French Lessons in Londonistan

French Lessons in Londonistan

Mini Teaser: Washington has much to learn from its European ancestors, who have struggled with, fallen victim to and at times overcome jihadists in their own lands.

by Author(s): Gilles Kepel


SUCH WAS the backdrop for 9/11 on each side of the Channel. In France, the trauma of the Algerian civil war-with the casualties caused by Algerian-linked terrorism on French soil, the terrible death toll in Algeria itself, and the political and military defeat of Islamist insurgents in 1997-had three main consequences. First, there was little love lost on the part of French citizens or residents of Muslim descent for the kind of radicalism and terrorist attacks they had both experienced and suffered. In France, 9/11 was viewed as Act II of the same play. Second, the repression of the Islamist rebels in Algeria had destroyed networks and movements that might otherwise have spilled over into France. And third, French security and intelligence forces were trained in vivo to trace and eliminate Islamist terrorist networks. They had a sound, direct and on-the-spot knowledge of such groups and of their international connections, and state policy would not allow foreign radical Islamists to obtain political asylum in France.

In the UK, on the other hand, where Muslim communities were organized and represented by leaders and brokers who had sizable followings, the state had minimal direct interaction with such populations, mirroring the days of the Raj when communalism was a mode of government. As opposed to the French, who had banned foreign Islamist leaders from entering their country, British authorities granted asylum to a vast array of them-including the Egyptian Abu Hamza al-Masri (aka, "Hook"), Abu Qatada al-Filistini from Palestine, Syria's Abu Musab al-Suri and many others-who acted as important contributors to the production and dissemination of Salafist-jihadist literature, and audio, video and Internet propaganda. All were veteran jihadist fighters from Afghanistan in the 1980s who had supported jihad in Egypt, Algeria, Bosnia and Chechnya in the 1990s. They created an underworld of sorts, labeled "Londonistan" by the Arab press.

Their presence in Britain was rationalized; politicians argued that the former jihadists would abstain from radicalizing local British-Muslim youth. The asylum seekers were Arabs, the British Muslims were from the subcontinent, so it looked as if there would be a major cultural gap between them in any case. More so, continuing the long-held British tradition, cultural identification of Muslim communities with their new homeland was by no means a priority in the multicultural-tinged "cool Britannia" of the Blair years. More than ever, Muslim immigrants retained ties to their countries of origin-something that would prove disastrous as Pakistan experienced a steady Talibanization from the mid-2000s onward, and Britons of Pakistani descent visited the country every year to revive family networks, shop for consorts for their children and partake in the political strife of Pakistan. Worse, an activist minority spent time in radical madrassas of the Deobandi sect, and in the training camps of the Taliban and other jihadist guerillas.


BUT THIS is not to say that all was well in France. The hijab issue remained an irritant, and in the spring of 2003, then-President Jacques Chirac convened a committee of experts, the Stasi Commission (named for its president, French politician Bernard Stasi, and of which I was a member), to examine whether laïcité was threatened, and how to deal with the issue in a society much changed from the Third Republic that mandated separation of church and state almost a century before. The commission recommended that the wearing of ostentatious religious signs (whether it be hijab, cross or yarmulke) be forbidden in schools benefiting from state funds (public or private). The ban was limited to students who were minors. Once in college or university, they were deemed mature enough to dress as they liked.

The hijab prohibition was met with incomprehension. Paris passed the law in the spring of 2004 to take effect in September, a decision that produced an outcry in Islamist and multiculturalist circles worldwide. In France, the UOIF organized demonstrations that were widely covered and hyped on Al Jazeera-where a Muslim Brother was at that point editor in chief. In late August, the "Islamic Army in Iraq" took two French journalists hostage, and threatened to kill them unless the "anti-hijab law" was rescinded. Much to the surprise of those who believed the Al Jazeera coverage, the wide majority of French citizens of Muslim descent supported the hijab ban. Many took to the streets and went on the air to express their total rejection of a terrorist group that had hijacked their voice. And the UOIF was compelled to backpedal, its spokeswoman offering on TV to take the place of the hostages so that her hijab would not be tainted by innocent blood. That was the end of the hijab turmoil. To date it is no longer worn in schools, and the UOIF decided to drop its efforts to overturn the law (in any case, its campaign has lost steam since 2004).

So France's policy of laïcité seemed to be vindicated. But a year after the 2004 hijab dispute, the banlieues outside Paris exploded in violence. It was as if all the French had to say for the success story of their cultural-integration model fell short. Upward social mobility was nowhere to be found for many of the migrant youth living in the banlieues-the only contemporary French word that has since made its way into international idiom and needs no translation!4 When young people of migrant descent (some, but not all, Muslims) started burning cars in these infamous neighborhoods in the autumn of 2005, it provided Fox News with vivid coverage ("Paris Is Burning") filled with "Muslim riots" and "Baghdad-on-the-Seine" nonsense. Meanwhile, pro-war-on-terror pundits ridiculed then-President Chirac and then-Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin for their opposition to the Iraq War using a chickens-come-home-to-roost logic. Yet all academic studies in the aftermath of the riots amply demonstrated that they had little if anything to do with Islam per se; instead, they were due to a lack of social integration and economic opportunities. The rioters wanted to get the public's attention drawn to these issues-a far cry from any urge to establish a radical "Islamistan" in the banlieues. The riots, then, were an appeal for further social integration, something that the same controversy-ridden Stasi Commission understood well, and proposed to deal with via new urban planning to destroy the ghettos and the institution of Yom Kippur and Eid al Kabir as school holidays-these and other attempts to respect diversity were summarily ignored.5 Media interest soon moved on to the next story, and there was little public awareness of these findings.


IN BRITAIN, where Tony Blair had planned to invade Iraq since 2002 alongside George W. Bush, the prime minister felt confident that government support of domestic Islamist communalism would grant him immunity from British-Muslim criticism of the "invasion of a Muslim land by infidel armies," and would not lead to retaliation in the form of jihadi-inspired terrorist action. Alas, this was not to be. Pakistani radical networks lambasted British (and American) policy. So too did al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Scores of these British-Muslim activists, who had spent time in the Taliban's schools and camps, rallied to the extremist cause. Deputies of radical Islamist groups in the UK stopped all collaboration with British authorities, and as Her Majesty's security services' grassroots knowledge of Islamist whereabouts had relied to a large extent on community leaders, there were suddenly a number of blind spots in the general surveillance of radical groups and individuals, particularly in provincial areas removed from London. Agencies discovered belatedly that the Arab luminaries of Londonistan had learned English and were bonding with the subcontinental English-speaking youth from Bradford to East London. This dangerous environment provided the background for the July 7, 2005, attacks. The suicide bombings in London were perpetrated by English-educated British Muslims from Yorkshire. Their prerecorded will, broadcast by al-Qaeda and introduced by no less than Ayman al-Zawahiri, starred the chief of the group, Mohammed Siddique Khan, declaring in heavily accented working-class Yorkshire English that he was a fighter in the war against infidels who had invaded Iraq and Palestine. By the end of July 2005, another suicide attack was narrowly avoided. In the summer of 2006, a major plot to bomb transatlantic flights between London and New York with liquid explosives was foiled at the eleventh hour. In 2007, another plot half-succeeded when a car laden with explosives (which failed to detonate) barreled into the entryway of the Glasgow airport.

Since 2007, and Tony Blair's departure, there has been a major review of British policy. The government of Gordon Brown has painstakingly tried to fashion a concept of "Britishness" as part of its "deradicalization" policy aimed more at integrating Muslim youths into the wider British community. The shift from multiculturalism coupled with the intelligence-agencies-issued report Preventing Extremism Together definitely brings policies on both sides of the Channel much closer than they ever were in the past. The issue of social-cum-cultural integration remains a crucible for populations of Muslim descent as they seek to identify politically with their Western country of residence, adoption and, increasingly, birth.

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