Islam, Jihadism and Depolitization in the French Banlieues

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 4 Issue: 18

A growing number of French citizens fear that France faces “a Muslim problem.” The global ravages of Denmark’s cartoon jihad, triggered by offensive cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad as a terrorist and lecher, coupled with the recent alleged plot to blow up U.S.-bound airliners have made more people fear not only Europe’s homegrown radicals but Islam itself, a religion increasingly seen as posing a direct threat to Western liberal democracy. In France, fear of Islam and its extremist elements is not a new phenomenon. The 1995 bombings in the Paris metro alarmed the French to the threat of Islamist extremism [1]. The French authorities’ subsequent sweeps revealed the nexus between drugs, crime and radical Islamism and the discrete patterns of terror networks like the “gang of Roubaix,” a collection of militants of Algerian descent led by Christopher Caze, a 25-year-old convert who had traveled to Bosnia to work as a hospital medic only to return as a dangerous jihadist. The dreadful events of September 11 heightened this fear of radical Islam. The main culprits are, of course, the Muslim youth of the suburbs, suspected of sympathizing with jihadis.

The feeling that France is under siege has been propelled by a wave of xenophobia and populism already spreading across the European continent. The series of terrorist attacks on the Madrid rail system and London’s underground and bus system, compounded by France’s restive Muslim enclaves, have invoked troubling questions about the roles of race, Islam and ethnicity, and highlighted the challenges to European states’ integrationist models. In the French context, ethnicity, culture and Islam tend to be conflated and are portrayed as the main causes of social and economic marginality. The youth of the suburbs are usually “equated with thieves” and labeled as “veilers” (Le Monde, November 7, 2005). This “symbolic ghettoization” of poorer neighborhoods known as cités or quartiers difficiles in the political discourse and the media has hyped the threat of illusory concepts like communitarization or communalism of ethnic ghettos living parallel lives to French uniqueness and the ideology of the republic; in reality, French Muslims are far more depolicitized and individualistic.

Yet the 2005 November riots in France were neither an Arab intifada against French republican ideals nor Muslim jihad against Europe. In fact, neither Islam nor Islamism—with its three different types (jihadi, missionary and political)—instigated the riots. There were no Palestinian or other Islamic green flags, nor were there any anti-Semitic arson attacks against Jewish synagogues, schools, or cemeteries. Arafat-style keffiyehs were noticeably absent as well as the usual suspects: the bearded provocateurs [2]. There were no shouts of “Allahu akbar!” erupting from the rioters. Most importantly, the riots did not spread outside the suburbs nor did they extend to the universities where students feel the same grievances and resentments against the system [3]. The spontaneity of the riots and lack of radical religious leaders contrasts with the theories of self-segregating Islamic communities fueled by Islamic radicalism and other simple cultural arguments that abound in media commentaries and popular discourse.

Interestingly enough, neither the politically-minded Islamist organizations, like the Union of Islamic Organizations of France (UOIF), nor missionary Islamists, like the Tabligh or the Salafis, managed to calm the rage of male youth rioters, aged between 12 and 25 years old [4]. Shortly after the outbreak of the spontaneous riots, the leaders of UOIF rushed to defuse the crisis hoping to prove their influence over second generation migrants and hence score points with the authorities and the public at large. They failed to accomplish either objective. Appeals for calm in the mosques on November 4 fell on deaf ears as did the “Anti-Riot Fatwa” issued on November 6 by UOIF. The failure of one of France’s largest Islamic groups to lower tensions and break the chain of violent events speaks volumes about the disconnect of political Islamist movements with the social base they claim to represent. The UOIF lost the deprived French banlieues because of the leadership’s failure to develop a discourse attuned to the realities of the Muslim enclaves. French-born Muslims denounced the structural weakness of the UOIF and their deliberate marginalization from decision making and leadership positions within the movement. The UOIF structure suffers from an over concentration of power in the hands of foreign-born leaders, such as the case of the 47-year-old Tunisian, Mohammed Ateb, who is at the same time a representative of the UOIF in Bourgogne region, imam of the Dijon Mosque, president of the regional administration council of CRCM and editor-in-chief of a magazine [5]. The resignation in June 2005 of Farid Abdelkrim, the only member in the administration council born in France, is a direct result of this growing disenchantment with the leadership’s political orientation (Le Monde, December 13, 2002).

The UOIF and other political Islamist organizations thought that by taking advantage of existing possibilities to participate in a political system usually fraught with politically motivated resistance that they would maximize their influence with the authorities and attenuate fears of politically minded religious groups. Yet the groups’ calculus, as well as those of the authorities who co-opted them, backfired. The UOIF’s image was severely tarnished in the suburbs because of the perception that the group was co-opted by the authorities at their own expense. The UOIF’s low-profile critical posture vis-à-vis the French law banning the hijab in state schools in 2004 and the Danish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammed in 2006 has given the impression that the organization’s leadership has succumbed to the French authorities. This loss of faith in political Islamists, exacerbated by political under-representation and the disengagement of French Muslims from the institutional space, has created a dangerous void and an organizational vacuum similar to that of the 1980s when several movements of Muslims strove to provide social organizations for Muslim deprived neighborhoods.

The vacuum created by the failure of political Islamism and the decline of the associative network of the movement of young Muslims in French suburbs paved the way for the emergence of increasingly disturbing phenomena like the random violence of the November 2005 riots and the radicalization of a segment of indignant Islamic youths, angry at their social and economic exclusion and outraged over the bloodshed in Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine. While it is true that there is little evidence of widespread religious radicalism, there are signs that Salafi groups that focus on a punctilious adherence to morals and to the strict dictates of dogma and preach an irrevocable break with family, local authorities and society are on the ascendance.

Abdel-Hâdî Dûdî, the imam of the al-Sunna al-Kebira Mosque in Marseille, is the icon of the Salafi movement in France. A graduate of al-Azhar University in Egypt and a former mentor of Ali Benhadj, a former high school teacher known for his militant views of the role of political Islam, Abdel-Hâdî Dûdî belonged to the Algerian Salafi movement that helped create the Front Islamique du Salut (FIS) in 1989. Condemned to death by the Algerian regime for his involvement in Mustafa Bouyali’s Armed Islamic Movement (MIA), he took refuge in France with the tacit approval of the Algerian authorities. It is Abdel-Hâdî Dûdî’s teachings that birthed and fermented the Salafi movement in Marseille [6]. His influence spread rapidly with the endorsement he received from Rabî’al-Madkhalî, the foremost authority in Shaykhiste Salafism in France [7]. According to the International Crisis Group, the conversion of Abdel-Hâdî Dûdî from radical political Salafi into apolitical Shaykhiste Salafi is in line with the transformation that the Salafi movement underwent in the second part of the 1990s. The first return of French students from Saudi Arabia in 1995 contributed to the development of a quietist Salafism strongly influenced by Saudi theologians, namely those that belonged to the madkhaliste current, named after Rabî’al-Madkhalî [8]. The arrival of Saudi preachers on French soil at the end of the 1990s strengthened this movement (Le Monde, February 22, 2005).

The rise of the ultra-strict but quietist Salafi Islamism has laid the groundwork for a re-Islamization that delinks Islam from ethnic cultures and disconnects the religious from the political in a way that reflects individualist concerns. The movement’s success can be attributed not only to the failures of political Islam in Algeria and France, but also to the emergence of a modern trend of the culture of the self in the suburbs whereby cynical, disempowered and alienated young French Muslims opt out of politics to become social, political and moral isolationists, paralyzed by their disdain for society. Rather than organizing the Muslim community into a model of citizenship consecrated to fighting social exclusion and Islamophobia and strengthening Muslim social cohesion, Salafism activates the depoliticization of the religious.

Salafists, as French scholar Olivier Roy correctly pointed out, play on the deculturation and individualization of youth, and provide a substitute cultural paradigm and a new Islamist tradition that is similar to the model of the “born again” in that it does not promote a return to traditional Islamic customs but a (re)Islamization of individuals within a de-territorialized ummah disconnected from traditional cultures and societies. Unlike political Islamists who aspire to create a model of integration through citizenship, contemporary Salafis advocate the creation of a new and purely Islamic religiosity that focuses on salvation, moral values and self-realization while maintaining a general aloof attitude toward the social and political issues that triggered the riots in France.

Yet since neither pietistic movements like Salafis or Tabligh nor politically minded Islamist groups like UOIF are capable of or interested in organizing a Muslim youth underclass, the banlieues have slid into a dangerous confusion and organizational vacuum where political and social demands have been increasingly expressed through rioting and, to a lesser extent, through jihadism. Jihadism in France is increasingly a product of the diaspora, a marked shift from the past when violent Islamism was strictly linked to foreign Islamic militants who internationalized and externalized their long-running disputes with their authoritarian governments into France with a wave of terrorist bombings. Since the mid-1990s, a high percentage of French jihadists were born in France, detached from any given culture and stimulated by a “de-territorialized” Islam that promises the uprooted Islamic diaspora a transnational Islamic identity forged in anti-imperialist discourse. This global jihad obsesses no longer about the creation of particular Muslim states but at a mythical final battle between the ummah and the forces of Western evil. “The issue for jihadis,” as the ICG noted, “is not Western licentiousness but Western imperialism” [9].

Rioting and Salafi-Jihadism result from serious problems of political representation in contemporary France rather than from a religious radicalization of the new Muslim generations. Undoubtedly, the discovery and disruption of terrorist networks in France reveals an unsettling picture about the scope of France’s homegrown radicals. Yet the point of connection between al-Qaeda and the destitute banlieues of France no longer comes via Algeria nor does it come from the “communitarization” of the banlieues. Instead, it comes from France, where a small proportion of disenfranchised French born Muslims embrace transnational jihadism in the name of a holy war against global imperialist aggression.


1. The attacks carried out between July and November 1995 killed eight and injured around 150.

2. Olivier Roy, “The Nature of the French Riots,” Social Science Research Council, November 18, 2005.

3. Ibid.

4. The UOIF was founded in 1983 by Tunisian intellectuals, namely Abdallah Benmansour and Ahmed Jaballah, to serve as the French branch of the Islamic Tendency Movement, which would later became known as Ennahda of Rachid Ghannouchi. The UOIF leadership would assume another direction under the leadership of the more moderate Moroccan Fouad Alaoui and Lhaj Thami Breze.

5. Samir Amghar, “L’Union des organisations islamiques de France: la gestion politique de l’islam,” Maghreb-Machrek, n. 182, 2005.

6. “La France face à ses musulmans: Émeutes, jihadisme et dépolitisation,” International Crisis Group European Report, n. 172, March 9, 2006.

7. Shaykhiste Salafism stands for an apolitical and non-violent version of Islam that draws heavily from the fatwas of Saudi theologians. Like Salafiyya ‘ilmiyya, it is fundamentalist in its doctrinal outlook, eschews politics and is primarily concerned with the preservation of the Islamic faith and moral order in society.

8. It was quietest because it was heavily influenced by the teachings of Sheikh Rabî’al-Madkhalî and two of his contemporaries—Ahmed Ramdanî al-Jaza’ irî and Sâlih al-Fawzen. All three condemn political Islam as a perversion of religion and preach an apolitical, puritanical and backward-looking wave of new fundamentalism. See also International Crisis Group European Report, March 9, 2006.

9. International Crisis Group European Report, March 9, 2006.