Published in the wake of the 2015 attacks and now translated into English, Gilles Kepel’s Terror in France: The Rise of Jihad in the West reveals the fissures in contemporary French society and parses the complex history of Islam in the land where the principle of laïcité — the French dedication to separate spheres of religion and politics — has come under severe strain.
In three days in 2015, masked gunmen unleashed a slaughter at the offices of the satiric weekly Charlie Hebdo, then killed two police officers, as well as four hostages at Hyper Cacher, a Jewish kosher market in Vincennes. The demonstration of unity on January 11 was the largest in French history, where close to 1.6 million individuals and 40 world leaders joined together in the streets of the French capital to send a message against fear, violence, and hatred. Yet, only seven months later, attacks at the Stade de France and the Bataclan music hall left a death toll of 130.
Kepel deftly orients the reader in the complex history of European jihad, closely examining several instances of young French individuals who were radicalized toward jihadism, notably Mohammed Merah, who killed seven in Montauban and Toulouse in 2012. Kepel goes on to analyze both the situation in the banlieues — the dismal suburbs of Paris where housing projects are stuffed with Islamic families — and the larger political landscape.
Some of the strongest sections in the book recount the effects of the Algerian War, which brought a significant shift in French working-class demographics with increasing numbers of postcolonial Muslim immigrants. In 2005, rising cultural tensions came to a head in three weeks of rioting in the Parisian banlieue Clichy-sous-Bois.
Riots began following the death of two teenagers who were electrified trying to escape arrest by hiding in a transformer. Three days later, rioting intensified after a tear gas bomb landed near the entrance to a local mosque, resulting in “more than nine thousand cars burned in the course of three weeks and tens of millions of dollars in damages incurred — and the majority of the population overcome by fear and indignation.”
Despite measures to improve housing conditions, there was no move to expand public transportation or tackle unemployment, and leaders, according to Kepel, “neglected the economic issues that caused marginalization and that reinforced social and ethnoracial segregation.”
This, coupled with a marked lack of political representation of minority groups and rising unemployment rates between 2008 and 2012, widened the gap between minorities and mainstream French society. For this generation of Franco-Arabic citizens with immigrant backgrounds, the internet became an outlet for their frustration.
Online social networks have taken a leading role in shaping third-wave jihad. Recurring tensions funnel frustration toward identity politics. While Islam asks for voluntary submission to Allah, Salafism, an extremely strict movement within Sunni Islam, calls for total submission to a religious identity including “cultural separation from ‘infidel’ French society.”
As the French political system failed to do anything about the low-income banlieues, the struggle for integration into mainstream French society seems increasingly hopeless. Residents there have gone on a gradual retreat into religious, rather than national, identity via Salafist ideology found online, especially Abu Musab al-Suri’s The Global Islamic Resistance Call, which provided the third-generation jihadists with an instruction manual for “terrorism in Europe as the main vector of the battle against the West.”
The majority of the victims of Salfist ideology are young, lacking education, come from poor families, and are quickly radicalized via internet social networks or pressure while serving out prison sentences, but Kepel also includes Nicolas Bons and Raphael, a teen with a Jewish background (whose last name is not noted), both of whom had stable support systems and came from middle-class families. Here Kepel shows that the lure of jihad draws the vulnerable despite initial cultural and religious backgrounds.
The worst indoctrination took place in jail among petty thieves. Kepel details how Salafist imams took advantage of a lack of supervision and inmates’ vulnerability and converted followers to their cause, teaching a rejection of tolerance, dehumanization of the infidel, and unquestioning belief in the superiority of a strict interpretation of what it means to be a good Muslim.
While most Muslims mourned the January 7–9 attacks, some wouldn’t honor the moment of silence in the schools, and cried out “Allahu akbar!” (God is great!). What does it mean for French society that one group mourns the victims of violence and the other praises it along ethnoracial lines? How can we bridge this profound gap? Terror in France does not answer this question.
Kepel instead calls out the historic French political ambivalence toward the plight of the banlieues beginning as early as François Mitterrand’s response to the 1983 March of the Beurs. Rather than finding solutions to the troubles in the banlieues, French politicians used immigrant issues to build support in their bids for power or to tear apart their rivals and build barricades against “Islamization.”
A 2004 law under Jacques Chirac banning “ostentatious” religious symbols in public schools enforced the Republic’s commitment to secularism, but was initiated to target the Muslim practice of wearing hijabs or niqabs to uphold modesty. Sarkozy’s presidential term was fixated on a question of national identity, creating “a confrontation between ‘us’ and ‘them’ and legitimized the propagation of particularist identities.” François Hollande benefited from this backlash against Sarkozy’s policies in the 2012 election, winning with significant help from the “Muslim vote” as banlieue voters came out in droves to elect the first left-wing president since 1988.
Despite this show of support, Hollande rapidly isolated Muslim voters through legalizing gay marriage in 2013, and a lack of action toward improving life in the banlieues. In this atmosphere of political disappointment and stagnation, Salafist extremism flourishes.
The text provides in-depth analysis of the difficulties faced by French Muslims, the political elite’s missed opportunities, and the pressures transforming the disenfranchised immigrant youth into jihadists, yet Kepel leaves us without proposed solutions to prevent further division.
By examining the influence of social media, the desire for political participation, and the rise of disillusionment in the banlieues, Kepel enables the reader to understand the complexities of this challenging situation. Precise and well researched, Terror in France is a comprehensive analysis of the social and political pressures that drive ideology into violent action.
Lauren Sarazen graduated from Chapman University with a BFA in Creative Writing. She lives in Paris.