John Bowen has previously authored two revealing books about French discourse on the challenges of incorporating Muslims into French society. He has focused on “public reasoning”: the terms on which people publicly debate these challenges. His article, prompted by the January murders at the Charlie Hebdo headquarters and the Hyper Cacher market, advances this agenda with clarity, insight, and a sense of hope.
This focus on public reasoning, however, takes attention away from analyzing causes and effects. Thus I propose a few corrective notes on questionable causal claims in Bowen’s essay.
Social divisions are not the culprit behind religious extremism.
Bowen’s opening claim is that healing the social divisions in France between Muslims and wider French society is “essential to combating [violent] radicalization.” Healing social divisions is the right thing to do. But decades of research on violent religious radicalism have not identified these divisions as the culprit. Studies by Alan Krueger and Jitka Maleckova show that messianic jihadists tend to be reasonably well off compared to their destitute co-ethnics. Pioneering work by Diego Gambetta and Steffen Hertog disturbingly shows that suicide missionaries are more likely to have engineering degrees than a random selection of folk from Islamic societies would yield. And a paper by Eli Berman and coauthors shows that recruitment in several terrorist insurgencies was targeted at those with reasonable jobs.
Nor are these findings limited to countries already in political turmoil. Consider the Tsarnaev brothers and their bombing of innocents at the Boston marathon. They are closer to the image of the engineer jihadists than of marginalized youth living in jobless ghettoes. Those attracted to violent religious cults, a wealth of data now show, are, on average, not the hopeless kids in the banlieues, but those with more resources and grander visions.
Leaving aside the matter of who becomes a terrorist, the core question Bowen asks is, “How is it that in today’s national imagination, Muslims are perceived as the major obstacles to unity?” His answer focuses on physical and visual “boundaries” that segregate immigrants, who live without job prospects in social housing and whose primary connection to the French is through racist and uncaring police.
But this explanation cannot account for those immigrants in similar physical isolation who are more successful in the French labor market. Claire Adida, Marie-Anne Valfort, and I did an experiment to determine whether immigrant status and physical separation are the true sources of discrimination. We sent out resumés on behalf of two job applicants, both black African French citizens, French educated, and qualified for work as accountants. The only difference was that one applicant’s first name was Khadija and the other’s Marie. Marie received significantly more callbacks than did Khadija. This result can only be explained by their religious identifications. Simultaneously, we conducted a survey of second- and third-generation Christian and Muslim Senegalese. Controlling for a wide range of factors (such as the situation and timing of the family’s first migrant to arrive in France), the Christian households earned €400 per month more than the matched Muslim households. The Senegalese families were all physically consigned to the same social housing at first arrival. But systematic discrimination was aimed more effectively at Muslims. Physical boundaries cannot be the answer.
What about visual boundaries and Bowen’s vivid point about “visible Islam”? Mosques and headscarves are treated in France as threats to secularity, while Catholic habits and Jewish kippahs are okay. Bowen believes maintaining these boundaries is an anachronism, but I am not so sure. In our forthcoming book, Adida, Valfort, and I present preliminary evidence showing that France’s assimilation policies—such as “welcoming contracts,” which deny difference by demanding language acquisition and acquaintance with French values as conditions for continued residence—have had marginally better success than those of other countries more open to multicultural recognition. Maybe making visible Islam publicly invisible helps diminish discrimination.
Returning to the terrorist events of January, I acknowledge that the culprits were raised in those banlieues that Bowen accurately portrays as physically and visually beyond the boundary of mainstream France. But what is the link between living on one side of the border and murdering innocent people on the other? There are many reasons to bring hope and inclusion to those living in conditions that Bowen describes, but there is no evidence that breaking down boundaries would reduce terrorist acts. Powerful cults have their own dynamics.
I am not taking issue with Bowen’s remedies—fairer rules on hate speech and more homegrown imams performing chaplaincy services in France’s prisons. But given French history—including the Algerian war—finding a way to integrate Muslims so that they can become equal citizens may require far more than Bowen asks. And until we figure out how to delegitimize Salafi jihadism transnationally, we should not fool ourselves into thinking that the appropriate response to an inhuman cult is a fairer deal for those in whose name the cultists are killing.