“We will not solve our problems by considering the Muslim community as the enemy”

When did you decide to express yourself?

Mourad Benchellali: I wrote a book in 2006 and I came into contact with many young people as part of the promotion of the book. I realized that they identified with my story and, above all, that it allowed them to understand the realities of jihad. I always thought it was important and that I had to be careful how I told my experience.

Nizar Sassi: I also wrote a book around the same time as Mourad. But at the same time, in addition to the fact that our legal proceedings were still ongoing, I thought that we would always be reduced to this, and what we had to say would not change anything. We would be guilty forever.

The real defining moment for me was the attacks of 13 November. I felt compelled to talk, to talk about what we had been through. To make people understand, to begin with, that the Islam that these people claim is only their own brand of Islam. And that of Islamophobes. Ninety-nine percent of Muslims do not identify with it. And then we had to tell the young people tempted to leave: “It’s not virtual, and we’ll tell you about the realities.” From the moment they decide to go there, life will never be the same again, neither for them, nor for their families, nor for any of the ideals they want to defend.

What makes your approach to prevention effective?

MB: I have several concrete examples. Just recently a young man told me that ISIS approached him through Facebook. He said to me: “What convinced me not to go was the discussion I had had with you. When you told your story, it made me think. It strengthened my determination to continue. I also spoke at a school and asked the children to tell me what they thought. After our discussion, they told me: “We understand. We see things differently. “It’s really something, because it means that they were not sufficiently equipped until then. It is said that these young people know, but this shows that they have no idea.

What do you think of the government’s response to the November 13 attacks?

MB: I think the current government is doing the same thing as all other governments, which is sweeping the dirt under the rug. In other words, a short-term approach is taken to solving problems; they’re taking the kind of security measures that allow them to say they’re doing something, but it won’t change anything in the long run.

But it makes no difference, because in two, three years, another government will come along and inherit an even bigger problem. And that’s how government has operated for thirty years.

Because the phenomenon of young people taking part in the jihad or in attacks on French soil is not new. We have already seen this in the 1990s, and the underlying causes of these attacks are the same today. The problems are even worse, which shows that there is no work on the foundations.

Rather than working on the causes of radicalism, we always work on the consequences. Is it ultimately too complicated? Because it means tackling social problems, unemployment, political problems. There are so many things to settle that the government ends up taking the easy way out.

NS: There are international reasons and national problems known for thirty years, social problems, unemployment, benchmarks in society, young people who do not find their place. When you don’t fit in and you’re pushed forward in these groups, when you’re told that you’re unique and that you’re going to have responsibilities, that you’ll go from insignificant to someone who has authority and even power over people’s life or death can be disastrous for young people whose development process is not even complete.

Several mosques and prayer rooms have been closed since November, by order of the authorities of Vénissieux and the region. How are these measures perceived?

MB: Closing the mosques is always the same in the end. The mosques are closed and the first problem this creates is that it puts people on the streets. People who practice their faith are put on the streets and driven underground. For some young people, far removed from radicalization, the argument that “we were kicked out of our mosque because we are Muslims” can tip the scales.

This therefore creates fertile ground for radicalization, as if it were done on purpose. Resources must be devoted to the human dimension, rather than always prioritizing security, policing and intelligence. There have to be people on the ground, to begin with, to tell young people what jihad means.

NS: Nowadays radicalization has taken place in some mosques, but it doesn’t work that way anymore. The mosques have been taken over by the authorities and they know what is going on there.

Now it’s even worse. It happens on the Net and that means it happens to everyone. And so there are sometimes people who radicalize themselves, who themselves come into contact with these groups. And then it’s very easy to get to Turkey. All you have to do is take a plane or a bus to then be taken under the wing of the networks that take you to the front. You find yourself there in about twelve hours. It was not the same nowadays. Maybe that’s what saved us. But things are different now and it’s something I think is going too fast for services to keep up.

MB: The government can say ‘we’ve raided so many people, we’ve put so many people under house arrest, we’ve put so many people on probation’, but the problem is that those numbers include a lot of innocent people. So in terms of the fight against terrorism, this does not solve the problem. But in terms of communication it works, because it reassures people. When we hear these figures, people say to themselves that the government is strong and capable of reacting, but that is not the right answer. They work in the short term, but in the long term it may make the problem worse.

How did the residents of the neighborhood react to the attacks and the declaration of the state of emergency?

MB: Everyone agrees that these attacks are abominable, but at the same time there is a distrust of the media stronger than ever. Young people no longer trust what they hear and trust the Internet more. This is a real problem, because a young blogger who is not a journalist at all has the same credibility as a major reporter in the New York Times. And that’s how conspiracy theories are fueled.

The media shone the spotlight on neighborhoods and their issues, but never treated them in a positive light. It’s created a lot of challenge here, with people saying you only speak badly of us. This is why many young people no longer listen to the media. The same is true of some politicians and public figures who use their platforms to add fuel to the fire and sow confusion between rigorous religious practice and violent extremism. They always talk about Islam in very stigmatizing terms; they talk about the veil, about halal, about street prayers, as if it were impossible to be both a good Muslim and a good French citizen. I think that contributed a lot to radicalization.

NS: In France, there are a lot of people who talk about Islam, who talk about Muslims, but Muslims who live with Islam and who live in France as French people rarely have the floor. I don’t think these problems are going to be solved by viewing the Muslim community as the enemy. People in the community can’t understand why every time there’s a problem with a degenerate, the whole community ends up being scolded. If Muslims were all terrorists, I don’t think there would be anyone left on the planet (laughs). One point six billion people… But the bigger it is, the more it happens. Those who feel comforted by what they say are the extremists on both sides: “We told you, we must strike even harder”. But if violence and bombs solved something, we would know. There are other ways. There are other channels to use.

This article has been translated from French.

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