The other Paris: Why are some young French Muslims becoming radicalised?

Hadeer El-Mahdawy , Sunday 25 Mar 2018

A general view of the scene outside a restaurant following shooting incidents in Paris, France, Nove
A general view of the scene outside a restaurant following shooting incidents in Paris, France, November 13, 2015. (REUTERS)

On 13 November 2015, Paris was shaken by simultaneous terrorist attacks targeting concert-goers at the Bataclan theatre, the crowd outside a football stadium, and diners at a number of nearby restaurants and bars. The ISIS-affiliated attackers, both gunmen and suicide bombers, killed 130 people and injured hundreds more.

Less than a year later, a man drove a truck into crowds celebrating Bastille Day in the southern city of Nice, killing 86.

In both attacks, the perpetrators had either declared their sympathy with ISIS, or are suspected to have done so. They include French and Belgian nationals or residents, most of Arab descent, with parents from Tunisia, Morocco or Algeria.

A few of them had criminal records, and a few had been to Syria and come back to France; others were known to be decent and peaceful, while some were known for being addicted to alcohol and drugs.

The attacks were not unprecedented; since 2012, France has been subject to terrorist attacks, mostly claimed by ISIS, and mostly committed by French residents and nationals of Arab origins.

With the rise of ISIS, the problem of radicalisation in France has become clear; it ranks second-highest in the number of European countries sending fighters to ISIS territories, and according to government statistics around 1,700 French citizens have joined ISIS since 2014.

Of those around 300 have been killed, and another 300 have returned.

However, it was the 2015 attacks which led the French government to announce a state of emergency, which only came to an end late last year, when it was replaced by an anti-terrorism law.

To the typical visitor, the famous charms of Paris remain vivid, despite the heavy wounds inflicted by the 2015 attacks.

But, as the attacks revealed, underneath the surface of the City of Light, there are boiling questions about integration and community.

Radicalisation in the suburbs

Samy Amimour, 28, was one of the 2015 Bataclan attackers; he grew up in the north-eastern Paris suburb of Drancy.

Others were also from the same city they attacked; Omar Ismail Mostefai, who like Aminour stormed the concert with an assault rifle and was later shot dead by police, was a 29-year-old Frenchman of Algerian origins, and had grown up in the Paris suburb of Courcouronnes.

Many of those French citizens accused of links with ISIS or of links with terrorist attacks originate from the same suburbs; deprived districts that are far from the fairy-tale streets in the centre of Paris, they are marked by high unemployment, poor infrastructure and transport links, and are home to high numbers of migrants and French citizens of non-European descent.

"Three of my friends joined ISIS in the past years, and around 17 from my neighbourhood went too, some of them were killed. The situation is very difficult," Ashraf Ben Ibrahim, a French-Tunisian political science student from the suburb of Sevran, told Ahram Online in Paris.

A woman wears a burqa as she walks on a street in Saint-Denis, near Paris, April 2, 2010 REUTERS

In Sevran, around 70 percent of the residents are of Moroccan, Algerian, Tunisian, and Senegal origins.

"Because of the location of the neighbourhood near the airport, many of those who work there live in Sevran,” Ben Ibrahim said.

“It is a populated neighbourhood that lacks services, and around one third of the neighbourhood is unemployed.”

Ben Ibrahim who came to France with his mother in 2000 to study political science, but switched his focus to jihadism in France following the loss of his friends and neighbours to jihad.

In December 2016, two women were banned from entering a bar in the area of Sevran, and secretly videotaped the guys outside the bar telling them that women are not allowed in this bar, as it was not mixed.

The video was broadcast on national TV and provoked outrage, with the international media describing the predominately Muslim areas of France as "no-go zones."

One of the two women from the video is Nadia Remadna, an anti-radicalisation activist who heads a group called the Mothers’ Brigade, which offers assistance to families to protect their children from being radicalised.

"In Sevran where I used to live, I was banned from entering a bar because I am an Arab, and I am afraid that some neighbourhoods in France will be closed off to the French, or France would turn into Algeria," Remadna, a French citizen of Algerian origins, who lost two of her cousins in Algerian civil war, told Ahram Online.

"It was much easier for the government to put Arab Muslims in the same areas, to keep them away, and only now they feel that it's a problem," she said.

Remadna was born in France, but her father wanted to raise his family the traditional way, and took his family to Algeria for ten years. She nonetheless describes France as “my country.”

Despite the fact that many of French mothers of Arab origins face the challenge of their children getting radicalised, Remadna did not face this problem with her three children.

“We talked about everything, especially religion, and let them decide to do the rituals or not, and that is what I am trying to do with the other children I work with. I taught my kids that they are both French and Algerian," she said.

Remadna founded the Mothers’ Brigade in June 2014. Working at a school, she started to notice some children being radicalised, and when she tried to raise the alert, nobody paid attention. After that, she established the group.

"We work in fighting radicalisation, especially in the suburbs around Paris,” she said. Her group includes teachers, lawyers, journalists and others work with children and young people in schools, outside schools, and in prisons, as well as mothers whose sons have gone to or want to go to Syria.

The group is on the lookout for unusual behaviour, such as when children do not want to go to school or social events because the genders are mixing. It is then that Remadna and her colleagues start their work, by talking to the mothers and the children.

The urban policies and the gentrification of the 1970s are considered by some as a failure on the part of the French government, as the peripheries now seem like another world, Muriel Domenach, the head of the Inter-ministerial Committee for the Prevention of Delinquency and Radicalisation told Ahram Online.

"Those areas (the suburbs) that were built around Paris to host immigrants as the houses are cheap, and they need to be mixed with the middle class. When poor people are put together they rebel," Domenach said, adding that French President Emmanuel Macron had said recently that he intends to develop these areas.

Domenach points out that although many jihadists do originate from the suburbs, there is much more to these areas than the problem of radicalisation alone, and they have also produced celebrated figures in the arts, cinema and football.

“The situation [of radicalisation] is more complex than the suburbs," she said.

Remadna argues that those who join ISIS are victims, as they are mostly aged between 12-25 years old, and they identify themselves as Muslims, not French citizens. She believes they are not only victims of economic woes but also of personal circumstances. “Radicalisation depends on the people around them, and what they say to them,” she argues.

"The extremists promise young Muslims financial aid, a house, wives, power, which they lack in France, as they are mostly unemployed," Marwan Mohamed, a French sociologist of Moroccan origins told Ahram Online.

Parisian scholar of jihad Hugo Micheron points out that economic marginalisation is a broad problem in France, where there is a high level of unemployment, and agrees that economic issues are used by jihadists to recruit followers and incite against the French state.

Micheron, a PhD candidate who works on the topic of jihad, and who teaches at elite Parisian university Science Po, also argues that jihadists “reject French society” rather than perceiving themselves as victims of it.

"There is a land of jihad in Syria, and in French prisons where the recruitment is articulated,” he says.

“There is a relation between jihad and the suburbs; there are 15- 20 cities that are known for exporting jihadists, like Toulouse, Nîmes, Nice, Lyon, Strasbourg, Lille, and Paris and its suburbs. There is a known terrorist network between northern France and Brussels as well," Micheron said.

The issue is related to the rooted Salafism in France, according to Micheron; those who succumb to jihadism are not crazy or foolish, rather, they are choosing to follow a doctrine and norms that give their life a meaning.

Profiling jihadists

In 2015, the French interior ministry issued guidelines that highlight the potential changes that occur when someone becomes radicalised, including stopping going to school, stopping listening to music and watching television, quitting sports, isolating oneself, changing dress and eating habits, and visiting extremist websites.

"In 2014, Abo Mohamed El-Adnan, an emir from ISIS, broadcast a video to the French telling them that the door is open for hijra [religious migration],” said Ben Ibrahim.

“Come to the land of the caliphate, it is the land of dignity and Islam, whereas now you live in France, the land of injustice. Come with your brothers and built the new state," Ben Ibrahim said.

In one of the videos that Ben Ibrahim has been collecting, two French jihadists, speaking mostly in French, warn that "the soldiers of the Islamic State are everywhere, and that the nightmare has started," and that they are waiting for the orders to kill and slaughter them for insulting the prophet and the emir of the caliphate, inciting French Muslims to kill the "atheists" with any weapon they can find.

Ben Ibrahim said he had interviewed a number of French jihadists in Libya, Syria and Iraq.

“They do not speak Arabic, they are not familiar with the basics of Islam. Even those from Arab origins mostly come from poor suburbs and a low social class. They are usually in the front lines in jihad," Ben Ibrahim said.

"They do not have a specific profile, but I remember one of them saying clearly that he is not Muslim, he is a terrorist," he added.

Micheron, who started his research in 2013, has met 80 French jihadists who have returned from Syria and Iraq. He has met jihadists in French prisons, and Kurdish fighters at the borders of Iraq, and Lebanese jihadists in Jabhat Al-Nusra.

“There are those of French, Moroccan and Algerian origins. There are very simple people and very smart people. There are people who said they will commit attacks in France once they are out of prison, and there are those who denied being jihadists, and there are those who admit being jihadists but would never attack France," Micheron said.

"There are people who believe that ISIS is waging a legitimate war in Syria against the other Islamic groups there; also, there is the pattern of a person who went to prison in a drugs crime and turned into a jihadist; there is a guy who lost his soul, who is a victim of his own life, and found a way out in jihad; and there are some who are changing their past; and some who were successful in life. They are not necessarily poor and unemployed," Micheron added.

Grand Mosque in Paris
The Grand Mosque in Paris AFP

Domenach, the French government official who works on counter-radicalisation, agrees that the issue is not simply about religion, or Islamic heritage. She points out that 30 percent of French fighters who join ISIS are converts, with no North African links. This group are mainly middle class, 50 percent are women, and 20 percent are under 18.

According to Domenach, this group convert to Islam as a process of cleansing, as an easy way to be re-born, after experiencing issues like sexual abuse, family problems, or other social dilemmas before converting, and they find meaning in Islam.

"Radicalisation is a rupture of social order that is taking the face of Islam," she argues.

By contrast, the French Muslims with Arab origins who turned into jihadists believe that "their parents have continued colonisation by migrating to France. They see them working in simple jobs, like workers in factories, and they see the same future waiting for them. They expect welfare but cannot find it, so they lose their respect for their families, and they might fall to alcohol or drugs, before being radicalised,” Domenach added.

"The young generation that is seeking meaning finds extreme confrontation with the social order through jihad,” he said.

"In 2013, there were many French in Syria, but there were no results inside France. They joined ISIS and Jabhat Al-Nusra. In 2014, the French started to return from the ISIS lands," Micheron, added.

"The recruitment started in prisons. It was new for the interior ministry; in 2014 they had 10 imprisoned fighters who came back to France from ISIS, Jabhat Al-Nusra, and Ahrar Al-Shams jihadist groups. By the end of the year the number increased to 80, in 2015, there were 220 fighters in prison; in 2016, there were 400, and now there are around 500 fighters who committed terrorist attacks in Syria, Iraq, or in France," Micheron added.

The French police did not know how to deal with jihadists in prison, especially as there are already large numbers of prisoners from suburbs who are of Arab descent, convicted of other charges. It is interesting for other young Muslims in prison to be close with those who returned from war, according to Micheron.

Recruitment is mostly connected to friends or relatives who got involved first in radicalisation. That is why the matter is territorial, Micheron explained; these groups live together in certain neighbourhoods or cities.

Recent studies have shown that the socio-economic reason behind the radicalisation of the French are only secondary; the main reasons are psychological factors, Domenach said. 

Not 100-percent French?

Last summer, a 77-year-old French Muslim, Habib, was beaten up by a young man outside a mosque in a town in France, the Collective Against Islamophobia in France (CCIF) told Ahram Online. Habib went back home, and tried to keep what had happened to him secret, but by the next day his swollen face prompted him to tell his son about the incident.

With the help of CCIF a police report was filed and the attacker was caught; he is now facing trial. However, the case is something of an exception. For the most part, Muslims believe that they have no rights in this country, so no one will address their problems. “They prefer not going to police," Ibrahim Bechrouri, a spokesman for CCIF, told Ahram Online.

Bechrouri, a PhD student who studies geopolitics, is also a spokesperson for the collective, which works on documenting cases of discrimination and offer legal support for victims of Islamophobia and racism.

According to a 2016 report by CCIF, which documents cases of discrimination and offers legal support for victims, there were 419 discrimination acts, 39 acts of aggression, 25 attacks and degradation to religious places, and 98 reported insults that year. Women are among the most targeted by such attacks, the report noted.

Muslim women suffer from several forms of discrimination in France, agrees Nehad, a 25-year-old Egyptian student who lives in Paris. She told Ahram Online that she found a difficulty in teaching at a well-known university because of her hijab, while a friend of hers was turned down by a prospective landlord who told him he could not be sure that the friend’s wife might not one day don the niqab.

Nehad also agrees that veiled women are likely to face street harassment; in once incident she was pushed by a man on the street, while in another, a passerby told he hates the Arabic language.

Non-veiled women of migrant heritage also report incidents of racist harassment on the street.

“One guy saw me smoking a cigarette and he cursed me saying, ‘you Arabs and Jews are the rubbish of France,’” said Sawsan, a student in Paris with Algerian roots.

“I see veiled women get cursed at and harassed a lot in the streets, and no one interferes to rescue them," added the 28-year-old.

Many French Muslims believe that they are not full citizens in their own country. Following the recent terrorist attacks, they feel that they have been singled out as potential suspects.

"I always have to explain who I am, where I come from, and I have to prove that I am not dangerous. I have faced that since I was a child, and I am not happy with it," said Marwan Mohamed, the sociologist.

French-Jewish writer Marek Halter (R), Imam Hassen Chalghoumi (3d L) and other Imams, are seen during the start of a European tour to the sites of recent Islamist attacks, to remember the victims and condemn violence, in Champs-Elysees, Paris, France July 8, 2017. (REUTERS)

Mohamed describes himself as lucky. He belongs to the middle class, works as a researcher in a prestigious institute (the National Center for Public Research), he has access to media, and can get funding for his research from the government. Yet even he has had to reflect on his relationship to his home country.

"Despite my social class and my decent job, I feel isolated. There is still the problem of political illegitimacy, as with all the sons of the migrants. It will be the same for my children. I don't feel 100 percent French," Mohamed added.

In the 80s and the 90s Arabs were impressed by the positive evolution of French society and its political direction. Most of Mohamed's family wanted to come to France. Now many of his relatives and friends in France and Europe either went back to their countries of origin, or are considering going back, as they suffer from discrimination, he added.

"My father went back to Morocco twenty years ago. He said it was impossible for him to continue here. He wanted to take us with him, but I refused then, as I considered myself French and I cannot live outside France. But now I can consider leaving,” Mohamed said.

Mehdi Meftah, who is French with Moroccan origins, and a member of the political bureau of a group that defends the rights of minorities, the Party of the Indigenous of the Republic, believes that there are layers in French society. "We have the white legitimate French, who are at the top of the hierarchy, who put in place the policies, and are well-represented, and there are people who came from the colonies, who are not represented, despite their large numbers; and they face racism," he said.

French official Domenach however stresses the successes of integration.

France has the largest Muslim community in Europe, and it has played a successful role in fighting ISIS. That is why it is a target, she argues.

"Despite some failures, France is the most successful country in the matter of integration. It has intra-marriage between Muslims and non-Muslims. Muslims work in the police force, and they are also subject to terrorist attacks themselves. We might not have reached full integration, but France is on the way. You will find Arab songs or food popular in France, as it is part of the culture," Domenach added.

"I don't think there is a problem of integration, but integration is a loose concept; it turns into disintegration. Nobody will be able to tell what integration is because nobody will be able to tell you what is the meaning of being French. Is it being born in France, or living in France, or being a third or fourth generation of foreign descent, drinking alcohol and eating pork?" Bechrouri asks.

Instead, Bechrouri argues, there are “multiple ways to be French.”

For Bechrouri it is also an issue of acceptance. "If you want to be an open society you have to respect all different people as long as they respect the law, and the majority of the Muslim community in France respect the law,” he added.

Nehad, the Egyptian student, points to problems of isolation among the French Muslim community, adding that she heard about a hairdresser who only does the hair of veiled women in their own houses. She went once to a Muslim hairdresser, and the woman started to talk to her about Islamic concepts like hijra [religious migration from the non-Islamic world to Islamic territory] and fitna [sedition], and told Nehad that she should get married as she is Muslim.

"This hairdresser was born in France. She does not speak Arabic, although she is from Arabic origins. She used to play music, and then she discovered that music is ‘haram’ - forbidden in Islam. They do not have an identity and that is the problem," Nehad added.

"These young French Muslims live in isolation, which gives jihadists the chance to recruit them, as they give them confidence and power, and they want to revenge from their personal status and from the French community,” Mohamed said.

The French Muslims do not belong to their countries of origin, they are French but they feel that they are not acceptable. They cannot express their religion freely, and if they did, they will not be able to find jobs, especially veiled Muslim women and Muslim men with beards, according to Mohamed.

"On the other hand, Islamophobia emerged in France only when Arab migrants started to have a good social status, working in decent jobs like teaching, law and medicine, increased with the terrorist attacks. Therefore this increased the isolation of Muslim community," Mohamed added.

Failed and successful policies

The French state’s famous "laïcité" (secularism), has been criticised by minorities who feel they have been prohibited from expressing their religious identity in public places, especially following the 2004 law that prohibited the hijab in schools.

According to Mohamed, the text of the laïcité law is from 1905, and it included liberty, freedom of religion and expression, freedom of belief and expression, equality between citizens and religions, neutrality of the state towards religions, separation between state and religion, and respect or the exercise of religions.

 "However, today the state violates this law, as they support Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish associations, schools, and houses of worship, and yet this is not the case for Muslims. This is discrimination,” Mohamed argues.

Following the terrorist attacks, the problems of the Muslim community, which had been perceived as identity and cultural issues, were transformed into a threat.

"Although most of the armed violence committed in the world is not committed by Muslims, however, Muslims are accused of being violent. So the sense of injustice and that there is a war against Islam push Muslims to jihad," says Meftah, of the Party of the Indigenous of the Republic.

After two years of state of emergency, a controversial anti-terrorism law was approved in November 2017. It allows the government to approve surveillance on individuals without judicial permissions. It also allows security presence and searches for people and vehicles around places that are believed to be at risk, like railway stations and airports.

Police forces
Police forces and rescuers near the Bataclan concert hall in central Paris, early on 14 November 2015 AFP

The law also enables the government to shut down mosques or other places of worship if preachers there are found to be promoting radical ideology.

French officials have declared more than once that they are in a state of war on terrorism. France is part of the international armed coalition fighting ISIS, contributing militarily to the efforts. With ISIS losing ground in Syria and Iraq, French officials declared in 2017 that 400 French nationals, including children, had returned from ISIS-held territory, with around 700 nationals believed to still be there.

On November 2017, French Interior Minister Gerard Collomb told a French magazine that despite the fact that the number of French fighters who travel to join ISIS was at that time close to zero, the terrorist threat level is still very high, as there are small groups planning for attacks in France; however, he said threat the ministry's services are well-equipped to detect the threat.

However, Collomb said in other media outlets that the threat is no greater than over the last two years and security services were arresting or monitoring all those who had returned to France.

"Most of the French NGOs criticised the state of emergency and the counter-terrorism law, as they do not require judicial permission for raiding houses and arresting people they believe are suspects. They have raided the houses of 4,000 Muslims since 2015 under state of emergency, and only found less than 10 people who have a relation with terrorism, yet are not involved in terrorist actions directly," Mohamed said.

"The state of emergency, and discrimination, may also push people to jihad. ISIS uses the discriminative policies against Muslims to motivate them to commit attacks, which increases Islamophobia against Muslims, so people will feel that they have no option but getting radicalised, and so on. This is ISIS’ strategy," believes Bechrouri. 

The French government works on two tracks, "prevention like we do in the committee through cultural and social work, and law enforcement to face the real terrorist threat, but also without violating freedoms. So when the emergency state proven not being effective by time, the state now is working according to regular laws with full judicial supervision," Domenach said.

"The government does not know how to solve the situation," believes Remadna, explaining that she has worked with mothers whose sons were trying to go to Syria, and had called the government to stop them, only for the government to let them leave.

"Now if they want to go back they will be arrested. Those who are between 16-20, they are only children, and the government puts them in prison and leaves the leaders free. The government is punishing the victims and not the real criminals," she said.

"It is not easy for a mother to report her son, or to pack the luggage for her son to go to jihad. The government was able to stop them before going, but they did not, and now it is worse, because those who remained here are frustrated that they did not join ISIS, and those who are defeated now in ISIS are coming back, and the government cannot stop them because they enter through other Arab countries,” she believes.

Remadna also works with mothers who have been accused of being terrorists because they send money to their children who are supporters or members of jihadist groups. 

"I know three mothers who have been accused of financing terrorists, and they get accused after their kids get killed, and not only mothers, the whole family pays the price,” she says.

For Remadna, this kind of approach may simple recreate the same cycle of alienation.

“The situation is hard; they do not receive their sons' bodies, nor death certificates, and this can push the rest of the family to choose the same radical way against the government."

*This article was written thanks to the Bassem Sabry program of the French Embassy in Egypt and the French Institute in Egypt, which allows every year one or two young Egyptian analyst(s) or journalist(s) to discover France and the debates that animate its society.

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