The Mill of Muslim Radicalism in France

The typical trajectory of most French Islamist terrorists follows four steps: alienation from the dominant culture, thanks partly to joblessness and discrimination in blighted neighborhoods; a turn to petty crime, which leads to prison, and then more crime and more prison; religious awakening and radicalization; and an initiatory journey to a Muslim country like Syria, Afghanistan or Yemen to train for jihad.

Stints in prison were seminal for Chérif Kouachi, Amedy Coulibaly and other major figures of French jihadism in recent years — Mohammed Merah, Mehdi Nemmouche, Khaled Kelkal — as both a rite of passage and a gateway to radicalism.

Muslims account for about 7-10 percent of France’s total population but around half of its prison population of 68,000. Muslims are even more numerous in facilities near large cities, particularly in maisons d’arrêt, which hold prisoners serving shorter sentences.

The Mill of Muslim Radicalism in FrancePrecise figures are unavailable because laïcité, France’s strict form of secularism, prohibits officially asking and collecting data about people’s religious preferences. These estimates are based on research I conducted in French prisons in 2000-3 and again in 2011-3, when I interviewed some 160 inmates and many guards, doctors and social workers in four major facilities, some among the largest in Europe. Fifteen of those inmates had been sentenced for terrorist acts.

Many Muslims feel marginalized when they get to prison, due to exclusion and bigotry from the white majority in mainstream society, and their own counterracism. Although in urban prisons they are a majority, they continue to feel victimized and trapped. Very few guards are Muslim, and prison officials, who tend to be hypersecular, have little understanding of Islam, for example confusing fundamentalism with extremism.

“Look at how a Catholic or a Jew is treated, and look at how we are treated,” Abdelkarim, a Frenchman of Italian origin in his late 20s who was serving a five-year sentence for armed robbery, told me in 2012. “They have their weekly prayers; in this prison we don’t have Friday prayers. Their rabbi can go to all the cells; our Muslim minister cannot. There’s kosher food, but no halal meat. They despise us, and they call that laïcité.”

In fact, Muslim ministers can visit Muslim inmates in their cells but usually don’t do it for lack of time, and halal meat is increasingly available. But such misperceptions are common, and they only reinforce the appeal of Islam as the religion of choice for the stigmatized and the oppressed. Unlike Christianity, it has an anti-Western and anti-imperialist bend.

One young French inmate of Algerian origin told me in 2013, “If you are a Muslim and ask to participate in the Friday prayers, they take your name down and hand it over to the Renseignements Généraux.” (The Renseignements Généraux is the French equivalent of the FBI.) He added: “If I try to take my prayer carpet to the courtyard, they prohibit it. If I grow a beard, the guards call me Bin Laden, smiling and mocking me. They hate Islam. But Islam can take revenge!”

Adherence to radical Islam is largely the transfer into the spiritual realm of that particular combination of indignation, rancor and wholesale rejection encompassed by the expression, widespread among prisoners, “avoir la haine” (to have hate). For some inmates, especially those who were only nominally Muslim and nonpracticing, violent aspirations emerge first, with religiosity — and often a very approximate understanding of Islam — grafting itself onto to them later.

Abdelkarim, who converted to Islam (and adopted an Arabic name) about a decade before I met him, acted as an informal Salafist chaplain; his prison counted about 1,000 Muslim inmates and just one Muslim minister, an older gentleman from North Africa out of touch with the young prisoners’ concerns. Each time Abdelkarim sang the call to prayer at dawn he would be sent to solitary confinement for a few days; eventually he was transferred to another jail. Nationwide, there is only about one Muslim minister for every 190 inmates, leaving self-proclaimed ulama to proffer their own religious guidance.

Radical preaching catches on because it offers young Muslim prisoners a way to escape their predicament and develop a fantasy of omnipotence by declaring death onto their oppressors. During my research in 2000-3, the prisoners idolized Khaled Kelkal, whose network killed eight people in a Paris subway station in 1995 to punish the French government for backing a military coup against an Islamist party in Algeria. A decade later their new icon was Mohammed Merah, who in 2012 shot down seven people, including soldiers and Jewish children, in the name of radical Islam; some inmates even impersonated him. Now the new celebrities will be the Kouachi brothers and Coulibaly.

About three months ago, the authorities at Fresnes, a very large prison known for its strict discipline, started experimenting with separating suspected Muslim radicals from the general population, grouping them in special cells. Although it is too early to assess the measure’s effectiveness, the provisional results are mixed.

The prisoners’ segregation at Fresnes is incomplete, owing to the shape of the 19th-century building. With rows of cell blocks branching out perpendicularly from a central corridor, the inmates can communicate with each other simply by shouting. The radicalized prisoners now have less influence on other inmates, especially ones who are impressionable or have mental disorders. But they are in closer contact with one another, allowing them to organize and make plans.

Prime Minister Manuel Valls announced recently that the quarantine program would be expanded in several prisons around Paris. The proposal needs to be refined. Seasoned jihadists must be separated from untested radicals and the returnees from, say, Syria and Iraq, who may have been traumatized or disappointed by their experience of jihad and still stand a chance of being reintegrated into mainstream society.

More must also be done to address the legitimate claims of Muslim inmates. Collective Friday prayers should be allowed in all French prisons, for example. The government announced last week that 60 Muslim ministers would be trained to supplement the 182 or so currently in service. This is a welcome proposal. But at least three times as many ministers are needed, and they must be more uniformly distributed throughout the prisons. Above all, they will need to be coached to better understand and address the concerns of disaffected young Muslim prisoners.

Indeed, reform must begin with respect. For if French prisons have become a breeding ground for radicalism, it is partly because they mistreat the Islamic faith itself.

Farhad Khosrokhavar is a sociologist at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales and the author, most recently, of Radicalisation.

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