By Robert F. Worth
April 5, 2017
‘They have taken on a religion that has nothing to do with their own origins. It’s a lost generation.’
The struggle over the head scarf is part of a broader effort by the French state, which harbours a quaint ambition to reach some sort of grand bargain with Islam as it did with the Catholic Church in 1905. That arrangement nowhere mentioned the word laïcité, but it reset the boundaries between church and state, reining in church influence in the public sphere and appropriating most ecclesiastical property. This is far more difficult to do with Muslims in France, who are extremely diverse, with no equivalent to the Catholic hierarchy. The fact that many mosques in France were built and supplied with imams by foreign organizations and governments, notably Morocco and Turkey is another obstacle. The French Council of the Muslim Faith, created by the government in 2003, has periodically issued calls for a reform of this system, with few results.
Although France’s Muslim community is leaderless, one man has assumed an increasingly prominent and confrontational role, and has become Kepel’s chief example of the Islamist fellow-traveller. Marwan Muhammad is executive director of the Collective Against Islamophobia in France, or C.C.I.F. Under his direction, the C.C.I.F. has raised its profile, filing frequent lawsuits and publicizing episodes of what it sees as anti-Muslim bias. Muhammad, a slight-figured man with a piercing gaze and a prayer bruise on his bald forehead, is 38, a former trader whose gifts as a speaker and promoter are indisputable. When I met him, in a cafe outside his offices in the Stade de France, just north of Paris, he said he saw his own work as comparable to the American civil rights movement. Speaking an impressively fast and American-accented English, he said that he had no trouble with French laws on laïcité, but that they had been “recoded” by racists who shielded themselves behind secularism. The 2004 law on the head scarf in schools, he said, had been “the mother of all tensions,” and the antiterrorism campaign had become an excuse for attacking Muslims. The root of the problem, he said, was that France was still locked in a racist, colonialist mind-set and could not see Muslims as equals. When I raised the question of Islamist militancy in towns like Mantes-la-Jolie, he suggested it was an emotional reaction to racism, but also asserted the rights of Muslims to dress and behave as they liked.
Last summer, Muhammad gained new prominence by helping to shape public perceptions of the Burkini affair. It happened in August, when a number of French seaside towns enacted bans on the full-body swimsuit, designed to respect Muslim modesty codes for women. The French police then began forcing women in Burkinis to take them off, pay a fine or face arrest. The story became a global sensation, with the French government coming off in most accounts as petty, Islamophobic and hypocritical. The Burkini, the garment’s supporters said, was an instrument not of repression but of liberation: a way for conservative women, who might otherwise be trapped inside, to enjoy themselves. All this took place just a month after the terrorist carnage in Nice, where a man plowed a truck through a crowd of pedestrians on a seaside boulevard, killing 86 and wounding many more. For some observers, the Burkini affair may have suggested an unspoken corollary: Perhaps the French are helping to bring this terrorist hatred on themselves.
For Kepel, the lesson of the Burkini was entirely different. He did not deny that arresting the women was an appallingly clumsy (and self-defeating) thing to do. But he also saw yet another effort by Islamists — and their left-wing fellow-travellers — to turn France from the victim of terrorist atrocity into the aggressor. He pointed out that the international press coverage mostly ignored the rise of Salafist-style Islam as a context for the Burkini. In other words, many Frenchwomen in Burkinis might have been wearing bikinis a few years ago. The Burkini episode helped furnish what has become a dominant theme of his ongoing public dispute with the left. His new book, published in France in November, includes his most ferocious polemic yet against the “delusion” of Islamophobia. It also features an acidic portrayal of Marwan Muhammad, whom he portrays as an opportunist serving the interests of Jihadis.
Kepel’s recent work on the rise of Jihadism in France’s prisons and the banlieues — much of it carried out by a dedicated band of student researchers — is rooted in a set of alarming numbers. As of late March, there were 421 “Islamic terrorists” in France’s jails and prisons and 1,224 people who had been identified as “radicalized,” according to France’s Justice Ministry. Many of these are in prison for minor or non-terrorist offenses and will soon be released. Each attack worsens the cycle of mistrust between Français de souche — the phrase means “French from the roots,” and refers to white Christians — and their Muslim compatriots. To address this fear, a dubious new cottage industry has grown up over the past two years. Government grants for privately run “de-radicalization” programs have been easy money, with scores of new outfits and self-proclaimed gurus trumpeting their claims of success.
“Everyone is groping — no one knows what to do,” I was told by Adeline Hazan, who leads a government watchdog agency for the nation’s prisons. It does not help that about half of France’s prisoners are Muslim (though Muslims make up less than 10 percent of the French population). In some overcrowded jails, the percentage is much higher. Hazan’s group released a report last summer excoriating the government’s new effort to segregate jihadi prisoners, saying the plan threatened to make matters worse. The segregation scheme originated just after the Paris attacks in January 2015, when public attention was focused on the prison system’s reputation as a factory for terrorists. But the proposed remedy may have been worse than the disease. The newly isolated jihadis were in a better position to reinforce one another’s beliefs; and the government’s plans for de-radicalization — which included “therapeutic fencing” classes — seemed little more than a joke. In September, an inmate in one of the segregated units stabbed a guard and almost killed him. A month later, France’s justice minister, Jean-Jacques Urvoas, cancelled the segregation scheme. When I met Urvoas at the ministry, I asked him what the word “radicalization” meant. He replied: “I don’t know. And I am going to stop using it.”
Whatever word you use, French prosecutors and judges now struggle daily with the mystery of how terrorists are made. A year ago, one of France’s top prosecutors dealing with terrorism began convening a panel of academic experts once a month in her office at the Palais de Justice in Paris. It is the first effort of its kind. In December, I attended one of these meetings and listened for two hours as a dozen political scientists, sociologists and psychologists dissected the life and psyche of M., a young convict who’d grown up in a banlieue and joined ISIS. The participants argued about the same question that divides Kepel and Roy: Did everything come back to Islam, or was that just a pretext? “What’s more important, the search or the response?” one person said.
The discussion ranged widely, but returned again and again to the question of “how one lives as a Muslim in France while integrating.” One participant said, “I find him to be a psychopath,” prompting a burst of laughter; another said he found M. “typical in many ways.”
At 9 o’clock, the prosecutor brought the discussion to a close, and her assistants poured Champagne and provided a round of amuse-bouches and pastries. I asked the prosecutor if she had found the session useful, despite the disagreements. She said it had shed light on the most difficult questions she must assess: the convict’s “capacity for dissimulation” and his degree of dangerousness.
The number of people who require this kind of exhausting scrutiny is daunting: Some 700 French citizens are with ISIS in Iraq and Syria, and as the terrorist group loses ground, more of them will return home. I watched three of these returnees standing in the defendant’s dock during their trial in Paris in December. One of them had been transferred from jail, and appeared in a box to the side of the courtroom, flanked by guards. The others, who were at liberty, stood next to their lawyers, facing a panel of judges. The three men started out as friends in Roubaix, a town in northern France that has gained some notoriety as an Islamist stronghold. All of them ended up in Syria fighting for Islamist militias and eventually found their way back to France. The president of the judicial panel, a balding man with a scholarly mien, questioned them closely about their mind-set and beliefs and returned again and again to the question of Islam. “Today, would you say you’re a republican Muslim?” he asked one of them. The accused, a white convert to Islam identified as Pierre T., mumbled “Ah, that’s a tough one,” and added that he preferred “normal Muslim.” Later, the judge asked if he could practice his form of Islam and continue to work.
Another defendant, identified as Mehdi K., who had served in the French military before deserting and travelling to Syria, was pressed to describe his future plans. “I see myself living in France with my wife and children,” he replied. “I am still Muslim, rigorous toward myself.” The judge seemed unsatisfied with the response, and at one point he said something about the danger of Islam’s being turned into a political ideology. As the session ended, the prosecutor demanded the maximum penalty for Mehdi K., saying that his radical convictions were deep-rooted and that he posed a “manifest danger.” Mehdi K.’s lawyer protested, saying the prosecutor was asking the judge to determine the sentence “not for what he has done, but for the potential risk that he poses.” It struck me as an odd objection to make. The judge had made very clear that he was far more worried about Mehdi K.’s future than his past.
With all this attention focused on them, many Jihadis are now adapting, and have become far better at disguising their beliefs. Farhad Khosrokhavar, a sociologist who has spent many years researching Muslims in the French prison system, told me it has become almost impossible to get honest testimony out of the inmates. Many of them shave their beards, Khosrokhavar said, and adopt a mild demeanour, and sometimes they even stop praying and fasting during Ramadan, all so as to deceive the authorities and, presumably, get out of prison faster.
On a brisk morning in December, Kepel arrived at the gate of Villepinte prison, northeast of Paris. It is a sprawling, high-walled compound, with huge square guard towers overlooking a grim landscape of highways, power lines and vacant fields. The prison is notorious for its overcrowded conditions; its administrator recently wrote an unusual letter of protest to a French magistrate saying that it was so far over capacity that it could not accept a single inmate more. It also hosts about 20 men accused of terrorist offenses, mostly hardened Jihadis who have fought with ISIS in Syria.
Emerging from his car, Kepel was greeted by the prison administrator, a dark-haired woman in her 40s, and escorted inside, where two inmates were waiting in a spare room near the prison library. One was a thief, a svelte man with long hair and a beard; the other was a thickset North African who was in for nine years. The two inmates — who asked not to have their names disclosed — met Kepel on a previous visit and seemed delighted to see him again. Both were Muslim, and both were vehemently opposed to ISIS. By their account, Kepel’s first visit to the prison, in which he delivered a lecture on Islam and Jihadism, had humiliated the prison’s tight-knit group of unrepentant ISIS members by knocking down their arguments with deft quotes from the Quran. “God is sovereign in his orders,” he recited in Arabic at the close of a tense, angry debate, “but most people do not know it.”
The visit, along with group discussions, they said, had pushed the jihadist contingent to be more communicative. They had kept to themselves before the debate, their lives and rap sheets a mystery. “Now we begin to understand a bit more,” the North African told me. One of the jihadis “had a breakup, others had family problems.” Some of them, he added, had begun to talk a bit differently about their prospects after swapping stories with other inmates doing longer sentences. “They had this idea that we’re fiche S” — the designation used for monitoring potential terrorists — so “there’s no future. Now they seem to understand there is a future. They talk about having jobs, marriage, kids. There’s a positive evolution.”
But when the two inmates talked about life outside prison, their own optimism faded. France, they said, seemed to be building toward a confrontation with Islam. It was the same in all of Europe, they said, and even in the United States (they made clear that they spent much of their time watching TV news). For young men from the French banlieues, assimilation and radicalization appeared to be two sides of a coin that never fell in their favor. “All the profiling, the discrimination, it adds up,” the North African said. He continued, referring to the numeric code for France’s most notorious banlieue: “Ninety-three — if that’s on your C.V., it’s hard to get a job. There’s frustration among the young. That becomes hate, and hate becomes radicalism.”
Just before we left, I asked the North African whether he expected the recent wave of terrorist attacks in France to continue. This was just after the arrest of several terrorist cells, and two months before a machete-wielding jihadist attacked guards near the Louvre. He gave me a sombre look. “This is just the beginning,” he said.
Many French Muslims, even in the banlieues, seem to agree with Kepel that the core problem is the spread of more aggressive forms of Islam. In Mantes-la-Jolie, I met a 50-year-old shop owner who told me he believed that by the 1990s, the situation was improving, and “France was ready to assimilate its Maghrebins,” or North Africans. What changed, he said, was not primarily the advances of the racist National Front, but the spread of Gulf-sponsored Salafism. The man described this phenomenon in terms almost identical to Kepel’s. He told me he had been shaken by some of his encounters with young local men, many of them poorly educated and delinquent but full of religious rage. Sometimes, he said, men came into the shop and called him an infidel, in front of other customers. The shopkeeper asked me not to use his name, because he feared reprisals from the Salafis. “Now, people seem almost not to want assimilation,” he said. “They have taken on a religion that has nothing to do with their own origins. It’s a lost generation.”
Naima M’Faddel, who is one of France’s relatively few Muslim elected officials as a deputy mayor in Dreaux, told me she remembered the exact moment when she became aware of Salafism. As a girl in the 1980s, she once answered the door to find herself facing a bearded man in a djellaba, who quickly turned his gaze to the ground so as to avoid the sin of looking at an unveiled female. “Is the master of the house here?” he said. She replied that he was not. The man said, “Tell him he should go to the mosque.” M’Faddel, who grew up in a mixed neighborhood of European and North African immigrants, said her family witnessed the Islamist influence becoming dominant as the demography shifted. “My impression is that the majority of Arab Muslims in the banlieues have been penetrated by Salafist thinking,” she told me. M’Faddel said French racism and elitism were certainly problems, but she also placed a lot of blame on the political left for “infantilizing” Muslims and not trying hard enough to integrate them as citizens.
Another passionate enemy of the Islamist trend is France’s most distinguished Islamic intellectual, the Moroccan-born thinker Tareq Oubrou. Oubrou leads a mosque in Bordeaux and promotes a discreet practice of religion that is fully consistent with laïcité. He says beards, head scarves and other public displays of religiosity are incidental to Islam. We spoke in the library of his home, with high shelves of Arabic and French scholarship above us. Oubrou told me cheerfully that political Islam had been a “total failure” and that Islam in general was in need of a fundamental rethinking, so that people could stop “trying to turn themselves into seventh-century Arabs.” The Quran, he said, was a “point of departure and not a point of arrival.” His mosque, a few blocks from the train station in downtown Bordeaux, is so discreet that I almost missed it. There are no minarets, no grand entrance. The only giveaway was the group of gun-toting French soldiers who stand guard at prayer times. Oubrou’s opinions have earned him repeated death threats.
I recently spoke with a young, highly trained French Muslim doctor, who wears a head scarf and who was deeply frustrated that she could not do so at the public hospital where she worked in France. She told me she went to Oubrou to seek his advice. He asked her about the nature of her work in the hospital, and she described it to him. He then gave her his counsel: Her work in the hospital appeared to be saving lives, which was far more important — and indeed, more Islamic — than anything she might want to wear on her head. I found this answer impressive, but the doctor was not convinced. She decided soon afterward to move to Britain, where she now works in a hospital that allows her to wear the head scarf wherever she likes.
The Muslim doctor’s choice suggests a tacit critique of France, and it squares with something I heard from many young French people of North African background: France is simply out of step with a more globalized world. Some academics agree. “It is not France’s traditions that caused this problem, and France’s traditions may not be the answer,” says David Bell, a historian at Princeton. “Laïcité may not be the best basis for integrating these very different populations. The debates there are dominated by intellectuals who are overly attached to their own history.”
When I last saw Kepel in his office, I asked him about the accusation that he had become a kind of neo-Gaullist defender of French traditions. He scoffed a bit, saying it was the circumstances that had changed, not him. “The big issue is to think about what has happened to the country — 239 dead in 18 months,” he said, using his own count. “It is unprecedented on French soil.” He said he saw his role as offering facts about what led to those tragedies, not offering solutions. Some of those facts were uncomfortable, and some people — including officials in places like Mantes-la-Jolie and Trappes, with their hard-core Islamist enclaves — were unwilling to face them. It was up to other people, he said, to find ways to heal France’s wounds. Kepel reminded me that his career was mostly behind him and that he had nothing to lose. “It may be that I’m influenced by my background as the grandson of an assimilated Frenchman,” he added. “But basically, I’m just an Orientalist with cold blood and thick skin.”
Robert F. Worth is a contributing writer for the magazine and the author of “A Rage for Order: The Middle East in Turmoil From Tahrir Square to ISIS,” which won the 2017 Lionel Gelber prize.