John Bowen brilliantly summarizes the ambiguities and hypocrisies of France’s republican and secular faiths. In the face of radicalization, republican reflexes may be counterproductive. He suggests instead modifying “specific institutions and rules . . . to better respond to new circumstances.”
I agree, but what makes France’s predicament particularly difficult is the way in which religion and race are intertwined with the fraught geopolitics of the broader Muslim world.
On this point I differ slightly from Bowen. He argues, with considerable justification, that “the experience of French Muslims is awfully similar to that of African Americans . . . and it has little to do with religion.” Nevertheless, it is not quite right to reduce political radicalization to social alienation. It is not Islam as such but political Islam that is the source of deep anxiety across Europe, where a small number of minority youths have succumbed to the appeal of radical jihadist elements in Syria, Yemen, Iraq, and Afghanistan. There are not many radicals, but, as January’s attacks showed, their ability to damage the European social fabric is significant.
Radicalization cannot be reduced to social alienation.
That said, Bowen is surely correct to insist on a sharp distinction between political Islam and Islam tout court. The perpetrators of the January attacks were alienated, disaffected youths whose familiarity with guns and violence predated their indoctrination. They were radicalized in prison, where the preaching of extremist political Islam flourishes. It is hard to see, however, how state-sanctioned education and licensing of imams, subsidies for Muslim schools, support for the construction of mosques, and other standard tools for disciplining institutionalized religion would halt the sort of rogue proselytizing that thrives among the incarcerated and in certain banlieues.
Bowen’s comparison of social alienation in France and the United States also illuminates by recalling the generational split in the American Civil Rights Movement between those who advocated nonviolent protest and a younger, more militant element drawn to armed struggle. Today’s alienated French youth are less willing than were previous generations to accept the perpetually deferred promise of full integration. In the words of World Politics Review Editor Judah Grunstein, “They are more susceptible to the narrative of otherness.” The analogy between today’s radical jihadism in France and the black power movement breaks down, however, because there is no established French civil rights movement for more radical youth to react against. Despite the existence of groups such as SOS-Racisme, Ni Putes Ni Soumises, and LICRA (Ligue Internationale Contre le Racisme et l’Antisémitisme), or even the more recent Collectif contre l’Islamophobie, there is no organized minority-led political movement advocating equality of opportunity, increased representation, or an end to discrimination.
The absence of a French civil rights movement reflects in part the republican hostility to “communalism” that Bowen notes, but also the success of integration. Despite the persistence of “difficult” suburban neighborhoods—what Bowen calls “the poor outer cities around Paris, Lyon, or Lille”—there are substantial flows of people into and out of these troubled places. Those who integrate move beyond the reach of community organizers. And many do integrate. Indeed, among the dead in the recent terror attacks were a black policewoman from Martinique, a Muslim proofreader atCharlie Hebdo, and a Muslim policeman whose family made a moving statement on behalf of the republican values of liberty, equality, and fraternity. Muslims are substantially represented in the state bureaucracy, military, police, and the teaching profession.
Unfortunately, even relative success in integration may not suffice to overcome “the narrative of otherness.” One of the killers, Amedy Coulibaly, had escaped his criminal past, was hired by Coca Cola, and was even selected to visit the Élysée Palace as a representative of an upwardly mobile minority. Another young man, who recruited one of the Kouachi brothers for jihad in Iraq, had gotten out of prison and was in a nurses’ training program until the attacks brought his past to the attention of hospital authorities.
Why haven’t French politicians sought the votes of minorities by responding more vigorously to the needs of neglected communities? One answer is the blindness of the republican tradition itself. As every French schoolchild knows, the revolutionary statesman Clermont-Tonnerre declared, “Jews must be refused everything as a nation and accorded everything as individuals.” This is the classic statement of French republicanism’s unwillingness to admit the claims of minorities qua communities. And the growing power of the extreme-right National Front has made it tougher to spend money on minorities, whom Front leader Marine Le Pen portrays as claiming more than their fair share of France’s generous social services.
Prime Minister Valls’s denunciation of de facto apartheid cast the urgency of the problem in stark terms, but he made the same comparison after the 2005 riots, yet nothing changed. Perhaps this time will be different.