In April 2015, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls said that a Salafist minority was “winning the ideological and cultural war” for control of Islam in France.
“Salafists account for 1% of Muslims in the country, but all you hear about is their message, the messages on social media,” Valls declared in a closing address in Paris to a conference on the populist exploitation of Islamism in Europe.
“There is an activist minority of Salafist groups that is winning the ideological and cultural war,” he added, endorsing the claim of his Urban Affairs Minister Patrick Kanner that “around a hundred” French neighborhoods presented “similarities” to the Molenbeek district of Brussels, reputed to be a jihadist enclave, although deeming that “comparisons are not easy to make.”
The Prime Minister had earlier stirred controversy by speaking of “geographical, social and ethnic apartheid” after the January 2015 attacks in Paris. He reckoned that in some districts in France “an essential job of reconquest of the secular republic” was needed.
The latest figures on operations enabled by the state of emergency show that these words are finally being translated into action: 3,549 police raids, 407 people placed under house arrest, 743 arms caches seized, 395 arrests and 344 people placed in detention.
One of the mosques closed was described by Interior Minister Bernard Cazenuve as “a hotbed of radical ideology.” The closure of the Lagny-sur-Marne mosque by administrative decree in December 2015 was confirmed by the Council of State, France’s highest court, in February 2016.
The mosque, 20 miles east of Paris, had been frequented by around 200 people. During the raid, police discovered a handgun, documents on jihad and a clandestine Koranic nursery school. Nine members of the congregation were placed under house arrest and 22 more were barred from leaving France.
The mosque was run by the local Muslim Association, which managed to overturn the Council of State ruling on a technicality. The government responded by initiating proceedings to dissolve the Muslim Association, claiming it was promoting radical Islamic ideology and organizing travel for jihadists to Iraq and Syria. Mohamed Hammoumi, the 34 year-old Salafist Imam who ran the mosque until his departure for Egypt in 2014, continued to direct operations from there and acted as a go-between for the jihadists travelling from France to the combat zones.
French law enables the government to dissolve by decree, i.e. with no legal proceedings, associations whose activities are considered as amounting to a combat unit, a militia or a group agitating against the French Republic. The decision rests with the Council of State.
The role played by Muslim associations and mosques in the nationwide ecosystem of radical Islam is not just a recent discovery. The problem is that up until the 2015 attacks, nothing was done to stamp out these vectors of terror, and the few public figures who spoke out about the danger were branded as fascists, racists and Islamophobes.
At the same time, the criminals who transitioned from crime to jihad benefited from the lenience of French courts.
Ismaël Omar Mostefai, one of the Bataclan jihadists, had eight criminal convictions between 2004 and 2008 but never did any time in prison. In 2010 he was registered on the French anti-terrorism database for radicalization. He was a regular attendee at the Lucé mosque next to the historic town of Chartres. In 2004 the construction of this mosque led to demonstrations by local residents. A comment made at the time by Philippe Loiseau, a municipal politician, has turned out to be prophetic:
“I fear that this mosque will be a hotbed of radicalization that will pose a dangerous risk for the population.”
Twelve years and hundreds of deaths and injuries later, the French government has rolled out its strategy to tackle the existential threat that radical Islam poses to the country. Prime Minister Valls unveiled a new plan at a cabinet meeting on May 9. It consists of 30 existing and 50 new measures focused on six areas:
1. Prevention and detection of youth radicalization
2. Creation of deradicalization centres
3. Enhanced surveillance in prisons
4. Life sentences for perpetrators of terrorist attacks
5. A central administrative command to co-ordinate local actions against jihadism
6. Suspension of welfare payments for jihadists who travel to combat zones
The 30 existing measures incorporated in this new plan were rolled out at a cabinet meeting in April 2014 by Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve. The stated objectives were to prevent French citizens from leaving to wage jihad abroad and combat the radicalization of French Muslim youth. Two years later, these measures have proven to be ineffective. Time will tell if the 50 new measures will eradicate the threat, but it may be a case of locking the stable door after the horses have bolted.
The notion that “deradicalization,” whether in the form of prevention or rehabilitation, will stem the tide of radical Islam sweeping through France seems rather naïve. It is like telling young people not to use drugs or putting a junkie through rehab in the hope that he will never shoot up again. Half a century of measures to fight drug addiction have not solved that problem and these measures designed to combat radical Islam are likely to be as ineffective.
Radical threats require radical solutions involving measures that hurt, such as the police operations enabled by the current state of emergency. The French government’s soft, long-term strategy indicates ideological weakness and the absence of a will to fight the enemy. The enemy is global political Islam and not just a few thousand deviants that need to be neutralized or rehabilitated.
Leslie Shaw is an Associate Professor at the Paris campus of ESCP Europe Business School and President of FIRM (Forum on Islamic Radicalism and Management).