A new book says Islamists and the far right work hand-in-hand to promote jihad in France

Neither radical Islam nor the far right can be permitted to steer the country forward.
Neither radical Islam nor the far right can be permitted to steer the country forward.
Image: Reuters/Charles Platiau
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In the often-hysterical debate over the origins of ISIL-inspired “bottom-up” terrorism seen in the Nov. 2015 Paris attacks, and echoed by the San Bernardino massacre, a leading French intellectual refuses to let either radical Islam or Western elites off the hook.

Both must share part of the blame, says Gilles Kepel, internationally recognized expert on the Arab world and the politics of Islam in Europe, for laying the fertile ground that has enabled the rise of “3G” or third-generation jihad: born alongside YouTube, and with the decline of second-generation “top-down” satellite TV-driven terror organizations, like al-Qaeda.

Kepel has a new book out this week in France, called Terror in the Hexagon: The Genesis of French Jihad, the fruit of decades of research. Publication has been rushed into print with a new forward, following the murders of 130 in the French capital on Nov. 13.

In this latest tome, the author of Passion française and Suburbs of Islam delivers a powerful argument from the secular, French-republican center left, insisting that radicalization cannot occur in a cultural or religious vortex, and is indeed intimately entwined with the rapid-fire Islamization of the heavily Muslim-populated French suburbs (banlieues), under the sway of foreign-imported ideologies.

In other words, Islam, even in its most extreme interpretations, matters.

“Behind the jihadist eruption, lies the entrenchment of Salafism … the most radical elements of which, their eyes fixed on Syria and Daesh, are aiming for the destruction of Europe through civil war,” Kepel tells Quartz in an interview from Paris, where he is professor of political science at Sciences Po.

Terror in the Hexagon offers probably the most comprehensive history to date of the leading homegrown Western jihadist movement (France is one of the biggest Western exporters* of jihadists). The deadly roots of “retro-colonial” jihadisme francais stretch back more than 50 years to the end of the Algerian war for independence, Kepel argues, culminating in the multiple deadly attacks that rocked France this year, starting with January’s massacre at Charlie Hebdo magazine, and the Hyper Cacher market, and ending in a Kalashnikov bloodbath on the terraces of Parisian cafés and restaurants and at the Bataclan concert hall.

Between these two poles, lies the history of a society increasingly riven by “virtual and mental enclaves,” growing rejection of common values, and heightened social, political, and economic marginalization, especially of Generation Y. So it is no coincidence that far-right demagogue Marine Le Pen, like Donald Trump in the US, is soaring in popularity, goes the Kepel argument. Almost simultaneously, the Islamic State is luring a growing radicalized fringe of “desperado” 20 to 30-somethings to commit mass murder of kuffar (“miscreants” or non-Muslims, particularly Jews), as well as “apostates” (“bad” Muslims). The two extremist phenomena feed in to each other, and are even secret or overt allies.

“They both want to create a society split into two distinct groups,” Kepel explains. “On one side, Muslims who are victims of what is relentlessly termed ‘Islamophobia,’ and on the other the extreme right.”

In reality, however, the Nov. 13 attacks in Paris and the strong showing by the National Front in regional elections (Le Pen’s party registered its highest legislative score since 2012 with close to 7 million votes) express “rejection of the French elites,” a power structure Kepel disparages as “an aristocracy increasingly cut off from society.”

“Economic abandonment and disenchantment with politics contributes as much to the intensification of Islamism as it does to the success of the National Front which feeds on the fear of terrorism,” he says.

Jihadists, for their part are jubilant on Twitter about the National Front’s success, Kepel points out, and they want it to win precisely because the party’s politics are so anti-Muslim. “That way there will be pogroms, all Muslims will be able to group under their banner of jihadism, and civil war will begin,” he says.

Kepel unpacks the Gallic jihadist trajectory and its intersection with foreign ideologies and the politics of the Middle East, but his thesis also has important implications for the United States and other Western nations struggling with the seemingly breakneck surge in locally-bred terrorists connected to ISIL.

“San Bernardino in a certain sense resembles [the Paris attacks] because it fits in with the same global trend and general logic of jihadism 3G,” he says, noting that there is still no certainty Paris attackers like Abaaoud and the Abdeslam brothers received an explicit order to attack.  “Nov.  13 was claimed [by ISIL] but in reality responsibility was taken by the Francophone group of the organization.”

“In San Bernardino, too, we don’t know what the attackers’ exact link with Daesh was,” he notes. “On their Facebook pages they pledged allegiance to Islamic State which later congratulated them for the attacks. But this attack was likely committed without an order given by the organization.”

Kepel presents the hopeful possibility that despite the carnage, the terrorists in the French capital and California, by targeting indiscriminate victims, have failed in their ultimate goals. In contrast, the Jan. 2015 murders of the Charlie Hebdo team, a French Muslim police officer and Jewish supermarket shoppers, inspired the blowback “je ne suis pas Charlie” (“I am not Charlie”) movement.

“There are two objectives of terrorism: to terrify the enemy and mobilize the Muslim masses,” Kepel says. “But in Paris and San Bernardino they have made what appears to be a strategic error because they have not succeeded in mobilizing widespread Muslim support.”

Before they committed terrorist acts, most French 3G jihadists found radicalism in what Kepel condemns as the “carceral incubator” of prison, left unchecked or abetted by French authorities for years. They then completed their ISIL indoctrination online, although some passed through notorious mosques and consulted imams such as in the remote Artigat region of the southwest, generator of terrorists like Mohammed Merah and his siblings, and ISIL Francophone spokesman and convert Fabien Clain.

Still, the journey to fighting for the “caliphate” in Syria and Iraq, and subsequently returning to commit terrorist acts of horrifying violence on European soil cannot be simply attributed to an adolescent crisis fueled by cyber recruiters. Scathing though he is about the failure of France’s power elites to create a more inclusive society for the children of post-colonial immigration, and young people of all backgrounds, Kepel refutes the “Islam has nothing to do with this” argument by detailing the calculated and alarming surge in radical Islamic separatism exemplified by Salafism.

This obscurantist strain calling for a return to “original” Islam was exported from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, then launched in France by its neo-purist ideologues with heightened zealotry from 2005. The “new wave” Islamists refusing to shake women’s hands, fetishizing the full-body covering veil, and banning sport and music, seized the opportunity after the conservative Muslim Brotherhood was sidelined for its perceived failure to control the spectacularly violent youth riots around public housing projects across the country.

Having documented the transformation of many banlieues into separate ethnic, religious, consumer and cultural identity spaces created by Salafist radicals, Halal entrepreneurs and colluding politicians, Kepel wades directly into a high-stakes politico-cultural battle by taking aim at this neo-fundamentalist branch of Islam and its detrimental effects on the cohesion of multi-ethnic, multi-cultural French society.

“Of course the jihadists are only a small minority. But their war of enclaves could not exist if there were no enclaves—and today they exist,” Kepel counters.

Thirty years ago, there were no places where you couldn’t eat in public during Ramadan. Now in the suburbs where what Kepel labels “the markers of Islamization” are most noticeable it has become “socially difficult or impossible to break the fast in public during Ramadan when you are a non-observant Muslim who lives your faith without making it a primordial or exclusive element of your identity.” Imposed observance is even more of an issue for the greater number of Muslims in France who are agnostic or atheist.

It may not be dominant among French Muslims, but Kepel says Salafism, which is also on the rise in the US, “exercises a hegemony over Muslim discourse that stops other trends from emerging.”

Islamization and “rupture” with French values, a phenomenon Kepel has studied for more than thirty years through exhaustive field research and interviews with French Muslims from Marseilles to Seine Saint-Denis in the Paris suburbs and Roubaix in the north, thus comes before radicalization and jihadism.

It would be wrong to classify Kepel as a barracker for the clash of civilizations theory in which Islam is engaged in a war with the West. He scoffs at French president François Hollande’s declaration of war—the war, if there is one, is in Syria and Iraq, he says, and is certain France doesn’t need more secularism. “Instead it needs to be more inclusive.”

The left’s historic failure to fill the void left by the decline of communism and unified working class politics is also in his critical sights. The jihadist genesis can thus be traced at least as far back as the presidency of François Mitterrand in the 1980s, Kepel writes, as translated from the French by Quartz. The socialist leader mostly ignored the grievances of immigrants from the former colonies and their children, playing a Machiavellian political game with the National Front “to the point where the extreme right is today entrenched at the heart of French political life and in a position to hit the jackpot, while the marginalization of the children of Muslim immigration has opened the floodgates to Salafization and jihadism”.

Terror in the Hexagon chronicles the road to radicalization and terrorism among a generation born in the last few decades of the 20th century “whom sociologists label Generation Y perhaps in reference to the cords that hang from their ears to their navels, drawing a kind of Y, and linking them intimately to the world of smartphones like a postmodern umbilical cord that can’t be cut.”

In the “suburbs of French Islam,” the third generation of French Islam arrived at the age of adulthood, around 2005, the year of the French riots. It was also the year marked by the birth of 3G jihad, with the online publication of (the late, former Bin Laden adviser and breakaway figure) Abu Musab al-Suri’s 1600-page call to bottom-up globalized holy war waged by disaffected Muslim youth, targeting the “soft underbelly of the West”—Europe.

In Feb. 2005, Kepel equally notes, YouTube was registered as a business in California. And this changed the terrorism game.

“The first jihad revolution was by fax,” Kepel writes. “With Bin Laden it was satellite TV—there is no al-Qaeda without Al Jazeera—and today it’s YouTube with its MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) of jihadism that spread the theories, and of course the social networks, principally Facebook and Twitter.”

Intelligence services didn’t see the connection between the digital revolution and the theory of al-Suri, believing such a system and organization, which was so uncontrollable, “was going to make the jihadist machine implode.”

Meanwhile, seemingly by stealth,  but repeatedly highlighted by researchers like Kepel, Salafism spread its tentacles through French society and particularly among the “retro-colonial” Generation Y, angry about their own and their forbears exclusion from the Gallic dream and in some cases, like Mohammed Merah, nurtured in Algerian families that hated France.

During the transitional years of 2005 to 2012, the “incubation” of jihadism was underway until the Merah murders on the eve of François Hollande’s election as president, 3G jihadism burst out with a brutality that shocked French authorities. “The intelligence services were incapable of anticipating the fusion that it demonstrated between a foreign Islamist ideology spread through social networks, and the new political sociology of radicalized French Salafism,” Kepel writes.

Soon afterwards, the divorce between traditional Muslims and Hollande, who had been the beneficiary of the “Muslim vote,” was sealed with his law on gay marriage, inspiring mass protests when Catholics and Muslims “marched together under the banner of conservative values, but also because of the aggravation of the economic crisis which heavily struck the suburban ghettos.”

“This was the fertile terrain for the eruption of French jihad, in a society where the immigrant neighborhoods were caught in a vice-like grip between the resistible ascension of the National Front and the breakthrough of Salafism,” Kepel writes.

Islamist groups also brought the generations of French Islam and jihad together by  offering to post-colonial youth of the suburbs “a universal projection of their social frustration’’ on to the Palestinian cause, and Hamas. This continues right up until today’s fanatical devotion to ISIL by some 5,000 French ‘’implicated’’ in the so-called caliphate’s jihadism.

Among the most controversial yet persuasive contentions of Kepel’s book, is his attack on the elevation “Islamophobia” by Salafist leaders and associated zealots as the “cardinal sin” of the French republic.

Kepel decodes this catch-phrase as a debate-silencer. Behind it lies a sinister “victimization mentality” that he says permanently accuses the French state and the West of structural and institutional racism towards Muslims and so-called “philo-Semitism” or favoritism towards Jews and the memory of the Shoah.

The exclusionary, anti-Semitic discourse traps adherents in a fundamentalist bind that puts them on a separatist collision with broader society, and ignores or shuts down the at least five million-strong French Muslim community’s remarkable diversity. A staunch defender of the secular, pluralist model, Kepel concludes with a plea that France should not “concede victory to these zealots and entrust them with representing the Islamic community as only the fundamentalists imagine it.”

The question is, are enough of his compatriots listening?

*Correction: This article previously stated that France is the highest per capita Western exporter of jihadists. The sentence has been corrected.