To counter violent extremism in France, we need to go beyond the rhetoric of heroes and dehumanized enemies.
Aviral meme has been circulating over the past months of lockdowns, travel restrictions and general uncertainty. It says, “Can we all agree that in 2015 not a single person got the answer correct to ‘Where do you see yourself in 5 years from now?’”
On 16 October 2020, a middle-school history teacher was murdered in France by a radicalized young man, who in turn was shot and killed by the police.
Thousands filled the streets to pay homage to Samuel Paty, the beheaded teacher who was killed after showing his students a Charlie Hebdo cartoon depicting the Muslim prophet, during a class on freedom of expression. Five years ago, thousands mourned the 12 victims of the 7 January 2015 attack on the Charlie Hebdo offices.
The slogans “Je suis enseignant” and “Je suis prof” (I am a teacher) replaced “Je suis Charlie”, but the feeling is bitterly similar. The immediate reaction of the current President of the Republic is practically interchangeable with that of his predecessor in 2015, despite it being two different presidents, from different parties, condemning different murders.
Where François Hollande had stated: “Today it is the Republic as a whole, that has been attacked. The Republic equals freedom of expression; the Republic equals culture, creation, it equals pluralism and democracy. That is what the killers were targeting”; Emmanuel Macron stressed “This terrorist wanted to kill the Republic, its values, the Enlightenment, the possibility to turn our children into free citizens. This fight is our fight, and it is an existential fight.”
There seems to be a consensus, then as now, that the youth who committed these crimes meant to murder not only individuals, but attack the core values of the Republic, namely laïcité and freedom of thought. This might well be the case, but it begs the question of whether framing the issue as one of defenders of the Republic against anti-Republic villains helps us overcome this situation. Who belongs to ‘the Republic as a whole’?
According to a survey commissioned by the Charlie Hebdo magazine in August 2020, 74% of Muslim youth (15-24 years old) claim to prioritize their religious beliefs over ‘les valeurs de la Republique’ in their everyday life. While the magazine seems to imply that the importance of religion constitutes an antechamber of terrorist violence, the same survey shows that the vast majority of French Muslims condemn the Charlie Hebdo attacks. The link between the whole Muslim population and violent attacks is therefore misplaced at best, and disingenuous and dangerous at worst.
This narrative that frames violent extremism as a threat to Republican values is however a well-rehearsed one that has been internalized by successive governments. In 2015, the then Minister of Education Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, jointly with the Committee on Equality and Citizenship, put forward 11 measures labelled ‘great school mobilization for the values of the Republic’, with the declared goal of promoting republican values and citizenship education in schools. One practitioner interviewed for a study on radicalisation in France commented that.
“The great mobilization was, in truth, not so great, in that it once again suggested that the root issue lays with minoritized groups, particularly the Muslim youth, and that all that is needed is some good PR for them to embrace laïcité and the republican values such as equality—an equality that they know all too well the French state does not deliver.”
This is not meant to minimize, justify nor explain away the horrific murders that have taken place. But it raises the issue that, if we continue to put ‘Frenchness’ at the centre of gravity of the public debate on religiously inspired violence, and to frame young French men and women as an ‘external threat’ to the Republic because of their faith, we remain at an impasse.
The internal issues in France cannot be dealt with solely through a security approach. That inequality and exclusion provide a context for the development of certain forms of religious extremism is well known. In France, this is also connected to the mismatch between the official discourse of the State about itself—the narrative that France is inherently a non-racist country, because of the principle of republican equality—, and the reality that many live with. In this sense, the focus on ‘Islamist separatism’ offers a symbolic solution to a problem that is not primarily symbolic.
As a neighbour of Mohammed Merah, a young French man of Algerian origin who went on a shooting spree in March 2012 in Toulouse, commented in the aftermath of the attacks,
“No one can excuse what he did, but he is a product of French society, of the feeling that he had no hope, and nothing to lose. It was not al-Qaeda that created Mohammed Merah, it was France.”
Some promising initiatives in preventing and countering violent radicalisation in France do exist, but they require a type of engagement that goes beyond the rhetoric of heroes and dehumanized enemies.
Studies have found that the traditional sectarian approach, which sees religious minorities as threatening ‘cults’ to be treated as a security issue in itself, missed the target (by over-focussing on western converts to Islam and on ISIS).
AMAL is a programme first piloted in two Parisian prisons and recently adopted as a basis for the preventive tools used in Penitentiary Wings with particularly radicalized individuals. It seems to offer promising results. The programme engages a wide range of professionals –social workers, psychologists, theology and geopolitics experts– who are trained to deal with the complexity of radicalisation.
Together they develop holistic projects to help people overcome violence as a tool. This approach requires significant preliminary work to convince beneficiaries to join in the first place. Participants are pooled from convicted returnees with the goal of preventing jihadi recidivism, but participation is voluntary. It includes both individual and group work, psychological help, as well as anger and frustration management. At its core, it is based on the beneficiaries’ needs, which is arguably why it has proven more successful than pushing to ‘rewire’ convicts into loyal members of the laic republic.
The psychological value of the program in providing case-by-case dangerousness assessments cannot be overstated. Abdoullakh Abouyedovich Anzorov, the man who murdered the teacher, was killed, as were the Kouachi brothers who carried out the Charlie Hebdo attacks in 2015; but the trial of their alleged accomplices is currently ongoing.
With prisons fostering a mix of non-ideological convicts with already-radicalised individuals and youth at risk, it seems that many all too often exit the detention system more radicalised than they were when they had entered it. This is why programmes such as AMAL are so important. They take a practical approach and accept that deep-seated divisions and resentments over France’s identity are internal to la République, and cannot be wished away by ‘othering’ a whole sector of its population.