In the past decade or so, a growing number of Western specialists — from long-standing academics to freshly ordained fearmongers — have sought to come to grips with the disturbing phenomenon of ‘home-grown jihadism.’ As a consequence, there has been plenty of useful scholarship — alongside much ersatz theorising and incendiary alarmism.
French academic Gilles Kepel falls into the first of these categories. An Arabist since the 1970s and a prolific contributor to the debate on religion in a series of books that date back to the 1980s, he knows whereof he speaks. His book, Terror in France: The Rise of Jihad in the West, attempts, with some success, to put into context what he categorises the third wave of jihadism, that has involved a series of the most despicable atrocities in Paris and elsewhere in France, as well as in neighbouring Belgium.
His scholarship has been favourably cited by the new French president Emmanuel Macron as well as others whose embrace Kepel is more uncomfortable with. The latter include the arguably Islamophobic French writer Michel Houellebecq whose novel Soumission [Submission] was published on the same day in January 2015 as the appalling Charlie Hebdo massacre by the infamous Kouachi brothers, and the associated — mainly anti-Semitic — atrocities by Amedy Coulibaly.
As incidents of violence in the name of religion grow in the West, an examination of what could be the root cause of it all
Coulibaly, as Kepel records, was received by ex-president Nicolas Sarkozy at the Elysee Palace nearly six years earlier, where he was honoured “as a model of successful rehabilitation.” Kepel adds: “This caustic wink at destiny … tells us all we need to know about the inanity of the French ruling class and the French government’s ignorance of and consequent lack of preparation for the challenges of the third wave of jihadism.”
That’s all very well, and feeds directly into Kepel’s thesis that neither 1983’s anti-racist Marche des beurs [march for equality and against racism] nor the 2005 revolt of the banlieues [suburbs] spurred the government into recognising, let alone tackling, the issues posed by Arab immigration. The 2005 revolt was brought about when the electrocution of a pair of young Muslims who were being chased by the police for a crime they had not committed — although Kepel insists the bigger provocation was the subsequent tear-gassing of worshippers at a mosque — sparked a violent uprising in strongly Muslim suburbs on the outskirts of the French capital.
This, of course, is by no means exclusively a French phenomenon, although France boasts Europe’s highest proportion of Muslim immigrants, mostly from the nation’s former North African colonies. In Britain, the comparative (albeit proportionately smaller) influx was from the subcontinent, whereas Turkish ‘guest workers’ dominated the Muslim population of Germany — at least until Chancellor Angela Merkel threw open her arms to refugees from the Syrian conflict and elsewhere.
The German chancellor has had cause to adjust her stance since 2015 because of electoral backlash and pushback from the far right, albeit without altogether resiling from her humanitarian policy. Recourse to violence by a handful of refugees has inevitably attracted attention, overshadowing the arguably far bigger story of the multitudes who clearly mean no harm to their hosts. Besides, barring a few exceptions, the perpetrators of purportedly Islamist violence in Britain, France and elsewhere in Europe are invariably young people who have grown up in these very countries.
The pattern of extreme misbehaviour is no doubt related to particular conceptions of Islam, but there are also plenty of other denominators common to most perpetrators of terrorism, notably family dysfunction, domestic violence and a record of petty crime. Prisons in almost every country (and this trend extends well beyond the West) all too frequently serve as incubators of fundamentalist zeal. Alienation from the societies in which they grew up is also a key factor, often springing from socio-economic discrimination.
Such alienation — by no means restricted to adherents of a particular faith or ideology — invariably entails a quest for avenues to channel discontent. Kepel credibly argues that French Muslims, when they first had the opportunity to vote, tended to side with the political left and continued to do so until quite recently. But the dynamic has lately shifted, in part because of the growing Salafist tendency making common cause with the far right on issues such as aversion to gay marriage.
This is, of course, a global trend: it has long been common for conservative administrations in the United States, for instance, to align themselves with countries such as Saudi Arabia and Iran in United Nations forums on questions around what is euphemistically referred to as ‘women’s health’; and Islamic fundamentalists would no doubt find themselves in agreement with the Christian fundamentalism of the Trump administration’s positions on issues such as contraception and abortion.
Western commentators all too often ignore the convergence on such matters between the more literalist adherents of the Abrahamic religions, not least the orthodox variants of Judaism and Islam — even though the latter is so clearly derived from the former in any number of respects. This is partly a consequence of the fact that Christian and Jewish fundamentalists are much less prone to random violence in the 21st century, but it also owes much to the tendency among ostensibly better-informed analysts to acknowledge that the perpetrators of murderous attacks rely on tendentious (or at least controversial) interpretations of the Islamic faith.
Kepel, for one, places a great deal of faith in the failure of ideologues to widely sow the seeds of sectarian discontent among Muslims in the West. He is, in this context, wary of the term ‘Islamophobia’, seeing it essentially as an attempt by Islamists to sharpen existing contradictions and antagonisms in society in order to spur conflict. He compares this to the tendency to decry every criticism of the Israeli state as anti-Semitism. There is, no doubt, some truth in this — although neither Islamophobia (whether that’s an accurate or adequate term for distrust or hatred of Muslims is a different matter) nor anti-Semitism is an imaginary phenomenon, and the two sometimes coalesce among segments of Western populations.
Meanwhile, the theory that failures in integration are accountable in large part for extremist tendencies among some second- or third-generation immigrants is often countered by evidence that many of them seemed integrated enough before they resorted to nihilist violence against the societies that had nurtured them. Kepel suggests that one particular ideologue, Abu Musab al-Suri, was instrumental in providing a raison d’être — and its opposite — to those who went off the edge.
There can be little doubt that online propaganda has played a crucial role in spreading terrorism. But it is available only to those who go looking for it, and perhaps the bigger question is not what potential terrorists find online, but what drives them to seek it out in the first place. International affairs do not figure much in Kepel’s treatise, except in the context of the Syrian or Iraqi experience — or the Pakistani or Afghan training — of the perpetrators of violence.
This is obviously significant. But at the same time it is crucial to remember how Western intervention in Muslim countries — from Afghanistan and Iraq to Libya and Syria — has played into the jihadist mindset even if one ignores the colonial excesses of long ago (although the descendants of Algerian freedom fighters might not). The devastating terrorist atrocities of 2004-2005 in Madrid and London were seen, with reasonable cause, as a form of blowback from Spanish and British participation in George W. Bush’s arbitrary and clearly counterproductive assault on Iraq.
France suffered no immediate repercussions because the government of Jacques Chirac wisely opposed the proposed misadventure in the UN. The successor regime of Sarkozy, on the other hand, was a key proponent, alongside Britain’s David Cameron, of the attempt to dislodge Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, which entailed backing jihadists long after the consequences of Western follies in Afghanistan since the 1980s had become more than clear. Should it have come as a huge surprise, then, that the terrorist who sought to murder large numbers of teenagers in Manchester back in May turned out to have been a young man of Libyan origin with a family role in the violent disarray that has effectively dismembered the country since then?
Kepel’s research is admirable, and the details he provides about particular terrorists and their trajectories are extremely interesting and useful, not least in respect of the French-Muslim milieus that spawned them. At the same time, his great rival on this subject in French academia, Olivier Roy, has very interesting things to say in his latest book, Jihad and Death: The Global Appeal of Islamic State, notably the argument that what the West is faced with is not so much the radicalisation of Islam as the Islamisation of radicalism.
There are, inevitably, no easy solutions to the Western dilemma, nor any obvious means of disconnecting it from the increasingly splintered Middle East. Kepel aptly decries the diminution of Arabist and Islamic scholarship in France and suggests that well-resourced lycées are key to sustaining laïcite [secularism]. There’s something in that, no doubt, but it would hardly suffice in the short term as an adequate riposte to a deadly problem.
The reviewer is a journalist based in Australia
Terror in France: The Rise
of Jihad in the West
By Gilles Kepel with
Princeton University Press
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, July 16th, 2017