In the dark aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris there is little light shining on the links and motivations of the killers. But in the minds of many French people the threat was propelled by Islam.
It’s an easy conclusion that overshadows France’s uneasy and complex relationship with its estimated five million Muslims — already worsened by a political power struggle feeding on insecurity, alienation and mutual mistrust. It has pushed far-right, anti-Islamic and anti-immigration National Front leader Marine Le Pen to the top of the polls.
“I was in a Moroccan café at the time (of the attack) and you could have cut the atmosphere with a knife,” said Paris-based writer Chris Myant. “One part of the clientele felt the other part was looking at them with suspicion. This will only make the situation worse.”
Last month a survey by French pollsters ifop showed that 80 per cent of respondents believed the threat of terrorism was high or moderately high, and only 20 per cent thought it was slight. The poll followed attacks by “radicalized” men in Sydney and two Canadian cities.
But those who have studied France’s recent and colonial history say there is no straight line between its often disadvantaged but diverse and largely assimilated Muslim population and the jihadists who aim to terrorize Western countries in the name of Islam.
“When an event like this happens in France it has a different resonance because of the history,” says James Daughton, an associate professor of modern European history at Stanford University. “It stretches back a long way, is very complex and repressed.”
Relations between France and Islam were strongest in North Africa, where France established an empire snatched from Ottoman vassals. By 1912 it had claimed Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco. But political inequality in Algeria led to anger, unrest, and a war of independence that ended in a bloodbath and French withdrawal in the early 1960s. Meanwhile, a stream of Muslim immigrants continued to flow into France.
Their reception was seldom welcoming. And their descendents are still struggling to cross enduring barriers to acceptance — a situation aggravated by political rhetoric, high unemployment and frozen social mobility that has led to outbursts of anger and sometimes violent protests.
The issues Muslims are most concerned about are not religious, but those of daily survival, says former Foreign Affairs editor Stephanie Giry in a 2006 essay on France’s Muslim population : “They (the issues) are unemployment, social inequality, education and the cost of living.”
While a tiny minority of Muslims are recruited as jihadists who espouse a “poisoned and perverted version of Islam,” the vast majority are not driven to violence by alienation, says Randall Hansen, director of the Centre for European, Russian and Eurasian Studies at University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs. “We’re seeing these sorts of acts in different countries, where levels of alienation aren’t the same,” he says. “If alienation were the key variable we’d expect to see more.”
France’s focus on Islam as a national problem says most about its own struggle with religion in society, says Daughton. It stems from its view of the colonial past as a “civilizing mission” in its colonized territories — and from its internal revolt against the Catholic Church.
“The French have not come to terms with their colonial past,” he says.
But there is a wider problem, he adds: “the French problem with religion.” Anti-clericalism led to the separation of church and state, which broke the hold of the Catholic Church on schools and government institutions and created a secular French republic. But for Muslims, it also “removes any semblance of Islam.”
The savage attack on the French satirical magazine, which made Muslims the butt of its humor, has already sparked another bitter debate, on religious sensitivity versus freedom of speech.
“That makes it seem as though Muslims don’t have any affinity with freedom of speech,” says Omid Safi, director of Duke University’s Islamic Studies Center in North Carolina. “It overlooks the fact that Muslims are a part of French society.”
And he says, “I hope it would bring a call for a robust commitment to genuine democracy which is pluralistic, and encompasses all the citizens, and that this is treated as a criminal matter not an occasion to defend French values.”
But some fear that France’s relations with its Muslims may be reaching a turning point.
“Things are happening in France that are potentially dangerous,” says Myant. “There is a deepening cynicism around the possibility of securing good government and solutions to social problems. It opens the door to organizations like the National Front.”