History has certainly been made in France over the last week, as the country lived through a series of events that add up to a defining moment in its psyche. From the dramatic burst of gunfire that silenced forever some of the country’s most beloved cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo to a high-speed car chase, hostage-taking and a police shoot-out at two locations, while an entire nation held its collective breath.
From spontaneous demonstrations by traumatised but undaunted citizens in support of the inalienable right to freedom of expression to Sunday’s massive unity rallies, attended by an estimated 3.7 million ordinary French people of every political and religious hue as well as by 44 world leaders of varied political persuasions. The world stood with France in a global show of strength against the forces of terrorism.
It is undoubtedly true that in a globalised world, in which malevolent forces collaborate across frontiers to wreak vengeance on the innocent and in which terrorism leaches insidiously from one region to another, a globalised response is necessary. Enhancing the nation’s intelligence network and tightening the security net, though a vital first step, especially given the latest intelligence failure, is only a partial solution. For France, the danger stems not just from global terrorist organisations like al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, but also from the growing number of home-grown jihadists with inside knowledge of the system, who have the potential to do great damage through random acts of violence.
The government puts the number of French persons officially involved in jihadist activities in Syria and Iraq at over 1,100. In a disturbing trend, the number of French jihadists has been increasing rapidly, and France is now the largest provider of jihadists among Western countries. The threat of attacks from returning jihadists is high and so, in a pre-emptive move last year, the government banned any person suspected of involvement in jihadist activities from leaving the country for a period of six months, extendable up to two years.
Identifying would-be jihadists and setting up effective “de-radicalisation” programmes are certainly required. France has lagged behind the UK in this regard, mainly because the strict separation of state and church places religion squarely in the private domain. However, instead of a post-affliction cure, the need of the hour is to prevent the radicalisation in the first place. Something that is easier said than done.
France could attempt to stem the rot by moving quickly to eradicate the deep-seated disaffection prevalent among many of the country’s six million Muslims that makes them ripe targets for radicalisation and indoctrination by extremist and terror cells. A large percentage of these are second- or third-generation immigrants from marginalised working-class families, who have grown up in grim high-rise suburbs on the outskirts of large cities where social mobility is non-existent, unemployment runs high, drugs and crime are rampant. Over the last week, while most of the country threw its weight behind Charlie Hebdo and the victims of the two attacks, in some of these neighbourhoods, “I’m not Charlie, I’m Kouachi” (the name of the killers) could be heard.
Some jihadists become radicalised in prison; some find in radical Islam a cause that lifts them out of the ennui and dejection caused by unemployment. Others are propelled by a video game-induced urge to go on dangerous attacking missions rather than impelled by religious convictions. Yet others are idealists in search of a cause. However, the profile of a typical French jihadist has changed, according to the Centre for the Prevention of Sectarian Abuse Linked to Islam, an NGO set up to prevent the radicalisation of teens and provide a support structure for their families. While some would-be jihadists come from traditional Muslim families, many are new converts to Islam and a large percentage is born into atheist or non-believing families. An increasing number are now also from reasonably well-off homes. There is no one-size-fits-all solution, particularly as the online lure and reach of sophisticated indoctrinating recruitment rings that operate through Facebook and YouTube are growing.
What all these potential jihadists do have in common is a growing sense of alienation from French society and a quest for a distinct cultural identity. The country’s integration model of assimilation, which requires immigrants to shed their original culture and adopt that of France, is undoubtedly broken. The ban on headscarves has been the cause of much heartburn among a section of Muslims. The government definitely needs to implement measures that reduce the economic, political and social marginalisation of Muslims in France, fight discrimination and, above all, give Muslims the freedom and space to maintain their own culture.
Abandoning the old model of assimilation at this critical juncture, when Islamophobia is spreading, in favour of a more liberal multicultural approach is going to be opposed tooth and nail by conservatives, especially the National Front. But until that happens, France will continue to be a breeding ground for jihadists, and attacks such as the one on Charlie Hebdo will be difficult to prevent.
Kapoor-Sharma is a Paris-based freelance writer