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The French Path to Jihad

Sunday, October 1, 2006

I understood that I was different, that I was not French, that I would never become French and that I had no business trying to become French either. I took it well. I was proud of my new Muslim identity. Not to be French, to be Muslim, just that: Algerian too, but, above all, Muslim. That was my reconquest of myself, my burst of lucidity, my awakening. I was rid of the malaise from which I had suffered and all of a sudden I felt good about myself: no more impossible dreams, no more desire to become part of this France that did not want me. And, above all, I started to nourish a tremendous hatred toward the Fascist regime that had rejected the vote of the Algerian people for Islamic rule.

“Ousman,” an Algerian-born Islamist in French prison1

I have a more technical point to — today. I stand here as a French citizen. I want to make clear that I am not French and have no relation. I’m a sworn enemy of France. So I want to make this in the record that I’m not French, okay? I tell you I am a Muslim, and I have nothing to do with a nation of homosexual Crusaders. And I am not a frog. That’s the first thing. . . .

    — Zacarias Moussaoui, to the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, February 14, 20062

 

How does one become a jihadist? Just how unprepared Americans have been to confront this question was made embarrassingly clear during the recent trial of Zacarias Moussaoui as large parts of the established media dwelt thoughtfully on Moussaoui’s broken family and childhood spells in an orphanage — as if such banal details could somehow account for the behavior of a man who has pledged allegiance to Osama Bin Laden, been found guilty of plotting to fly a jetliner into the White House in connection with the 9/11 plot, and testified to his readiness to kill Americans “anytime, anywhere”3 every day until his death. Moussaoui was apparently supposed to be just like you and me — the defense witness who recounted for the court the allegedly sad story of young Zacarias was a social worker from Greenville, South Carolina — only not as well-adjusted. At the other extreme, a current of opinion has emerged that is widely represented in the “new” media and that offers a ready-made and conveniently foreshortened answer to the question: one that spares the investigator all need to enter into the details of individual life histories. How does one become a jihadist? By being a Muslim. For the representatives of this current, whose more or less openly avowed “Islamophobia” can easily degrade into simple racism, the jihadist threat is entirely a product of Islam or the “Muslim world” and consequently wholly alien to “the West.”

It is a pity that, in effect, none of the media — neither the old media nor the new — took advantage of the unique opportunity provided by the Moussaoui trial to seek more convincing answers. To this day, for instance, despite the sensation created by Moussaoui’s decision to take the stand, the full transcript of his testimony has never been published. If Americans were able to consider the portrait of Moussaoui that emerges from his own words, what they would discover is a figure who is neither so familiar as the sympathetic psychotherapeutic accounts in the old media suggest nor so alien as the theories of the new media pundits would lead one to assume. Of course, it would be hazardous to attempt to generalize from the single case of Zacarias Moussaoui. But a just-published collection of interviews with suspected members of al Qaeda in French prisons, Quand Al-Qäida parle: Témoignages derrière les barreaux (When al Qaeda Talks: Testimonials from Behind Bars), provides us with an unprecedentedly large body of evidence on the backgrounds, worldview, and motivations of those who make the choice for violent jihad in the name of Islam.

The interviews were conducted between 2001 and 2003 by Farhad Khosrokhavar of France’s preeminent social science faculty, the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales. The inmates typically protest their innocence of the charges against them, which is only to be expected given the circumstances of the interviews and is even more comprehensible in light of the suspicions they harbor with respect to Khosrokhavar. Virtually all the interviewees at some point express their concern that Khosrokhavar might be working for the French domestic intelligence service, the Renseignements généraux. Nonetheless, they make no secret of their adherence to a radical or “rigorist” practice of Islam, nor of their acceptance of violent jihad as a legitimate — and, under certain circumstances, even obligatory — aspect of it. In more unguarded moments, some admit their own participation in jihad: either implicitly and without entering into details or explicitly in relation to actions — for instance, fighting with foreign mujahideen forces in the Bosnian civil war — that will not complicate their legal situation in France. Others reflect openly upon joining the jihad — in order, most often, to fight against the U.S. and Israel — upon their release. Still others seem indeed to have merely had casual contacts with jihadist circles, a fact that under France’s remarkably broadly written statute on “criminal associations” was sufficient to earn them prison time. Even the members of the latter group, however, do not hide their admiration for the jihadists whose friendship or acquaintance has landed them in jail.

In addition to the ten interviews with the suspected al Qaeda members, the Khosrokhavar volume also includes four interviews with other inmates, for the most part convicted on lesser charges, who might best be described as fellow travelers. (One of these, a convert to Islam, has also been charged with membership in a “criminal association” preparing a terrorist act, so it is not clear why he is treated separately from the ten al Qaeda.) The subjects of the Khosrokhavar interviews defy the stock image that many Western observers will have of Islamists as highly exotic Arabic-speakers from the Middle East. On the contrary, they are, in effect, “Western” or at least “nearly Western.” They all speak fluent French, and French for the most part — not Arabic — is their mother tongue. The learning of Arabic — in order to be able to read the Quran in the original — is indeed frequently mentioned in the interviews as a crucial stage in the process of the inmates’ Islamic radicalization. Several of the inmates — perhaps as many as half — were born in France, including the convert. The rest come from the Maghreb, the formerly French-controlled territories of the southern shore of the Mediterranean, with the largest contingent from Algeria. All but one, however, have lived for extensive periods in France. (The one exception is “Mohammad,” the veteran of the Bosnian war, who astonishingly claims never to have set foot in France prior to his extradition.) Most are French citizens; some have earned advanced degrees from French universities; and even if they happen to have grown up in the Maghreb, French culture, as their testimonials make abundantly clear, has been a constant point of reference in their lives.4

While Khosrokhavar’s sample of Islamists may not be “typical,” in light of this strong French connection, the fact is that Islamism as a self-consciously transnational ideology — in this respect, as in so many others, resembling twentieth-century Marxism-Leninism — draws its adherents from widely different parts of the globe: both from the Dar al-Islam, the traditional Islamic lands, and from the Dar al-Dawa, the lands of Islamic proselytism. In contemporary Islamist discourse — in the fatwas of Yusuf Al-Qaradawi, head of the European Council for Fatwa and Research, for example, or in the writings of Qaradawi’s admirer Tariq Ramadan — Europe precisely represents a privileged terrain for Dawa: for proselytism.5 It is thus distinguished from, say, Russia or Israel or, for that matter, the United States, all of which, as judged by the practice of the jihadists, clearly fall within the Dar al-Harb: the lands “of war” targeted for military defeat.

The importance, moreover, of what might be called the specifically French “path to jihad” for the Islamist movement in general should not be underestimated. In 2002, Antoine Sfeir, director of the respected French journal of Middle Eastern affairs, Les Cahiers d’Orient, estimated that some 50 young people from the Lyon vicinity alone had left France to join al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan. Seven French nationals are known to have been held prisoner at the American detention center in Guantanamo. (All seven have, in the meanwhile, been turned over to French authorities.) In addition, the complete list of Guantanamo detainees released by the Department of Defense in May features no fewer than 52 citizens of the countries of the French-speaking Maghreb: 25 Algerians, 15 Moroccans, and 12 Tunisians. Taken together with the French nationals, this gives a total comparable to that of Pakistan — even though the total population of the four countries together is substantially lower than that of Pakistan. According to French press reports citing French intelligence sources, anywhere from seven to ten persons from France (nationals or residents) have been killed in Iraq while taking part in the anti-American, anti-government insurgency, and several others have been captured.6 In October 2004, 18-year-old Abdelhalim Badjoudj of Paris’s nineteenth arrondissement blew himself up in a car packed with explosives in a suicide attack against an American patrol in Baghdad. A second French national is supposed to have died committing a suicide attack in Iraq some six months later. (A Francophone Belgian convert to Islam, Muriel Degauque, should also be mentioned in this connection. In November 2005, Degauque became the first European woman to commit a suicide attack in Iraq.)

And then, of course, there is the most famous French jihadist of all: Zacarias Moussaoui.7 As with the subjects of the Khosrokhavar interviews, Moussaoui’s relationship to France is “conflicted,” to say the least. Nonetheless, when, early on in the court proceedings against him and in an apparent gesture of multicultural sensitivity, Judge Leonie Brinkema advised Moussaoui that he would in her court have to abide by rules with which he might be unfamiliar from “his culture,” Moussaoui pointedly replied: “by the way, I’m born in France, educated — I have a masters degree in international business. I’m fully acquainted with western system of justice, okay? I never live in the Middle East country or in Arabic country, okay?”8

 

The primordial enemy

The khosrokhavar interviews burst numerous clichés about the jihadists and the sources of their militancy. Lest anyone still cling to the illusion that the root cause of Islamic terror is poverty and economic inequality, for instance, the interviews massively reinforce the findings of the already substantial body of research on Arab Islamists showing that jihadists are largely recruited from relatively more privileged social strata in their countries of origin. As a rule, the inmates interviewed are highly educated, well-traveled, and multilingual. One “Ousman” interrupts his interview to grill Khosrokhavar about the geographical distribution of his sample population. If the sample is not well distributed, he warns, “it’s not valid, it’s not scientific” — before adding encouragingly, “you are the pioneers for this type of study” (148). The inmates’ more or less openly avowed enthusiasm for jihad is clearly not the product of a spontaneous reaction to desperate circumstances, but rather the outcome of an often highly intellectualized process of reflection.

A few of the inmates are evidently from poorer backgrounds and less educated. But, with one exception, they figure among the fellow travelers. They notably include, for instance, two young French-born inmates: a “young banlieusard” of Moroccan ancestry and “Jacques,” a self-avowed “anti-white” racist who was raised by his French-Caribbean mother in Paris. These are precisely the inmates whose connection not only to Islamism, but to Islam as such, is the most tenuous. Their crimes are more a matter of juvenile delinquency than anything even remotely resembling terrorism. As the interviews show, the Islamist movement exerts an obvious attraction upon such troubled young people from France’s housing projects and banlieues, whether they are of Arab origin or not. But this attraction would seem to be chiefly a function of the “anti-systemic” aura of rebellion surrounding the Islamist movement rather than the content of Islamic — much less Islamist — doctrine per se. “Islam disturbs people,” notes Jacques, “and for me that’s a good sign. A religion that denounces the imperialism of the white man can’t be all bad” (217).

This relative indifference of Islam to the “Islamist” posturing of the youngest French-born inmates speaks against the theory — which seems to be gaining traction on the right, both within Europe and without — according to which the mere fact of immigration to Europe from Arab countries predestines the continent to “Islamization” and someday even Islamic rule. So, too, does another remarkable fact that emerges in the course of the Khosrokhavar interviews: that many — perhaps the majority — even of those inmates who obviously merit being described as Islamists come precisely from non-practicing or, so to say, barely practicing families. “He’s a slacker Muslim (musulman fainéant),” complains one “Moussa” about his father (47). The rigorism of their Islamic faith is clearly not inherited, but rather acquired. The same, indeed, is true of Zacarias Moussaoui, whose mother, according to Moussaoui’s brother Abd Samad Moussaoui, resolutely refused to teach her children about Islam and took to celebrating Christmas when Zacarias and Abd Samad were teenagers.9

It is in this connection that the learning of Arabic takes on its full significance in the biographies of many of the inmates. Several of the inmates place great emphasis on the importance of reading the Quran in the original and, as one “Ahsen” puts it, “without any intermediary” (63). Even inmates whose connection to Islam is more superficial and who do not know Arabic recognize this as a worthy goal. “For me reading the Quran was a real revelation, an inner awakening,” says Ahsen, who admits to having spent several years in Afghanistan with the Taliban. “I came to realize that one had to fight against the mulhidun (heretics) and the rafhidun (deviants),10 against the people of other religions who oppose Islam” (63). In light of the violence associated with Islamism, it has become common to hear from Western observers that Islam as such needs to pass through its “reformation.” But the emphasis placed by these inmates on their personal and unmediated relation to the text of the Quran suggests, on the contrary, that contemporary Islamism may well be the Islamic equivalent of the Reformation.11 It is worth recalling in this connection that the historical Reformation of Christianity also gave rise both to extreme rigorist currents (Calvinism) and to violent Millenarian sects.

But perhaps the most important — and, in light of conventional wisdom, surprising — revelation of the Khosrokhavar interviews concerns the identity of the nation that is virtually without exception the principal object of the Islamists’ obviously fervent hatred: a nation that they are convinced despises and humiliates Muslims and has committed unpardonable crimes against them — namely, France. Hatred of France is the unifying thread running through the testimonials of the inmates and, as we shall see, clearly provides the primordial affect that has fueled the process of their radicalization (or that could fuel such a process in the case of the younger French-born inmates who have yet to take the plunge into organized political violence).

As would be expected, the U.S. also comes in for severe criticism from the inmates. So too, of course, does Israel, which is often treated — according to the well-known motif shared by Islamists and a large part of the European left — as of a piece with the U.S. The alleged “crimes” of Israel against Palestinian Arabs are, needless to say, a constant refrain, and the complicity of the U.S. in these “crimes” is taken for granted. It is clear that in the current state of the global jihad, the U.S. is thus regarded as the privileged target. France is evidently a lesser priority. Against the French, the convert remarks condescendingly, “one does not even have to declare jihad. . . .”

Nonetheless, in comparison to the passionate and thickly detailed indictment that Khosrokhavar’s Islamist interlocutors draw up against France, their hostility toward the U.S. has an abstract, theoretical air to it. It is, in short, a matter of doctrine. None of the interviewees exhibit any firsthand knowledge of the United States, nor could any of them plausibly claim to have witnessed American mistreatment of Muslims, much less to have been victims of such themselves. “Mohammad,” for example, the veteran mujahideen who fought in the Bosnian war, allows: “As much as I detest the Americans, I have to admit it: the presence of the Americans in Bosnia saved the Bosniacs” (118). This realization does not, however, prevent him from describing America as a “mad dog” in need of a good kick (111), nor from observing that on 9/11 Americans “reaped what they sowed” (117).

By contrast, the hatred of France that the interviewees express is clearly a heartfelt product of experience, an experience that has both a historical and a personal dimension. As concerns the historical dimension, the testimonials of virtually all the suspected al Qaeda members leave no doubt that the single episode that most substantially contributed to their radicalization was the military coup in Algeria in January 1992 — a coup that is widely believed to have been carried out with French complicity and support. The coup prevented an Islamist party, the Islamic Salvation Front (fis), from coming to power despite its clear victory in the first round of voting in elections the previous December. It was followed by the prohibition of the fis and the mass arrest of fis members.

In the myopic and self-hating (in America) or exculpatory (in Europe) perspective that seeks an explanation for Islamic radicalism in supposed American “oppression” of Muslims around the world, the importance of the Algerian coup and its aftermath is nowhere to be found. Nonetheless, the Algerian events are a standard reference in the actual discourse of Islamists, including those, like Zacarias Moussaoui, who have no personal connection to Algeria. Moussaoui was born in France of Moroccan parents. When, however, in April 2002 he used the occasion of a court appearance to read from the Quran and give a more finely grained, comprehensive account of Muslim grievances in the guise of a prayer, Algeria was the first item in his list:

To Allah we belong and to Allah we return. I turn to Allah, the almighty, for all the Muslim and all the Mujahideen. I pray to Allah, the masterful, for all my brothers in jail like in Algeria, everywhere in the land of Allah.

I pray to Allah for the return of Andalusia, Spain, to the Muslim and the liberation of Ceuta and Melilla. I pray to Allah for the return of India to the Muslims and to [sic] the liberation of Kashmir.

I pray to Allah, . . . the severe in punishment for the destruction of the Jewish people and states and for the liberation of Palestine by the Muslim, for the Muslim.

I pray to Allah, the protector, for the destruction of Russia and the return of the Islamic Emirates of Chechnya. I pray to Allah, the powerful, for the return of the Islamic Emirates of Afghanistan and the destruction of the United States of America.12

The 1992 Algerian coup and the presumed role of France in sanctioning both it and the suppression of the fis that followed is a subject that comes up with striking regularity in the Khosrokhavar interviews. “Ousman” provides a particularly detailed account of the events. He returns to the theme repeatedly throughout his interview, as if it constituted an obsession. Ousman is a French citizen who was born in Algeria. He is accused of being a member of both al Qaeda and the Armed Islamic Group (gia). The gia emerged in Algeria in 1992 after the suppression of the fis. It has been held responsible for countless massacres of civilians in Algeria, as well as for the 1995 bomb attack on the Saint Michel Metro station in Paris that left eight people dead and dozens wounded.

“France pulled the strings,” Ousman says, referring to the 1992 coup:

Mitterrand intervened against the fis when he made a declaration that I heard over the satellite in Algiers. He said he would not tolerate a “fanatic state” at just an hour by plane from Paris. The Algerian military did the dirty work and France sanctioned everything. It did not denounce their actions. It even actively supported them (145).

And again (133):

If the military conducted a coup against the fis, it is because they were sure to have the support and assistance of France. For many Algerians, France is by far the single party most responsible for the troubles in their homeland.

Significantly, Ousman insists he was not a member of the fis, much less a partisan of jihad, before the events. It was, on his account, the annulment of the elections and the subsequent repression that led to his radicalization (132):

France did not want the fis. But the majority of Algerians wanted it. In 1991, the fis had the majority in Algeria. In 1992, when the coup d’état occurred, I was not a member of the fis, but just a sympathizer, a Muslim. A Muslim should defend his religion. I became engaged in the struggle.

Ousman claims to have observed the persecution to which fis members were subjected firsthand, an experience to which he traces his decision to engage in jihad (134):

[T]hey created concentration camps in Algeria. 50,000 people were put in a camp in Reghem [sic, presumably Reggane is meant]. There were friends of mine and neighbors in this camp. . . . I didn’t have a beard. The gendarmes didn’t arrest me. . . . Before me, I saw brothers with beards and they took them away, kicking them as they went. I saw such things in the street. It was like during the Nazi period, the German ss who came looking for the Jews. . . . I saw the persecutions with my own eyes. That inspired me to defend these people. I took part in actions in the framework of jihad, the holy war.

Returning to the role of France in the Algerian troubles, Ousman concludes with a telling comparison: “The French role in Algeria,” he says, “is more vicious than that of the Jews in occupied Palestine” (144).

 

French masks, Muslim faces

Ousman also speaks, and with sometimes remarkable eloquence, to the second, personal, dimension of the experience that, on the account of Khosrokhavar’s Islamist interlocutors, led them not only to reject French society, but, in the phrase of Zacarias Moussaoui, to become France’s “sworn enemies,” namely, what they almost to a man perceive (or, at any rate, denounce) as French racism. The feelings the inmates express toward France in this connection are not necessarily without nuance and complexity. Indeed, Ousman’s account of what he presents as his failed attempt at assimilation into French society resembles a tale of unrequited love — a love that, precisely by virtue of its lack of reciprocation, is transformed into hate. Here again it is worth quoting from his interview at length (135–36):

Earlier, France was my model — even if I also resented this. But my ideal was to be French, to act like the French: to have my wife, my kids, my car, my apartment, my house in the country, to become an average Frenchman and live in peace. . . . [E]ven before I had French citizenship or I had work, in my mind, I wanted to conform to the image of the average Frenchman, to be like them, to make myself in their image. But at the same time I had the feeling that this was more or less impossible: they didn’t want me, even if I had citizenship and all the rest. They looked down on me, they treated me like I was nothing, they despised me. This contempt was killing me. Were we really so despicable? . . . I went back and forth between what I was and what I wanted to be: a little Frenchman. Whereas I was an Algerian. I was tortured by it. Some days, I couldn’t fall asleep, I had the impression that my life had no meaning, that my part in life had been unjustly denied me.

Islam was my salvation. I understood what I was: a Muslim. Someone with dignity, whom the French despised because they didn’t fear me enough. Thanks to Islam, the West respects us in a certain way. One is scared of us. We’re treated as fanatics, as holy madmen, as violent people who do not hesitate to die or to kill. But one doesn’t despise us anymore. That is the achievement of Islamism. Now, we are respected. Hated, but respected.

Ousman describes the process of his coming to Islam — in effect, on the “bounce-back” from what he perceives as his rejection by French society — as an “awakening,” as his “reconquest of my self.”

Even if the accounts of the other inmates do not attain the degree of psychological vividness of Ousman’s, it is remarkable how often the same motif — of a “false” attempt to be or “become” French versus the “authentic” Muslim “self” — is repeated in their testimonials. The younger French-born inmates from immigrant families are, as a rule, particularly categorical about the “impossibility” of their “becoming French” — even though, from a legal standpoint, they are and always have been — and about the discrimination from which they claim to have suffered. Thus, the “young banlieusard” reports (280):

I have French citizenship. Even if it is written “French nationality” on your identity card, in the eyes of the French you are not French. And, by the way, I don’t feel French any more than I feel Moroccan. I’m a Muslim: a true Muslim who doesn’t want to let himself be stepped on anymore.

Nonetheless, there is reason to doubt that his charges of French racism amount to much more than alibi-making. At the same time, he admits that his brothers and sisters are continuing with their studies and that they feel “at home” in France. “They’re frenchified,” he complains. “They’ve lost their roots, lost their honor, lost their sense of Islam” (292).

It is important to note that in the most psychologically informative accounts, the primary feeling is of “not being French.” The “discovery” that the “authentic” — or, at any rate, “not French” — self is in fact Muslim is a secondary interpretation of this sense of “otherness.” Thus, even an inmate like Jacques, who is not Muslim and who has had very little personal connection to Islam, can claim that, by virtue of his “otherness” and his eagerness to defy the alleged racism of “the French,” he is, in effect, Muslim (219):

To become someone who is feared, if not respected, one has to be openly Muslim. Islam liberates. In this sense, I feel very Muslim. I even do Ramadan with my “beur” [North African] brothers. I’m ready to embrace the religion of Allah. I’m already Muslim in body and soul.

The same motif is present in the interviews with some of the more “well-versed,” doctrinaire Islamists, those who seem also to have had the most substantial involvement in jihad. “Ahsen” is an Algerian-born Salafist: an adherent of the most rigorist current in Islam, which holds that Muslims should live as did the Prophet Muhammad and his earliest followers in the seventh century. He has fought with the Taliban in Afghanistan. But he also has a degree in the natural sciences from a Parisian university and a “native French” wife. In his account, psychological pathos has given way to cold, dogmatic certitudes. Nonetheless, the thematic is the same. “One imitates them,” he says, referring to “Westerners” in general, “and one thinks that’s good and one tries to become a little Westerner, even though the West despises us and finds us even more hideous when we imitate it. The Muslim loses his dignity and his sense of honor and becomes like a monkey who imitates his master: the West” (67). Asked by Khosrokhavar how he came to the realization that “the West” is inducing Muslims to “renounce what they are,” he responds: “by living here [in France]” (68). “We no longer have a genuine ego,” Ahsen concludes, and he offers his prescription for recapturing it: “That’s what jihad is for” (69).

In a similar vein, “Hassan” says that in France, “I felt that I was in danger of losing my personality” (170).  Hassan has been charged in connection with the case of Djamel Beghal, who was arrested in July 2001 and convicted last year on charges of plotting to conduct a terrorist attack against the American embassy in Paris. It should be noted that Hassan appears to have been born in France and never to have lived anywhere else. Like Ousman — though without the wealth of psychological detail that lends credibility to Ousman’s account — he claims early on in life to have perceived the impossibility of gaining acceptance in French society. He talks in particular about seeing his younger sister return home from school in tears one day after having been called a “dirty Arab.” “At that point,” he says, “I started to ask more radical questions, I wondered if I was really so French after all” (176). Somewhat contradictorily, however, Hassan seems to suggest that the principal danger to his “personality” lay precisely in the prospect of succeeding. Hassan holds a degree in applied physics from a Parisian university and claims to have been “a rather brilliant student.” But, he says, “I stopped my studies. It was a choice: a voluntary suicide” (169). He continues (172):

In France, a part of my personality was under attack, pushing me toward schizophrenia. It was under attack from infancy. I had the choice between schizophrenia as a Frenchman and the recovery of my identity in struggle against this society that denies me my dignity and the most ancestral part of my identity.

On Hassan’s account, then — and it should be underscored that Hassan clearly belongs to the intellectuals among the inmates — the actual “racism” of French society consists precisely in its expectation of assimilation into a culture that he assumes, in the manner of a metaphysical axiom, is not his own. It is thus unsurprising that he expresses sympathy for other movements dedicated to defending ostensibly “ancestral” identities — namely, the Corsican, Basque, and Breton separatist movements — against what he calls the “grinder” (171) of French republicanism.  “I understand why the Corsicans and the Bretons revolt against the steamroller of French national identity that does nothing but reject the past of everyone else,” he says (173). Ousman, incidentally, also sees parallels between his “struggle” and that of the Corsican and Basque nationalists. They too, he says, like the Islamists, are “outside the system” and thus treated as “criminal associations” (129).

Such remarks, coming from Islamist militants themselves, are especially significant. In the aftermath of the March 11 attacks in Madrid, the possibility of collaboration between Islamic terror groups and the Basque nationalist terror organization, eta, was rejected out of hand by the Spanish Socialists and by a large part of the media, both in Spain and abroad. Testifying before the Spanish parliament’s m–11 Commission in July 2004, investigative judge Baltazar Garzón went so far as to claim that such collaboration was “metaphysically impossible.” The evidence of the Khosrokhavar interviews suggests, on the contrary, that precisely on a “metaphysical” level the two sorts of movements have much in common. Just as important, if not more so, they apparently also share much on the level of the individual psychology of their adherents; thus the clear identification of the Islamists with their Basque or Corsican “brothers” in the struggle against the French enemy.13

The opposition the inmates draw between “imitation Frenchness” and the authentic Muslim “self” — as well, indeed, as their agenda of recovering the latter in violent struggle against French/Western society — bears a striking resemblance to the signature theses of Frantz Fanon, the French-Caribbean champion of anticolonial “national liberation” movements whose writings are regarded as classics of “Third Worldist” literature. It was Fanon’s own experience as a black intellectual from France’s overseas territories that provided the point of departure for the often rambling psychological reflections on race and racism of his earliest volume, Black Skin, White Masks. But it is interesting to note that he gathered the clinical observations that form the basis for his political testament, The Wretched of the Earth, while working as a psychiatrist in a French hospital in Algeria during the first years of the Algerian War of Independence. By early 1957, he had resigned his medical post and joined the principal Algerian independence movement directing the war against the French, the National Liberation Front (fln). Many of his later essays were published in the fln journal El Moudjahid. His death in 1961 would prevent Fanon from obtaining as an adoptive Algerian the independence from France that his native Martinique has never sought.

Fanon’s emphasis on the specifically national framework of “struggle” both dates his theories and distinguishes them from contemporary Islamist ideology, with its emphasis on the all-embracing umma, or community of believers. Nonetheless, the echoes of Fanon in the testimonials of the inmates are so persistent that one wonders whether he does not represent a kind of “missing link” in the evolution of the Islamist movement. As in Fanon’s writings — which make ample use of a quasi-Marxist terminology that transcends the context of decolonization — so, too, in the often morbid reflections of the inmates the fundamentally psychological thematic of repressed “authenticity” is oddly grafted together with a rhetoric of political “anti-imperialism.” Again, as with Fanon — who recruited Sartre to write the preface to The Wretched of the Earth — this “anti-imperialist” rhetoric is a clear indication that the Islamists remain far more Western than they would care to admit. Thus, for instance, Ousman, as he abruptly shifts into a more dogmatic register: “Before, I bore within me the despising gaze of the French and the Westerners and I despised myself despite myself. I admired the French and Westerners for their technical knowledge [savoir-faire] and their power. Now, Islam has given me self-respect, and I know that it is the West that incarnates vice and adultery, moral depravation and imperialism” (141). “What was broken in me has been healed,” Ousman concludes, “but all my rage is turned toward the West with its viciousness and lies.”

 

The transference of hate

In a long scholarly essay appended to the interviews, Khosrokhavar also identifies the primordial importance of their grievances and/or complexes vis-à-vis France in the biographical itineraries that have led the inmates to radical Islam and its “anti-Western” jihad. He notes in this connection what he calls a process of “generalization” of their hatred of France to “the West” as such. The morose broodings of an Ousman provide just one illustration. But the interviews bear witness not only to such a process of generalization of the inmates’ hate, but also — and, from the point of view of the real conduct of jihad, more crucially — to a process of transference of their hate from, so to say, its “lived” object, namely, France and French society, to an “imagined” object or, more precisely, two imagined objects that in the perspective of the inmates are fused into one, namely, Israel and the U.S. “The West,” after all, is an abstraction. Inasmuch as it is a question of taking action — i.e., violent action in the framework of jihad — the designated target that stands in for the West in general and is substituted for France in particular is invariably the imagined Israelo-American monolith. The tight association of Israel and the U.S. in the discourse of the Islamists interviewed by Khosrokhavar is not, for the most part, given an openly anti-Jewish inflection. One highly revealing exception, however, is the “native French” convert. America, he says, “is hand in glove with the Jews” (248), and he denounces the “domination” of Muslims by “the yhudis [Jews] and American Zionists” (253).

One of the most fascinating and significant features of the Khosrokhavar interviews is that the mechanism of this transference of hate is clearly observable. Time and again, an inmate, having provided an inventory of the sources of his frustration in France, suddenly announces his intention to purge the full charge of his hatred in fighting against Israel and the United States. In virtually every instance, the switch that permits this transference to take place is explicitly designated. It is neither the preaching of radical Imams nor the indoctrination of Islamic organizations. Indeed, in a sense, it is not an ideological instrument at all, since the certainty with which it invests the inmates’ convictions about American and Israeli infamy — a quasi-certainty tantamount to what they know from their own experience — is created through non-verbal means.

Consider, for instance, the diatribe of “Moussa,” an Algerian-born Islamist who has lived for roughly a decade in France and is suspected of having ties with both the gia and al Qaeda. “Islam is what saves us from the West,” he says (52),

from America, from all those who commit injustices against Muslims and oppress them: like Israel oppresses the Palestinian people. One sees on the television how the Israeli Army, with the help of America, mistreats the youth of the Intifada. When I see that, I want to go fight against them, against the Americans, against all those who repress Islam [emphasis added].

“Karim,” a French national and another al Qaeda suspect, says that “France is pushing people toward extremism. . . . If you suspect the worst of us, we’ll end up doing what we are accused of.” Where exactly does such extremism lead? Karim explains further (92):

You see: in prison the Jihadists are very respected by the other Muslim inmates. The others think that the Jihadists have dared to do what they, the other inmates, think is right but have not had the courage to do. They have taken action and given a good lesson to the Americans who are repressing our brothers in Palestine or in Afghanistan. Just watch the TV and the humiliation to which the Israeli army subjects the Palestinian chebab [youth] [emphasis added].

When asked “Who are the enemies of Islam?” “Jacques,” the Parisian-born fellow traveler, responds (220):

You don’t see? There are the Jews who are trying to push the Palestinians into the sea. . . . There is America, which is the closest ally of Israel. It’s as if Israel were the 53rd state! They’re hand in glove. When one sees on the TV how the Israeli tanks fire on youths armed with slingshots or Molotov cocktails and no one moves a finger. One asks oneself whether there is any justice in the world [emphasis added]?

The implication of Jacques’ remarks is clear: something should be done. And pressed by Khosrokhavar on the matter, he explains: “There are days when I am ready to enlist in the struggle against the Americans and the Israelis” — before adding: “and then I calm down and I think of my life and my future” (224).

The source of the inmates’ convictions about the injustices of which they accuse France is experience. What, then, is the source of their convictions about the injustice they believe Palestinian Arabs suffer at the hands of Israel and its presumptive American accomplice? “The TV.”

It is important to recall in this connection that the first language of most of the inmates interviewed is French. Some, like Jacques, do not speak Arabic or have at most only a very limited knowledge of it. “The tv” to which they allude for the most part is undoubtedly French television. In France, where the cable and satellite television markets remain relatively limited (and were even more so when the interviews were conducted) and where just two channels split the bulk of the network television audience for news programming, “the tv,” generically designated in this way, typically means either tf1 (the only privately owned network to offer substantial news programming) or the leading public broadcaster, France 2.

It is, in effect, by way of the false immediacy of images of the Middle East conflict on the nightly news that the hatred the Islamists feel for France gets transferred to Israel. In the images of the Palestinian chebab doing battle with their homespun weaponry against the massively superior force of the Israeli Army, the French candidates for jihad see their own sense of victimhood reflected back to them in heroic guise. The Palestinian gunmen with their less wholesome Kalashnikovs and m16s remain outside the frame. So too, needless to say — since, in any case, it is not accessible in images — does all the background and context that could render Israeli military actions in the West Bank or Gaza comprehensible and/or dissipate the aura of absolute victimhood in which Palestinian Arabs are almost invariably bathed in the French media.

In order to appreciate just how deceptive the sense of immediacy relayed by these images can be, one need only consider the role played by France 2 in the creation of what has become the iconic representation of Palestinian victimhood: the image of 12-year-old Mohammad Al-Dura pinned against a wall and cowering behind his father’s body while allegedly caught in fire from an Israeli army post at Netzarim Junction in the Gaza strip. On September 30, 2000, at the very outset of the Second Intifada, France 2 broadcast footage of the seeming ordeal of Mohammad and his father, ending, after a mysterious cut, with the boy apparently lying dead on the ground. It was France 2 correspondent Charles Enderlin who identified the supposedly fatal fire as coming from the Israeli Army post. Indeed, Enderlin described the boy and his father as the “targets” of Israeli fire, thus seeming to imply that the killing of the boy was intentional. He would later explain the mysterious cut in the footage by claiming that the scene of the boy’s death throes was too heartrending to broadcast.

From the start, simple considerations of geometry contradicted France 2’s attribution of the gunfire to the Israeli Army. Some investigators went so far as to suggest that the entire episode had been staged. More recently, new evidence has come to light that clearly supports such allegations. Following years of stonewalling, in October 2004 France 2 agreed to allow three well-known French journalists — Luc Rosenzweig, Denis Jeambar, and Daniel Leconte — to view the unedited rushes filmed by the France 2 cameraman at Netzarim Junction. All three concur that the 27-minute reel consists almost entirely of obvious “play-acting” [mise-en-scene]. Jeambar and Leconte have politely allowed that the roughly three minutes depicting the Al-Dura episode “might,” nonetheless, be authentic. All three journalists likewise concur that, contrary to the claims of Charles Enderlin, the rushes contain no footage of Mohammad Al-Dura’s death throes. Confronted by the revelations of his colleagues, Enderlin has averred that even if his original report should turn out to have been false, “for me, the image corresponded to the reality of the situation not only in Gaza but also in the West Bank.”14

The effects of such would-be representative and symbolically charged images of the Middle East conflict upon French and, more generally, European public opinion are well enough known. But the Khosrokhavar interviews clearly reveal the incitement they represent — incitement, namely, to jihad — for those in Europe or, for that matter, around the world who are psychologically predisposed to identify most intimately with Palestinian grievances. “When I see that,” Moussa says, “I want to fight against them.” In this connection too, Ousman’s testimonial is perhaps the most revealing, for by comparison to the other inmates Ousman appears to be well-informed about Israel and the history of the Middle East conflict. It is worth underscoring — as his above-cited allusion to the German ss and the Jews makes clear — that he acknowledges the persecution to which European Jews were subjected under the Third Reich. Perhaps on account of this recognition, or perhaps by virtue of simple political realism, Ousman — in what amounts to a stunning admission for a self-professed Islamist — is prepared to accept the existence of Israel. Nonetheless, he says his rational assessment of the need to accept Israel is sometimes submerged in an irrational urge to see it “destroyed” (142):

I know that Israel is there and is there to stay. . . . Some days, I say to myself: that is just the way it is and there is no use banging one’s head against the wall. But other days, when I hear the news about the death of young Palestinians killed by Israeli bombs or missiles, when I see the Israeli tanks on the tv that fire on youngsters who do not have one-one hundredth of their weaponry, then I say that it’s a calamity for Muslims and that it [Israel] has to be destroyed.

“I watch the tv every day,” he notes, “and it hurts me a lot. . . . One watches it all on the tv when they mistreat the young Palestinians and no one does anything” (150–51).

In response to the very next question — about 9/11 — Ousman warns that one has to treat “with caution” the information provided in the media. But this warning evidently does not apply to French coverage of the Middle East conflict. The images of supposed Israeli mistreatment of Palestinians are taken by Ousman and his fellow inmates as bearing a constant meaning that is fully independent of the specific context of the events being depicted. Revealingly, Ousman associates these images with, as he puts it, “all injustice”: “the sexual exploitation of children, the Americans who exploit Asia with their dollars, a girl who is prevented from wearing the veil” (151). “All of that,” he concludes, “drives me wild with rage” (152). Palestinian suffering is thus elevated to a sort of summum of all unjust suffering, by which it follows that to redeem Palestinian suffering would be to redeem the injustice of the world. The religious structure of such thinking is obvious. The images are indeed “iconic” in more than just a metaphorical sense. But it is equally obvious that there is nothing specifically Islamic about such religious thinking and that it is also in evidence in the apotheosis of the Palestinian cause by a large part of the European and global left.

 

Fighting the malevolent force

Whereas such images in the media clearly provide the vehicle for the French Islamists’ transference of their hate, they do not in themselves explain how America comes to be associated in their worldview with the “evil” or injustice that the images represent. Needless to say, this association is likewise taken for granted by the virtual entirety of the European left and is largely assumed in European public discourse more generally. In light of actual American support for Israel — support that has been set in relief over the past several years by the positioning of the eu as the principal external sponsor of the Palestinian Authority and diplomatic champion of Palestinian interests — this association might appear to be rational; and for those inclined to make it, undoubtedly it does.

If one considers the inmates’ testimonials in their entirety, however, it is clear that the sources of the association are anything but rational. For in the discourse of the Islamist inmates — just as in the ambient discourse of contemporary European anti-Americanism — the U.S. is quite simply held to be responsible for every possible evil, real or imagined. Or, more precisely, in the discourse of the French Islamists, the U.S. is held to be responsible for every possible “evil” of which they do not themselves have direct personal experience. As we have seen, it is rather France that they hold accountable for perceived injustices that they have lived. With respect to matters, however, of which they have no experience and limited knowledge, the ambient anti-Americanism rushes to fill the void. Several of the inmates who do not share Mohammad’s experience in the Bosnian war even manage somehow to blame America for the persecution of Bosnian Muslims!

It is indeed remarkable how little of a concrete character the Islamist inmates can cite to explain their hostility to the United States. Ousman’s bizarre remark about “the Americans who exploit Asia with their dollars” is symptomatic in this regard. Significantly, virtually the only somewhat more concrete charge against the U.S. that the French Islamists can muster concerns the effects on Iraq’s civilian population of the Iraqi trade embargo voted by the un Security Council in 1990. The subject was a pet theme of French diplomacy during the 1990s, and the establishment of the now infamous un “Oil for Food” program in 1996 — ostensibly designed to ease the effects of the embargo — was largely the product of French lobbying efforts.

The French Islamists’ conception of the U.S. as a kind of omnipresent and malevolent force, obscurely but all the more certainly implicated in the most various “evils” of a fundamentally unjust world, is clearly theological in nature. Testifying in his own defense in April and quickly finding himself at a loss to provide examples of the alleged American wrongdoing that he had come to the U.S. to combat, Zacarias Moussaoui managed to reduce this theology to its purest essence. “[I]t is a bit like explaining one plus one equal  [sic] two,” he said during questioning by one of his court-appointed attorneys. “It is so simple. Every child in Palestine is being killed because of you. What happened in Bosnia is because of you. You run the show.”15 But it is equally clear that this anti-American theology is not particular to the Islamist movement and has nothing whatsoever to do with traditional Islam — in whose sacred texts, needless to say, neither good nor evil Americans figure prominently. It is the same theology that accounts for much of the fervor of the so-called anti-globalization movement, as well as for that of the radical “Europeist” currents militating for an eu that will serve as a “counterforce” to constrain — or, in the openly messianic variant, even subdue — American power. Whether the counterforce is supposed to be Islam or socialism or Europe does not alter the basically Manichean structure of such thinking, nor the role assigned in it to America as the malevolent force in the world.

The French Islamist inmates are evidently well aware that their ideas about the malevolence of American power, like their ideas about the exemplarity of Israeli “oppression,” place them well within the French intellectual mainstream.16 Thus “Karim,” for example, in admitting to having given lodging to Jihadists, remarks nonchalantly: “If they engaged in jihad, they had their reasons. When they revolted against the Americans, they weren’t the only ones. A large part of the French are also against American policy with respect to the Palestinians and others” (93). This recognition on their part suggests, finally, an intriguing question about the psychological dynamics propelling French Muslims into jihad. Prima facie, entry into jihad would seem to represent their ultimate rupture with French society. But as we have seen, despite the bluster with which the Islamists and fellow travelers interviewed by Khosrokhavar claim to reject “being French,” their discourse in fact exhibits significant traces of ambivalence toward France. Khosrokhavar goes so far as to suggest that for some France remains an unobtainable “object of desire” (357). Could not, then, the entry of French Islamists into jihad — not against France, but against precisely America — be rather a last desperate attempt to prove their worthiness of the affections and respect of French society: to prove, in effect, that they, the Islamists, are the better Frenchmen?

In any case, the “Islamism” of the inmates, like that of their comrade-in-arms Zacarias Moussaoui, is clearly a product not of the “Muslim world”  alone, but rather of a certain encounter between Islamic traditions and modern European culture and society. When one considers that many of the leading intellectual figures in the history of the Islamist movement lived for extensive periods in Europe and did advanced studies in European universities, there is reason to believe that this mixed heritage is also characteristic of Islamist ideology more generally. The Iranian Ali Shariati, for instance, studied in Paris; the Sudanese Hassan Al-Turabi holds degrees from both the University of London and the Sorbonne; the Egyptian Said Ramadan — father of Tariq and son-in-law of Hassan Al-Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood — wrote a thesis on Islamic Law at the University of Cologne before settling in Geneva. Of course, the better-known European cursus of Mohammad Atta, Ramzi Binalshibh, and the other members of the “Hamburg Cell” who planned the 9/11 attacks shows that some of the key operatives of Islamic terror have followed a similar itinerary.17

As the testimonials collected in the Khosrokhavar volume make clear, the encounter with Europe has often been a traumatic experience for Arabs and Muslims more generally. In a sense, the United States has not had much to do with the episodes that have made it such: neither with the history of European colonialism in northern Africa and the Middle East nor with the tensions and discontents that have accompanied Muslim immigration to Europe in the aftermath of decolonization. Indeed, in some contexts — for instance, the Suez Canal crisis — America even served as a brake upon the neocolonial ambitions that certain European powers continued to nourish vis-à-vis Arab countries in the aftermath of World War ii.

But it is perhaps precisely America’s exteriority to the relationship of Europe and the “Muslim world” that accounts for the ease with which a metaphysical anti-Americanism of distinctly European provenance could be grafted onto the discourse of contemporary Islamism. If, as Zacarias Moussaoui puts it, America “runs the show,” then everything of which one disapproves in the “show” is, in the final analysis, America’s fault. This simple postulate converts the United States into the universal scapegoat. The Khosrokhavar interviews amply illustrate how the specter of U.S. power permits resentments that have their sources in France and French policy to be “safely” channeled toward an external “enemy.” Another example of the capacity of the anti-American postulate to dissipate — or indeed, in this case, fully to volatilize — the sources of tension in Europe’s relationship both to traditionally Muslim countries and to its own Muslim population comes from none other than Osama Bin Laden. Thus, in his “Letter to America,” Bin Laden, in a remarkable feat of legerdemain, accuses the United States — not France — of being responsible for the 1992 Algerian coup and the repression that followed:

When the Islamic party in Algeria wanted to practice democracy and they won the election, you unleashed your agents in the Algerian army onto them, and to attack them with tanks and guns, to imprison them and torture them — a new lesson from the “American book of democracy!!!”18

The contrast with the testimonials of Bin Laden’s own Algerian followers, as recorded by Khosrokhavar, is striking.

The integration of a metaphysical anti-Americanism with the rigorist canon of the Islamists represents a particular danger because it creates the prospect of a sort of “reconciliation” of Europe and Islamic extremism: in shared hostility to America. Such a prospect may be only an illusion. Nonetheless, the eagerness of some political currents in Europe to seek “dialogue” with precisely the world’s most reactionary Islamic forces — from Hamas to Hezbollah to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad — bears unmistakable witness to the power of attraction it exerts. This being the case, it is clear that the solution to America’s much-trumpeted “image problem in the Muslim world” is not be found in the “Muslim world” alone.

1 Farhad Khosrokhavar, Quand Al-Qäida parle: Témoignages derrière les barreaux (Grasset, 2006), 136–137. All translations from the French are the author’s.

2Trial Transcript, United States of America v. Zacarias Moussaoui (February 14, 2006).

3Trial Transcript, United States of America v. Zacarias Moussaoui (April 13, 2006).

4Khosrokhavar presents the four supplementary interviews under the heading “French Islamists.” This heading is, however, doubly misleading. On the one hand, although they all express approval for jihad, the relationship to Islam of three of the four inmates in question is more or less casual or even superficial. Only the convert practices a rigorist form of Islam, and only he clearly merits the designation “Islamist.” On the other hand, and more important for our purposes, several of the other ten “al Qaeda” interviewees also have French citizenship, and some appear to have been born in France. They too, then, are French Islamists. Moreover, for the reasons just outlined in the main text, even if they have not acquired citizenship, still other of the suspected al Qaeda could also be reasonably described as such.

5Thus Qaradawi: “Allah willing, Islam will return to Europe and the Europeans will convert to Islam. They will then be in a position to propagate Islam throughout the world, in a better position than us, the old Muslims.” Al Jazeera (November 30, 2000). Cited from Paul Landau, Le Sabre et le Coran: Tariq Ramadan et les Frères musulmans à la conquête de l’Europe (Éditions du Rocher, 2005), 205. For other citations from Qaradawi and Ramadan in the same vein, see chapter 12 of Landau’s study.

6See, for instance, “Les djihadistes de banlieues s’apprêtaient à partir en Irak, Le Figaro (September 20, 2005), and “L’isolement de Peter Cherif,” Le Monde (February 14, 2006).

7Much of the established media, following the lead of Moussaoui’s court-appointed attorneys — and in perfect harmony with Osama Bin Laden — has attempted to minimize Moussaoui’s role in the 9/11 plot. It has been suggested, in particular, that Moussaoui lied when he claimed under oath that he had been assigned to fly a plane into the White House on 9/11: a lie that is supposed to have been an expression of his desire to die a martyr’s death in the electric chair. But during his testimony, Moussaoui made clear that he considered himself to be testifying under an Islamic oath and that while it would be permissible to lie in order to further the cause of jihad — i.e., to gain a tactical advantage — it would not be permissible to lie under such circumstances merely for vanity’s sake. See Trial Transcript, United States of America v. Zacarias Moussaoui (April 13, 2006). Furthermore, from the beginning of court proceedings in 2002, Moussaoui left no doubt that he considered that he can still be of use to the jihad by staying alive and that he was committed, in his own words, to “saving his life.”

8Hearing Transcript, United States of America v. Zacarias Moussaoui (April 22, 2002).

9Abd Samad Moussaoui and Florence Bouquillat, Zacarias Moussaoui, mon frère (Éditions Denoël, 2002), 76, 94.

10 In a helpful glossary of Arabic terms that is appended to his volume, Khosrokhavar explains that this term is often applied to Shiites.

11Khosrokhavar’s own commentary on his interview with Ahsen suggests much the same conclusion. Thus, he notes that in Islamic tradition “each believer did not consider himself to be the direct interpreter of the Quranic text,” and he warns against “the dangers of radicalization tied to a literal interpretation of the text that is not placed within a corpus where the common sense or wisdom of generations would have provided moderating influences” (82).

12Hearing Transcript, United States of America v. Zacarias Moussaoui (April 22, 2002).                       .

13The irrational, ideologically driven character of such identification is especially obvious with respect to the Corsican nationalists. Official statistics show incidents of anti-Arab racism to be far more widespread in Corsica than anywhere else in France. Corsican nationalist groups frequently claim responsibility for the incidents, including physical attacks against both persons and property.

14Le Figaro (January 27, 2005). I have made available a dossier of materials on the Al-Dura/France 2 affair, including extensive translations from the relevant French sources, on the Transatlantic Intelligencer website at http: //www.trans-int.com/news/categories/15-Al-DuraFrance2-Affair. See also, Richard Landes’s “The Second Draft” website (http://www.seconddraft.org/), which is largely dedicated to the affair and makes available a large selection of raw footage shot by other film crews at Netzarim Junction on September 30, 2000.

15Trial Transcript, United States of America v. Zacarias Moussaoui (April 13, 2006).                             .

16For a detailed discussion of cognate anti-American phantasms in the French press just before and in the aftermath of 9/11, see my “The Myth of ‘Squandered Sympathy’,” Opinion Journal (October 14, 2004).

17It should be kept in mind in this connection, however, that among the European nations the role played by Germany in the development of Islamic radicalism represents a special case. This is notably so in light of the direct support that Nazi Germany provided to the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist movements in the 1930s and 1940s. See, for instance, Matthias Küntzel, “National Socialism and Anti-Semitism in the Arab World,” Jewish Political Studies Review17: 1–2 (Spring 2005).

18Bin Laden’s “Letter to America,” Observer (November 24, 2002).