On April 23, the French government unveiled a dozen proposals aiming at limiting the number of French citizens travelling to Syria with the intent of fighting among Islamist radical groups. This text, which encompasses a large series of initiatives to reduce cyber-recruitment from violent “jihadist” movements, had been in the works for several months but became even timelier following the release of four French journalists kidnapped in Syria since June 2013. Part of the information discovered during the journalists’ debriefing was that several of the kidnappers spoke to the hostages in French and were likely French nationals fighting with radical groups in Syria.
The last few months have been marked by a surge of propaganda videos from exiled combatants originally from France or Belgium, posted online to attract new recruits. They showcase heavy military arsenal and the most horrendous crimes. It is estimated that between 500 and 700 of them have now joined the fighting in Syria, more than doubling their number over the last four months.
This phenomenon is not limited to France as every European country is concerned, but the new French Prime Minister, Manuel Valls – who developed the law proposal during his tenure as interior minister – is the first European head of government to implement a comprehensive legal and preventive arsenal against nationals leaving for Syria. This includes travel restrictions for minors out of French territory without parental authorisation, increased interaction between parents and police, judiciary measures against citizens “who have committed crimes in Syria… brutalities, acts of torture, acts of decapitation, or murder” and the dismantling of online jihadist networks usually targeting minors, following the model currently in place to fight human trafficking and pornographic material.
If the measures are reminiscent of those targeting child abductions and organised crime, it is due to the very young age of some of those ‘jihad candidates’ which include some as young as 14 years old, who are motivated more by teenage angst amplified by violent video games than serious religious convictions.
If the measures are reminiscent of those targeting child abductions and organised crime, it is due to the very young age of some of those “jihad candidates” which include some as young as 14 years old, who are motivated more by teenage angst amplified by violent video games than serious religious convictions.
Their knowledge of the conflicts in the Middle East is filled with biases and a desire for short-lived glory under the pretext of a religious war that most do not comprehend. Their understanding of Islam and the conflict in Syria is in most cases the result of a very recent indoctrination, devoid of any solid mastering of the holy texts and historical facts. This incongruity was reaffirmed by experts gathered at the Arab World Institute during the inauguration, on April 22, by French President Francois Hollande of an exhibition dedicated to the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca.
What is also striking is the fact that the profiles of those foreign combatants contradict most prejudices. While the populist extreme right party led by Marine Le Pen has, as always, been quick to link this phenomenon to the immigrant population in France from North Africa and the French policy towards Syria, testimonies prove the opposite.
According to the Centre de Prevention Contre les Derives Sectaires Liees a l’Islam (CPDSI), a research centre recently created by anthropologist Dounia Bouzar, a former member of the French Council for the Muslim Faith, most French nationals volunteering to fight in the so-called “jihad” in Syria are actually not originally from traditional Muslim families. Two-thirds of them have been raised in family circles that did not dispense any religious teaching with parents describing themselves as atheists, with 80 percent of them being French nationals for more than three generations. Only 20 percent of the “jihad candidates” were raised in traditionally Muslim families, most of them not attending Friday prayer services, while 80 percent of those indoctrinated are below the age of 21.
Additional statistics show that more than one fourth of the candidates come from Seine St Denis, one of the 100 French departments known for its high rate of unemployment and family breakdown. Far from representing a radicalisation of Islam in France, the increasing number of French nationals in Syria is an epiphenomenon resulting from the enhanced capacity of transnational groups to entrap weak minds who have been dejected by the lack of economic growth in France over the last decades.
French ideals of revolution
As Mathieu Guidere, a professor of Islamic Studies at the University of Toulouse, puts it, the candidates for insurgency in Syria have to be analysed as a new wave of answers to the French ideal of revolution in which “each generation aims to wage its own”.
In the 1970s, dozens joined Fidel Castro or Che Guevara in South America against “American imperialism”. Yet today, in the absence of new revolutionary ideologies to counterbalance the often unegalitarian and ostracising meta-structure, armed conflict in the Middle East is perceived as the stage to wage one’s revolution.
Faced with this ideological vacuum, the idleness felt by the French youth and the surge of online indoctrination propaganda, the contributions of the French imams are essential to moderate the teaching of the Holy texts, confront the biased arguments of radical zealots and prevent the rise of terrorism inside and outside France. The problem is that the Muslim faith in France still suffers from its lack of institutionalisation.
The French model of secularism, which prohibits any collusion between religions and the French state, also prevented French governments from supporting the construction of much-needed mosques or financially contribute to the training of the Muslim establishment. This void has been easily exploited by transnational radical movements. The prevention and repression measures submitted by Valls’ government will only be effective if they are accompanied by additional support to the structuration efforts of the Muslim community.
Remi Piet is Assistant Professor of Public Policy, Diplomacy and International Political Economy at Qatar University.