The Crumbling of French Culture

The year 2015 was France’s annus horribilus. It began with the terrorist attack in the office of the far-left newspaper Charlie Hebdo and ended with the terrorist attack in the concert hall of the Bataclan. In that year alone, 148 innocent people died at the hands of jihadists in France.

It was for the French like the attacks of September 11, 2001 were for the Americans: a sudden and cruel wake-up call after the dream of the “end of history” that prevailed just after communism fell, or the dream of a “happy globalization” in the decades since.

But strangely, according to the country’s political class and media, the worst thing was not the awful death of innocent people but that anyone should connect jihadism with the Muslim faith. Everybody knows that not all Muslims are terrorists. But it’s absurd to claim—as so many politicians in Europe do—that jihadism has nothing to do with Islam. Otherwise the British firm ICM Research would not have found that a sizeable proportion of young Muslims in France, 27 percent, were supporting ISIS in 2014.

The largest part of European elites is still dreaming of an everlasting peace and of a world that has gotten rid of crises, indeed of politics altogether. But history, war, and tragedy are back, and the return of tragedy to a pacified Europe is the great issue of Gilles Kepel’s excellent new book, Terror in France: The Rise of Jihad in the West.

The causes of the rise of jihadism in the West are well known, but they are seldom gathered and studied: the geopolitical context (especially the war in Iraq, but also the never-ending conflict between Israelis and Palestinians), the economic crisis in Western Europe, the cultural question, and the memory of colonization. To these causes Kepel could have added the question of immigration. France has the greatest number of Muslims of any European country, between six million and 10 million of a total French population of 67 million. This means that many hundreds of thousands are radical Islamists and many thousands—to say the least—are potential jihadists.

The most interesting aspect of Kepel’s book is its portraits of jihadist figures and trends among their followers, ranging from banditry or so-called “small delinquency,” to radical Islamism, to violent jihadism. We all know that French jails are perhaps the most radical “mosques,” where many young delinquents become true jihadists. But it’s striking to see it concretely, in the real life of some “French” jihadists. I put quotation marks around “French” because, of course, generally speaking, the jihadists are only French citizens by their passport, not with their heart. Most were born abroad or are the children of recent immigrant parents. They have no clear commitment to French culture or history. In fact they hate France, which in their understanding is the country of the Crusaders.

Ironically, very few people except the jihadists believe that France is still a Christian country. Secularism in the country today is much more anti-Christian than it is anti-Muslim. Many politicians express support for Islamic associations (from which they expect votes come election time), even as Christians do not mount political activities as a minority or lobby, and are very rarely supported as such by political powers.

Kepel writes that what draws certain young people to take up arms and commit violent acts on behalf of Allah is, most frequently, a radicalization of young men perturbed by the confrontation in their own life between two cultures: the Islamic one (or the Moroccan, the Algerian, the Turkish) and the French one. Jihadism in France is, to be clear about it, a failure of French policies of integration.

As the political philosopher Pierre Manent pointed out in his book Situation de la France (2015), this policy failure is particularly linked with the decline of the teaching in French schools. It is no longer encouraged to educate the young about the greatness of the French patrimony and the richness of French history. Moreover, we ceased to teach what we used to call “the humanities”: the beautiful works of the great French writers of the 17th and 18th centuries. This canon was the common possession of every French student all the way up until the 1970s. It united Frenchmen and women of various backgrounds. Nowadays, the French people have nothing in common. How can we prevent some of them from seeking this common good, this solidarity, in the ummah?

My main criticism of Kepel’s book lies here: Jihadism is the most radical and the most urgent question that Islam puts to France, but it is not the only one. Some radical Islamists are not violent. If we remember back not so long ago, to the “dark decennial” in Algeria, the 1991 to 2002 civil war between the secular government and Islamists, many Salafists (Muslim fundamentalists) were slaughtered by militants of the Algerian Groupe Islamique Armé (GIA).

My point is that even those who do not take up arms pose basic difficulties for France. Would a France where many cities, or sections of cities, were ruled by takfiri (expulsionist) or Salafist imams, still be France? The place of women in French culture would not be compatible with the social order set forth by these imams (in Salafism, women are exactly “half-men”), nor would wine and food hold the same importance that they traditionally have held in French culture. In French culture, churches and cathedrals are everywhere. How would these institutions compete with mosques?

Of course, the purpose of Terror in France is to help us to understand the rise of jihadism not to explain all the “theological” (or, more precisely, juridical) debates in Islam or to present all of the tendencies and factions dividing French Muslims. But I think that studying only terrorist violence is risky. With this axis of study, we can forget that, behind or above the question of violence, Islam is for us, European or Westerners, a strange and unidentified thing. This is not a religion in the same sense as Christianity is. It does not promote the same view of God or the human being as Christianity does. We must take care about our differences. It’s the only way to understand each other. Sadly, few French intellectuals or politicians, or European intellectuals or politicians, are wiling to study and come to grips with these differences.

We can hope that the excellent work of Gilles Kepel will persuade them to look more carefully at the great issue of Islam in Western societies. This is the only way to avoid a civil and religious war, which threatens to be a new step toward the European suicide that almost occurred in the course of two world wars.