The murderous attack on a Jewish school, and before that on French soldiers, has brought a strong emotional reaction in France. Once again, the specter of disenfranchised and radicalized young French Muslims hovers over the destitute neighborhoods of France’s cities. Fifty years after the end of the war in Algeria, a new kind of civil war seems to be raging.
A closer look, however, shows that the picture is rather different.
First, the 23-year-old perpetrator of these acts of terror, Mohammed Merah, was a loner and a loser. Far from embodying a growing radicalization among the youth, he stood at the margins not only of French society but also of the Muslim community.
Merah was not known for his piety: He did not belong to any religious congregation; he did not belong to any radical group or even to a local Islamic movement. A petty delinquent, psychologically fragile, he tried to enlist in the French Foreign Legion and then left for Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Merah found in Al Qaeda a narrative of solitary heroism and a way, after months of watching videos on the Internet, to achieve short-term notoriety and find a place in the real world. In this sense, he was far closer to Anders Behring Breivik, who went on a killing spree in Norway last July in the name of a hatred of Muslims. People like these are difficult to spot precisely because they do not belong to a network of militant cells.
Yet the crimes of such men are often misconstrued as symbolizing different problems. Whereas non-Muslim lone terrorists like Breivik tend to be called mentally ill, Muslim lone terrorists like Merah are seen as embodying “Muslim wrath.” This is to miss an essential point.
Consider Merah’s attack on the French soldiers. If his killings at the Jewish school in Toulouse were a terrible reflection of the kind of anti-Semitism typically promoted by Al Qaeda, his attack on French soldiers — specifically Muslim ones — was novel and revealing of something else. He saw the soldiers as traitors: French Muslims fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan. The gap he perceived between himself and them reveals the gap between the few Muslims who become so marginalized as to murder and the many more who find ways to integrate.
The disenfranchised youth who are supposedly vulnerable to terrorism are also a reservoir of potential army recruits. For every Qaeda sympathizer there are thousands of Muslims who don the French Army uniform and fight under the French flag — including, of course, in Afghanistan. They are loyal and also willing to die on the battlefield. Ten years ago there were reports of Muslim soldiers refusing to fight against fellow Muslims in Afghanistan; one case was documented. But most soldiers did their duty. It suffices to look at the list of the dead or to watch videos of military funerals to confirm this. Yet the fact is seldom acknowledged because it does not fit with the usual perception of Muslims as dissidents.
In fact the growing presence of Muslim recruits in the army (including elite paratrooper units) is a sign of the growing integration of Muslims in France. (The parallel with the United States is interesting: The integration of African-Americans in the army preceded the movement for the integration of the entire society.)
The poor “banlieues” are still destitute and will remain so, and they will host their shares of juvenile delinquency, radicalism and violence. But they are not the place where the face of French Islam is being shaped.
The changing patterns are evident among the among the growing Muslim middle classes: people who leave the ghettos, enroll their children in Catholic schools (there are only a few Muslim schools in France) and are filling the ranks of doctors, local journalists, teachers and municipal councilors.
The discrepancy between the media narratives — Al Qaeda is the vanguard of the disenfranchised Muslims living in France — and the social reality — Muslim terrorists are as isolated and mentally imbalanced as non-Muslim terrorists — fuels distrust and tensions among the majority of French Muslims. They keep a low profile, not only because they don’t want to attract attention, but also because they want to live their faith quite privately.
By Olivier Roy, a professor of political science at the European University Institute in Florence and the author of Holy Ignorance: When Religion and Culture Part Ways.