NYT: The Prophet of France’s Fracture

The NYT has a long profile of French political scientist Gilles Kepel written by Robert Worth (“The Prophet of France’s Fracture”).

The piece starts with the usual ‘let me display my liberal bona fides’ preface found in any NYT article daring to step outside the Orthodox line:

Kepel has argued that much of France’s left-leaning intelligentsia fails to understand the nature of the threat the country faces — not just from foreign terrorists but also from the Islamist provocateurs in its exurban ghettos, the banlieues. Unlike the Islam-bashing polemicists who haunt French opinion pages, Kepel brings a lifetime of scholarship to this argument. He has always been careful to distinguish mainstream Islam from the hard-line Islamist ideologues of the banlieues, who have no real equivalent in the United States. He has long been a man of the left; his wife’s family is from North Africa, and he has no sympathy for the xenophobia of the right-wing National Front. But he believes that radical Islamists are trying to shred France’s social fabric and foster a civil war, and that many leftists are unwittingly playing into their hands. This view has made him a target for almost everyone.

Okay, you’ve gotten your NYC readers’ attention. Let’s move on.

Kepel was a member of the commission that helped create France’s controversial 2004 law banning Islamic head scarves and other religious symbols and clothing in public schools, and remains proud of that role. He believes that eroding French state secularism, known as laïcité, would lead to a “Balkanization of Europe along religious and ethnic lines,” with a Muslim voting bloc, Muslim schools and a hardening of quasi-separatist communities of various religions. With his career coming to an end — he is 61 — he is making these arguments with ever-greater urgency. He has repeatedly dismissed claims of widespread Islamophobia in French society as fraudulent, saying the word has become little more than a rhetorical club used by Islamists to rally their base.

Within France, there is a bifurcation happening among the Left, and, I would argue, Kepel represents an aspect of an ‘Alt-Left’, a phenomenon we really have not seen emerge in other European countries (except perhaps the Netherlands) nor in the U.S.

This bifurcation is on display in the liberal pissing match between Kepel and another leftie, Olivier Roy, on what role France’s multicultural model has extinguished a core sense of national (and distinctively French) identity, thereby causing 2nd and 3rd generation French Muslims in an identity crisis of their own. The hunger for identity is both individual and collective:

Olivier Roy, who teaches at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy, wrote an essay for Le Monde that challenged one of Kepel’s core ideas. Roy argued that the issue was not the radicalization of Islam but “the Islamization of radicalism” — a phrase that quickly caught on. For Roy, the terrorists, mostly second-generation immigrants, were caught between the tradition-bound world of their parents and the secularism of their French contemporaries. Unable to find a place, they adopted a nihilistic rejection of society, expressing it not in the Marxist language of the 1960s and ’70s but in its current equivalent: Islam. The same logic could explain why so many white Catholic French kids had become jihadis.

Kepel responded quickly and forcefully, accusing Roy, who does not speak Arabic, of cooking up a thesis that suited his own ignorance: If Islam is incidental, no need to listen to the Friday sermons or read the theological debates online. Roy’s argument was also a salve to the liberal conscience, Kepel added, allowing people to believe that the state of contemporary Islam had little or nothing to do with the violence. Roy, clearly stung, responded, and the argument went on for months, fueled by frequent stories in the French press. Other intellectuals joined in, notably the academic François Burgat, who argued that both Roy and Kepel failed to adequately recognize the role of France’s colonial history and current foreign policies in shaping the younger generation’s anger. But it remained primarily a two-man fight.

I marvel that the NYT allowed this piece to be published, given passages like this:

Roy told me he believed that France’s political culture had become too hostile to religion, and that laïcité — originally created as a way to keep the state neutral — had become “eradicatory” in its application. It would be healthier for France to give more space to all religious discourse. “You have a whole generation of politicians here who do not know how to talk to religious people,” he said. When I asked Roy how France should handle the jihadist challenge, he said: “Isolate the radicals and saturate the religious space.” In other words, the way to counter violent Islamists is to open our arms to Islam in other ways — including, presumably, to peaceful Islamists.

This may sound reasonable in the abstract. But it is uncomfortably close to the pressure tactics I often heard from Salafists and Muslim Brothers during my years as a correspondent in the Arab world. (“If society were more Islamic, Al Qaeda would have no foothold.”) Roy is no Islamist, but I couldn’t help wondering if his sympathy for Muslims, who are disproportionately poor and unemployed in France, had made him a little too sanguine. Terrorism aside, a distressingly large number of Muslims are in open revolt against French cultural and political norms. In September, a landmark survey commissioned by the Montaigne Institute found that 28 percent of French Muslims had adopted values “clearly opposed to the values of the republic,” with a mix of “authoritarian” and “secessionist” views, including support for polygamy and the niqab, or full-face veil, and opposition to laws enforcing secularism. These attitudes reinforce anti-Muslim sentiment, in a spiral of crispations identitaires (“identitarian fist-clenching”) that is a boon to the anti-immigrant National Front.

Muslim men gather for prayer in Val-Fourré, France (NYT)

Of those liberal public figures who endlessly repeat that ‘most Muslims are peaceful and don’t condone domestic terrorism’, the current ban on head scarves in French schools stands as a litmus test of sorts for the French Left, a point of contention between the Left’s two factions, and what it means for the larger issue of national identity:

Kepel would say they seem less aimed at truth than tact, the idea that hurting Muslim feelings will poison the atmosphere further. At its extreme, this view risks its own form of condescension: Be nice to Muslims or they will turn into suicide bombers.

Kepel has argued in his recent books that the French Muslim community, once guided by the paternalist figures from the old country known as darons, is now increasingly under the sway of younger and far more confrontational Islamists. These ideologists, Kepel believes, have fostered a rupture with French values that nourishes the ISIS narrative… Kepel likes to cite ISIS propaganda urging its followers in Europe to hide behind the language of victimhood, including one document shared among ISIS sympathizers titled “How to Survive in the West,” which includes the following lines: “A real war is heating up in the heart of Europe. … The leaders of disbelief repeatedly lie in the media and say that we Muslims are all terrorists, while we denied it and wanted to be peaceful citizens. But they have cornered us and forced us into becoming radicalized.”

This kind of mutual accusation defines much of the past decade’s debate on Islamic symbols. Roy and other leftists tend to see the 2004 law banning the head scarf as an unnecessary provocation that has played into the hands of extremists. Kepel, who helped guide the law, says it was the rising prevalence of head scarves in schools that was sowing division and bias, and the ban has put an end to that. Each camp has Muslims supporting them. Surveys suggest that the French public overwhelmingly supports the ban, and my conversations with a dozen schoolteachers who work in the banlieues reinforced that conclusion.

We learn of the CCIF, a French variant of CAIR here in the U.S., that is, a front group geared for the spread of more fundamentalist Islam but which wears the mask of ‘civil rights’ while also exploiting political correctness and its concomitant mantle of victimhood:

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-traveler. 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.

Of the Burkini ban:

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-travelers — 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.

The piece is chock full of choice observations, such as this one:

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.”

As the piece elsewhere notes, the phrase Français de souche means “French from the roots” and refers to white Christians, or the indigenous people of France. This is a legitimate and important distinction to make, and a concept that needs unapologetic defending and strengthening.

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