This is a slightly extended version of the original that was originally published at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies (BESA).
France’s Superficial Skirmishes with Violent Muslims
By Dr.Manfred Gerstenfeld
A public uproar followed. Macron and his government understood that swift action had to be taken. A government program was announced which consisted of dozens of raids and arrests of individuals, and the disbandment of a few Muslim associations with connections to radical Islam. One of these was the “Cheikh Yassine Collective,” named after the founder of the Hamas terror group. France’s interior minister, Gerard Darmanin, said that its president, Abdelhakim Sefrioui, apparently launched a fatwa against the teacher.1 Furthermore, the expulsion of a number of radical asylum seekers was announced.2
Other incidents followed. The main one was a terror attack on 29 October in a church in Nice. A Tunisian killed three people. 3Another strand of violence was when an Armenian memorial near Lyon was tagged with pro-Turkish slogans and inscriptions of the Grey Wolves names, an extreme Turkish organization.4 The French government thereupon banned the Grey Wolves.5
In the background, there was already at the time of the beheading of the teacher at least one more substantial reason for Macron to take significant action. The next presidential elections will take place in 2022. As matters stand now it seems that in the runoff the two contenders will be — as in the 2017 election — Macron and Marine Le Pen, leader of the populist rightist party the National Rally.
After the murder, Le Pen gave a press conference. She said that France needs wartime legislation to combat “an organized and already installed force.” Le Pen added that Macron had proposed an inadequate and anachronistic containment strategy while the situation called for a strategy of re-conquest.6
Macron was a star pupil of the French elite state academic establishment. He is far more intelligent and knowledgeable than Le Pen. Macron is also a much better debater as became very clear in the runoff debate during the 2017 elections. Yet in a future debate Le Pen will have a huge argument: there is a major threat to France’s fundamental values and society coming out of a significant part of the Muslim community living in the country. She may even drop the words “part.“
The estimate frequently propagated about the number of Muslims in France is often 6%. That is most probably on the low side. In a debate, Le Pen can say: “You have talked a lot about the radical Muslim problem and you haven’t dealt with it structurally.” She can give many examples as the number of ghettos in France – almost entirely populated by Muslims. A 2004 report found that approximately 1.8 million people across France were living in places which were either “already ghettos or on the way to becoming them”.7 Not much progress to eliminate them has since been made. Authorities have difficulty entering these so-called “no go” areas. Any additional incident between now and the elections can be used by Le Pen to strengthen her case.
There are two levels of consideration that arise regarding Le Pen’s proposals and their compatibility with French law. The first is that within the rules of liberal democracy violent Muslims can probably not be fought effectively. More profoundly, if push came to shove, it may well be that in the necessary battle against radical Muslims, a majority of the French are in favor of taking action outside the boundaries set by liberal democracy.
For many years in Europe a partly erroneous idea has been promoted that there is a fundamental difference between Muslims and Islamists. In this concept, Islamists are defined as adherents to political Islam. Other religious Muslims concentrate on Islam’s spiritual aspects. Yet in reality the difference is far less clear. Muslim populations show a continuous pattern. At one extreme are people who declare that they are Muslims because they were born as such. Their commitment to Islam in practice ends with that. At the very other end are those who believe that Islam teaches them to conquer the world — be it with the word or the sword.
While the difference between the extremes are huge, there is movement along the lines. The murderer of the teacher was not a known radical. He had not been identified as such in the more than the past 10 years since he and his family have resided in France. Among the millions of Muslims in the country, this cannot be an isolated case. Some of those who are not violent today, can quickly become radicalized and the reverse. An additional factor, which probably plays a role in radicalization is the major unemployment among young Muslims.
The role of basic French values is also very important. Separation between state and religion is a key part of French society’s identity. Thus, the protection of the secular state has high priority. The author Caroline Fourest — a long time critic of many aspects of Islam — has recently written that France needs its Observatory for secularism: “to supervise the intoxication campaigns instead of promoting them.”8
If France starts to act even more actively against radical Mulsims, it may lead to a range of stronger reactions from Muslim countries. Turkey, which already has tense relations with France, is one candidate to be a leader here. President Rayep Tacib Erdogan has said that Macron needs a check of his mental health. Some boycotts of French products in the Muslim world are currently underway.9 Far worse was a statement by former Malaysian Prime Minister Mohamad Mahathir: “Muslims have a right to be angry and to kill millions of French people for the massacres of the past.”10
Various authors in neighboring countries have pointed out that the impact of the beheading of the teacher and the publicity given to it there were minor. This is an indicator of how limited European awareness is in this important area. The fact that problems of radical and violent Muslims exist elsewhere in several European countries provides an additional perspective. Yet France is at the forefront of the challenge that radical Muslims represent to liberal democracy.
The French government’s current superficial skirmishes against radical Muslims will in the long run be seen as not more than a footnote in a huge lengthy battle. This is a fight for which much of the basic research hasn’t even been done. Jerome Forquet, one of France’s leading sociopolitical commentators put it succinctly: “A race has started; because of ideological blindness, misjudgment or fear to name things as they are, much time has already been lost.”11
11 www.lefigaro.fr/vox/societe/jerome-fourquet-comprendre-la-pyramide-de-l-islamisme-radical-20201021, www.crif.org/fr/revuedepresse/france-jerome-fourquet-comprendre-la-pyramide-de-lislamisme-radical