FLORENCE -- The attack against the Paris satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo has re-launched an ongoing debate in France about the compatibility between Islam and the West. The issue is more fraught in Western Europe than in the United States because of the huge number of Muslims who are not only settled there, but who also have citizenship.
By a strange coincidence, on the same day of the deadly attack on Charlie Hebdo, we saw the long awaited release of the most recent novel by the bestselling French author Michel Houellebecq, titled "Submission." The book imagines the victory of a moderate Muslim party in the 2022 French presidential and parliamentary elections.
The issue of the compatibility between Islam and French or Western political culture is no longer confined to the usual suspects: the populist right, conservative Christians or staunch secularists from the left. The issue has become emotional and now pervades the entire political spectrum. The Muslim population -- which does not identify with the terrorists -- now fears an anti-Muslim backlash.
Roughly speaking, two narratives are conflicting: the dominant one claims that Islam is the main issue, because it puts loyalty toward the faith community before loyalty to the nation, it does not accept criticism, does not compromise on norms and values and condones specific forms of violence like jihad. For the adherents of this narrative, the only solution is a theological reformation that would generate a "good" Islam that is a liberal, feminist and gay-friendly religion. Journalists and politicians are always tracking the "good Muslims" and summoning them to show their credentials as "moderate."
On the other side, many Muslims, secular or believers, supported by a multiculturalist left, claim that radicalization does not come from Islam but from disenfranchised youth who are victims of racism and exclusion, and that the real issue is Islamophobia. They condemn terrorism while denouncing the backlash that could in turn radicalize more Muslim youth.
The problem is that both narratives presuppose the existence of a French "Muslim community" of which the terrorists are a sort of "vanguard."
"Muslims are criticized for being a community, but then asked to react against terrorism as a community. This is called the double bind: be what I ask you not to be."
The juxtaposition of these two narratives has created a deadlock. To overcome this, it is necessary to first take into account a number of inescapable facts -- facts which we do not want to acknowledge because they show us that the radicalized young people are in no way the vanguard or the spokesmen of the Muslim population, and in particular, that there is no "Muslim community" in France.
Radicalized young people, who rely heavily on an imagined Muslim politics (the Ummah of earlier times) are deliberately at odds with the Islam of their parents, as well as Muslim culture overall.
They invent an Islam which opposes itself to the West. They come from the periphery of the Muslim word. They are moved to action by the displays of violence in the media of Western culture. They embody a generational rupture (parents now call the police when their children leave for Syria), and they are not involved with the local religious community and the neighborhood mosques.
These young people practice self-radicalization on the Internet, searching for a global jihad. They are not interested in the tangible concerns of the Muslim world, such as Palestine. In short, they are not seeking the Islamization of the society in which they live but the realization of their sick fantasy of heroism ("We have avenged the Prophet Muhammad," claimed some of the killers at Charlie Hebdo).
The great majority of the converted amongst radicals clearly shows that radicalization is taking place among a marginal fringe of the youth, and not at the heart of the Muslim population.
Conversely, one might say, the facts show that French Muslims are more integrated than commonly thought. Each "Islamist" attack has involved at least one Muslim victim amongst the police force -- for example Imad Ibn Ziaten, a French soldier killed by Mohamed Merah in Toulouse in 2012, or the officer Ahmed Merabet, killed when he tried to stop the killers at the Charlie Hebdo offices.
Instead of being cited as examples, they are considered counter-examples. The "real" Muslim is said to be the terrorist and the others are the exceptions. But statistically, this is false: in France, there are more Muslims in the army, the police, and the gendarmes than in the Al Qaeda network, not to mention in government administration, the hospitals, law practices or the educational system.
Another cliché is that Muslims do not condemn terrorism. But the Internet is overflowing with condemnations and anti-terrorist fatwas (Just one example).
If the facts contradict the thesis of the radicalization of the Muslim population, then why are they not recognized? Because one attributes to the Muslim population a far-reaching community for which they are, at the same time, criticized for not exhibiting.
Muslims are criticized for being a community, but then asked to react against terrorism as a community. This is called the double bind: be what I ask you not to be.
"In France, there is not a Muslim community, but a Muslim population."
If, at the local level, in the neighborhoods, there are certain forms of community, such a thing does not exist at the national level. The Muslims of France have never had the desire to put in place representative institutions or even, at the very least, a Muslim lobby. There are no signs pointing toward the beginning of the establishment of a Muslim political party. The candidates of the political sphere who are of Muslim origin are spread out across the French political spectrum (and include the extreme right). There is no "Muslim vote."
There is no network of denominational Muslim schools (less than 10 in France), no mobilization in the street (no demonstrations around a Muslim cause has attracted more than a few thousand people) and almost no grand mosques (which are almost always financed from outside funding). There are only a handful of small local mosques.
If there is an effort at community, it comes from above, from the state, not the citizens. The purported organized representation of the French Council of the Muslim Faith at the Grand Mosque of Paris is held at arm's length by the French government and by foreign governments alike. And it has no local legitimacy. In short, the Muslim "community" suffers from a very Gallic individualism and remains recalcitrant. That is the good news.
Yet, both the left and the right do not cease to speak of that famous Muslim community, either to denounce its refusal to integrate, or to paint it as the victim of Islamophobia. The two opposing narratives are based on the same fantasy of an imaginary Muslim community.
In France, there is not a Muslim community, but a Muslim population. To admit this simple truth would already be a good antidote against the current hysteria, and the hysteria to come.