The French National Headache

| First published 9th September 2018 in Le Figaro

The Alarming Propagation of Islamist Ideology

As the Institut Montaigne publishes its report entitled The Fabric of Islamism, the fire-power and audience-size of the Internet and social networks are providing major tools for proselytism.

In these times when ideals and political parties are in crisis, one ideology in particular has enjoyed, in France, a nine-fold increase in its number of adherents. In the 1990s, the internal intelligence services [Renseignements généraux, RG] recorded a few hundred “Salafists”, characterised by their peculiar dress and islamist preaching : Algerians straight out of the années noires [Algerian civil war, 1988-2000], or Tablighis [members of the Sunni missionary movement] anxiously seeking “re-islamisation”. In 2004, again according to the RG, the number of adherents had reached 5,000 across the country. By 2015, a former Interior Ministry official was talking about “15,000 to 20,000”. And, according to the most recent estimate, Salafism now brings together between 30,000 and 50,000 people.

This evolution is visible in a number of districts in France, from the Paris region to Roubaix and Marseille, where the Salafists are tightening their control on commerce and social activities : but also in the small towns and the countryside. Still, this number is very likely an underestimate because based essentially on the frequentation of places of worship, themselves growing in number and duly identified by specialist agencies. Also, the estimate includes only Salafist “militants”, and not the mere sympathisers or spellbound acolytes.

Portrait of beautiful Arabic Muslim girl using tablet

Whereas the specialists distinguish three categories of Salafist — quietist (professing their pacifism and apolitical nature), protester (more political), and jihadist (violent) — the intelligence services have a much more nuanced approach, recalling that the events of the past three decades have demonstrated the existence of mobility between the three groups. One thing is certain : in France during the present decade, the Salafist ideology — although remaining the province of a very small minority amongst French Muslims — is clearly drawing more and more adherents. France may even be seeing a more advanced form of the phenomenon than that experienced by the United Kingdom or Germany, where there is equal concern. Yet Salafism is only the tip of the iceberg at a time when the Islamist persuasion is gaining ground.

Today, some individuals, especially Saudis, who profess to prescribe the rules to be followed by good Muslims, (read, good Islamists), count as many followers as do politicians or rock-stars.

One of the keys to this pull is the successful transition of the Islamists from the world of experience to cyberspace, as described by the Institut Montaigne very precisely in its report, The Fabric of Islamism. Announcing their break with the Republic and the “defects” of French society, the Islamists have taken to the Internet and social media. They have done so on two levels : first of all in the purely Islamic sphere, by monopolising the narrative and marginalising more moderate or less religious voices. But also by prevailing in the ferocious competition on Facebook and Twitter. Today, some individuals, especially Saudis, who profess to prescribe the rules to be followed by good Muslims, (read, good Islamists), count as many followers as do politicians or rock-stars.

The conspicuous presence of Saudis in the honours-list of Islamist Internet-stars, is no surprise. Well before globalisation kicked off in the 1960s and 70s — a process that has channelled Islamist influence into the housing developments around Paris and Marseille — Islamism was born beyond our borders : in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey. By promoting an all-embracing political ideology, like Communism in its day, it simultaneously imposes on its adherents an interpretation of the world, a social organisation, and a singular relationship to power. In this way, each individual sees himself as integrated into the totalitarian project — relations between men and women, rules of halal, Islamic finance, etc. — aimed at codifying his complete existence.

The two “Big Brothers” of Islamism are the Muslim Brotherhood — founded in Egypt, then active in other countries of the Arab world — and, in Saudi Arabia, Wahhabism.

With their rivalries and clashes, hushed or violent, the two “Big Brothers” of Islamism are the Muslim Brotherhood — founded in Egypt, then active in other countries of the Arab world — and, in Saudi Arabia, Wahhabism. The former, or its more or less clandestine disciples, later created organisations in Europe, such as the Union des organisations islamiques de France (UOIF), the Muslim Council of Britain, and the Islamische Gemeinschaft Deutschland, without forgetting the Fédération des organisations islamiques en Europe (FOIE), which brings together the national federations of nearly thirty European countries, including Turkey and Russia.

Saudi Arabia’s state-Islamism has, for its own part, relied upon various international organisations : for diplomacy, the World Islamic League; for the training of imams, preachers and missionaries, the Islamic University of Medina; for young people, the World Assembly of Muslim Youth; and for charity work, the International Islamic Relief Organisation. The strategy of the Saudi state is first of all to target South East Asia and Africa, which contain some very populous Muslim countries, but also the “weak links” of Europe, such as the Balkans and Belgium. Then, the whole of the Occident, by supplying imams and finance.

In this kind of “global Islamism market”, a new protagonist has imposed itself over the last few years. Under the leadership of its president Erdoğan, Turkey now wants to play its part. And she can rely on intermediaries in the Turkish diaspora, which numbers 5 million people in Europe overall, of whom 3 million live in Germany, and 500,000 in France. At the end of August, Emmanuel Macron made some strong and less-than-diplomatic remarks before the ambassadors, referring to the Turkish president’s “pan-Islamic project”, which is generally regarded as anti-European. From the shops of Seine-Saint-Denis to the offices of state, Islamism has become a major societal, sociological, and political issue.