Is France at war? Perhaps. But against whom or against what?
The Islamic State (IS) militant group did not send Syrians to carry out attacks in France to dissuade the French government from bombing them. The IS draws from a reservoir of radicalized young French citizens who — regardless of what happens in the Middle East — would still seek a cause, a label or a great story to which they would affix the bloody trail of their personal revolt. Crushing the Islamic State will not change this revolt.
The Islamic State is merely an opportunity for these young people. Young people like them had rallied behind Al-Qaeda before; in 1995, they were subcontractors of the Algerian Armed Islamic Group (GIA), or joined the mujahideen of the “Roubaix gang” during the Bosnian civil war, or other similar terrorist cells that sprang up in Afghanistan or Chechnya. If today they raise the Islamic State flag, tomorrow they will fight with a different party. They will not stop unless they die in one of their attacks, or diperse by age and disillusionment, as was the case with the ultra-left in the 1970s.
There is no such thing as third or fourth-generation jihadis. We, in France, have been facing a very stable phenomenon since 1996: the radicalization of two groups of French youngsters, namely “second-generation” Muslims and converts to a violent “strain” of Islam.
The main problem for France is not the Islamic State’s new “caliphate” in Syria, which will eventually evaporate like a nighmarish mirage. The problem lies in the revolt of the young, and the real question is to know what these young people represent — whether they are the vanguard of a coming war, or rather the failures of history.
In France today, two types of analysis of the situation dominate the media, especially in televised debates and newspaper opinion pages: the “culturalist” explanation and the “third world” explanation. The first highlights the recurrent and insistent “war of civilizations.” They argue that the revolt of young Muslims shows how Islam cannot be integrated, at least until a theological reform has written off the call to jihad from the Quran. The second explanation consistently refers to postcolonial struggle, the identification of young people with the Palestinian cause, their rejection of Western intervention in the Middle East and exclusion from a racist and Islamophobic French society. In other words, as long as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not resolved, we will witness the revolt. Both explanations, however, come up against the same problem: If the causes of radicalization were structural, then why does it affect only a small and very narrow fringe of those who claim to be Muslims in France?
Terrorists who undertook the recent attacks were flagged by state security with the “S” card indicating that the person is a possible threat to national security. I will not dwell on the question of prevention here, but I am just pointing out that the information is there and accessible. So let’s look at who those terrorists are and try to draw conclusions.
Almost all French jihadis belong to two very specific categories. They are either second-generation French immigrants who were born in France or arrived as children, or converts. The number of converts to Islam is increasing with time, but they already constituted 25 percent of the radicals as of the late 1990s. This means that there are few first-generation immigrants among those radicals (even recent ones), and definitely no third-generation immigrants. This last category of third-generation immigration exists in France today and is growing. North African immigrants to France who arrived in the 1970s are grandfathers today, and their grandchildren do not figure among the terrorists.
Why do converts who have never suffered racism suddenly want to avenge the humiliation suffered by Muslims? Many converts come from the French countryside, such as [Islamic State executioner] Maxime Hauchard, and have little reason to identify with a Muslim community that has a mere virtual existence for them. In short, this is not the revolt of Islam or that of Muslims, but a specific problem concerning two categories of teenagers — mostly immigrants, but also native French citizens. The question is not the radicalization of Islam, but the Islamization of radicalism.
What is there in common between the second-generation immigrants and the converts? This phenomenon of new jihadis in Europe is primarily a generational revolt. Both groups broke away from their parents, or more specifically have gone against what their parents represent in terms of culture and religion. Second-generation teenagers never adhered to their parents’ Islam; they did not hold on to a cultural tradition that would potentially revolt against Westernization. They are Westernized; they speak French better than their parents do. They have all adopted the youth culture of their generation; they drink alcohol, smoke hash and pick up girls in nightclubs. Many of them were taken into custody at some point. Then, one morning, they (re)converted to Salafi Islam — that is to say, an Islam that rejects the concept of culture, an Islam that allows them to rebuild themselves on their own. This strain of Islam is appealing because the second-generation immigrants neither want the culture of their parents nor a Western culture – both have become sources of their self-hatred.
The key to revolt primarily stems from the failure to disseminate Islam as a culture. This is a problem that does not apply to first-generation individuals who are carriers of the cultural Islam of the country of origin (but have failed to spread it). It also does not apply to the third-generation immigrants who speak French with their parents and have, thanks to them, familiarity with modes of expression of Islam in French society. We find far fewer Turks than North African immigrants in radical movements. This is undoubtedly because for the Turks, the religious cultural transmission was ensured because the Turkish government sends teachers and imams to relay it (which poses other problems, but allows them to dodge the adherence to Salafism and violence).
The young converts adhere, by definition, to a “pure” form of religion. Cultural compromise does not interest them (which was not the case for earlier generations who converted to Sufism). Here they join the second-generation immigrants’ “estranged” Islam, which manifests in a generational, cultural and political rupture. In short, there is no point in offering them a moderate Islam. Radicalism attracts them by definition. Salafism is not only an outcome of preaching funded by Saudi Arabia, it is the product that suits those young converts’ own rupture from their past.
In contrast to young Palestinians who engage in various forms of intifada, Muslim parents of French radicals do not understand the revolt of their offspring. Like the parents of converts, they are increasingly trying to prevent the radicalization of their children: they call the police, travel to Turkey in an attempt to bring their kids back, and rightly fear that radicalized older siblings could drag the younger ones into this radical abyss. In short, far from being a symbol of a common radicalization of Muslim populations, jihadis are worsening the generational divide — that is to say, they are breaking up the family.
Breaking up with their family, jihadis are also on the fringes of Muslim communities; they almost never have a history of piety and religious practice. After each attack, the journalists’ narratives are surprisingly similar: “We do not understand, he was a nice guy (or a a simple petty criminal), he was not a practicing Muslim, he used to drink alcohol, he used to smoke hash, he used to frequent girls … Oh yes, it is true that a few months ago he oddly changed, he let his beard grow and began to overwhelm us with talk on religion.” (For the female version, see the plethora of articles about Hasna Aït Boulahcen, the “frivolous Miss Jihad.”)
There is no concealment here, because once born again, young converts to radical Islam do not hide their new conviction — they show off on Facebook. They display their new almighty ego, their desire for revenge, their deep frustration, their enjoyment of the new absolute power given to them by their willingness to kill and their fascination with their own death. The violence to which they adhere is a modern violence. They kill as mass murderers do in shootings in America or like Breivik in Norway; they do it cold-bloodedly and quietly. Nihilism and pride figure deeply here.
This frenzied individualism is reflected in their isolation from Muslim communities. Few of them go to a mosque. Their possible imams are often self-appointed. Their radicalization occurs around an imaginary hero, violence and death — not Sharia or utopia. In Syria, they just make war: none of them integrate or are interested in civil society. And even if they take sex slaves or recruit young women on the internet to be brides of future martyrs, it is because they have not socially integrated in the Muslim societies they claim to defend. They are more nihilists than utopists.
While some have gone through the Tabligh (fundamentalist preaching society), none has frequented the Muslim Brotherhood (Union of Islamic Organizations of France). Almost none have been active in a political movement, starting with pro-Palestinian movements. None have been involved in “community” activities like providing iftar meals in Ramadan, or preaching in the mosques, in the street or door-to-door. None have undertaken serious religious studies. None are interested in theology or even the nature of jihad or that of the Islamic State.
They are radicalized around a small group of friends who met in a particular place (neighborhood, prison, sports club); they recreate a “family” or a fraternity of sorts. There is an important scheme that no one has studied: those fraternities are often biological. Those radicals are often a pair of brothers who take action together (the Kouachi and Abdeslam brothers, Abdelhamid Abaaoud who kidnapped his younger brother, the Clain brothers who converted together; not to mention the Tsarnaev brothers, perpetrators of the attack in Boston in April 2013). It is as if radicalizing siblings (sisters included) was a way to emphasize the generational dimension and dramatize the break away with the parents. The jihadi cell also tries to create emotional bonds between its members: a jihadi often marries the sister of his brother-in-arms. Jihadi cells do not resemble those of radical movements of Marxist or nationalist inspiration (the Algerian FLN, IRA or ETA). They are thus more impervious to infiltration, as they are based on personal connections.
Terrorists are not, therefore, a manifestation of a radicalization of the Muslim population, but reflect a generational revolt that affects a specific category of young people.
Why Islam? For the second-generation immigrants, the answer is obvious. They take an identity that their parents, according to them, have mishandled; they become “more Muslim than Muslims,” and especially their parents. The energy they put in vain into reconverting their parents to their new-found Islam is significant, and shows the extent to which they are detached (all parents have a story to tell about these exchanges with their radicalized children). As for converts, they choose Islam because it is the only thing available on the market serving radical revolt. Joining the Islamic State will certainly guarantee them a route to terrorize.