Friday night, in the center of Paris, hundreds of people were gunned down as they enjoyed the warm November weather, ate dinner or took in a show. At this point, 129 have died. In a statement claiming responsibility for the attack, Islamic State promised more horror to come and called France a “capital of prostitution and obscenity.”
Why did Islamic State choose Paris, still recovering from January’s attack on the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo?
It’s not the only target, of course: London, Madrid, New York and many cities across the Middle East have been hit. But there seem to be more terrorist attempts in France and more “homegrown” terrorists than in neighboring countries. At least one of the murderers was a Frenchman with a criminal record. The Charlie Hebdo killers were French, too.
One reason for France’s plight, often mentioned, is its colonial past. It fought a bloody war against Algerian independence forces from 1954 to 1962; these battle lines spilled over to Paris and continue to shape French politics. As the “protector” of Morocco, Syria and Lebanon, France left a legacy of cultural and economic influence. France still intervenes militarily in Muslim-majority countries. It sent troops to Mali in 2012 when radical Islamic militants rebelled against the central government, and it has been launching airstrikes against Islamic State in Syria.
A young, angry, potential jihadi growing up in Beirut, Damascus, or Algiers might see the United States as the greater enemy, but it’s far away. France is familiar and nearby, and he probably has cousins there. His recruiter may be French.
France also breeds potential jihadis on its own soil — young Muslim men who feel excluded from the secular-Christian mainstream. The police profile of the French jihadi looks something like this: He lives in a tall housing tower with little in the way of sports facilities or neighborhood clubs. His town is on the outskirts of a major city, whether Paris, Lyon or Lille. He may be of Moroccan or Algerian ancestry, but he feels few ties to those societies. He is unlikely to find a good job: His name and his postal code put him at the bottom of the list. He is envious of the rich — those young people enjoying their lives in the center of Paris on Friday night. He may also blame Jews for his distress; nowhere in Western Europe have the intifadas been more intensely divisive than in France.
The United Kingdom has also produced homegrown terrorists, of course, but the very feature of the British Muslim landscape most derided by its leaders — closed communities — may be its saving grace. People from Bangladesh or Pakistan tend to live together in British urban neighborhoods. They import imams from the old country and try to maintain a strong sense of tradition. Ideas and behaviors change, but social networks remain stronger than in France. Pakistanis have large and intricate kin-based circles. Bangladeshis start charter schools, and pupils in those schools perform better than the national average. Things aren’t perfect, but there is community.
What can France do? I leave aside the questions of border security, surveillance and military strategy in Syria: Those are above my pay grade. But I have two recommendations for how President Francois Hollande can improve matters at home. One, break the isolation. Continue efforts already begun to redesign the urban landscape so that it encourages a sense of national belonging rather than a sense of exclusion. Cease the repeated efforts to stigmatize practicing Muslims with silly rules banning face coverings in public or preventing school officials from offering non-pork meal options to children. The French prize their laïcité — their strict separation of church and state — but there should be room for religious observance in a free, open society.
Second, recognize that mainstream Islamic teachers are part of the solution. Many have worked hard to build cultural associations and religious schools, where young people can learn a more complex and responsible idea of Islam. Understand that they base their teachings in a centuries-old body of work, as do Catholic, Jewish and other religious scholars, and stop telling them to devise a brand new “French Islam.” They are citizens or long-term residents of France and participants in global networks of religious scholarship. Whether they help in religious schools or as chaplains in the prisons, they need much more recognition and support from the French state.
Far-right leader Marine Le Pen has called for closing all French Islamic organizations. But saner minds must resist the temptation to lash out at Muslim fellow citizens or at legitimate refugees, which can only lead to yet more alienation. This is a time for solidarity, not division.
John R. Bowen is the Dunbar-Van Cleve Professor at Washington University in St. Louis and the author of Can Islam be French?