Kenan Malik in Pandaemonium:
What in today’s France, asks the French writer and film maker Karim Miské, ‘unites the pious Algerian retired worker, the atheist French-Mauritanian director that I am, the Fulani Sufi bank employee from Mantes-la-Jolie, the social worker from Burgundy who has converted to Islam, and the agnostic male nurse who has never set foot in his grandparents’ home in Oujda? What brings us together if not the fact that we live within a society which thinks of us as Muslims?’
‘We are’, Miské observes, ‘reminded every day – during conversations around the coffee machine, in news reports and in magazines – that we share a part of responsibility for such phenomena as the wearing of the burqa and praying in the street… Further, it is potentially our fault if the republican pact is undermined, and if the identity of France is in danger; and, incidentally, if little Afghan girls don’t go to school or if building churches in Saudi Arabia is banned.’
In his 1945 essay Anti-Semite and Jew, Jean Paul Sartre suggested that the authentic Jew was created by the anti-Semite. Miské makes the same point about the authentic Muslim: that it is the way that the outside society treats those of North African origin that creates the idea of the authentic Muslim, and indeed of the Muslim community itself.
But while many in France look upon its citizens of North African origins not as French but as ‘Arab’ or as ‘Muslim’, many in the second generation within North African communities are often as estranged from their parents’ cultures and mores, and from mainstream Islam, as they are from wider French society. The consequence has been to create a more parochial sense of identity and a more tribal vision of Islam. And for a small group of Muslims, tribalism has led them to find their identity and an authentic Islam in Islamism.
Consider, for instance, the Kouachi brothers, responsible for the slaughter at the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris. They were raised in Gennevilliers, a northern suburb of Paris, home to around 10,000 people of North African origin. The Kouachi brothers were not particularly religious, only rarely attended mosque, but were driven by a sense of social estrangement. They were, as Mohammed Benali president of the local mosque, put it, of a ‘generation that felt excluded and humiliated. They spoke and felt French, but were regarded as Arabic.’
Caught between a society that sees them only as Muslim, and their own alienation from mainstream Islamic organizations, some get drawn to Islamism. We can see the same story in the trajectory of other recent jihadis, from Mohammed Siddique Khan, leader of the 7/7 bombings in London, to Kreshnik Berisha, a German born of Kosovan parents, who went to fight with Islamic State, eventually returned home and become the first German homegrown jihadi to face trial.
What creates such wannabe jihadis is, to begin with at least, neither politics nor religion. It is a search for something a lot less definable: for identity, for meaning, for belongingness, for respect. Insofar as they are alienated, it is not because wannabe jihadis are poorly integrated, in the conventional way we think of integration. Theirs is a much more existential form of alienation.