Cultural Divisions, Islamophobia and Radicalisation Continue to Pervade Modern France

On 30 March 2016, a little more than a year after the attack on their offices which killed eleven people, Charlie Hebdo published an article titled, ‘How did we end up here?’. In their final paragraph, they write, ‘The first task of the guilty is to blame the innocent’, going on to imply that a bakery which does not sell ham or a woman wearing the veil are part of ‘the guilty’ as they are form part of a movement to force Islamic thought into French life. In this way, they link all Muslims with terrorists.

Image courtesy of Alexandre Vialle ©2010, some rights reserved.

Image courtesy of Alexandre Vialle ©2010, some rights reserved.

This is one facet of a tense national debate in France, intensified after the deadly shocks of 2015, over the existence and effects of islamophobia- and especially, whether it is linked with terrorism. The debate ties into much more general discussions of terrorism and identity, and as such will not be easy to resolve. But the situation as it is now is untenable.

First, however, a brief background is necessary. France has a complicated and frequently exploitative history with the Middle East and Africa—that is, broadly speaking, much of the Muslim world. The country’s colonial history extends back to the 1830s, and included control of Algeria, Syria and Lebanon. In the post-war period especially, many individuals from former colonies moved to poor areas of France and worked in industry. The Algerian War of Independence, whose legacy remains painfully present, also caused migrations into France. France has continually struggled to embrace immigrants from its colonial period, even as it has continued to intervene extensively in former colonial areas. The traumas of the colonial past are thus still very present.

This history provides a background for the current cultural debates in France. Since the 2015 attacks, an accusation has become prominent: that Muslim communities have not integrated due to cultural incompatibility with French culture and values. In a survey published by Le Monde, 74 per cent of the people questioned said that Islam was an intolerant religion which was incompatible with French values. This is linked with the issue of secularism. French legal norms include a strict emphasis on secularism which are intended to minimize the role of religion in the public sphere. The ban on apparel showing religious affiliations in schools derives from this. While intended to equalize, many see secularism laws to be biased in practice. In the banlieues, the suburbs around Paris where many poor immigrants or their descendants live, the New Yorker reports that, ‘laïcité has become synonymous with atheism and Islamophobia’.

The banlieues themselves are often seen as the sources of radicalisation.  This is not entirely the case—many of those leaving France to join ISIS are from middle class backgrounds. But leaders in the banlieue have also noted, ‘that growing numbers of young Muslims in their communities are drifting towards radical groups’. The banlieues are culturally isolated from Paris, and indeed from France in general. This is linked with broader issues of identity and acceptance. In an interview with L’Express, sociologist Olivier Bobineau identifies a disenfranchisement coming from a sense of a disconnected identity. The children or descendants of immigrants, having been educated in France, feel disconnected from the countries from which their families emigrated. At the same time, they feel equally rejected by French society and institutions. This leaves Islam as an alternate source of identification.

Crime is also a problem, and prisons can be routes to radicalisation. Despite comprising 8 per cent of the French population, Muslims comprise 70 per cent of the prison population. In one prison, despite 80 per cent of the prisoners being Muslim, there were 3 Catholic chaplains, two Protestants, and only one imam to provide spiritual support and guidance. In another prison, there were no spaces for prisoners to pray. Linked to these systemic failures and facing demoralisation and the difficulty of prison life, it is often in these prisons that French Muslims have been radicalised as previously radicalised prisoners provide support and moral guidance.

These factors have prompted concerns that cultural isolation and economic desperation has driven youth to radical religion. At the heart of this debate is the question of what causes radicalisation and from there terrorism. Do, as many argue, systemic failures of cultural inclusion and connection cause terrorism? These questions underlie the discussion on how to respond to these attacks, and are deeply interlaced with problems of French history, legal norms, and identity. Many have argued that the French have simply failed to integrate Muslim populations.

Caroline Fourest, a former journalist for Charlie Hebdo, argues in a Huffington Post piece that the French model of integration should not be criticized, as English and American models have done no better. She may be right: integration difficulties exist outside of France, and the United States and Britain have been subject to terrorist attacks as well. However, she fails to fully address the discrimination that does exist in France, and which can be linked to religious radicalisation.

On a broad scale, research has shown that Muslim men face significant prejudice in the job market. On a smaller scale, there are also problems of state violence. After the state of emergency was put in place, the Human Rights Watch began to note cases of human rights violations. Though the abilities given to the government and law enforcement agencies were generalised, the French human rights ombudsperson says that they often largely target devout Muslims, which can create feelings of injustice and inequality. In the case of police raids this can lead to instances of notable brutality; for example, in one case, ‘police broke four of a disabled man’s teeth before they realised he wasn’t the person they were looking for’. This discrimination reached new heights in 2015, when Muslim communities suffered from vicious reactions to the terrorist attacks. In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo shooting, mosques were attacked with ‘firebombs, gunfire, pig heads, and grenades’, and Muslim owned businesses were likewise subject to threats and intimidation. After the Paris attacks, a crowd of protesters in Ajaccio, Corsica attacked a Muslim prayer room and burnt books within. It is clear that anti-Muslim sentiment is not an imagined problem in French society, and cannot be waved away simply because integration difficulties exist elsewhere too. This prejudice cannot be allowed to continue, both due to its inherent human rights problems and due to its exacerbation of existing cultural issues.

France remains in a state of emergency. The 2015 attacks in Paris brought up longstanding, contentious issues of discrimination, isolation and, at its root, cultural fragmentation. Facing deep social fissures is a difficult task, especially when these are embroiled in concerns about security and identity. But these problems challenge the foundations of French society and values, and as such desperately need to be resolved.