November 18, 2020 MEMRI Daily Brief No. 241

The Hidden Contributors To Jihadi Terror In France

November 18, 2020 | By Alberto M. Fernandez*
MEMRI Daily Brief No. 241

One can only imagine the shock and bitterness from France's political leadership in October 2020 when after three terrorist attacks, France was the recipient of anger and hatred not only from some Middle East regimes, Islamist demagogues, and jihadi propagandists, but from liberal and left-wing Western, especially English-speaking, media.[1] These media outlets particularly blamed an abrasive Gallic brand of tough secularism for possibly alienating French Muslims.

While France has indeed suffered from jihadi terror, some have noted that countries as varied as the United States, United Kingdom, Russia, Spain, Belgium, Tunisia, Turkey, Iraq, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Sri Lanka, Kenya, and many others have as well. France contributed the largest number of foreign fighters from Western Europe to ISIS, but statistically greater percentage contributions were from Belgium and Austria.

It was almost a hundred years ago that Charles Maurras, no stranger to extreme ideologies himself, criticized the opening of the Grand Mosque in Paris in 1926.[2] The rightist intellectual used the opportunity to criticize – not Islam – but what he saw as the much-despised French Republic indulging colonial peoples in what he dubbed "an obscure admission of weakness." Maurras, a notorious antisemite, was also wrong about some sort of mass Muslim threat. But perhaps he was not so wrong about the danger of "revivalists" using "powerful loudspeakers."

Much of the controversy over the recent attacks, the Charlie Hebdo cartoons, and President Macron's recent words on a crisis in Islam have sought to blame the French. Others have sought to blame Islam, as if a religion of a billion souls in breathtaking variety could be so reduced to narrow categories.

In my view, neither "French secularism is uniquely bad" nor "Islam is the problem" are satisfactory answers. There is indeed blame for Western secularists and for some Muslims but the definitions are not so facile.

For non-Muslim Europeans there is blame in their emphasis on some sort of vision of Europe as a religious tabula rasa where citizens and residents are seen as interchangeable consumers, the epitome of homo economicus, and as if such a superficial identity is enough for anyone. Post-modern Western Europe, not just France, seems uncomfortable with deeply-held religious belief – Muslim, Christian, Jewish – that threatens its Enlightenment image of itself. Christian homeschooling, Jewish circumcision and kosher food, Muslim modesty in dress all come under attack. Catholic Poland is mocked for taking its faith too seriously.[3] Macron, in a thoughtful recent interview, said the great struggle of his generation of Europeans would be to "defend the Enlightenment against obscurantism," emphasizing the need to uphold a Europe built on two things: "the coexistence of religions and the secularization of politics."[4] A well-spoken man, Macron does not really dwell on the claim that the Enlightenment ideology he professes can seem both very shallow and appear a domineering and intolerant political-religious ideology. This is not a Muslim critique.[5]

But if Western Europeans have identity issues coming from their intentional creation of a vacuum to overcome the demons of the past, Muslims have their own problems. If Europeans contemplate a yawning empty abyss, Muslims face a saturated space filled, actually manufactured, with inciting content by a variety of regional bad actors. Europeans handed over the oversight of the mosques of their immigrant communities to Salafists and Islamists bankrolled by authoritarian regimes. Salafists are not a huge percentage of Muslims worldwide and yet in places like Catalonia, they control a third of the mosques.[6] In Brussels they were similarly overrepresented.[7] These "enlightened" European states ceded broadcast, educational, and cultural space to radicals for years.[8]

Extremists were given license in Europe, their stay often subsidized by European taxpayers, that would have gotten them the death sentence back home.[9] Macron is wrong to think that somehow the Arab Spring is responsible for a recent "regression" to obscurantist religion. For decades, Saudi Arabia was the great patron of Islamist activism in Europe.[10] And today, as Saudi Arabia ceases past behavior and seeks to reform, that radical space has been newly filled with great purpose by Turkey and its Muslim Brotherhood allies.

Westerners defame Muslims when they cavalierly assume some kind of ingrained extremism. Much of this extremist worldview put into action was not an organic, natural occurrence but rather patiently fabricated over time by regimes, political movements, terrorists, teachers, propagandists, and publishers.[11] It took time, networks, and money to make it grow. It is not surprising that much of the outrage in the Muslim world against France and Macron himself over Islam in recent weeks was an orchestrated campaign. And Turkey, Qatar, and Iran all deliberately played as an impactful role as that of equally outraged jihadi groups like ISIS and Al-Qaeda.[12] The goal is always the same, to lead the masses in a certain direction and to implant a radical worldview to the point when it becomes embedded in the mainstream.[13]

Immigrants from any background or religion face obstacles in new countries and societies. That is true from Miami to Marseilles. Some of the obstacles for Muslims integrating into their new societies are not only the different reality of a new homeland, but the siren song coming from countries of origin, made easier in our interconnected world when xenophobic and bigoted content in your native Arabic or Turkish is easily available online.[14]

Europeans assumed, with good will and intentions, that immigrants and their offspring would be "Europeanized" and that was true in many cases. But a hard core remained or was created, nurtured by radical voices given free rein by liberal, tolerant societies. The evident superiority of the welcoming society was complacently assumed to be self-evident. Europe disarmed itself, literally and figuratively, before hostile forces.

While I have my disagreements with Macron and French policymakers, I wish them well against their opponents. There are some solid practical steps being discussed and a broader, more ambitious framework. The Europeans, and perhaps the Americans too under a new Administration, want to hold the line and promote values at home and abroad while eschewing two of the most powerful mobilizing forces on the planet: nationalism and religious fervor. Will his unprecedented approach actually work? Their adversaries – Islamist regimes and jihadis, Turkey (both Islamist and nationalist),[15] China (nationalist and ideological), Iran, Russia – are following a much more well-worn and tried path that has often proven successful.

*Alberto M. Fernandez is Vice President of MEMRI.


[1], November 15, 2020.

[2], May 7, 2017.

[3], September 14, 2020.

[4], November 16, 2020.

[5], July 20, 2018.

[6], June 18, 2016.

[7], March 22, 2017.

[8], accessed November 17, 2020.

[9], July 7, 2015.

[10], December 30, 2003.

[11], August 2017.

[13], November 16, 2020.

[15], November 13, 2020.

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