The Inevitable Divorce: Secular France and Radical Islam

Ayoub El-Khazzani, aged 25, failed to reach the trigger of his Kalashnikov aboard a train passing through Belgium en route to Paris last month, which enabled three Americans and a Briton to stop the radical Islamist from killing any of the train’s nearly 500 passengers. When the four were awarded the Legion d’Honneur in Paris, it had been nine months since the gruesome Charlie Hebdo killings in that city.

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The Americans remember 9/11; we remember Madrid (2004), London (2005), Paris (2015), and many other outrages, and we were relieved not to have to add the high-speed Thalys train to the list. Innocents have met a violent death at the hands of a few fanatics, thousands have been maimed. Europeans have been feeling under siege even before the new waves of refugees from Syria, Afghanistan, and Eritrea began reaching us; the possibility of ISIS fighters being smuggled in among them has added to the sense of crisis.

These fanatics hate our institutions of economic freedom and political representation. They have brought fear to places where the freedom of movement operates peacefully, on a daily basis. The symbolism of the Islamist insurgence is quite plain: Jihadists targeted the pillars of commercial freedom in the United States, and the trains, the underground, and the railway stations in Europe—and a political magazine exemplifying another democratic institution: the free press, independent of any governmental control.

The Continent is less able to defend itself against jihadism than is the United States, for various reasons: geography, demographics, religion, and the political temperament of the European Union elite sitting above the national political structures. How did a liberal, prosperous and optimistic Europe end up with so many problems in such a short time?

I would not endorse any simplistic explanation of a truly complex reality. As a start, we would do well to reread Dostoyevsky’s Demons (1872), that extraordinary novel which presents “the fire in the minds of men” and illuminates the spiritual dimension of ideological radicalism. We could also consult psychiatric handbooks for a better perspective on serial murder. Some will look into the Bible, in search of a prophecy that could make sense of the moral decline of the West.

My approach will be more modest. I shall try to use the case study of France to delineate the political, social, and economic transformations that account for the European weakness toward radical Islam. France has a highly centralized system of governance, which very much resembles the European Union’s approach to public policies.

In contemporary France, there are at least seven million people living under the religious guidance of the Quran in a population of 66 million citizens. Most have an Algerian background, the rest descending from Moroccan, Tunisian, or other African origins, dating back to the former French colonies. This population arrived in France in the same manner as other westward emigrants, such as the Turkish communities who established themselves in West Germany after the close of World War II, or the hundreds of thousands of Romanians who flocked to France in pursuit of economic opportunity in the wake of the 1989 anticommunist revolution.

The first exodus from the Maghreb to the Mediterranean Riviera was done peacefully.

French companies were in search of cheap labor as adult males from North Africa looked for better-paid jobs. The initial phase of integration evolved quite smoothly. The immigrants did not publicly display their Islamic faith and the police recorded only a few incidents of street violence. The newcomers complied with the local customs and did not defy the republican values of modern France.

Then, on April 29, 1976, a political decision led to a demographic earthquake. French President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing approved a law allowing for a vast enlargement of the initially small-sized families of immigrants. Unskilled workers from outside Europe started to bring over their wives, children, and relatives. This extended notion ofrepatriation applied even to cases of bigamy or polygamy. Men who originally married in Mauritania or Mali could provide a French passport to their younger spouses. The French government gave instant naturalization to pregnant women or young mothers with three or four children.

The Parisian elite intended this as a compensatory measure in light of France’s harsh and exploitative colonial history (an open wound since Charles de Gaulle’s 1962 halting of military action in Algeria and accession to that country’s independence). The Marxist intellectuals who led France’s student protests of 1968 now rejoiced. Cosmic justice was being done. The white man, with his Christian dignity and imperialist instincts, could now be chastened. Public references to the glories of France before the Revolution faded away. As Jean Sévillia pointed out, new history textbooks presented the crusades as “an aggression launched by the greedy West against a tolerant and refined Islam.”

The universities started to welcome epistemic relativism. On the streets of Paris and in the French cinema, the sexual revolution celebrated the collapse of the old bourgeois habits. How, then, were the sons and daughters of illiterate North African Berbers to locate themselves in this postmodern vacuum? The children of Muslim immigrants found themselves parachuted into a value system devoid of roots, memory, or transcendence. Not even the exquisite taste of French cuisine could replace the structural nostalgia for a truly intimate relationship with God. The pleasures of a materialistic culture could not bury the anxieties of a post-Christian age. In the words of Eric Voegelin, the sacred prepared to take its revenge.

Giscard d’Estaing’ bill for regroupment familial was, so to say, an experiment in non-integration. Not in the electoral sense, though: The immigrants formed a large voting block for Leftist politicians in love with the welfare state. On the other hand, the rise of the far-Right populist leaders (such as Jean-Marie Le Pen) legitimized the fear-mongering rhetoric of the Socialists. In the 1980s, the French people witnessed a growth in the installment of government housing projects called logement social in the outskirts of their inner cities. Muslim families moved into ultra-modern apartments built with public money. This sense of belonging to a very distinct social space encouraged, amongst the younger Muslim population, the birth of a ghetto-like mentality. Riots were not uncommon in the banlieues of Paris.

Georges Pompidou (1911-1974), another ambiguous French politician, went even further than Giscard D’Estaing. He agreed to the building of mosques and places of worship in factories, with the help of the secular government. What did he have in mind? Pompidou just wanted to tame a potentially explosive religion. If the first Muslim immigrants considered themselves French citizens, their descendants had begun to be drawn to the anti-colonialist, politically reactionary Islamic revival that had begun to gather force in Egypt and beyond by the mid-1970s. Religion became the main provider of identity and self-esteem for an entire generation of French men and women, who were met with cold feelings (if not straight xenophobia) by a hypocritical Parisian elite.

By the late 1980s, France was an entirely different country from the one known to Paul Cezanne, Georges Bernanos, or even de Gaulle. Islam reappeared in the public space in order to comfort a growing population. In Algeria, Syria, and Egypt, secularist governments dealt with the burgeoning networks of imams and preachers by establishing departments of religious affairs. A supposedly tamed version of Islam was put into the service of social cohesion. The French government, for its part, was just trying to catch up with its North African and Middle Eastern counterparts.

The revival, of course, was more than a Sunni Muslim phenomenon. In 1979, the Ayatollah Khomeini’s Shia theocratic revolution took over in Iran. Shia radicals and mullahs began to dream of gradually establishing sharia law in Western lands. By the late 1980s, the American administration and American news reporters burnished the image of the Taliban mujahedeen trying to oust the Russian communist invaders of Afghanistan, whereas the civil war in Lebanon simply reversed the demographic balance between Christians (nowadays 40 percent) and Muslims (over 54 percent in 2014).

After the end of the Cold War, Middle Eastern political discourse routinely scapegoated the last remaining superpower for the region’s problems. Palestinian terrorist organizations gained recruits with the help an anti-American hate speech. Wahhabis in Saudi Arabia established international schools for future radical leaders. In Algeria, the Islamic Salvation Front proclaimed itself to be the reform alternative to the corrupt, authoritarian, and secularist regime in charge of the redistribution of income from oil exploitation.

The advent of the Internet sped up these developments. Local conflicts triggered global propaganda wars. African rappers from Marseille could sing for the inhabitants of a Tunisian cavern. The ideology of Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt captured the imagination of unemployed teenagers in Cairo and the Gaza Strip, and of students in Munich, Manchester, and beyond. And money pumped from the Persian Gulf reached Europe. On July 25, 1995, eight people died in the French subway, and 200 were wounded. Why were the bombs set off? Members of the Islamic Salvation Front wanted to protest against the French government’s policies toward Algeria.

Integration and cohabitation stopped being an inspirational vocabulary for the inhabitants of the Islamized ghettoes. The weakening of the French collective identity fed into this festering problem. A poorly educated population cherished the fantasy of new intifada against the Western occupant. Fast forward to today, to thousands of Muslim demonstrators rallying in Europe with banners that read: “Jesus Is the Slave of Allah,” “Islam Will Conquer Rome,” and “Europe, Take Some Lessons from 9/11.”

The Left has always underestimated the dangers coming from the outside. While the European Union relaxed its borders, Al-Qaeda cells penetrated the Old Continent. Millions of petrodollars helped the radicalization of university campuses in countries such as France and Great Britain, while the followers of the Prophet rejected the famous French notion of laicité  — a sacred cow in the world of French republicans. Since 1905, the official separation of church and state prevented Christian priests and clergymen from teaching in France’s public schools. Some mayors banned even the exhibition of a modest Nativity scene during Christmas time. The new wave of Muslims citizens was happy to challenge this neutrality of the public spaces, by initiating acts of worship in the very heart of the French cities.

Nowadays, for millions of angry teenagers in Southern France, civic solidarity and national unity are two concepts devoid of meaning. Such persons, who have neither managed to graduate from school, nor to open a small business, couldn’t possibly express gratitude towards the country that offered them a passport and a valuable citizenship. The hand which feeds is, at times, severely bitten. And the Europe known and built by the genius of Blaise Pascal, Isaac Newton, Edmund Burke, and Friedrich Hayek, may soon be gone.

Radical Islam has no need for a civil society and its European recruits are fed with a dangerous cocktail made of odium, ignorance, and the absence of genuine entrepreneurial or other working skills. Salafi fundamentalists do not understand the subtleties of patristic hermeneutics expressed in relationship with the Holy Scriptures. The same lack of nuance that marks their reading of the Quran is to be found in their abrasive approach to the social and economic realities of the West. When the jihadists do not understand something (such as a museum in Palmyra), they prefer to detonate it.

France, and Europe, seem to be caught in a vice between the self-denigration practiced by a large Marxist-Freudian elite graduating from mainstream universities, on the one hand, and radicalized Islam on the other. Fanaticism has always been the business of a minority, especially when political correctness had already silenced the majority of decent and law-abiding citizens, whether Muslim or non-Muslim. There are still journalists brave enough to mock the transformation of the Quran into a Mein Kampf, yet some of them end up with bullets in their head. Politicians such as Nicolas Sarkozy and public intellectuals ranging from Jean-François Revel to Alain Besançon have expressed their doubts about the feasibility of multiculturalism. But this isn’t enough. Europe must address terrorism head-on. The rise of the barbaric ISIS should come to an end.

In order for that to happen, America might need another President. The non-appearance of Barack Obama in Paris nine months ago still stings, for without a strong America by their side, France, and Europe, will never be the same. Never, ever.

(This piece was initially published by Library of Law and Liberty).

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