – two Tunisian sisters, a Moroccan architect, an Algerian musician – on Friday evening? Unlike January and February in Paris and Tunis, when ISIS assassins exclusively targeted non-Muslim groups (although some Muslims were killed anyway), Molenbeek’s “commandos” murdered indiscriminately in a city of more than 1.5 million Muslim inhabitants. This is an attack on the shared concept of “civilization” itself, not a clash of competing models.
R&P: This week, following the attacks in France, a growing list of American governors and politicians are calling on the United States not to accept Syrian refugees. What do you think of this American reaction?
JL: I hoped that it was “only” the result of the current primary and I thought that the candidates who were struggling to differentiate themselves were engaged in a race to the bottom on all issues related to foreigners in general and to Islam in particular. But more than half of the country’s governors appear to have caught the fever too – and not all of them plan to contest the Republican nomination. Recent poll data suggests there has been a shift in public opinion about Islam and Muslims, for which ISIS’s broadcast-grade brutality is at least partly to blame. . But excluding asylum for victims fleeing a war zone and discriminating on the basis of religion seems to be about as un-American as it gets. It is also to shirk responsibility for some of the consequences of our military operations in the region over the past decade. We have not contributed to regional stability, to say the least, and to have accepted only tens of thousands of refugees while Turkey and the EU are taking in millions seems disproportionate.