While the world faces a huge battle against COVID-19, a series of terror attacks in France have sent shockwaves of fear and anguish into the minds of the French public.
On 16 October 2020, a middle-school history teacher was decapitated in a suburb north of Paris. He had shown caricatures of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) from the satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo, during a class discussion on the freedom of expression. This later incited anger among their local Muslims.
The victim’s 18-year-old attacker, Abdoullakh Anzorov, was shot and killed by the police in the aftermath. He was a refugee of Chechen origin who grew up in France. He was also known to be active on extremist social media sites. And according to his Twitter account, he was on a mission to look for those who have offended Islam.
Less than two weeks later, a teenager went on a knife rampage in a church in Nice, leaving two people dead through stab wounds and one partially beheaded. The Tunisian-born attacker, Brahim Aouissaoui, was shot by the police and taken to hospital in a life-threatening condition. Although the motive behind this attack is unknown, the authorities are treating the case as an act of terrorism.
These attacks have been described as responses to the republication of controversial cartoons, which reignited the debate about Islam and freedom of expression in France. When he was asked to respond to the waves of attacks, President Emmanuel Macron put the blame on ‘Islamism’. Before the attacks, he had described Islam as a religion “in crisis”, prompting an outrage in the Muslim world. His rhetoric inevitably led to France’s social instability and aggravated the problem of radicalisation that is still grappling France today.
RADICALISATION – A CONUNDRUM
The attacks have spurred scholars and observers to address the root causes of the terrorist scourge in France. One may argue that what motivated the attackers to commit such atrocities was due to the blasphemous cartoons.
Although many Muslim leaders and scholars have denounced the gruesome attacks, there are those who view that blasphemy is still punishable by death under the norms of medieval Islamic period. Here is where contemporary Muslim scholars must directly address the fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence) texts related to blasphemy.
Many French Muslim youth also fall prey to radicalisation due to factors like socio-economic marginalisation and “ghettoization” – a term used by Macron himself to describe the plight of Muslims living in the ghettos. Experts have pointed out that social conditions in these ghettos are the primary reason why Muslim youths there favour extremism and become vulnerable to radicalisation.
In one of his studies, Matthew Moran, a Professor of International Security and Co-Director of the Centre for Science and Security Studies at King’s College London, argued that the experience of Muslims living in ghettos “fosters confusion and frustration, and contributes to an identity crisis, which, in turn, creates space for the cognitive openings that can open the door to radicalisation and ultimately violent extremism.” 
BATTLE FOR THE HEARTS AND MINDS
In the event of an adversity especially after a terror attack, the responsible approach for governments would be to rally the population together and stand firm against any threat. But it was different for France. Its government seemed to shift the blame and direct its rhetoric towards stigmatising its own Muslim population.
France’s hard-line Interior Minister, Gerald Darmanin, indirectly referred to Muslims as “enemies from within” . He was also quoted to instruct police raids on Muslim individuals and organisations, who “were not linked to the investigation but to whom [they] are clearly willing to send a message.” Such statements show that the French government has failed to protect its own citizens and have made Muslims scapegoats.
By stoking the flames of Islamophobia, radicalisation will continue and escalate. This fans ISIS and other like-minded groups’ rhetoric – that the ‘infidels’ are waging a crusade against Muslims. And France has inexplicably fed to the same radical narratives championed by ISIS who had praised Anzorov’s action as an act of martyrdom – no less than in its editorial, Al-Naba’.
An excerpt from the article reads that the killing of the “crusader criminal gladdened the hearts of Muslims by protecting the honour of the Prophet.” ISIS also calls for its supporters to attack Western entities in their countries of residence.
By now, France should have realised that apart from hard power tactics, countering radicalism is ultimately a battle for the hearts and minds. The ability to understand how radicalisation processes work is paramount to effectively find solutions to the problems that they are facing now.
PROPOSALS FOR TACKLING RADICALISATION
Eradicating radicalism and extremism has proven to be very difficult, and a long-term fight that requires continuous efforts from governments and the local communities. Apart from addressing the socio-cultural divide that separates those living in the ghettos from the mainstream society, there are other key steps that the French government should consider.
The first is to understand the pathway of radicalisation in France’s context. What are the root causes and why are people engaging in violence? This way, policymakers can work with the religious communities – especially the scholars – to make informed decisions to counter extremism and radicalism.
France also needs to avoid disaggregating acts, appearances and practices in assessing radicalism. This was the case when its former Home Affairs Minister, Christophe Castaner, while speaking at a hearing before the Law Committee of the National Assembly, listed some indicators that should trigger a thorough investigation by the police such as the growing of beard, rigid religious practices particularly during Ramadan and the wearing of full-face veil. Contrary to countering radicalism, such ‘indicators’ may even encourage the marginalisation of Muslims and make them vulnerable to radicalisation.
Second, when discussing about identifying vulnerable individuals, French Muslims must be assured that they are not being targeted at or viewed in constant suspicion by the government. They can focus on building capacity and strengthening social resilience to improve general conditions on the individual and societal levels. The government should also provide credible alternatives for disenfranchised Muslims to voice their grievances.
And third, France needs to create social conditions that are conducive for harmonious multi-religious living where treatment of religions and positive civic relations among its societies are equal. As the world changes with modernisation and globalisation, the political system and system of governance need to evolve. While secularism has been accepted as a system of governance for centuries in France, it is important to relook at the understanding and reinterpret secularism based on today’s socio-political context.
Take Singapore, for instance; it is a secular state and it is obliged to treat all individuals as equal citizens regardless of religion. The freedom to practice religion is protected.
SEA OF CHANGE
It is clear that the task at hand for France will require a sea of change in how the government addresses these issues. It will no longer be viable to craft a national counter-radicalisation policy when the issues of marginalisation and Islamophobia have not been addressed thoroughly.
Winning the battle against extremism and radicalism will require revolutionary thinking on reforming the very French idea of secularism, and creating an environment that will dissuade disgruntled French Muslims to reconsider their position on supporting radical or extreme narratives espoused by terror groups. ⬛
1 FRENCH POLICE FATALLY SHOOT MAN WHO BEHEADED TEACHER NEAR A SCHOOL. THE STRAITS TIMES. 2020, OCTOBER 17. RETRIEVED FROM: HTTPS://WWW.STRAITSTIMES.COM/WORLD/EUROPE/MAN-STABBED-IN-THE-THROAT-IN-PARIS-SUBURB-SUSPECT-SHOT-BY-POLICE
2 FRANCE RAISES SECURITY ALERT TO HIGHEST LEVEL AFTER KNIFEMAN KILLS 3 IN CHURCH. THE STRAITS TIMES. 2020, OCTOBER 30. RETRIEVED FROM: HTTPS://WWW.STRAITSTIMES.COM/WORLD/EUROPE/ONE-PERSON-KILLED-AFTER-KNIFE-ATTACK-IN-FRENCH-CITY-OF-NICE-MEDIA
3 MACRON SAYS ISLAM ‘IN CRISIS’, PROMPTING BACKLASH FROM MUSLIMS. AL JAZEERA MEDIA NETWORK. 2020, OCTOBER 2. RETRIEVED FROM: HTTPS://WWW.ALJAZEERA.COM/NEWS/2020/10/2/MACRON-ANNOUNCES-NEW-PLAN-TO-REGULATE-ISLAM-IN-FRANCE
4 AKYOL, MUSTAFA. YES, ISLAM IS FACING A CRISIS. NO, FRANCE ISN’T HELPING SOLVE IT. FOREIGN POLICY. 2020, NOVEMBER 20. RETRIEVED FROM: HTTPS://FOREIGNPOLICY.COM/2020/11/20/ISLAM-FACING-CRISIS-MACRON-FRANCE-LAICITE-SECULARISM-NOT-HELPING-SOLVE-IT/
5 MORAN, MATTHEW. TERRORISM AND THE BANLIEUES: THE CHARLIE HEBDO ATTACKS IN CONTEXT, IN MODERN & CONTEMPORARY FRANCE, VOL. 25, NO.3, 315-332. AVAILABLE AT: HTTPS://DOI.ORG/10.1080/09639489.2017.1323199
6 MEHEUT, CONSTANT. AFTERMATH OF TERROR ATTACKS: MUSLIMS WONDER ABOUT THEIR PLACE IN FRANCE. DT NEXT. 2020, OCTOBER 31. RETRIEVED FROM: HTTPS://WWW.DTNEXT.IN/NEWS/TOPNEWS/2020/10/31030452/1259491/AFTERMATH-OF-TERROR-ATTACKS-MUSLIMS-WONDER-ABOUT-THEIR-.VPF
7 DIALLO, ROKHAYA. AFTER ANOTHER TRAGEDY, FRANCE SHOULD BE COMBATING TERRORISM, NOT CRIMINALIZING MUSLIMS. THE WASHINGTON POST. 2020, OCTOBER 31. RETRIEVED FROM: HTTPS://WWW.WASHINGTONPOST.COM/OPINIONS/2020/10/30/FRANCE-NICE-KNIFE-ATTACK-SAMUEL-PATY-MURDER-CRIMINALIZING-MUSLIMS/
8 SPOTLIGHT ON GLOBAL JIHAD. OCTOBER 22-28,2020. THE MEIR AMIT INTELLIGENCE AND TERRORISM INFORMATION CENTER. RETRIEVED FROM: HTTPS://WWW.TERRORISM-INFO.ORG.IL/EN/SPOTLIGHT-ON-GLOBAL-JIHAD-OCTOBER-22-28-2020/
10 BOUREKBA, MOUSSA. PREVENTING VIOLENT EXTREMISM IN FRANCE: FROM A SOCIETY OF VIGILANCE TO A SOCIETY OF SUSPICION? BARCELONA CENTRE FOR INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS. NOVEMBER 2019. RETRIEVED FROM: HTTPS://WWW.CIDOB.ORG/EN/PUBLICATIONS/PUBLICATION_SERIES/OPINION/SEGURIDAD_Y_POLITICA_MUNDIAL/PREVENTING_VIOLENT_EXTREMISM_IN_FRANCE_FROM_A_SOCIETY_OF_VIGILANCE_TO_A_SOCIETY_OF_SUSPICION
Ahmad Saiful Rijal Hassan is an Associate Research Fellow at the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University. He completed his Bachelor of Arts Degree in Islamic Jurisprudence from Al-Azhar University and obtained his Master of Science in International Relations from RSIS. He serves as a religious counsellor in the Religious Rehabilitation Group, a voluntary outfit that works towards rehabilitating Jemaah Islamiyah detainees and self-radicalised individuals in Singapore.