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


AS THE United States now faces home- grown terrorism, in the form of Nidal Hasan's Fort Hood massacre and the "underwear bomber" Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab's near detonation of a plane bound for Detroit, it is certainly worthwhile to analyze Europe's relationship with its Muslim residents in a less patronizing way than was the case both in the warmongering parlance of the neocons and President Obama's naive Cairo speech last year. While the present administration just granted a long-denied entry visa to Islamist intellectual Tariq Ramadan, and so seems to be following the Tony Blair model (which counted on Ramadan to pacify the Muslim ranks in Britain after 7/7, that is, until the prime minister and the preacher had a falling out), it might indeed be wise to evaluate the European experience in all its dimensions. The "special relationship" may not be all that is on offer. Old Europe has, after all, been the neighbor of the Muslim world, has colonized some of it and now has integrated part of that world into its very identity. While some predict that, in a few decades, Europe will be but the northern part of the Maghreb, one may equally surmise that North Africa and the Middle East will be far more Europeanized.


Gilles Kepel is a professor and chair of Middle East and Mediterranean Studies at the Sciences-Po, Paris, and the Philippe Roman Professor in History and International Relations at the London School of Economics.


1 The French legal term Association de malfaiteurs en vue d'une entreprise terroriste (criminal association with a terrorist aim) allows the judiciary to keep terrorism suspects in custody for seventy-two hours before they are charged or freed (as opposed to twenty-four hours in other cases), which increases the chances that suspects will be destabilized enough to give away their networks, and allows the police enough time to take action. Such emergency measures are taken under the control of an antiterrorism-habilitated judge. Judge Jean-Louis Bruguière, one of the most successful French antiterrorism judges of the 1990s and early 2000s, told me that this legal measure was the key to French success, and also made any Guantánamo-type decisions unnecessary.

2 In his visit to Saudi Arabia in January 2008, President Sarkozy addressed the Saudi Majlis al- Shura (nonelected Parliament), praising religious figures-including imams-for their role in society, one that he considered unmatched by secular educators and the like. Though it is true that the French state-school system is undergoing a crisis with regard to its former central role toward cultural and social integration of youth from all walks of life and inherited cultures, the advocacy of its replacement with religious figures was met with an uproar in many French circles.

3 Wahhabism is a puritanical understanding of Islam that follows the teachings of Muhammad Ibn Abd al Wahhab, a late-eighteenth-century preacher. Wahhabis alinged their sect with the Saud family, allowing for the creation of the Saudi Arabian state. It was marginal in the wider Muslim world until oil wealth fuelled its export as a means to fight socialism in the postwar Arab and Muslim countries. "Wahhabis" prefer to call themselves "Salafis" ("following the ancestors," i.e., strictly observant of pristine Islam). They abhor any kind of worship of a human being. But all Salafis are not Wahhabis. The society of the Muslim Brothers was founded in Egypt in 1928, with the political aim of establishing a Muslim state, abiding by sharia laws. In spite of their diverse interpretations of Islam, Wahhabis, Salafis and Muslim Brothers share the same subculture that makes the tenets of Islam permeate every dimension of daily social and cultural life.

4 In 1987, when I published a study on Islam in France entitled Les banlieues de l'islam (Paris: Editions du Seuil), I had to translate the title as "The outskirts of Islam" to make it understandable to the English-speaking public, and explain that such outskirts were not suburbia, rather "inner cities" (UK) or "ghettos" (United States). All that confusion stopped when Anglophone media pundits started using banlieues as a catchword for lambasting French policies of integration, in particular during and after the so-called "Muslim riots" of the fall of 2005. See chapters 4 and 5 of my Beyond Terror and Martyrdom (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008) for more information.

5 Though the French government foolishly rejected the commission's proposals at the time, it subsequently espoused a number of the Stasi Commision's additional policy suggestions. By then it was too late to affect the situation.

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