What causes someone to become a terrorist? The French debate.

Paris Shootings - The day after (22593744177)

“France is at war,” declared François Hollande, after last November’s attacks in Paris. Since then, he has had to declare it several more times. It is a strange sort of war. France fights not against a coherent, well-defined enemy, but against a pervasive ideology. The front line is now not just the streets of Paris but provincial cities and even the French countryside.

Typical explanations in the British media of Islamism in France discuss the segregation of French Muslims: the neglected banlieues on the edge of large cities, the high youth unemployment rates, and the secularism which tries to remove Islam from the public sphere, with for example the prohibitive laws on full-face veils.

Similar discussions about the integration of Muslims are had in France as well. Gilles Kepel, a prominent academic who studies Islam, argues that it is the failures of the French state to integrate Muslims which is to blame, leading to a more radical Salafist version of Islam to thrive.

The journalist Elizabeth Schemla made a similar argument with a book entitled Islam, l’épreuve française, discussing a France where Islam has been allowed to promote a sexist and homophobic ideology which is hostile to France, thanks to neglect, indulgence and outside influence.

Certainly, the lack of integration is a national disgrace and a major blind spot in France’s approach to secularism, which prevents the government from intervening in ways which would actually protect and spread secular values. It has traditionally been unwilling to regard the issue of Islam in France as requiring a specific policy approach, because this goes against the republican ideal of ignoring someone’s religion before the law.

However, what has been striking about the profiles of those who have committed terrorist offences in France is that in general they did not seem to be integral members of Islamic communities. Many had a history of petty crime and did not seem to follow the Koran very devoutly.

Mohamed Merah, who killed seven people in and around Toulouse back in 2012, served short stints in prison and was seen in a nightclub around the time of his attacks. Ahmedi Coulibaly, who killed a police officer and took customers in a kosher supermarket hostage in January 2015, converted to Islam while in prison after committing an armed bank robbery. Brahim and Salah Abdelsam, the brothers who were involved in the attack on Paris last November, drunk, smoked drugs and went to parties. Lahouaiej Bouhlel, the Nice attacker, had been convicted of theft and assault.

This fits the theory of Olivier Roy, another of France’s foremost academics on Islam (and Kepel’s great rival). He talks about the “islamification of radicalism”. Those watching ISIS videos are on the outskirts of traditional Muslim communities and inhabit a virtual and fantasy reality rather than engaging in their local Muslim community. For Roy it is a generational revolt (the mother of Adel Kermiche, one of terrorists behind the murder of the priest on Tuesday, had declared she “would have written off her son” if he had succeeded in going to Syria).

The work of anthropologist Scott Atran, who has studied Islamic terrorist movements around the planet, overlaps with this analysis. From his experience, terrorists form close bonds with a small group of friends and family, rather than being involved in a centralised plan. In this sense he compares jihadism with the anarchist movement around the start of the 20th century.

Atran’s argument is that, rather than it representing a backwards, medieval ideology, Islamic extremism is very much a modern, consumerist strand of Islam. It is a product of globalisation, through the breakdown of traditional cultures and identity.

In this global market, fundamentalist Islam has an advantage because it has “become standardized and superficial enough so that traditional knowledge and learning, and the weight of cultural history and the social order, count for little of nothing” (quoted from Atran’s book Talking to the Enemy).

Originally the laws of religions served a purpose based on the particular needs of society of the time; today these needs have changed but the laws take on extra significance in extremist religion. Extremism appeals to disaffected young people who become inspired by “a thrilling cause and call for action that promises glory and esteem in the eyes of friends, and through friends, eternal respect and remembrance in the wider world”.

This is not to say that the arguments made by Kepel and Schemla are wrong. Much has been made in France of the rather public argument between Roy (whose theory can be summed up as the islamification of radicalism) and Kepel (who argues rather that it is the radicalisation of Islam). In reality these two theories are not mutually exclusive: it seems obvious that a radicalised French version of Islam is the conduit for young people already prone to radicalisation to become terrorists.

Manuel Valls was right when he declared after the Nice attacks that France must “learn to live with terrorism”. Part of the effort to tackle it is inevitably focused around understanding what leads people in France to become terrorists. Whichever theory you subscribe to, removing the desire to become a terrorist will take a long time.

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