France: Radicalization in the Banlieues

In The New Yorker, George Packer provides a tepid liberal report of the French banlieues, where Muslims are concentrated (“The Other France”). These paragraphs jumped out at me:

Andrew Hussey, a British scholar at the University of London School of Advanced Study in Paris, believes that the turmoil in the banlieues—periodic riots, car burnings, brawls with cops—is one more front in the long war between France and its Arabs, especially Algerians. The aim of the violence isn’t reform or revolution but revenge. “The kids in the banlieues live in this perpetual present of weed, girls, gangsters, Islam,” he said. “They have no sense of history, no sense of where they come from in North Africa, other than localized bits of Arabic that they don’t understand, bits of Islam that don’t really make sense.”

Hussey’s recent book, “The French Intifada,” describes the conflict in such dire terms that his French publisher refused to release a translation…

The book opens with an eyewitness account of an eight-hour battle, in the Gare du Nord in 2007, between cops and banlieue kids who shout, in Arabic, “F*ck France!” Hussey writes, “This slogan—it is in fact more of a curse—has nothing to do with any French tradition of revolt.”

Given Friday’s slaughter in Paris, and how at least one of the suicide terrorists was a late 20s male from a banlieue, this section on what Packer cites is the standard radicalization process is noteworthy:

The leading authority on jihadism in French prisons is an Iranian sociologist in Paris named Farhad Khosrokhavar. For his book “Radicalisation,” published just before the January attacks, he spent three days a week in French prisons for three years, developing a theory of inmate conversion. It happens in stages. Most of the recruits grow up without fathers and without any religious knowledge—only anger and alienation in the banlieues. They fall into crime and end up in prison. J.-P. described the mind-set of some of his fellow-inmates: “I’m in prison, the state is to blame—it pushed me to live this life.” Prisoners watch a lot of TV news, and see war and death in Muslim countries. Someone like Coulibaly, J.-P. said, starts to “mix all this together” and create his own ideology, then “runs across a bad person who influences him.” One former prisoner I met in the 93 explained that Islamists target the fragiles, psychologically weak inmates who never receive visits. They are offered solace, a new identity, and a political vision inverting the social order that places them at the bottom.

As Khosrokhavar analyzes it, prisoners are “born again”: “Through jihadism, they transform the contempt of the others. . . . Once they become jihadists, people fear them. One of them told me, ‘Once they fear you, they cannot be contemptuous toward you anymore.’ ” After converts are released, they go on an “initiation journey” to the Middle East or North Africa, where they become capable of extreme violence. They come to think “that they belong elsewhere, to the Islamic community, and not to the French society.”

Khosrokhavar estimates that, of France’s sixty-four thousand prisoners, up to sixty per cent are Muslim. (Muslims are thought to compose only eight per cent of the population.)

The concluding section of Packer’s lengthy piece is a brief rumination of what lays ahead:

For two or three decades, a soft multiculturalism has been the default politics of the governing left, while France’s silent majority, more and more culturally insecure, has moved rightward, and the banlieues have been allowed to rot. The National Front voter and the radicalized Muslim feel equally abandoned. According to the political scientist Laurent Bouvet, the January attacks, like an underwater bomb, brought all these trends to the surface. “Secularism is our common good,” Bouvet said. “If there is a common French identity, it’s not an identity of roots, it’s not a Christian identity, it’s not cathedrals, it’s not the white race. It’s a political project.” He went on, “If we let the National Front define French identity, it’s going to be by race, by blood, by religion.”

This paragraph is then followed by a leftwing political strategy (focusing on education reform) that is, almost literally, out of Michel Houellebecq’s fictional novel Submission:

France has an official “rapporteur général” for secularism, and currently it is an earnest young Socialist politician named Nicolas Cadène. He told me that France had failed to create a national story that included all its citizens. The shock of the attacks and the divisive fallout made a new approach imperative, and he sketched a program of reform starting with the schools: explain the meaning of secularism while teaching “impartial, neutral” facts about different religions as a way to make students more tolerant and critical-minded; integrate more colonial history into the curriculum; encourage the teaching of Arabic in public schools, so that this wasn’t left to madrassas. Some of these changes will be instituted this fall.

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