During the winter of 2014, a few months before terror hit Paris, while looking for material on the strange, and at the time unknown, world of converts to “radical Islam,” I attended several gatherings of parents confronted with the metamorphosis of their son or daughter into a “ghost,” they said, a ghost full of fury and hate.
These gatherings formally resembled AA meetings except that they took place in the salons of cheap hotels in the north of Paris whose addresses were kept secret for security reasons. Confined in their own hotel rooms, the parents would receive the exact hour and location of the event by text some 90 minutes in advance, leaving them just enough time to catch a cab to the location. They were coming from all over the country, did not know each other and, as far as I could tell, only had two things in common. First, they were all white, with no Muslim background at all. Second, most of them were high school teachers or at least worked for the state, which means that they had a reasonable basic education and no unmanageable financial problems. Yet all were faced by the destruction of their daily lives through a raging madness that none of them could begin to comprehend.
A couple rose up and told us about the fear they experienced each morning waking up in a house where their 15-year-old daughter wandered from room to room in a black burqa without a word, except to threaten to slit their throats—a threat they took so seriously that they removed all the knives from the kitchen. (Slaughter was in the air in France in 2014, a year marked by a dramatic rise in gory, sadistic execution videos posted by the Islamic State on the internet, whose enormous appeal to the youth of Europe, and especially of France, has never been properly analyzed.)
Liliane, a 40-ish small woman from Grenoble told us of her daughter Nathalie, 17, who one morning at breakfast announced her wedding the night before, from her bedroom and by text, to a man she’d never met or seen and whose name she did not know. As a married woman, Nathalie said that she now had to wear the niqab. Pretending to accept the new situation, her mother secretly bought an electronic chip and inserted it in her daughter’s phone and—this being, for me, the craziest part of the story—for months on end, each night, went on reading the erotic messages that her daughter and her anonymous bridegroom exchanged, along with Muslim prayers, from the neighboring bedroom. I thought I could understand my daughter better that way, said Liliane by way of an explanation.
But of course, she did not understand anything, and on her 18th birthday, Nathalie vanished. The day Liliane testified, neither she nor the cops knew where her daughter was—whether in Syria, living the life of a jihadist’s spouse, or simply in some Paris apartment under her burqa, an anonymous silhouette that Liliane may have crossed each day on her way to work.
I heard other, no less disturbing stories through individual interviews I managed to arrange. One of them involved Diane, a 20-year-old woman from Nice who sold lingerie in the center of town. She had lived a seemingly harmonious life with her mother at home, until she met Nadir on a weekend trip with her middle-class friends to Nice. Nadir, who lived with his mother in one of the most dangerous cités (the French projects) of Monaco, provided drugs to Diane and her friends. Soon after, he was put in jail, and what had begun between him and Diane that weekend as a “sex thing” turned, for Diane, into a passionate love story. She began to speak of marriage, and of her need to better understand Nadir’s culture, by which she meant religion, even though nothing indicates that Nadir was especially interested in Islam.
In any case, Nadir got out of jail and was shot dead over some fight in his cité the next day. During a silent demonstration against violence that took place in reaction a few days later, Diane—symbolically anointed as the martyr’s widow by the cité’s inhabitants—was seen walking hand in hand with Nadir’s mother in the first row of demonstrators. Both women then took a plane together to bury Nadir in Morocco. When they came back, Diane wore the niqab and became a pious Muslim. Back home, in her mother’s living room, she expressed her new faith status in rather unorthodox ways, like raging against her mother’s “white privilege” and against the whole Western world, which was controlled by the Jews and the Americans, and then sitting down to watch manga in silence on TV for hours. Manga, she said, were like religion, they made you forget everything, which was good preparation for war.
And then there was Anabelle’s story. Having been raised a perfect atheist by parents who read Charlie Hebdo, she converted to Islam at the age of 15 in front of her computer, and then began to sneak out of home in a burqa to wander the streets of the faraway suburbs in the north of town. There, she stopped at bus stations where she remained frozen and silent for as long as necessary, waiting for some stranger to approach her and propose marriage. Then, as silently as she had come, she would depart, coming back home to scream, slam doors, and insult anyone around all night. A devotee of Tariq Ramadan, she tried to kill herself twice.
It was a little bit like the ’60s, but with no Vietnam War to justify it, no sexual revolution to energize it, and no exciting soundtrack. Instead, there was digital loneliness.
If the adolescent mix of sex and hysteria was easy enough to point out in all of these cases, their bizarre intensity was another matter. Infantile mysticism, morbidity, and regressive rage stood in lieu of political conscience. It was a little bit like the ’60s, but with no Vietnam War to justify it, no sexual revolution to energize it, and no exciting soundtrack. Instead, there was digital loneliness. The result looked like a mix between a Charles Manson dream and a William Burroughs novella. In the face of this terrifying and strange phenomenon, the unrelenting normalcy of the parents, their heroic banality, sounded even stranger. We keep up with our daughter no matter what. We don’t abandon her. To keep some sort of contact is the most important thing to us right now. Commonplaces and clichés seemed the only way for them to express their tenacity in fighting an enemy they could not quite identify.
I was so taken by the whole thing that it took me many weeks to realize what was wrong. The parental sessions were being set up by the Centre de Prevention des Dérives Sectaires Liées à l’Islam (Center for the Prevention of Sectarian Excesses Connected with Islam), a “deradicalization” group with a complicated name, managed by an anthropologist with a complicated story called Dounia Bouzar.
Born in 1964 from a Corsican mother and an Algerian father, Bouzar was raised in a secular environment. She quit school early to marry a man she would later describe as an “ultra-violent Muslim,” divorced him when she was 27 to get back to school and study anthropology, and, in the process, converted to Islam. When, in 2013, after a few years as a youth worker and consulting on religious issues for various cities in France, Bouzar opened her Center for the Prevention of Sectarian Excesses, it took her no more than a few months to sign a contract with the Ministry of Interior, making her the exclusive partner of the French government on the subject of “radicalization.”
By then, Bouzar had already been introduced into government circles—she’d been given a seat as an “expert” inside the French Council of the Muslim Faith by the Ministry of Interior in 2003 (which she vacated after two years) and had received l’Ordre des Palmes académiques in 2009 for her books on religious radicalism. The Légion d’honneur was given to her the very year she opened the center; in that same year, she was also appointed to Observatoire de la Laïcité, a consulting structure placed under the prime minister’s authority, in charge of defining a new, more open version of French secularism.
The sessions of the kind I just described were meant to be, in Bouzar’s view, the first step in a process that would lead to the dispelling of France’s teenage “ghosts.” After the parents met and gave their public testimonies, the team’s center divided them into small task forces of three couples max, who then studied the details of each other’s cases and exchanged advice on the daily management of each child. Ideally, after some months, and with the help of therapists and psychiatrists attached to the center, the child in question would somehow be convinced to come and personally participate in the sessions, first as a listener and then as a speaker—AA style. He or, more commonly, she would deliver the tale of her journey toward what Bouzar called “the sectarian deviation using the language of Islam” which had taken control of her mind. The fact that no estimates existed as to the likelihood of this method actually succeeding didn’t appear to matter.
The team’s center was mainly composed of Bouzar’s family, her two daughters and their respective husbands. Like her, they were all Muslim. Although at first I did not pay attention to that detail, the contrast between, on the one hand, a team of healthy, rational Muslims, impervious to the seductions of violence, and on the other, a group of 15 to 20 dysfunctional French families, all either Catholic or secular, soon became unmissable: Where were the dysfunctional families of Muslim background whose progeny accounted for most of the departures to Syria since 2012?
“We work with the people who call us,” answered Bouzar, when I brought up the subject to her. “The government has opened an emergency line with a number for the parents to call if they worry for their child, and that number sends them straight to us. That’s how we recruit them. But, of course, the families able to pick up their phones and ask for help are the ones that are used to speaking with the system and trust it. People from the cités, migrants, on the other hand, tend to dislike social services in general. For honor’s sake, if not out of fear of control, they will tend to deal with the problem themselves. Providing they see it as a problem. In any case, they won’t come to us.”
This was, of course, a perfectly reasonable explanation. And yet, witnessing the sessions, it was hard to avoid the feeling that they were not just socio-therapeutic gatherings, but scenes staged to transmit a message. The message said: “Islam is not the problem here.” But how could the center be the exclusive partner of the French government on the subject of radicalization if it focused only on a fraction of the population involved?
“Ninety percent of the people who fall into terrorist activity inside of the European Union do so after having been brainwashed on the internet,” stated the French minister of interior at the time, Bernard Cazeneuve, earlier that year. Not in mosques, not inside of underground Salafi networks, not through Muslim Brotherhood rhetoric; on the internet. The problem wasn’t Islam or Islamic movements or neighborhoods run by extremists; it was French youth—their loneliness and their existential crises. As we would later learn, Cazeneuve’s confident-sounding statistic was an extrapolation based on a Prevention Center report that focused on center members only. In other words, it referred to native French converts to Islam, whose families had been randomly identified thanks to the emergency line and were being “studied” with no group controls.
As for the majority of the Islamist radicals—who constituted 75% of the French radicals going to Syria, and who were responsible for 100% of Islamic domestic terrorism on French territory—they remained officially invisible.
As I delved a bit deeper into Bouzar’s own background, it became obvious that the center’s assessments on radicalism weren’t the product of empirical observations alone.
In 2006, the president of the jury that awarded Bouzar a Ph.D. on “political Islam in France” was in fact none other than the political scientist Olivier Roy, one of the popes of French studies of the Muslim world, whose basic axiom on “radicalism” is, precisely, that the phenomenon bears no serious connection to Islam itself. Roy has advised French governments on matters of Islam for decades, and as the above story indicates, he excels at getting public grants both national and European for his own research as well as for his students—among whom his reputation as an efficient rabbi is well-established. During the mid-2010s, furthermore, Roy was friendly with France’s governing socialist powers, and warmly regarded the positions of the Observatoire’s President Jean-Louis Bianco, the socialist cacique who had awarded the Légion d’honneur to Bouzar, whose exclusive contract with the Ministry of Interior took effect a few months later.
In other words, the Center for the Prevention of Sectarian Excesses Connected with Islam, which has since all but disappeared from the public sphere, is one example of how pervasive Roy’s theories were in France at the beginning of the decade, when the issue of “radicalism” first gained central attention in the public debate—that is, when Roy’s denial of the dangers of Islamist activism in France put enormous pressure on French Jews. (After the murder of Jewish children in Toulouse in 2012, Roy was foremost in arguing that the killer had nothing to do with Islam—a claim that became widespread, at least officially). Roy’s intellectual and professional rival, Gilles Kepel—France’s other prominent Islamologist—interpreted events differently. In fact, Kepel’s vision of Islam in France and Europe could not have been more antagonistic, earning him a reputation as a “right-wing” scaremonger. This was about to change.
On the evening of Nov. 13, 2015, the cloak of official invisibility that covered Muslim-born terrorists in France was torn off: A synchronized attack led by a Franco-Belgian “radical” Muslim group affiliated with ISIS hit the terrasses of the 10th arrondissement of Paris, the Saint-Denis stadium, and the Bataclan Theatre, killing 130 and permanently injuring more than 300 people. The massacre marked the peak of a terror wave that had begun in France 11 months earlier with the killings at Charlie Hebdo and at the Hypercacher kosher market—a wave that would last, with an average of one attempted attack per week, until the Nice attack of July 14, 2016.
Along with the magnitude of the coordinated attack, which had required more than a year of preparation, it was the seeming randomness of the November violence that jolted French opinion. No Jews, no journalists, and no cops were targeted: The victims were anyone and everyone that happened to be around when the killers opened fire. Ten days later, in the midst of countless op-eds on the subject, Olivier Roy published his own piece in Le Monde, “Jihadism is a nihilist and generational revolt,” which remains perhaps his best effort to summarize his view.
What France was confronted with, Roy argued in a formula that made the article immediately famous, was not a “radicalization of Islam” but an “Islamization of radicalism.” “The essential problem for France” was not ISIS, he argued, but “the revolt of the youth.”
Given what was known of the recent attack—whose main engineer, Abdelhamid Abaaoud, had spent the previous years shuttling between Brussels and Raqqa, the ISIS headquarters in Syria—Roy’s assertion was surely a bold one. But Roy was ready to get even bolder. In order to make his point, he went on to dismiss all of the usual reasons given to explain Islamist terror. Neither the Middle East situation (“ISIS does not send terrorists to France to deter France from bombing its headquarters in Syria”), nor solidarity with the Palestinians, nor post-colonial suffering, nor even the social fate imposed on migrants’ offspring explained the violence, Roy argued. To understand what really moved these killers, all of whom were born inside of a Muslim environment, one had to turn instead to people born outside of it: the converts and their neuroses (as they were studied by the Prevention Center). “Why do converts, who never suffered from racism, want all of a sudden to avenge the humiliation endured by Muslims,” asked Roy. “What do migrants of the second generation and converts have in common?”
According to Roy, a comparison between the two groups was the key to understanding the attacks that were now tormenting France. The children of migrants, he wrote, “have shared the youth culture of their generation, they have been drinking alcohol, have smoked grass and have hit on girls in nightclubs. Then, one morning, they converted to a Salafist form of Islam that rejects the very concept of culture, [and] allows them to reconstruct themselves by rejecting both their parents’ moderate religion” and what the West has to offer. As for the native converts, they “join the ‘pure’ religion because cultural compromise doesn’t interest them. What attracts them in the first place is radicality.” Both groups, asserted Roy, stand “in the margin of the Muslim communities,” both “frequent the mosques only rarely,” both meet in a form of Islam that, because it is “culturally and politically disruptive” appeals to the younger generations —and both subscribe to a form of violence that is far from traditional Jihad, according to Roy, but is instead “a modern violence.” In other words, “they kill the way mass killers do in America.”
Although a comparative analysis of these two groups may indeed have been enlightening, most of the “facts” Roy confidently presented in his piece were approximate at best, and often wrong. French jihadists, for one, did not stay “in the margins of the Muslim communities” or away from the mosques. Farid Benyettou, the religious mentor of the Charlie Hebdo killers, was a Salafi preacher at the Omar mosque in the 19th arrondissement of Paris for years. Mohammed Merah, the killer of the Jewish children in Toulouse in 2012, had a father close to the terror networks of the Algerian Salafists; Mohammed’s own brother and one of his mentors, Abdelkader Merah, had studied Islam at the Al-Azhar Islamic University in Egypt, where Mohammed joined him some time before his murder spree. In 2020, Abdelkader himself was sentenced to 30 years for conspiracy to murder a policeman. Abdelhamid Abaaoud, who directed the Bataclan killings, had spent a whole year studying at Al-Azhar as well, before returning to Brussels, and taking off from there to Raqqa.
Also contrary to Roy assertions, Muslim kids did not wake up “one morning and convert to Salafism after having spent their adolescence drinking or hitting on girls”—they kept doing those things even after they joined Salafist terror groups. They lived the way Mohamed Atta and the 9/11 commandos lived on the eve their death: drinking, smoking, dancing in strip clubs before hitting the World Trade Center.
But Roy wasn’t trying to be accurate; he was trying to make an existential point. Namely: ISIS did not arouse radicalization among “young Europeans”—modernity did. Hence the existential drama of the converts. If converts could be used as a control group, as it were, to shed light on the more global phenomenon of “radicalism,” it was precisely because they did not come from a Muslim background. Their journey was therefore all the more revelatory. “ISIS,” he wrote, “taps into a reservoir of radicalized young French who, regardless of what happens in the Middle East, have already dissented, and are looking for a cause, some label, a great narrative on which to sign in blood their personal rebellion.” It was indeed a strong idea—spoiled, unfortunately, by the author’s overtly politicized need to dismiss Islam’s role in the situation altogether.
In the French political context of the pre-Bataclan era, the words “radical Muslim” were mostly reserved for the youth that took the road to Syria to fight the Assad regime. One of the first moves of President François Hollande, elected in 2012, was to provide weapons to the anti-Assad rebels. In 2013, after Assad used chemical weapons against his own population, thus crossing President Barack Obama’s purported “red line,” Hollande had prepared France for war. He only came to an abrupt halt when Obama showed sudden confusion about whether his “red line” was actually red or not.
Since then, however, the feeling has remained in France that the anti-Assad cause in Syria was a worthy one. This was a perfectly decent feeling—Bashar Assad was and is a butcher, and his role in the Middle East chaos has been amply demonstrated—which nevertheless provided a certain misplaced understanding of “radicalized” youth. After all, so what if aimless, jobless French youth of the Muslim persuasion, confined in the French cités, tempted by drug traffic, and deprived of any larger reason to live, suddenly found their life’s purpose in fighting Assad? So what if that meant joining Islamist groups, for logistics’ sake? Luc’s mother, for one, believed that her son was, above all, “a good kid revolted by injustice”—an image she struggled to balance with the thought that he was a brainwashed killer, as if he couldn’t be both. As preposterous as it may sound, it wasn’t so rare, at the time, for the French left to compare the anti-fascist movement in Spain joined by Hemingway, Dos Passos, and Malraux with the global recruiting efforts by terror groups such as al-Nusra and al-Qaida for the fight in Syria.
Of course, electoral considerations were by no means absent from this analysis. During the electoral campaign of 2011, the Muslims of France, appalled by the populist-nationalist campaign of President Sarkozy—for whom they had voted in large numbers in 2007—had massively rallied behind Sarkozy’s opponent, the socialist candidate Hollande, who based his own campaign on analysis provided by the main left-wing think tank of the era, Terra Nova. According to that analysis, the “traditional” left-wing electorate of the prosperity decades—a mix of the white working class and civil servants—was now leaving the stage, to be replaced by a melting pot of young, well-off urban gays and lesbians, and the young Muslim offspring of migrant families. Hollande mistook the rallying of anti-Sarkozy Muslims to his campaign as a confirmation of that view.
In November 2013, Hollande sent his minister of justice, a former independence activist of French Guyana called Christiane Taubira, to the National Assembly to defend and pass a law legalizing gay marriage in the name of “socialism.” A similar measure that passed in conservative England two months earlier had triggered no ideological storm. Yet in France, to have the gay marriage law lyrically defended by a Black woman was seen as good politics. That would send, it was assumed, the correct message, which was that a new multicultural agenda was on the march in France.
The move proved disastrous. In January, while the municipal campaign was being set off, a bizarre mix of reactionary Catholics and conservative Muslims fueled with Salafi propaganda took to the streets and, with the support of the antisemitic Black comedian Dieudonné M’bala M’bala, helped foment a “pre-riot” atmosphere across the country, targeting the godless, socialist government which was being manipulated by “the Zionists.” As antisemitic incidents exploded that same spring inside the cités and beyond, agitprop activists campaigned door to door to sell a conspiracy theory: There was a secret plan inside the government to change Muslim boys into girls. As one of these activists told me when I interviewed her, “It worked wonderfully.” The result, in March, during the elections, was that the Socialists lost most of the towns it had held since the 1920s. Yet by default, or because it had nothing else to hold onto, the Socialist Party stuck to its new doctrine, according to which Muslims would accept and vote for a party that put gay rights at the center of its politics. In order to entertain that notion, it was necessary to dismiss the idea that conservative Muslim and Islamist networks had any real influence within their communities.
Maintaining that doctrine was Olivier Roy’s job. On March 23, 2012, three days after the murder of Jewish children at the Ozar Hatorah school in Toulouse—that is to say, before any investigation into the killings had begun—Roy penned an op-ed in The New York Times titled “Loner, Loser, Killer.” In it, he stated with absolute certainty that Abdelkader Merah, the killer, “was not known for his piety: He did not belong to any religious congregation; he did not belong to any radical group or even to a local Islamic movement. A petty delinquent, psychologically fragile, he ... found in Al Qaeda a narrative of solitary heroism and a way, after months of watching videos on the Internet, to achieve short-term notoriety and find a place in the real world.” The same day, in Paris, Bernard Squarcini, then head of the DCRI (the French FBI), gave an interview to Le Monde arguing essentially the same thing: Merah the “lone wolf” (Squarcini’s expression) had no connections among French Muslims.
As was intuitively obvious then, and has been amply demonstrated since—most notably during Merah’s trial in 2019—this was complete bullshit. Merah was in fact an active part of a Salafi terror network which had been under surveillance for years. In turn, three years later, the voices of his mentors, the Clain brothers, would be heard on the ISIS tape claiming responsibility for the Bataclan massacre.
In a sense, Roy’s 2015 Le Monde piece on nihilism in the aftermath of Bataclan was a reprisal of his 2012 New York Times op-ed on Merah, except smarter. But in the interim, France had changed, and brutally so. Whereas the killings of French soldiers and Jews in 2012 had passed as “understandable,” the random murder of more than a hundred people in a single night could not be understood as something that could only happen to other people. In the following months, the contract between the government and the Prevention Center came to an end, and French authorities began to turn toward a completely different intellectual figure as their spirit-guide to Islamist violence—Roy’s longtime antagonist, Gilles Kepel.
Ever since, the debate in France over its relationship with its Muslim citizens has been framed by Olivier Roy’s existential theories on the one hand, and Gilles Kepel’s data-driven rebuttals on the other. While Roy provided the official narrative about Islam and domestic terror until the end of Hollande’s presidency, Kepel feeds the Macron government with data on Islamist entryism and geopolitical connections. The outcome of the debate between Roy and Kepel is therefore likely to shape the future of France for years to come. Needless to say, the debate is fueled by personal antagonism.
The discord between the two leading interpreters of Islamic radicalism in France has been characterized by the French press as everything from a social competition between an academic mandarin (Roy) and an arriviste courtesan (Kepel), to an ideological war between an alleged “liberal Anglo-Saxon left” (i.e., Roy, for whom religious communities should have a say in the public debate) and a stricter conception of state authority (i.e., Kepel, who is said to represent the French version of secularism known as laïcité).
In fact, Roy’s vision owes more to postmodern French writers, and to the French Orientalist school, than to any “Anglo-Saxon” tradition, whatever that may mean. As for Kepel, despite his avowed atheism and his support of the freedom to blaspheme, he hardly fits the definition of a “laïcard” (to use the derogatory slang that the far right once used to label the enemies of the church in France, and that is now part of the far left’s daily rhetoric): Not only does Kepel’s last book insist on the need to “respect” the “dignity” of believers, it also expresses the utmost contempt for Charlie Hebdo’s “ignorance,” “stupidity,” and “obscenity.”
Perhaps a less trivial and more fruitful way to see the Roy-Kepel distinction would be to acknowledge that, although pacing the same field of study, the two men do not actually study the same things.
The few points the two have in common mainly serve to underline their differences. They are both former leftists—born in 1949, Roy was a Maoist in 1968; Kepel, six years younger, was briefly a Trotskyite—and both left for “the Orient” during the mid-1970s. In their youth, helped along by the hippie movement, Roy and Kepel shared the same orientalist folklore and the same attraction to Islam—an attraction rooted in the romantic European quest for an alternative to the rising urban modernity and its discontents, whose paradoxes would plague the colonial era and resonate to this day. In the late 1970s, Roy and Kepel also shared the same mentor, Rémy Leveau, the first professor in France’s elite institutes to introduce modern sociology and factual research into “Oriental” studies. It is telling that, at the same time, Leveau himself was a high-ranking “Orientalist” in the Quai d’Orsay (France’s State Department) and served as legal adviser to the Moroccan Ministry of Interior, during Hassan II’s brutal reign. France’s colonization, its attraction to “the Orient,” and its concessions to the dictatorships of the Muslim world after the collapse of its empire have always been part of the same dynamic.
It is tempting to see Roy and Kepel as the two faces of French ambiguity toward the Muslim world, caught between a fascination with “the Other” and the cold gathering of facts. Something about their respective journeys does favor such an interpretation. Olivier Roy was 19, when, after traveling to Kathmandu in 1969, he discovered Afghanistan for the first time—a country he saw as unchanged since Kipling’s novels, if not since Alexander the Great. He kept going back there, and in 1980, as a young historian appointed to the French National Centre for Scientific Research, he went back again—this time to fight with the mujahedeen against the Red Army. “My generation,” he said in a biographical interview in 2017, “first loved Guevara and Mao and in the seventies, discovered the realities of the Communist regimes and became anti-totalitarian. Some went to Poland to help Solidarnosc, but I, who knew Afghanistan and spoke the language a little, choose to go there.”
What is striking here of course is the comparison between the struggle of democratic dissidents in Eastern Europe and the Afghan jihad that in less than 10 years would give birth to al-Qaida and the totalitarian Islamist currents in Algeria (among many other places). Yet Roy was by no means the only one to draw such a comparison. In the United States, Texas Rep. Charlie Wilson famously had the U.S. Congress financing the Afghan jihadists on the very same grounds.
Because Roy really spoke only French and some English, his contacts in Afghanistan were limited to the members of what the Afghans called “the foreigner’s movement,” a unit composed of volunteers from all over the world—including Osama bin Laden—and that, indeed, defined itself as an Islamist version of the Spanish Civil War’s communist International Brigades. If Roy did not meet bin Laden, he did sympathize with the French-speaking foreigners there, and particularly with the Algerian Abdulla Nass, who a decade later would preside over the founding in Algeria of the Front Islamique du Salut, or the Islamic Salvation Front, one of the main actors in that country’s bloody civil war throughout the 1990s between a corrupt secularist government and radical Salafists.
But in his own eyes, the most fascinating episode of Roy’s long journey remained his flight from Afghanistan to Pakistan disguised as an Afghan peasant, with his then-wife hidden under a burqa, to escape border controls. The experience was so profound that in 2017 he still called it “an initiation” (to what remains unclear): “It was a symbiotic moment. … I think we can speak of physical mutation, can’t we? And when you become the Other like this, you begin to see things from a completely new angle. I had become the husband of a wife in burqa. This changed my every social interaction.” Olivier Roy never became a Muslim himself. But by his own admission, the episode was central to his later interest in what he calls “the religious phenomenon.”
In 1980, around the time Roy was beginning to enjoy life as a Kipling character, Gilles Kepel was traveling to Cairo as a young researcher to study a group of Salafi Islamists there called Al Jihad—a group that was so small and marginal almost no one had heard of it. But perhaps because his father, Milan, was Czech—and a French translator for Václav Havel—there was in Kepel something naturally cosmopolitan, something that, after his first trips to the Middle East, had led him to study Arabic in Paris. As a result, his attraction to Al Jihad, indeed his very awareness that the tiny group existed at all, came from the fact that he was one of the few foreigners able to follow the writings of its members as well as the sermons of their preachers in the mosques. He was not too surprised when, one year after his arrival, Egypt’s peacemaking President Anwar Sadat was killed in a spectacular attack by Al Jihad terrorists for having signed the famous Camp David Accords with Israel in 1978.
In 1984, Kepel turned his thesis, Islamist Movements in Contemporary Egypt, into his first book, The Prophet and the Pharaoh, which was translated into English quickly and became an international scholarly landmark. But a bigger turning point came when his mentor Leveau suggested that he turn his attention to the Muslim families of France—another group that, in the early 1980s, no one thought was terribly important.
The situation of French Muslims in the 1980s as Kepel encountered them was complex. The Muslim migration to France that had started during the colonial area gained in volume in the years following the wave of independence in the early 1960s. This was reshaped as part of the domestic front in a new French “Arab Policy” that would replace the defunct Empire, and whose other components included gas and oil contracts with the former colonies from which these migrants came. (The Arab policy also included a diplomatic shift away from Israel, which France had strongly supported in 1948 and 1956). Good relationships between Paris and the new regimes of the former Maghreb colonies were de rigueur, of course—but what this implied, for both sides of the deal, was that the migrants weren’t in France to stay. Any other option would have sounded preposterous to the French and insulting to the newly independent countries. The Algerians were particularly touchy on this point, as their national honor would never tolerate the idea that some of their citizens would choose to live in a country whose army had killed and tortured Algerians during the long struggle for independence. Morocco was of the same mind, to the point that in 1993, in an interview on French national television, King Hassan II still admonished Moroccans to “not integrate” into France, and advised the French not to try to integrate them.
This unspoken rule of nonintegration, agreed upon between France and her former colonies, remains one of the most underestimated reasons—in addition to racism and French bitterness over the loss of empire—for the lack of any active French policy of integration. Even after France passed a law of family reunification in the mid 1970s, authorizing migrants to raise their children in France and acknowledging de facto that these kids were French, the rule remained in place. Any action by the French to stop the rising ghettos of the future cités (providing that they had any desire to do so) would have been deemed a casus belli by the Algerian and Moroccan regimes, whose oil and gas were vital for the French economy—and which also controlled the mosques in France, thereby also serving as the (selective) eyes and ears of the French state within French Muslim communities.
Moreover, feelings of loyalty to their birthplaces and a determined lack of interest in or connection to France often plagued the migrants themselves. In patriarchal immigrant families, fathers only rarely acknowledged in front of their children their own decision to plant roots in France; where a mythological return was not entertained, a convenient fog surrounded most of the problematic questions as to who these families were, and to which side of the Mediterranean they properly belonged. The default rule was not to ask. Even religion, which began to gain traction among the migrants as a palliative identity after they silently and more than a bit passively decided to stay in France, appeared as something distant and imprecise. To put it simply, although French by right, the children in these families were being raised in a fragile in-between space, whose rules were: Don’t ask questions, don’t make trouble, please everyone from your dad to the cops.
That in-between space began to shake during the civil rights movement of the early 1980s, when the kids, then known as “the Beurs” (French slang for Arabs), took to the streets to ask social recognition from (and integration into) French society. In large part because of France’s inability to adequately answer their demands, the unintended consequence of the movement toward integration was to bring political discussions back to the family table, thus overtly raising the silenced question of French Muslim identity: What are we? Are we French or not? Are we Muslims or not? If indeed they were French, how come the father was so humble in his daily interactions? And if they weren’t, why wasn’t he prouder of his origins?
It was in this moment that Kepel began to turn his attention to these families—and to note the rising influence of Muslim Brothers and Salafis, whose activism in nearby Algeria was preparing the coming civil war there, and whose propaganda was beginning to penetrate the French cités through family connections in the countries of origin. In 1987, Kepel’s first book describing this new phenomenon, Banlieues de l’Islam (Cités of Islam), earned him the accusation of “playing Le Pen’s game.” It was the beginning of a misunderstanding between Kepel and the left, which was due largely to the fact that, among French researchers, Kepel was virtually the only one, at the time, who could follow the debates in Arabic.
During the following decade, both the Salafi networks financed by the Saudis and the Muslim Brotherhood funded by Qatar (and today mostly by Ankara) reached France from Algiers. This changed the face of Islam in France from benign to bellicose, more in tune with the reality of the disgruntled youth. Kepel would be one of the very few able to diagnose that change, in a time when most, if not all other researchers were framing the question of the migrants’ children in strictly French and moral terms like “integration,” “racism,” and “universalism.”
First among these interpreters was Olivier Roy. In books such as En Quête de l’Orient Perdu (Looking for the Lost Orient) and La Sainte Ignorance (The Holy Ignorance), Roy kept investigating the crisis of European modernity through its nihilist avatars, who were incidentally Muslim. Kepel, meanwhile, wrote La revanche de Dieu (God’s Revenge), Allah in the West, Fitna, Passions Françaises, and Terreur dans l’Hexagone (Terror in the Hexagon)—books whose most distinctive quality was the ability to shed light on France’s local circumstances through geopolitical insights that were then mostly invisible to everyone else. As a result, Kepel became one of the first to correctly point out, aside from social factors within France, the poisonous influence of what had become a global movement within Islam itself.
While Roy’s views may have been less precise than Kepel’s, they were (and are) more immediately intelligible to the French, and therefore more easily usable in French public debate and by the French state bureaucracy. This utility began to change after November 2015, and kept changing after Emmanuel Macron became president. The recent debate in France over “separatism” is not fully understandable without this shift in mind—or without a proper account of the seemingly disconnected and strange events of last fall, which Kepel has since managed to illuminate.
These events began on Sept. 4, 2020, with the opening of the trials for the Charlie Hebdo and kosher market attacks (which Charlie chose to hail by reproducing some of its original caricatures on the magazine’s front page, scandalizing some part of public opinion). In response, on Sept. 12, and in a rising climate of tension surrounding the trial, al-Qaida published a five-page statement threatening the magazine and the country as a whole for letting Charlie have its way. Some 20 days later, a 25-year-old Pakistani refugee, Zaheer Mahmoud, tried to set fire to the magazine’s former offices, and wounded two journalists from a different press agency that happened to be on site that day. On Oct. 2, Emmanuel Macron went on TV to disclose his plan to counter “separatism,” which had been cooked for months, if not for years by the president, and was soon trashed by the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who accused Macron of being “’obsessed with Islam” and “mentally disturbed.”
Two weeks later, on Oct. 16, a history professor, Samuel Paty, was beheaded in front of his students for having briefly shown one of the Charlie Hebdo caricatures in class. His killer, Abdullah Anzorov, 18, a Chechen refugee, had time to post pictures of Paty’s head on social networks before he was killed by police while resisting arrest. (His body was sent back to Chechnya to be buried in his native village, his casket followed by a crowd of 200 men chanting his praise.)
On Oct. 28, in a suburb near Lyon, a demonstration of “Grey Wolves”—a far right nationalist Turkish group—took to the streets to cries of “Death to the Armenians.” The next morning in Nice, Brahim Aouissaoui, an undocumented Tunisian migrant, age 21, entered the Basilique Notre-Dame and slaughtered two women and a man praying there. (Aouissaoui had entered the country only two days earlier through Italy; whether or not he was sent to commit an attack remains to be seen. Wounded by police, he is in custody as of this writing.) Finally, on Nov. 2, a terrorist commando opened fire on the main synagogue of Vienna, killing four.
Terror was back in Europe. The effect on public opinion was particularly strong in France, where the series of events seemed, once more, disconcertingly senseless. As details began to emerge in the press, Paty’s murder proved especially shocking. There was the 10-day smear campaign targeting Paty before the murder—how, after he announced to his class he was going to show them a drawing from Charlie, the father of one of his students, helped by an Islamist activist, began to post a series of videos accusing the professor of Islamophobia, obscenity, and harassment; how one or several of these videos reached Anzorov, a hundred miles away; how Anzorov, once on site, paid a few students to identify Paty as the teacher walked out of the school, and how the students complied, knowing more or less intuitively what was to happen; how some of the students filmed Paty’s body as it laid headless on the ground. But above all, it was Paty’s profession as a teacher that gave the case its traumatic aura—an aura that has not yet dissipated, seven months later.
Most of Paty’s colleagues in France are on the left. Most, also, have had to face years of incidents involving Muslim students in class, incidents related to the teaching of Darwin’s theory, to the place of women in society, or, of course, to the Shoah. Because these incidents have since been systematically downplayed by the Ministry of Interior, as well by the teachers unions, teachers are left to deal with them alone, and the tension is real enough to encourage self-censorship. According to a French think tank study published after Paty’s death, 49% of professors across the country admitted to silencing themselves on some subjects in class, rather than having to deal with angry students. To these teachers and school administrators, Paty appeared like a hero—and like someone let down by the state—and by his own union.
Paty’s death had the effect of opening up a crisis within the profession, and also among the left, that had been forced underground until then. During the demonstrations set up all over the country in Paty’s memory, which were filled with high school teachers, the tension was perceptible. In Paris’ Place de la République, where I was, teachers were seen crying in anguish, and union delegates were booed for their complacency.
One of the consequences of the new climate that followed the fall attacks and Paty’s death was the hardening of Macron’s original plan on “separatism.” Suspect mosques were closed, and Islamic “charity” organizations known for their connections in Syria were dismantled. A “Republican chart” was written for the Muslim organizations to sign, attesting they would comply with republican principles—authorizing apostasy and condemning racism, antisemitism, homophobia, and misogyny. Two refused to sign, among them Mili Görus, the No. 1 Turkish organization in France. Meanwhile in the press, the minister of education launched an offensive targeting what he called the “Islamo-leftists” inside of the universities, naming the professors and researchers who either by lack of information or by conviction were said to be complicit in Islamist propaganda. Most of them turned out to be intellectually close to Olivier Roy. Finally, early last April, the government announced the dismantling of the Laïcité Observatory, whose president had given the Légion d’honneur to Dounia Bouzar in 2014.
To say that Kepel has won would be an overstatement. But it seems safe to say that his theories on Islamism have gone mainstream, and that Olivier Roy and his acolytes are now on the defensive.
Here is a summary of what Kepel’s work has helped to establish: Since the early 1990s, France has been subjected to two major Islamist influences, the Salafists and the Muslim Brotherhood. Both are Sunni, and, in France at least, one of their two main differences is strategic: Like the hippies and the Trotskyites of old, the Salafi preach a complete break with society in favor of a “pure” way of life imitating the Prophet’s, while the Muslim Brothers are more into agitprop, trying to change the system from within by adopting the rhetorical codes of the society they mean to subvert. In France during the 1990s and 2000s, for instance, Tariq Ramadan was the main public figure among the Brothers, passing in the eyes of the secular left as a kosher, third-worldish ally figure, a bit like Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar does in the United States.
At the risk of simplifying a bit, one could argue that from the mid-1990s onward, the rise of Islamist violence in France that culminated with the terror wave of 2015-2016 was essentially a Salafi undertaking. Originally more contemplative and peaceful, the drift of the Salafi school toward violence began in the early 1980s, when the Saudis thought it was smart politics to support the Afghan jihad against Moscow in order to compete with the influence that the recent (Shiite) Iranian revolution was beginning to exert inside of the Muslim world. The “International Brigades” Olivier Roy discovered in Afghanistan were thus partly composed of Algerian Muslims whose travel and bin Laden-led training had been paid for by the Saudis. These men were later sent back to Algeria while other “Brigadists” coming from Croatia returned. In the 1990s, Croatian fighters played a central role in the Balkan war, while Algeria was plunging into a series of mass killings that left some 200,000 victims among the civilian population. In France, Algerian Salafi killers arrived with the status of political refugees, and set up the nucleus of future terror groups.
Yet on the ground in France, things were in fact more nuanced than a binary Sunni rivalry: While Mohammed Merah, the killer of the Jewish children in Toulouse in 2012, did belong to a Salafi group (known among police as the Artigat network, from the village where it is based), the Izard mosque of Toulouse where that group used to recruit its members was managed by Muslim Brothers. Depending on the circumstances, the two groups both rivaled and help each other—both spread radical propaganda and had connections to terror cells. Since 2016, however, that Salafi influence in France has begun to recede, while the Brothers have taken over.
Kepel’s latest book, Le prophète et la Pandémie (The Prophet and the Pandemic), published in January, helps us understand why, sheds new light on what happened in France last fall, and suggests what is likely to follow. One major factor in the changing landscape of French Muslim radicalism is an awareness among the oil monarchies that global concerns over climate change, large state investments in alternative energy sources by Germany and now the United States, and U.S. policy promoting shale oil discovery and pipelines, will all have consequences for their traditional sources of revenue. In Saudi Arabia, the societal reforms introduced by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman aim at weakening the idle class that has lived off the oil rent for decades—and which is also the most religiously conservative—in favor of a younger, more entrepreneurial populace. As a result, the funding for international Salafism has dried up.
Meanwhile, having fled Cairo after the 2013 coup that put Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi in power and watched its Qatari financing dry up, the Muslim Brothers have found refuge in Turkey, where Erdoğan was looking for new allies to help harden his regime. In 2016, using the pretext of an attempted coup against him, Erdoğan established his power along two ideological lines: the Muslim Brotherhood on the one hand, and the fascist-nationalist Grey Wolves on the other. One year later, in 2017, Erdogan signed a series of agreements endorsing a partnership with Russia and Iran that was openly directed against the European Union.
This was more or less the state of things when, in 2020, the COVID pandemic hit the region and the price of oil fell dramatically, reaching the astonishing negative rate of $38.94 in April 2020. In July, sanitary concerns forced Saudi Arabia to practically cancel the hajj—or at least to reduce its size dramatically—depriving the Muslim masses of the annual TV broadcast that normally serves Riyadh’s image as the leader of the Sunni world.
Erdoğan, who was trained as an imam in his youth, seized the occasion. On July 24, for the Friday Muslim prayer, in front of nearly every TV station in Turkey, he inaugurated the ancient Byzantine Saint Sophia basilica, the Hagia Sophia, as a mosque. This “highly symbolic gesture,” as Kepel calls it, made Turkey the most serious contender to usurp the Saudi claim to represent Sunni Islam. During the rest of the summer and the fall that followed, Erdoğan threatened Greece with a new war and deployed his armies to no less than five countries, including Libya and Nagorno-Karabakh.
This general Turkish offensive has been opposed by the EU, most notably by France. In August, Macron publicly stated his support for Greece, and in September, he announced at an EU summit that Erdoğan “is no longer a partner for Europe” or in the oriental Mediterranean. One of the Islamic charity organizations dismantled in France in October, Barakacity, announced its intention to relocate to Ankara, and eventually did. As of this writing, the Muslim Brotherhood’s activism in France has shown no sign of weakening.
There is a civil war in Islam today, a war that knows no borders, and it explains what’s been going on in France much better than any abstract debate over laïcité.
Kepel’s vision is important in the sense that it reinstates France within the political turmoil of the Mediterranean, where it belongs. To imagine that the oligarchic powers of the region will quietly allow a tolerant, enlightened version of Islam to rise at their Mediterranean borders and undermine their influence—to suppose that they will not exploit every social weakness in France to compete for influence among Muslims there—is, at best, naïve. There is a civil war in Islam today, a war that knows no borders, and it explains what’s been going on in France much better than any abstract debate over laïcité. What Kepel’s vision shows us, in other words, is that France’s future will be bloody.
But then, what do we do with Roy’s existential problem? What do we do, specifically, with the converts we met at the beginning of this essay? Should we dismiss them once and for all as meaningless?
“We are not in a war between civilizations,” wrote Roy in Le Monde, “but in a war between values. The conflict is not between the Enlightenment and Islam, but between the values inherited from the ’60s (women’s rights, LGBT rights, sexual freedom, abortion, etc.) and the conservative values that religions stand for.” A suggestive sentence, even from a man who denies any role of Islam in terror.
One could argue that Roy’s main problem—aside from his ideology—is his classicism. He’s a follower of Dostoyevsky, for whom, morally speaking, religion and nihilism are like matter and anti-matter. But how true is this poetic idea in the 21st century? Everywhere one looks, from Trumpism to Salafism, if the last decades are any indication, the transgressors and the prophets of order and are in fact one and the same. Orthodoxies and heresies have melted to create conceptual and humans monsters.
At their best, both Kepel and Roy hold part of the key to understanding France’s new reality. One reflects “existentially” on how religions and postmodern nihilism fight and influence each other, the other focuses acutely and pragmatically on geopolitical chaos in the Middle East and its deleterious consequences for France and Europe. As for the social competition, while Kepel was among the guests at Macron’s inauguration party on May 14, 2016, Roy maintains the upper hand on control of the funding, and coordinates the EU grants on Islamic studies. Roy remains a major influence on academia, whereas Kepel figures more as an outsider. It therefore seems likely that as France endures continued turmoil and bloodshed, we will be hearing more from both in the decade to come.
Marc Weitzmann is the author of 12 books, including, most recently, Hate: The Rising Tide of Anti-Semitism in France (and What It Means for Us). He is a regular contributor to Le Monde and Le Point and hosts Signes des Temps, a weekly public radio show on France Culture.