France’s Oedipal Islamist Complex

France is at war! Perhaps. But against whom or what?

Last November, when the Islamic State staged the shootings that killed 130 in Paris, it did not send Syrians. A year ago, when al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula purportedly ordered the deadly attack on the office of Charlie Hebdo, it did not send gunmen from Yemen. Rather, both groups drew from a reservoir of radicalized French youth who, no matter what happens in the Middle East, are already disaffected and are seeking a cause, a label, a grand narrative to which they can add the bloody signature of their personal revolt.

The rallying cry of these youth is opportunistic: Today it is the Islamic State; yesterday, they were with al Qaeda; before that, in 1995, they were subcontractors for the Algerian Armed Islamic Group, or they practiced the nomadism of personal jihad, from Bosnia to Afghanistan, by way of Chechnya. Tomorrow they will fight under another banner, so long as combat death, age, or disillusion do not empty their ranks.

There is no third, fourth, or nth generation of jihadis. Since 1996, we have been confronted with a very stable phenomenon: the radicalization of two categories of French youth — second-generation Muslims and native converts. The essential problem for France, therefore, is not the caliphate in the Syrian desert, which will disappear sooner or later, like an old mirage that has become a nightmare. The problem is the revolt of these youth. And the real challenge is to understand what these youth represent: whether they are the vanguard of an approaching war or, on the contrary, are just a rumbling of history.

* * *

Two readings of the situation dominate at the moment and are shaping the debates on television and in the opinion pages of newspapers: These are, basically, the cultural explanation and the Third World explanation.

The first puts forth that recurring and nagging “war of civilizations” theory: The revolt of young Muslims demonstrates the extent to which Islam cannot be integrated into the West, at least not so long as theological reform has not struck the call of jihad from the Quran. The second interpretation evokes post-colonial suffering, the identification of these youth with the Palestinian cause, their rejection of Western intervention in the Middle East, and their exclusion from a French society that is racist and Islamophobic. In short, the old song: So long as we haven’t resolved the Israel-Palestine conflict, there will be a revolt.

But the two explanations run up against the same problem: If the causes of radicalization are structural, then why do they affect only a tiny fraction of those in France who call themselves Muslims? Only a few thousand, among several million.

But these young radicals have been identified! All the terrorists who have actually taken action were, notoriously, in the “S File” — that is, on the government’s watch list. I don’t wish to get into a discussion here of prevention — I simply note that the information about them is there, and it is accessible. So let us look at who they are and try to draw some conclusions.

Nearly all the French jihadis belong to two very precise categories: They are either “second-generation” French — that is, born or raised from a very young age in France — or they are “native” French converts (whose numbers have increased with time, but who already constituted 25 percent of radicals at the end of the 1990s). This means that, among the radicals, there are practically no “first-generation” jihadis (including recent arrivals), but especially no “third-generation” jihadis.

The third-generation category in France is growing: The Moroccan immigrants of the 1970s are now grandparents. But one does not find their grandchildren among the terrorists. And why do converts, who never suffered from racism, wish to brutally avenge the humiliation experienced by Muslims? Especially since many of these converts — like Maxime Hauchard, the Normandy-born man who appeared in the Islamic State’s beheading videos — come from rural France and have little reason to identify with a Muslim community that for them exists only in theory. In short, this is not a “revolt of Islam” or one of Muslims, but a specific problem concerning two categories of youth, the majority of whom are of immigrant origin. This is not, then, the radicalization of Islam, but the Islamization of radicalism.

What is the common ground between the second generation and the converts? It is, first of all, a question of a generational revolt: Both have ruptured with their parents or, more precisely, with what their parents represent in terms of culture and religion.

Members of the second generation do not adhere to the Islam of their parents, nor do they represent a tradition that is rebelling against Westernization. They are Westernized. They speak better French than their parents. They have all shared in the youth culture of their generation — they’ve drunk alcohol, smoked weed, flirted with girls in nightclubs. A large number of them have spent time in prison. And then one morning, they (re)converted, choosing Salafi Islam, which is to say, an Islam that rejects the concept of culture, an Islam possessing of norms that allow them to reconstruct the self all by themselves. Because they want nothing of the culture of their parents or of the Western culture that has become a symbol of their self-hatred.

The key in this revolt is the absence of the transmission of a religion that is culturally integrated. It’s a problem that concerns neither the first generation, whose members bring cultural Islam from their country of origin but who haven’t been able to pass it down, nor the third generation, who speak French with their parents and who have, thanks to them, a familiarity with how Islam can be expressed in French society. If it is true that there are fewer Turks than North Africans within the radical movements, it is undoubtedly because the transition has been smoother for the Turks, since the Turkish state took it upon itself to send teachers and imams to its overseas communities (which poses other problems, but allows the Turks to avoid the adherence to Salafism and violence).

Young converts, similarly, adhere to a “pure” form of religion; cultural compromise is of no interest to them (which is completely different from previous generations who converted to Sufism). In this they join the second generation in their allegiance to an “Islam of rupture” — generational rupture, cultural rupture, and, finally, political rupture. It serves no purpose to offer them a “moderate Islam”; it is the radicalism that attracts them in the first place. Salafism is not only a matter of sermonizing financed by Saudi Arabia — it’s also the product that suits these youth, who are at odds with society.

What’s more — and this is the greatest difference from the circumstances of young Palestinians who take up diverse forms of intifada — the Muslim parents of radicalized second-generation youth do not understand the revolt of their progeny. More and more, as with the parents of converts, they try to prevent the radicalization of their children: They call the police; if the children have left the country, they follow to try to bring them back; they fear, with good reason, that the older children will draw in their younger siblings. Far from being the symbol of the radicalization of Muslim populations as a whole, the jihadis explode the generational gap, which is to say, quite simply, the family.

The jihadis are on the margins of Muslim communities: They almost never have a history of devotion and religious practice. Quite the opposite. Journalists’ articles all resemble each other in their astonishment. After each attack, they question the inner circle of the murderer, and there is always the same sense of surprise. “We don’t understand; he was a nice boy (or a variation: “just a harmless juvenile delinquent”). He wasn’t observant: He drank, he smoked joints, he went out with girls.… Ah, yes, it’s true, in the last few months he changed — he let his beard grow and began to inundate us with religion.” For the feminine version, see the plethora of articles about Hasna Aït Boulahcen, “Miss Frivolous Jihad.”

This cannot be explained by the idea of taqiyya, or concealment of one’s faith, because once they are “born again,” these youth do not hide anything, but rather display their new conviction on Facebook. They exhibit their new almighty selves, their desire for revenge for their suppressed frustrations, the pleasure they derive from the new power lent them by their willingness to kill, and their fascination with their own death. The violence that they subscribe to is a modern violence; they kill in the manner of mass shooters in America or Anders Breivik in Norway — coldly and calmly. Nihilism and pride are profoundly tied to each other.

The fanatical individualism of these youth goes back to their isolation from Muslim communities. Few among them regularly attend a mosque. The religious leaders they eventually choose to follow are often self-proclaimed imams. Their radicalization arises around the fantasy of heroism, violence, and death, not of sharia or utopia. In Syria, they only fight war; none integrate or interest themselves in civil society. And if they take sexual slaves or recruit young women on the Internet to become the wives of future martyrs, it’s because they are in no way socially integrated in the Muslim societies that they claim to defend. They are more nihilist than utopist. Even if some of them have spent time with Tablighi Jamaat (a movement that preaches fundamentalist Islam), none of them have joined the Union of Islamic Organizations in France, and none have participated in a political movement or undertaken efforts to support Palestine. None took up community service: delivering meals for the end of Ramadan, preaching in mosques, or going door to door. None have undertaken serious religious study. And none have taken an interest in theology, not even in the nature of jihad or of the Islamic State.

They were radicalized within a small group of “buddies” who met in a particular place (neighborhood, prison, sport club); they recreate a “family,” a brotherhood. There is an important pattern that no one has studied: The brotherhood is often biological. There is very often a pair of “bros” who take action together (the Kouachi and Abdeslambrothers; Abdelhamid Abaaoud, who “kidnapped” his little brother; the Clain brothers, who converted together; not to mention the Tsarnaev brothers, the authors of the Boston Marathon bombing in April 2013). It is as though radicalizing a sibling (sisters included) is a way to underscore the generational dimension and the rupture with the parents. The cell members make an effort to create emotional ties among themselves: A member will often marry the sister of a brother in arms. The jihadi cells do not resemble those of radical movements inspired by Marxism or nationalism, such as the Algerian FLN, the IRA, or the ETA. Founded on personal relationships, they are more difficult to infiltrate.

The terrorists therefore are not the expression of a radicalization of the Muslim population, but rather reflect a generational revolt that affects a very precise category of youth.

* * *

Why Islam? For members of the second generation, it’s obvious: They are reclaiming, on their own terms, an identity that, in their eyes, their parents have debased. They are “more Muslim than the Muslims” and, in particular, than their parents. The energy that they put into reconverting their parents (in vain) is significant, but it shows to what extent they are on another planet (all the parents have a story to tell about these exchanges). As for the converts, they choose Islam because it’s the only thing on the market of radical rebellion. Joining the Islamic State offers the certainty of terrorizing.

A version of this article originally appeared in Le Monde on Nov. 24, 2015. It has been translated from the French by Elisabeth Zerofsky.

Photo credit: CARL COURT/AFP/Getty Images


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