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Opinion: France’s Uncertain Enemy | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Security was ramped up around the Eiffel Tower in Paris as the capital was placed under the highest alert status on January 8, 2015. (AFP Photo/Bertrand Guay)

Almost three months after terrorist attacks shook Paris, France is still uncertain about what hit it and how to cope with what many see as a perennial threat.

As is often the case in France, some analysts have tried to blame society—a convenient abstraction—for what happened.

That three young Frenchmen decided to gun down a number of unarmed people on flimsy ideological grounds is seen as a direct result of French society’s failure to put its youth on the right path, which is something that is depicted in different ways by different people.

Those not satisfied with the choice of society as scapegoat put the blame on the French educational system, which is supposed to have failed to instill the values of civic responsibility and humanism in those young men.

Others put the blame on poverty, which is supposed to have left the three terrorists with no choice but a life of crime, eventually leading to jihadism with an ideological veneer.

Still others place the blame on racism, which is supposed to have angered the three young men, who were of Algerian and West African origin.

The blame game is extended with another item: Islamophobia.

Because the three terrorists were born Muslims we are told that they suffered under France’s alleged hostility towards Islam and all things Islamic.

Those who use the Islamophobia argument, however, are quick to also point out that the attacks had nothing to do with Islam and that the three jihadists were not “true Muslims.” There are suggestions that a course teaching “true Islam” should be introduced in France’s secular schools to prevent future misunderstanding about what is Islamic and what is not Islamic.

The problem is that, on closer examination, none of these explanations hold up.

The societal explanation is immediately exposed as a sham because France has a social system which values openness, diversity and otherness (altérité). Although many privileges remain, none is closed to anyone, at least in theory. Produced by meritocracy, corporatist traditions and dwindling regional networks, none of those privileges are closed to newcomers from all sorts of backgrounds.

For their part, the blame-the-school crowd gets it wrong because the terrorists did not learn their explosive hatred and ideological illusions from any French school.

In fact, the French curricula have been so blandified, to coin a verb, to a degree that is at times laughable.

Under the influence of political correctness French textbooks on humanities have been purged of opinions, not to mention values, the expression of which might ruffle any feathers.

In some cases, fear of being accused of ethnocentric and Orientalist prejudices, has led to self-doubt and self-loathing of the most abject kind followed by intellectual self-flagellation.

In any case, the terrorists all had the kind of education the average French child receives and had access to all levels of learning had they wished to pursue their education.

The next explanation, or shall we say, excuse, is equally open to question. The terrorists were not especially poor. They belonged to the vast segment of French society known as the middle classes.

In any case, they had no history of depending on food banks, known in France as “Restaurants of the Heart,” and turned out to have been properly housed. Moreover, they had enough money to travel to jihadist training centers in the Middle East and East Africa. Turkish Airlines charges over 1,200 euros (1,300 US dollars) for an economy class ticket to Istanbul, not to mention the additional expense of reaching the Syrian border several hundred kilometers to the south.

In any case, jihadism is something that middle class and upper class children indulge in. You have few jihadists from poor Muslim nations such as Bangladesh, Yemen and Sudan joining the armies of the “caliphate” in Raqqa. And, yet, the latest estimate show that some 20,000 citizens of the fairly well-to-do European Union nations have managed to finance their travel to jihad and maybe to paradise after martyrdom.

The racism explanation is equally inadequate to say the least. Though France has its share of bigots, it certainly has one of the best records when it comes to racism. In fact, for decades many African–American intellectuals and artists exiled themselves to France because they appreciated the equal treatment they received.

People of all races and religions have reached every level of French official and social hierarchy including the parliament, the Council of Ministers, the judiciary, the civil and diplomatic service, and more recently the armed forces.

Of all the excuse-cum-explanations offered, the one built around Islamophobia is, perhaps, the most outlandish. In fact, what France suffers from may be Islamapologia rather than Islamophobia. Those who insist that Islam ought to be exempt from all critical scrutiny render no service to either Islam or France. They treat Islam like a child that must be tolerated and never challenged even when he makes mistakes.

In fact, France is one of the few countries in the world where Islam, in all its versions, can be freely expressed and practiced.

One example: In the Islamic Republic of Iran; for example, no fewer than 2,000 Iranian Muslim writers of all ages are blacklisted and banned. However, none of them are banned in France and many of those banned in Iran have their work published in France and made available to Iranians either as samizdat or through the Internet.

Again, France is one of the very few countries in the world where all aspects of Islamic theology and history are openly and systematically researched, debated, studied, and made easily available to anyone interested. France offers an opportunity to study aspects of Islam that one cannot access in any Muslim country.

Many of the original leaders of the Khomeinist revolution studied their Islam in France, including Abulhassan Banisadr, the inventor of “Islamic economics,” and Hassan Habibi, the man who wrote the Constitution of the Islamic Republic.

With a Muslim population of around 6 million, France boasts almost 2,000 mosques compared to Tehran’s 720 for a population of 14 million.

On a more mundane level, France also offers versions of halal that even I, as a Muslim born and raised in an Islamic country, never knew existed, including things like halal onions and pickled gherkins for example.

France has been struck by a terrorism that has also attacked many other nations, including in the “Muslim World.” There is no excuse for terrorism—sociological, ideological or religious. Unless they accept that fact, the French will find it difficult to defeat an enemy they have faced for decades.