By Adam Nossiter
July 12, 2016
What propels Islamist terrorism and attacks against France is more than an academic debate: The answer shapes policy toward blunting the threat.
So it is no inconsequential matter in a culture under attack, and one that so cherishes its intellectual debates, that France’s two leading scholars of radical Islam — former friends — have turned bitter rivals over their differing views.
“Madman,” “thug,” “illiterate,” “paranoid,” “ass,” “not a thinker” — these are just some of the choicer insults the two men have hurled at each other in a peculiarly personal quarrel with far larger stakes that has reverberated through the French news media and society for months.
The two distinguished academics, Olivier Roy and Gilles Kepel, have long lists of books to their name, and years of field work in the Middle East, Central Asia and the troubled French suburbs. They are both eagerly consulted by the French news media and government officials.
But with France on edge and the continued target of terrorist attacks, their clashing analyses of the origins, development and future of jihadism have broken out of academic circles to present an important question for France and for all of Europe: Which man holds the key to understanding the phenomenon?
Mr. Kepel, 61, a professor at Sciences Po, the prestigious political science institute, finds much of the answer inside France — in its suburbs and their dysfunctional sociology — and in the role of Islam, angering many on the left.
Mr. Roy, 66, who as a bearded young man roamed Afghanistan with the mujahedeen in the 1980s and now teaches at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy, places greater emphasis on individual behaviour and psychology in a jihadism he considers strictly marginal to Islam.
Mr. Kepel sees individuals as cogs in a system — part of a classically French, structuralist tradition that minimizes the role of individual human agency.
Mr. Roy, on the other hand, sees mostly troubled people in the jihadist ranks who act out their fantasies of violence and cruelty.
The terrorists who have carried out recent attacks were mostly marginalized young men and petty criminals, he says, adding that they have used Islam as a cover to pursue extreme violence.
“They haven’t had a militant past,” Mr. Roy said of many of these terrorists, in a telephone interview. The problem they represent, he says, is the “Islamicisation of radicalism.”
It is a signature phrase that enrages Mr. Kepel, who leans toward its opposite: the radicalization of Islam.
“That ignoramus,” Mr. Kepel grumbled in an interview this month in his book-lined office, offering some choice gibes about his onetime friend’s lack of Arabic.
Mr. Kepel testified for an influential 2015 parliamentary report, wrote a best seller on terrorism after the attacks in Paris in November, and has been omnipresent in television and radio studios.
“At the ministry, they tell me, ‘I saw Kepel yesterday,’ ” said Mr. Roy, himself a favourite of the country’s dominant left-leaning news media. His arguments, for the moment at least, appear to be winning in government circles.
As the jockeying has intensified in official circles, so has the falling-out between the old friends.
Today they cannot stand each other, and, with the passion that typifies intellectual fights in a country where nothing short of war is more serious, they contemptuously dismiss each other’s views.
“The King Is Naked,” read the headline on Mr. Kepel’s attack on Mr. Roy this spring in the newspaper Libération, in a play on the French meaning of Mr. Roy’s name.
In turn, while acknowledging a long and now broken friendship, Mr. Roy today offers his own less-than-friendly critique of Mr. Kepel as a kind of cloistered intellectual.
“We were friends for 20 years,” Mr. Roy said in the interview. “I travelled with him in Istanbul. But I was very struck by his incapacity to talk to anybody.”
“He’s sincere the way a madman is,” he added. “He’s not a thinker. He’s not a philosopher.”
The French debate has echoes of Republican criticism in the United States of President Obama for his reluctance to use the word Islam in connection with terrorism.
But as is so often the case in contemporary France, the heart of the dispute here is a disagreement about the country’s relationship with Islam.
Mr. Roy sees a Muslim population that is relatively well integrated.
But for Mr. Kepel, the murderous jihadism that struck France in 2015 is the expression of a slow-burning Islamist radicalization that took shape over decades because of a failure of integration.
The year 2005 is dividing line for Mr. Kepel. After riots in the Paris suburbs that year, Muslim youths felt a “need to dissociate from France, and leave it,” he wrote in his book “Terreur dans l’Hexagone,” which appeared soon after the Paris attacks in November and sold tens of thousands of copies to a public hungry for explanation.
Mr. Kepel calls this the third generation of Islam in France, after a first generation of immigration and a second of unsatisfied political restiveness.
In 2005, Mr. Kepel said, a text appeared online that founded what he calls the third generation of jihadism abroad.
This 1,600-page text — “Appeal to Global Islamic Resistance,” by a Syrian-born engineer, Abu Musab al-Suri — calls for “civil war in Europe” fomented by “un-integrated” Muslim youth.
For Mr. Kepel, this was the playbook for the atrocities of the Islamic State jihadists that have bedevilled France.
“If you want to comprehend their functioning, you have got to understand their background,” Mr. Kepel said. “You have got to understand the intellectual resources of Salafism,” he added, referring to the ultraconservative, sometimes militant movement in Islam.
But Mr. Roy scoffs at what he sees as his rival’s near-obsessive reliance on the text by Mr. Suri, a onetime functionary of Al Qaeda who broke with Osama bin Laden. “Nobody is interested in al-Suri,” Mr. Roy said. “It’s absurd.”
When Mr. Kepel “talks of a ‘third generation in 2005,’ that’s false,” Mr. Roy said. “It’s exactly the same profile as in the second generation — petty delinquency.”
“There is no proof that shows the young men go from Salafism to terrorism,” Mr. Roy said, pointing out that the planner of the Paris attacks in November, Abdelhamid Abaaoud, ate McDonald’s, which is not Halal. “None of the terrorists were Salafists.”
“They are on the margins,” Mr. Roy said of the recent wave of terrorists. “They have trajectories that are profoundly individual.”
French commentators have avoided picking sides in this fight, though Mr. Kepel’s more coldblooded approach has generally found less sympathy.
“The Islamicisation of radicalism — this is more of an intuition — but it is a humanist intention,” Leyla Dakhli, a researcher at the C.N.R.S. research institute, said in an interview.
“It is a hypothesis that has the merit of not isolating the Muslim world,” said Ms. Dakhli, who analyzed the quarrel recently in the magazine Revue du Crieur.
Others find the two points of view not necessarily mutually exclusive. But there is little chance that the two men will reconcile and write a book together, in the great French tradition.
“He insulted me,” Mr. Roy said. “It’s unacceptable. He’s been insulting me for six months, at all the conferences. He’s been waging a personal campaign. It’s totally unacceptable.”