Self-fulfilling Prophesies: Domestic Terrorism, Islamist Separatism, and Muslim (Non)belonging in France
It’s been nearly six years since the January 2015 Charlie Hebdo terror attack that killed twelve people working for the famous satirical magazine (Le Monde 2015). Carrying out a coordinated multi-sited attack, another team of attackers also took sixteen hostages at a Hypercacher—a Kosher grocery store in the Paris suburbs—killing four individuals there, as well as a policewoman in Montrouge, and staging a second hostage situation nearby. This series of events was the first of numerous terror incidents throughout 2015 and 2016, including the November 2015 Bataclan massacre and the July 2016 truck attack in Nice (Bastié 2016; Libert 2016; Seelow, Piel, and Cazi 2015). Panic ensued among politicians and citizens alike about the reality of both foreign-affiliated and domestic Islamic terrorism on French soil. Policy responses that had become commonplace reactions were rapidly implemented, including significant education reforms and a new state-led initiative to reform Islam in France.
Fast forward to October 2020. Just as the surviving terrorists responsible for the January 2015 attacks were being tried in court, France found itself reeling again. On October 16, middle school teacher Samuel Paty, who had used cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad in a student lesson about freedom of speech, was beheaded just outside of the school where he taught (Chambraud, Vincent, and Chapuis 2020). Not two weeks later, on October 29, another terrorist declaring affiliation with Islam killed three parishioners in yet another unspeakable attack at the Notre-Dame Basilica in Nice (Tenré 2020).
That troubling month in France—which was also accompanied by another nation-wide shutdown due to rising COVID cases—began with a controversial speech by French President Emmanuel Macron on October 2nd (Elysée.fr 2020). In the speech, he called for a crackdown on Islamist separatism—here considered the driving catalyst for terrorism on French soil despite a clear or legal definition as to what exactly constitutes separatism (Bilal and Alouane n.d.). He also announced further educational reforms, the banning of foreign imams from leading French mosques, stricter regulations on foreign funding for Muslim organizations, and another state-led overhaul of Islam in France.
But several questions remain, especially since his call to action was followed by two terror attacks in a two-week span; and since after each attack his speeches provoked outcry and discontent from many French Muslims who lamented—and feared—the increasingly unnuanced amalgamation of terrorism with Islam that the speeches could provoke (Rosman 2020; Le Monde 2020). Macron’s defense of caricatural cartoons in France—regardless of blasphemy—as part of the fundamental French right to free speech, as well as his persistent narrative on the need to re-reform Islam in France (and beyond), has even fueled foreign anti-French protests in Muslim majority countries such as Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Lebanon, in which President Macron was equated with the devil (Al Jazeera 2020; Ward 2020). Macron’s words also elicited a response from the Pakistani Prime Minister who said he had “attacked Islam” by protecting blasphemous cartoons (Reuters Staff 2020). This national and international backlash against the government’s recent political decisions led Macron to carry out a new round of interviews and speeches wherein, while defending his actions, he also acknowledged how his comments could have been seen as controversial, and sought to clarify his position in support of France’s Muslims and against radical Islamism, “of which Muslims are the first victims” (Al-Jazeera 2020).
However, the December 2nd dissolution of the national Collective against Islamophobia in France (Collectif contre l’islamophobie en France; CCIF) has thrown even more fuel on the inflamed tensions between France’s Muslim communities and the French state (France24 2020; Berreiro 2020). An organization known for collecting data on incidents of Islamophobia and related discrimination, the CCIF was criticized by the state for having manipulated a “noble and necessary fight” against Islamophobia to infuse anti-Semitism, a relativization of terror attacks, and an equating of “anti-terrorist measures as anti-Muslim” into discourses “against the Republic” (Verner 2020). Representatives for the CCIF have said that the dissolution move sends “a terrible message to Muslim citizens: you don’t have the right to defend your rights” (France24 2020). The League for Human Rights (LDH) has expressed concern that “this attack on the rule of law (…) can only lead to increased tensions and to reinforce the idea that it is indeed all Muslim people who are implicated here” (Farelli 2020).
This is indeed the primary concern at stake in all of this recent controversy. Regardless of the intentions of Macron and his ministers, the measures taken against radical Islamism and in defense of France’s Republican values in order to protect all its citizens, has many French Muslims feeling even more stigmatized and further cast out of French belonging. Is this new bill, along with the dissolution of an organically organized initiative against Islamophobia the best path forward? Or might this miss the mark on the real roots of Islamist separatism, and instead serve to simply exacerbate existing tensions?
In a recent piece by Al Jazeera, numerous French Muslims were interviewed about their sentiments as tensions escalate. The interviewees bemoaned their experiences with Islamophobia and discrimination, their feelings of being left out of the conversation, and their feelings of non-belonging and being forced to choose between “being French” or “being Muslim”—a common theme of much of the research surrounding French Muslim identity over the past twenty-five years (Bowen 2008; 2010; Cesari 1997; Fernando 2009; 2014; Fredette 2014; Keaton 2006; Lorcerie 2007). One man said that the “situation is worse than his worst nightmare,” in part because “the government isn’t thinking at all about where these decisions will take us” (Yeung 2020).
The October 2020 attacks and the political aftermath, including the recent actions taken by the French state, raise real questions about the possibilities for a peaceful relationship between France and French Islam. On the one hand, it would seem that the sharp divisions within French society over the place and space for Muslims therein have reached a dangerous tipping point. On the other hand, however, it feels as though we’ve been here before.
All of these tensions, complete with feelings among French Muslims of non-belonging, discrimination, being left out of the conversation, and being forced to choose between French or Muslim identities, were already front and center in 2013 and 2014, as I carried out research on religion and French national identity among pious Muslim and Catholic citizens in spaces of religious education, primarily in Paris, Lille, and Lyon. Echoing the sentiments expressed above, one young Muslim told me, “I would say ‘I want to feel like a French citizen’ more so than ‘I am a French citizen’ because, of course I’m a citizen, but people don’t consider me as such. They consider us as children of immigrants, or as nuisances, who are poor, or who do illegal things.”
When asked what it meant to be French on a survey of recent high school graduates, one Muslim youth said it meant, “…to fit into a mold or be lapidated in the public square. To be free to be like everyone else. To represent a republic that doesn’t represent us.” Another respondent answered, “I don’t know – I’ve never been led to believe that I am French!” Yet another said, “Being a French citizen to me is respecting every being, performing my [civic] responsibilities and adding value to my country. But, in the end, on the pretext that I’m of the Muslim confession, I am nothing in my country.”
At the time of this research, French society was already divided over numerous socio-ethical issues, including same-sex marriage and adoption, the migration crisis (which has since worsened significantly due to the ongoing Syrian civil war), and of course, what to do about Islam and France’s approximately five million Muslims, the vast majority of whom are French citizens. It was a popular speculation that things were coming to an impasse—especially in France, but across the West—when it came to “the Muslim question” (Meer and Modood 2009; O’Brian 2016; Selby and Beaman 2016); in other words, what to do about Muslims in non-Muslim, secular nations where, according to many politicians and ordinary citizens alike, they just didn’t quite seem to fit in for some reason, and a handful of whom seemed to provoke serious social disruption, if not violence. Looking toward external impacts, the Syrian war-cum-international conflict that had been catalyzed tragically and irreversibly in 2014 by the rise of the so-called Islamic State, drew approximately 1,700 young French to its mission—some of whom have since returned to France (L’Express 2018).
In 2014, more than one non-Muslim interlocutor had told me that Muslims were trying to impose themselves on France and conquer the country that had welcomed them—a relatively banal statement all things considered, since a 2013 Ipsos survey had showed that nearly eight in ten respondents in France thought that Islam sought to impose its “way of functioning” on France and nearly three quarters said that Islam was incompatible with French values (Le Bars 2013). One young Traditionalist Catholic militant—himself an immigrant from Portugal—told me that he didn’t think things in France would get better before “la misère totale” (total misery), invoking the real possibilities of a civil war in our conversation and lamenting that young “Arabs” were taught to hate France in French public schools due to reparations curricula that had been introduced in years prior.
That was before the Charlie Hebdo and Bataclan attacks of 2015. It was before the 2016 Nice attacks. It was before far-right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen secured nearly 35 percent of the vote in the second electoral round in 2017—an unprecedented feat in the half-century history of the Front National political party (National Front; Delafoi 2017; 2017; Le Monde 2017). It was before President Macron took office, and before, just prior to his election in 2017, he called the atrocities committed against the people of Algeria during the war akin to “crimes against humanity” (Stothard 2017), and his subsequent repetition of the idea that colonialism was a “grave mistake” committed by the Republic. Whether these latter words really sought to assuage tensions among the Muslim populations of France and represent an authentic olive branch remains a point of contestation. What is certain, however, is that it enflamed the far-right, and riled up ordinary citizens who felt like too many concessions are being made for rebellious, dangerous, or ungrateful French Muslims; those who felt that not enough pride was being taken in “authentic” French heritage, culture, history, and patriotism.
My research brought me back to France in 2019, with a new project focused on French national identity within independent private schools in France—primarily Muslim schools and Catholic schools, as well as a handful of other schools focusing on alternative pedagogies. A couple of the schools I visited and the school directors I spoke with were often named in media headlines as representing “radical Islamist” threats, and being responsible for fueling the very separatism mentioned in Macron’s speech. Perhaps the most “notorious” of these school directors (in the eyes of French policy makers) was happy to sit down with me, a non-Muslim American woman, to chat on more than one occasion and even extended an invite to me to visit the school. I was unfortunately unable to follow through due to the ensuing COVID pandemic, but his openness toward me and my research significantly calls into question the real “radical threat” here.
Meanwhile, one of the private Muslim schools I had worked with during my previous research was at risk of losing their state funding due to ongoing investigations of possible connections to foreign funding, despite the consistent transparency and cooperation that the school administrators always demonstrated (France 3 2019). Despite the potential for institutions such as this one to be sources of positive change in French society, as I have argued elsewhere (Ferrara 2017; 2020), private Muslim schools of all shapes and sizes raise red flags for the French state primarily because they signal the possibility of communautarisme—an important element of French politics for understanding the crackdown on Islamist separatism.
France’s fear of communautarisme
In President Macron’s speech on October 2, he emphasized that the major threat to the Republic and to the “possibility of living together better” as a nation, was “Islamist separatism” (Elysée.fr 2020). He went on to suggest that this separatism was a “calculated politico-religious project,” giving it an air of organization and coordination that is rarely attributed Muslim groups in France. Communautarisme is largely a synonym for separatism, or the fragmentation of society into a plurality of independent and culturally distinct groups. The Anglo-Saxon concept of communitarianism is largely a positive concept in the United States and Britain where micro-communities are often extended the possibility of some form or degree of self-government (usually in terms of resolving low stakes community or family disputes). By contrast, in Republican, united France, communautarisme is considered a dangerous threat to national unity. This fear dates back at least to the early years of the Third Republic (1870-1940).
At the time, French leaders were struggling to unify the nation despite the significant regional differences and divisions in the country in places such as Brittany, the Basque region, and Corsica—different languages, different ways of life, different cultures. The erasure of these differences and the unification of national differences under one nation, one culture, one identity, was critical to the young Republic—so much so that the construction of this common identity was among the ultimate purposes of the founding of the modern French school system in the 1880s. The threat of rebellion and secession movements was high, and so the need to weed out divisive difference and construct enough sameness to hold the nation together was essential. Regional languages, as an example, were forbidden from being taught in schools as the population was slowly coerced into a more unified understanding of nation.
In the 1880s, this was easy enough to do since an exclusive national identity and a coercive culture was still an internationally acceptable, and popular, way of doing things. Plenty of ethnic, racial, and religious populations around the world, including in parts of France, were deemed second class citizens, if citizens at all. But as the Republic grew up, and especially after the international atrocities of the Second World War and the internal violence of the Algerian War, this coercive homogeneity was harder to justify outright. Real sentiments about who did and didn’t belong in France as true French citizens were increasingly swept behind the banners of equalizing, freedom-guaranteeing Republican principles. “Others” were increasingly measured against these values instead. Space did have to be made for difference within the nation, but the rules of equalizing Republicanism protected the French state from needing to reserve special treatment for groups calling for group-based exceptions or protections. This meant that the distaste for communautarisme, and with it a certain uncomfortable (for some) and often contested call for conformity persisted through this transition.
The threat of Islamist separatism is, of course, a multi-layered enemy. It’s not only a communautariste threat to national unity, but is foremost an idea, a symbol, that conjures up hundreds of years of territorial clashes with Muslim populations, old colonial tropes of the “uncivilized” and “untamable” Other; vengeful Fanonian discourses following the Algerian war and its aftermath; and the rise of global terrorist networks affiliated with Islam over the past forty years. In addition, the majority of those who have committed or attempted to commit acts of terror in France over the past decade have been French citizens or card carrying long-stay immigrants (Seelow, Baruch, and Dahyot 2018; Sénécat 2017). The twenty terror attacks affiliated with Islam in France since 2012 (Feertchak 2019; RMC 2020) account for the vast majority of such acts since 1979 (Ouest-France 2019), and stands in contrast to just six Islam-affiliated terror incidents in the whole of the United States during the same period (CNN Editorial 2020). So, there clearly is a problem that needs addressing here. But the implicit conflations between Muslim communities, Islam, and “Islamist separatism” (which again, is not well defined) within political responses and discourses surrounding this problem only exacerbates already tense relationships between the French state and French Muslims. Is the best response and solution proposition here really another top-down, state-imposed reform of French Islam and a simultaneous dissolution of a non-government affiliated collective designed to combat Islamophobia?
Stirring the mixing pot
The French political obsession with trying to control, design, and administer a French Islam (or an Islam of France as opposed to an Islam in France) harks back to the colonial ambitions of France to become “the world’s premier Muslim power” (Davidson 2012, 16). It is not at all a new response to the “Muslim question,” even if each new iteration takes a slightly different approach. But the “Muslim question” is a very different today than it was in the early twentieth century, and is even quite different than just two decades ago. Although things have continued to worsen over the past two decades, and especially in the past ten years in regards to domestic terrorism and in terms of French Muslim exclusion and Islamophobia, subsequent governments continue to respond in nearly the same way.
Step one: signal the danger of a rising threat of Islamism or Islamist separatism in local communities, playing to the historical fear of communautarisme that runs deep in France. Why do Muslims want to create their own schools? Our public schools are perfectly inclusive and adapted to the needs of all French citizens. Step two: find a new law to pass that will somehow restrict the freedoms of certain Muslim communities, regardless of the lack of evidence that this will actually affect even a single person among that tiny minority of Muslims in France who are or who may become radicalized. Headscarves are terrifying, niqabs more so, maybe burkhinis (though that one is tricky due to its uncanny resemblance to a wet suit) and schooling children at home can of course be quite dangerous too if looked at from a terrorist breeding and raising perspective. You need something to show the country you’re working on it, and surely French Muslims won’t mind (so no need to ask them; or for a real slap in the face, you could ask the Imam of Egypt’s Al-Azhar as former President Sarkozy did in 2003). Step three: launch a new Islam reform initiative preferably with some sentiment of making Islam more French—even more French than last time. Assemble Muslim leaders of your choice to partner with to give an air of representation, authenticity, and bottom-up inclusion, even if these leaders may not be particularly respected by the masses, and even if everyone sees through this effort—especially you.
Not only have these persistent and repetitive responses and initiatives never been proven effective, they have instead served to undermine the relationship between French Muslims and France—not only in terms of their relationship with the French state, but also with their fellow citizens, with French institutions, and with French national identity, which is a crucial element to the stability, coherence, and unity of the French nation—the ultimate goal to which French Republicanism aspires. Instead, young Muslims are increasingly seen as somehow non-French, as internal-yet-foreign enemies, and told that they don’t belong. And so, they are forced to seek alternative spaces and circles of belonging, often within their familial, community Muslim networks. In other contexts, such networks might be understood as positively contributing to civic society, giving individuals a sense of purpose, community, and belonging that would feed back into broader society. However, French Republicanism and the historical fear of communautarisme interprets this consistent socialization within, and reliance upon Muslim communities as necessarily separatist.
Thus, these consistent policy responses have ultimately had an effect—they have emboldened the roots of the separatism and the anti-Republican sentiment they have tried to assuage. According to a recent September 2020 survey, forty-five percent of young Muslims in France under the age of twenty-five now agree with the statement “Islam is incompatible with the values of the Republic,” while only twenty-four percent of the older generation of Muslims – those over thirty-five—agree with this. Moreover, nearly three-quarters of Muslim youth under twenty-five put their religion before the values of the Republic while only one-quarter of the over-thirty-five generation do so (Figaro 2020).
From a certain perspective, these numbers are shocking—especially when read against the backdrop of the October attacks. But from a distanced, objective perspective, this is not at all surprising. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you’ve grown up and come of age in France over the past twenty or so years, you’ve read countless headlines pitting Islam against France, heard countless talking heads discussing France’s “Muslim problem,” seen surveys showing French public opinion increasingly disapprove of Islam and Muslims in France. You’ve witnessed numerous policy changes restricting freedoms of religious expression (though never freedom of Republican-friendly expression) that have elicited angry, if not rebellious, responses from the Muslim communities around you. On top of this, it’s likely that you have experienced direct discrimination. More than forty percent of Muslims say they’ve experienced discrimination because of their religion and sixty percent of females wearing the headscarf say so (Le Monde 2019).
As a Muslim community leader, perhaps you attempt to foster more coherence between French and Muslim identities among youth. Perhaps you start a local Muslim community soccer league to help them build stronger senses of self, to find resonance among their peers and strong role models in the leading adults. But you’ll likely be regarded with suspicion. As one interlocuter one asked me, “why do Muslims want to play soccer just amongst themselves? It’s entirely unnecessary and sectarian.” Maybe you open a school for the community, so that you can create an inclusive environment for Muslim youth to help them understand their civic duties and to teach them the benefits of laïcité. And it works; your students have a much higher regard for their French citizenship and better understand their civic rights and responsibilities than their public school counterparts (Ferrara 2017; 2020). But it isn’t enough. Your school is still labeled communautariste and deemed a potential Islamist separatist threat.
Of course, there are myriad factors that contribute to violence in the name of Islam in France and elsewhere, the majority of which cannot be linked to any kind of domestic policies or Islamist separatism, and which are far beyond the reach of French politicians, or politicians of any single nation. There is not a direct causal link here by any means. But French politicians can control the narrative of the French state towards its citizens, and doing so responsibly is an essential part of an inclusive vision for the future of France’s relationship with its Muslim citizens. If French Muslims are consistently told that they don’t belong, that they’re always part of the problem rather than ever being regarded as a real part of the solution, that they’re not really French despite all their efforts to abide by the so-called golden-ticket rules of Republicanism, eventually this message becomes internalized. As one young Muslim told me in 2014, “I have the impression that everything the government extols is against what I think and against the way I would like to live. And so, I have a hard time feeling really French.”
French leaders and policy makers must find more transparent and inclusive way to make French Muslims feel that they are actually considered part of the solution, without putting the blame or responsibility upon them for the terror acts committed by fringe radicals. French Muslim leaders must be entrusted to foster positive community engagement initiatives and must be given a real chance at being part of the solution. The response cannot continuously be a new unilateral state-sponsored reform of a religion that most French don’t even consider to be a legitimate or compatible religion in France; or crackdowns on Islamist separatism that end up stifling those French Muslim institutions working to improve the lives of French Muslims. Until better multilateral solutions can be imagined, these repetitive responses to acts of terror will only serve to exacerbate social divisions in France and to foment the very separatism that they are intended to attenuate.
Carol Ferrara is an assistant professor at Emerson College. She was the 2019-2020 Fulbright-EHESS Postdoctoral Scholar, carrying out a research project on independent private schooling in France. Her previous research analyzed pious Muslim and Catholic experiences with national identity and pluralist ethics in France. Carol was also a 2017-2018 Mellon-CES Dissertation Completion Fellow. Carol holds a PhD in Sociocultural Anthropology from Boston University and a dual MA in Middle East & Islamic Studies and International Affairs from the American University in Paris.
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 Previous education reforms include curriculum reforms implemented in the Fall of 2015 following Charlie Hebdo and coinciding with the Bataclan attacks, and also the Loi Gatel in 2018, restricting home schooling, making schooling obligatory for children at age three, and implementing stricter regulations on independent private schooling in France.
 Traditionalist Catholics refer to those who follow a form of pre-Vatican II Catholicism, which rejects freedom of religion, ecumenicalism, modern liturgical reforms, and certain aspects of equality on the basis of human dignity as outlined in Vatican II. In this instance, my interlocutor was a member of a Saint Pious X (SSPX) congregation.
 There have been other acts of terrorism committed in the US during that same period, but here I have excluded non-Islam affiliated acts of terrorism for comparative purposes.
Photo: Exterior of the Grand Mosque of Paris featuring carved geometric shapes, ornamental details, green marble tiling and Arabic writing.
Published on December 15, 2020.