Vincent Geisser is one of the foremost experts on French Islam. He is president of the Institute of Research and Studies on the Arab and Muslim World at the University of Marseille, and Muslim political scientist at the CNRS in Paris.
Geisser has written several studies on the topic of Islam in France, including Ethnicité républicaine, Le Nouvelle islamophobie and Marianne & Allah.
With 6 million Muslims, France is one of the European countries with a strong Muslim community. What was the effect of the Paris massacre on this large community?
You have to start from a necessary premise: The terrorists have chosen to hit France because they hope that their actions will encourage a further development of Islamophobia, a stigmatization of the entire Muslim community that will support their recruitment work.
That said, within the very diverse French Muslim community, given that many different ways to practice the faith coexist, it seems to me that two immediate consequences of what happened can be observed.
On one hand, there is the feeling of being on the “watchlist,” being viewed with suspicion and sometimes simply considered as jihadists.
On the other hand, with each passing day, however, there is also a growing mobilization, in many ways unprecedented: In the face of those murderous acts, it feels as if you were witnessing a sort of moral revolt since so many do not accept that their religious feelings are so barbarically associated with violence. Representatives of associations, mosques and cultural centers are speaking up these days to declare their revulsion for terrorism as Muslims.
In addition to this, there is a strong claim of belonging to France, its values, even its symbols, starting from the flag. It’s something that becomes particularly visible on social networks where many have immediately put the flag on their Facebook profile. Because of these terms and considerable participation, it seems to me a new phenomenon.
There had been nothing like this after the attack on Charlie Hebdo and the kosher supermarket. Has the Islamic State perhaps made a mistake in his strategy?
It seems so. This time the horror in its purest form ruled out any hesitation or timidity in the reaction. Many Muslims had condemned the massacres of January, but Charlie Hebdo was certainly a controversial symbol, divisive, with which many of the faithful were struggling to identify. Now it’s different. All were hit. All are equally victims in the bloodshed that we have witnessed. It has produced a collective awareness. There have been no mass demonstrations like in January, but no one can think that what happened does not affect oneself. Muslims today are on the front line against terrorism.
The biographies of the Paris bombers, as has happened in the past, tell us that the terrorists are claiming an Islamic basis for their action: What role does religion play in their path?
Despite the fact that they claim to take action in the name of faith, really it is the fascination with violence that seems to really move them. French military men deployed to Afghanistan explained to me that, according to them, the true religion of these young Europeans, who were once leaving to join the jihad in Kabul and now do the same in Syria, is not Islam, but violence.
In some cases, these are petty criminals who at some point take on the role of “defenders of the faith.” Others are boys without a criminal record but with a strong and overwhelming desire to assert themselves through the use of violent methods. In this sense, their religious education is often very superficial and after a short passage through the mosques or Muslim cultural centers, it takes place mainly at home, online or in small groups who meet privately.
Many Imams say that the true radicalization does not occur among young men who still attend the mosques, but it occurs when they stop going there and start looking for more aggressive messages: That’s when we should start worrying. At that moment, the recruiters of terrorist groups come into play. At the end of this route, they choose to go to fight in Syria not only to defend the self-styled Islamic State, but also to live an adventure, to experience the seductive thrill of combat.
The massacre in Paris takes place 10 years after the great revolt of the banlieue. Is the bloodthirsty bent of young jihadists also the result of that defeat?
It is hard to establish a parallel between forces that wanted the transformation of society and those that instead pursue its complete destruction. In 2005, the youth of the banlieues burned cars to be heard, not people. Rather, alongside the analysis of religious radicalization in terms of a group of lower-class young people in Europe, we should start questioning the role that increasingly destructive forms of violence have had in their socialization processes. From this point of view, I do not subscribe to the sociological thesis that gives radical Islamism the desperate “last” ideology. Actually, we are observing the paths of self-destruction.