The Radicalization of Islam, or the Islamization of Radicalism?
You asked good questions about the report I mentioned, titled “A French Islam is Possible.” I need a break from 24/7 election coverage, and I reckon all of you do, too, so today I’ll translate more of it and (I hope) answer your questions.
Methodology. A few of you wanted to know more about the study’s methodology, and particularly whether the researchers had excluded those under the age of majority, potentially skewing the results. Answer: no.
Here’s the key graph about their methodology — I’m translating a bit loosely because the original text has footnotes in it; I’ve moved them to the body of the text:
This survey is unusual because our aim was to study France’s total Muslim population, not just Muslim immigrants. The general census conducted by [France’s national research body] INSEE cannot ask questions about religion, and traditionally [private] pollsters, when they interview Muslims in France, focus on immigrant neighborhoods. We’ve developed a methodology that aims to survey a broad cross-section of the population of metropolitan France: 15,459 people aged 15 and over responded [the interviews were conducted by telephone]; of these, a specific sample of Muslims, or of Muslim culture, was represented by 1,029 individuals, of whom 874 who defined themselves as “Muslims.” We cross-checked the representativeness of the sample by matching it with known data about gender, socioeconomic status, and such geographic information as administrative region, urban unit size, and the proportion of immigrants in the community. We adhered to standard scientific and ethical principles of polling by sample, and encountered some of the same challenges: The average margin of error for a poll of a sample of 1,000 people is about 3 percent; when analyzing a subgroup within the same sample, the margin increases increases significantly and may be between 6 and 8 percent. The results reflect the state of opinion at the time the study was done, not a prediction.
… There are, obviously, other polling methods, which could lead to different results. However, this methodology seemed to us the best choice for producing reliable results. In the interests of transparency, we’ve published all the technical procedures we used at each step, thus allowing users of different statistics software to verify and replicate our results.
So my guess is that this will probably stand up pretty well to efforts to replicate the results, but of course we’ll only know that once other people have done that. The authors note that their survey is distinctive,
because it includes both the population that describes itself as “Muslim” and those who don’t, but who have at least one parent who does. The latter group constituted 15 percent of our sub-sample. These people have direct Muslim ancestry, but position themselves, subjectively, outside of the religion.
They note that 7.5 percent of the sub-sample (from here on, all figures refer to the sub-sample) have no Muslim parentage at all. These represent converts.
Of their sample, 50 percent were French by birth, 24 percent were naturalized citizens, and 26 percent were foreign nationals.
The reason they asked about parentage was, they say, because “the typology allows us to determine latent dimensions of religiosity.” Of course, they note, this is only one of many possible typologies. The authors thus suggest not attaching too much “absolute weight” to the classification, but rather just seeing in the results the broad structure of opinions and attitudes. Broadly, they suggest, there are six categories of attitude within the sub-sample (here’s that French way of thinking again — once you know the pattern, you see it everywhere):
18 percent: Individuals who are very estranged from the religion. They favor French-style secularism, have no desire for greater religious expression in their daily lives, be it at work or school, don’t want to have halal food in their cafeterias, and agree with the statement that French secularism allows the free practice of religion.
28 percent: Individuals who share the same values. They agree that polygamy should be strictly forbidden and that the laws of the Republic are above religious law. This group is distinguished by a strong commitment to eating halal food. Some of its members have a favorable view of expressing religious sentiment in the workplace. [NB: Expressing religious sentiment in the workplace is now forbidden under French law — people can wear a small, inconspicuous cross, but not a nun’s habit, a kippah, a turban, or a veil. Since the law went into effect, it seems to me I’ve seen more people wearing a small, inconspicuous cross, but it’s possible I just didn’t notice it before.]
13 percent: These are individuals who are more ambivalent. They are opposed to the niqab and polygamy, but they challenge the idea that French-style secularism allows the free practice of religion. Without being radical, they are critical of the Republican model, or at least, some of the ways it has been applied. A large minority of members of this group would like to express their religious sentiments in the workplace.
12 percent: This group distinguishes itself from the previous one by largely accepting French-style secularism. However, they’re massively critical of the interdiction of polygamy in France, even as they absolutely condemn the niqab (which is rejected by 95 percent of the members of this group). This category includes many Muslim foreigners who live in France.
13 percent: This category is comprised of individuals with authoritarian traits. Some 40 percent in this category favor the wearing of the niqab and polygamy, challenge French secularism, and believe religious law should take priority over the laws of the Republic. The vast majority of this group do not believe religion belongs to the private sphere, and thus are in the main in favor of the expression of religious sentiment in the workplace
15 percent: This group is different from the previous one because, while it’s also comprised of people with a “hard” vision of religious practice, this group sees faith as a private matter, not a public one. Almost all its members approve of the niqab; nearly 50 percent oppose French-style secularism and look favorably upon expressing religious sentiment in the workplace. [In other words, they adhere to a “harder” version of Islam, as the authors term it, but they are not authoritarian.]
These six groups, the authors say, have “three different stories.”
Group 1 (categories 1 and 2, or 46 percent of French Muslims): They are completely secularized, and on the path to achieving integration in the value system of contemporary France and contributing to its evolution with their religious distinctiveness. They don’t deny their religion, which they often identify with halal food, and they clearly practice their religion more regularly than the national average.
Group 2 (Categories 3 and 4): This is more of a composite group, and clearly in the middle of the other two. Proud of being Muslim, those in this group are attached to the possibility of expressing their religion in the public sphere. Very pious (the Sharia is very important to them, so long as it doesn’t conflict with the laws of the Republic), they often look favorably on the expression of religion in the workplace, and have for the most part adopted the norms of halal as the definition of “being Muslim.” They clearly reject the niqab and polygamy, and accept French-style secularism.
Group 3 (categories 5 and 6): This is the most problematic group. In it are Muslims whose value system is clearly opposed to the values of the Republic. The majority of them are young, unskilled, and often unemployed. They live in the densely-populated suburbs around major cities. They’re defined by the way they use Islam to symbolize rebellion through conservatism. If some believe that French secularism allows them freely to practice their religion, or believe faith to be a private matter, one can nonetheless read in their attitude a retreat from, and a separation from, the rest of society’s ideas about the meaning of French-style secularism. [NB: I’m throughout translating laïcité as “French-style secularism.”] Some 28 percent of French Muslims may be placed in this category, which comprises both authoritarian attitudes and ones that we might term “secessionist.” Islam is a way for them to affirm their marginal status in French society.
Now that we’ve put everyone in their proper category, the interesting part starts. First, the effect of age. There are fewer Group 1 members among the younger generation: More than half of the over-age-40 respondents are in Group 1. But only a third of the under-40s are. And the Group 3 members only constitute 20 percent of the over-40s — but they’re nearly 50 percent of the youngest cohort. Group 2 members, by contrast, are more stably distributed among age brackets. To put it simply, younger Muslims are more radical than older ones.
“It’s not possible,” write the authors,
to check, statistically if there’s an age effect, rather than a generationaleffect [my emphasis], but this is the most plausible hypothesis. The mechanism seems to involve an intensification of religious identity among the younger cohorts (compared to their elders when they were the same age). The alternative hypothesis requires us to imagine that over the course of their lives, people of Muslim culture in France become less rigorous in their relationship to religion. Although this hypothesis can’t be rejected a priori, it seems unlikely in light of other published work on the subject.
Next the authors describe the effect of socio-economic status on these categories. In short, the higher it is, the more likely the respondents were to be in Group 1. Group 3 members were apt to be unemployed or working-class.
“Age and class together,” they write, “allow us to predict the likelihood of authoritarian religious attitudes among young Muslims who live in France.” Then they note, with emphasis: This relationship is not specific to young Muslims who live in densely-populated areas. It is also found among young people who define themselves as Christian or without religion. It is expressed by other opinions and behaviors instead of Islamic identitarianism.
So with that sentence, the authors wade into Le Big Debate in France — although notably, they wade into it after looking at the data, not before. And what is that debate? The debate is whether what we’re seeing in France representsthe radicalization of Islam or the Islamization of radicalism.
This post is already very long, and I don’t want to overwhelm you, so I won’t go into all the details of this debate, but in brief: You may recall that a while ago I posted a link to an interview with Gilles Kepel, one of France’s better-known experts on Islam and the Arab world and the author of Terror in the Hexagon: Genesis of the French Jihad.
Kepel believes we are seeing the radicalization of Islam:
In the often-hysterical debate over the origins of ISIL-inspired “bottom-up” terrorism seen in the Nov. 2015 Paris attacks, and echoed by the San Bernardino massacre, a leading French intellectual refuses to let either radical Islam or Western elites off the hook.
Both must share part of the blame, says Gilles Kepel, internationally recognized expert on the Arab world and the politics of Islam in Europe, for laying the fertile ground that has enabled the rise of “3G” or third-generation jihad: born alongside YouTube, and with the decline of second-generation “top-down” satellite TV-driven terror organizations, like al-Qaeda. …
“Behind the jihadist eruption, lies the entrenchment of Salafism … the most radical elements of which, their eyes fixed on Syria and Daesh, are aiming for the destruction of Europe through civil war,” Kepel tells Quartz in an interview from Paris, where he is professor of political science at Sciences Po. …
.. Still, the journey to fighting for the “caliphate” in Syria and Iraq, and subsequently returning to commit terrorist acts of horrifying violence on European soil cannot be simply attributed to an adolescent crisis fueled by cyber recruiters. Scathing though he is about the failure of France’s power elites to create a more inclusive society for the children of post-colonial immigration, and young people of all backgrounds, Kepel refutes the “Islam has nothing to do with this” argument by detailing the calculated and alarming surge in radical Islamic separatism exemplified by Salafism.
This obscurantist strain calling for a return to “original” Islam was exported from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, then launched in France by its neo-purist ideologues with heightened zealotry from 2005. The “new wave” Islamists refusing to shake women’s hands, fetishizing the full-body covering veil, and banning sport and music, seized the opportunity after the conservative Muslim Brotherhood was sidelined for its perceived failure to control the spectacularly violent youth riots around public housing projects across the country.
Having documented the transformation of many banlieues into separate ethnic, religious, consumer and cultural identity spaces created by Salafist radicals, Halal entrepreneurs and colluding politicians, Kepel wades directly into a high-stakes politico-cultural battle by taking aim at this neo-fundamentalist branch of Islam and its detrimental effects on the cohesion of multi-ethnic, multi-cultural French society. …
Now, contrast his views with those of Olivier Roy, another one of France’s better-known experts on Islam and the Arab world and Kepel’s great rival. While of course he recognizes that Islam, as a religion, has something to do with what we’re seeing, he believes, basically, that if these people weren’t embracing Islamic radicalism, they’d be embracing some other kind of radicalization:
The rallying cry of these youth is opportunistic: Today it is the Islamic State; yesterday, they were with al Qaeda; before that, in 1995, they were subcontractors for the Algerian Armed Islamic Group, or they practiced the nomadism of personal jihad, from Bosnia to Afghanistan, by way of Chechnya. Tomorrow they will fight under another banner, so long as combat death, age, or disillusion do not empty their ranks.
There is no third, fourth, or nth generation of jihadis. Since 1996, we have been confronted with a very stable phenomenon: the radicalization of two categories of French youth — second-generation Muslims and native converts. The essential problem for France, therefore, is not the caliphate in the Syrian desert, which will disappear sooner or later, like an old mirage that has become a nightmare. The problem is the revolt of these youth. And the real challenge is to understand what these youth represent: whether they are the vanguard of an approaching war or, on the contrary, are just a rumbling of history.
I haven’t cited enough of their work to really let you see why they take the positions they do, but if it interests you, both have written about this widely and it’s easy to read more.
Their disagreement isn’t just an academic squabble. It really matters — it goes to the heart of the way the West understands Islamist extremism, and has important implications when we ask ourselves what our policy response ought to be. Here’s how The Washington Post characterized the debate:
Roy says that we should stop looking for religious or cultural explanations, given that only a tiny fraction of European Muslims have been drawn to such extremism. He also refutes the idea that racism or discrimination is what radicalized Muslims in European societies. If this were the case, he argues, why do a substantial number of white European converts join groups such as the Islamic State? If these converts were brought up outside the Muslim faith, how can we blame “Muslim culture” for their radicalization?
Instead, Roy argues that these terrorists are engaged in a generational revolt — much as when a handful of angry young Europeans in the 1970s turned to left-wing terrorist groups such as the Red Brigades and the Red Army Faction. According to Roy, today’s nihilists are instead turning to a warped version of Islam as the best way of rebelling against society. They simply use the promise of paradise to justify their actions after being manipulated by extremist organizations. …
… Kepel thinks that the social, economic and political marginalization of French-born Muslims helped create what he calls the “third generation of jihad” — those who emerged between 2005 and 2015. Their marginalization has pushed them toward extreme forms of Islam, including Salafism, a highly conservative version of Islam imported from the Middle East with the help of Saudi Arabian petrodollars. Kepel thinks that one cannot separate violent jihadism from the nonviolent forms of Salafism, and stresses the importance of such religious beliefs in creating the conditions for being drawn to terrorism.
Soon this debate went the way of all academic feuds:
Early this year, Kepel openly mocked Roy’s “Islamization of radicalism” concept in TV and radio interviews. In a March article for the left-leaning newspaper Libération, he accused Roy of being “ignorant of social realities.” Roy responded a few weeks later in the pages of the bestselling magazine L’Obs, claiming that Kepel was waging a war of egos to secure research funding and comparing him to Eugène de Rastignac, an opportunistic money-grubber in Balzac novels.
Of course he did.
Anyway, that’s the debate. And now you know a little more about the survey, its methodology, their data, and what it suggests. So what do you think we should conclude from it so far? Does it support Kepel, or does it favor Roy? Why do you think so?
To be continued …
... and funded entirely by my generous readers. Coming up soon: I’m going to interview some of the people who are really getting their hands dirty with this — French security officials. I’m so curious to learn more about how they view this problem. I’ll bet their perspective is different from the academics. I’ll report, with your help. THANK YOU!