French shadows
French shadows
Olivier Roy


France is at war! Perhaps. But at war against whom, or what? The Islamic State (ISIS) isn't sending Syrians to commit attacks in France in order to dissuade the French government from bombing it. ISIS instead is tapping into a pool of young radicalized French who, whatever happens in the Middle East, are already rebelling and in search of a cause, a label, a great narrative where to leave their signature in the blood of their personal revolt. Crushing ISIS won't change anything about this uprising.

These youths rallying around ISIS are opportunistic: They were with al-Qaeda yesterday; before that, in 1995, they were acting as subcontractors for the Armed Islamic Group of Algeria, or practicing a kind of nomadic and individualistic jihad from Bosnia to Afghanistan to Chechnya. Tomorrow, they'll fight under another banner until death, age or disillusion empty their ranks.

There is no third or fourth, or umpteenth, generation of jihadists. Since 1996, we've been faced with a very clear and stable phenomenon: the radicalization of two categories of young French — Muslim second-generation immigrants and converts whose lineage can go way back in France.

The crucial problem for France is therefore not the "caliphate" in the Syrian desert, which will vanish sooner or later like an old mirage turned nightmare. The real problem is these youths in revolt. And the real question therefore is to know what these youths represent, and whether they are the vanguard of a coming war or rather the soon-to-be-forgotten losers of a passing rumbling in History.

Two readings dominate today and structure the televised debates and newspaper opinion pages: the "culturalist" explanation and the "third-worldist" explanations.

The first highlights the recurring and nagging war of civilizations, according to which the uprising of young Muslims proves how Islam cannot be integrated — or at least, until a theological reform renders the call to jihad banished from any interpretation of the Koran.

The second explanation constantly brings up post-colonial suffering, the identification of young people with the Palestinian cause, their rejection of Western interventions in the Middle East and their exclusion from a French society that is racist and Islamophobic: the same old drumbeat that implies that rebellion will not end until the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is solved.

But both explanations stumble over the same problem: If the causes of radicalization were structural, then why does it only affect a small and very limited fringe of Muslims living in France? A few thousands out of several millions. And we know who they are! Virtually all of the terrorists who have managed to carry out an attack had the infamous "fiche S" ("S file," for people who represent a threat to the security of the state). I'm not going to wade into the prevention debate here, I'm merely pointing out that the information is there and it is accessible. So let's have a look at who these people are, and try to draw conclusions from it.

Almost all of the French jihadists belong in those two very precise categories mentioned above. They are either "second-generation," who were born in France (or brought at a young age), or converts, whose numbers grow over time, but who already made up 25% of radicals in the late 1990s. This all means that, among the radicals, there are neither recent immigrants, nor, perhaps more importantly, any "third-generation."

A radical formula

And this latter category is growing. Moroccans who immigrated in the 1970s are grandparents now — and we don't find any of their grandchildren among the terrorists. And why would converts who never endured racism suddenly seek to avenge the humiliation suffered by Muslims around the world? Besides, these converts often come from small-town and rural France, like Maxime Hauchard (one of the French ISIS fighters in Syria), and have few reasons to identify with a Muslim community that for them only exists on paper. In other words, this isn't the "uprising of Islam" or that of "Muslims." It is instead a specific issue that affects two categories of young people, most of whom are children of immigrants or people of French descent.

This isn't about the radicalization of Islam, but rather about the Islamization of radicalism.

What do the "second-generation" immigrants and the converts have in common? This is first and foremost the uprising of a generation: Both categories have broken with their parents, or more precisely with what their parents represent in terms of culture and religion. The "second generation" immigrants never embrace the Islam of their parents, nor would they rise up against Westernization. They are Westernized themselves. They speak French better than their parents.

Both categories grew up in the "youth" culture of their generation. They drank alcohol, smoked pot, hit on girls in night clubs. Many of them did time in jail. And one day, they converted or re-converted, choosing Salafism, a branch of Islam that rejects the very concept of culture, that enables them to reconstruct themselves on their own. Because they don't want anything of either their parents' culture, nor "Western culture," the symbols of their self-hatred.

Key to their uprising is the lack of transmission of a culturally integrated religion. It's an issue that doesn't affect the "first generation" immigrants, who are bearers of the cultural Islam of their countries of origin, or the "third generation" immigrants, who speak French with their parents and are, thanks to them, familiar with the modes of expression of Islam in French society. This point might be controversial, but it must be addressed.

If a lot fewer Turks can be found in radical movements than North Africans, it's certainly because there's been a transition for the former, with the Turkish government taking charge of this transmission by sending teachers and imams (which poses other problems but avoids worshippers from eventually supporting Salafism and violence).

Young converts by definition join the "pure" religion; they're not interested in the cultural compromise. They too opt for a "disruptive Islam," leading to a generational, cultural and finally political split. In other words, it's pointless to offer them a "moderate Islam" instead. They are, by definition, attracted to radicalism. The issue with Salafism isn't just that it's sponsored and financed by Saudi Arabia, it's also that it's a product perfectly suited to these young misfits.

As a result, the Muslim parents of these French radicals don't understand their children's revolt, and that's the main difference with young Palestinians. More and more, they find themselves in the same situation as parents of converts, trying to prevent their offspring from turning to radicalism: They call the police, they travel to Turkey or Syria to try and bring them back, and they're scared — rightfully so — that radicalized elder brothers drag their siblings down with them. Jihadism therefore isn't the symbol of a radicalization of Muslim populations, but is a force that blows apart the generational gap, or in other words, destroys families.

Having broken off from their close relatives, jihadists are also on the fringes of the Muslim community: They almost never have shown any previous signs of piety or religious practice. On the contrary, newspaper articles always sound strangely similar, as each attack is followed by interviews of people close to the terrorists who are always "surprised:" "We don't understand, he was a nice boy" (or "just a small-time delinquent"), "he wasn't a practicing Muslim, he used to drink, to smoke joints, go out with girls … Ah yes, it's true, a few months ago, he changed, it was strange, he started to grow a beard and constantly bother us with religion."

No need here to bring up the taqiya, or religious dissimulation. Once they're "born again," these youths don't hide. On the contrary, they show off their new belief all over Facebook. They expose their new almighty self, their thirst for revenge against their interiorized frustration, the enjoyment brought by this new superpower, a willingness to kill and their fascination with their own death. The violence they aspire to is a modern sort of violence. They kill like campus killers do in America or Anders Breivik in Norway — in cold blood and relaxed. Nihilism and pride here are deeply connected.

The brother factor

This obsessive individualism can also be found in their isolation from Muslim communities. Few of them regularly went to the mosque. Their radicalization is centered around the hero narrative, and violence and death, not Sharia or utopia. They're only in Syria for the war: They never try to fit in or take any interest in society. They are interested in neither theology, the nature of jihad nor the structure of the "Islamic State." They're more nihilists than utopians.

The process of radicalization occurs among a small group of "friends," with encounters in a specific environment (neighborhood, prison, sport club), thus rebuilding a "family," a brotherhood.

There is also an important pattern that nobody so far has looked into: that this new brotherhood is indeed often biological. We often find two brothers acting together (the Kouachi brother who attacked Charlie Hebdo, the Abdeslam brothers in the Nov.13 attacks, Abdelhamid Abaaoud who "kidnapped" his younger brother, the Clain brothers who converted together, not to mention the Tsarnaev brothers who committed the Boston marathon attack in April 2013). It's as if succeeding to radicalize brothers and sisters was a way to underline the generational dimension and the siblings' split from their parents.These cells are striving to create emotional links among its members. A jihadist will often marry his brother-in-arms' sister. Jihadist cells aren't like those of Marxist-inspired or nationalist radical movements (the Algerian FLN, the IRA or the ETA). Built on personal links, they're more impervious to infiltration.

Terrorists are thus never the expression of a radicalization of the Muslim population as a whole, but instead reflect a generational revolt that affects a specific category of young people.

Why Islam? The reason is obvious for the children of immigrants. They claim for themselves an identity that their parents, they think, have debased. They're "more Muslim than the Muslims," their parents in particular. The energy they put into attempting to re-convert their parents (to no avail) is notable, but it also shows just how deep the divide. As for converts, they choose Islam because it's the only thing available on the market for those in search of a radical uprising. To join ISIS is to be certain to be able to fulfill the desire to terrorize.

*Olivier Roy is a world-renowned French scholar on political Islam, and a professor at the European University Institute of Florence, Italy.

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