No, Racism Is Not to Blame for Every Terror Attack in France

U.S. news reports, from both the left and right, keep misrepresenting the problem

U.S. media coverage of the recent beheading of a schoolteacher outside Paris and the subsequent killings at a church in Nice fail to understand the jihadist threat in Europe, with news articles from both the right and the left filtering the violence through the polarized lens of America itself.

According to Fox News, Breitbart and other bastions of right-wing coverage, the decapitation and the attack were “Islamic,” and tied to illegal immigration. This kind of mystification serves the Trumpist political agenda, spreading panic about those who follow the religion, while justifying xenophobic policies such as “the Muslim ban.” By contrast, liberal outlets such as The New York Times, The Washington Post and Vox characterized the attacks as a result of the racial exclusion of Muslims, and the French state’s intolerant interpretation of secularism. In this depiction, those responsible were not just the young men intoxicated by jihadist ideology and Islamist culture; the responsible included the French authorities and society itself.

But matters are not so simple. Since 2015, jihadist attacks have cost the lives of more than 250 French civilians and wounded nearly a thousand. This is part of a complex challenge afflicting all of Europe and the larger world, determined by a violent global ideology and by the radicalization occurring online. Yet tragedies on French soil are portrayed as if defined by contemporary America’s obsessions with race and oppression by “the system.”

U.S. news articles have indicated that Islamist violence is carried out by disenfranchised Muslims confined to “ghettos,” and that the attacks are a way of expressing anger with a society that has stripped them of agency. “Instead of addressing the alienation of French Muslims, especially in France’s exurban ghettos, or banlieues,” the Washington Post wrote, “the government aims to influence the practice of a 1,400-year-old faith, one with almost 2 billion peaceful followers around the world.” Unsurprisingly, the article was shared across French militant Islamist social-media sites.

Rather than ascribing the beheading of the schoolteacher Samuel Paty to the failure of integration in France, it is more illuminating to note that his attacker—an immigrant from Chechnya who arrived in France at age 6—was embedded in a global network of violent ideology. He had adopted jihadist ideas over two years, and was disseminating these to other Chechens, as well as establishing contact with jihadis in Syria. He located Paty through an internet campaign led by a well-known Islamist preacher. Indeed, the killer is comparable to the Boston Marathon bombers, who also hailed from the Caucasus, and in no way share the experience of Muslims in France. As for the Nice attacker, he was a Tunisian who had arrived in France only a few days earlier. The question of discrimination and exclusion from French society is moot; his radicalization occurred in Tunisia, where he followed the teachings of Ansar al-Sharia, a group that coordinated the movement of ISIS recruits from Europe to Syria.

Although France is being targeted lately, the violence actually corresponds to a wider European pattern of jihadist violence and recruitment. Between 2012 and 2018, more than 5,000 European Union citizens traveled to join Al Qaeda and ISIS in the Middle East. Nearly all were from northwestern Europe, and 71 percent were citizens of four countries: France (1,900, or 32% of the total), Germany (960, 16%), the United Kingdom (850, 14.5%) and Belgium (500, 8.5%). While French jihadis constituted the largest number, on a per capita basis, Belgium, the Netherlands and Denmark topped the list. And this despite France being the country with the largest number of Muslims in Europe, between 5 million and 6 million.

Furthermore, the areas from which jihadis originate do not map neatly onto the socially and economically marginalized regions in these countries. One must take into account the history of the global revival of political Islam since the 1970s—namely, the ideologies of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis; as well as the activism of individual Islamists who have emigrated to Europe. London became a major center for such dynamics from the 1990s, and has recently been replaced by Istanbul in Turkey and Molenbeek in Belgium. Finally, the internet has become a repository for Islamist texts, the jihadist culture and its recruitment. None of this is exclusively French.

Rather, the jihadist worldview posits a never-ending conflict between Muslims and non-Muslims. The West is an enemy that seeks to destroy Islam, using ideological, cultural, economic and military means. The only legitimate and divinely sanctioned response, according to jihadis, is violent confrontation, including individual acts of violence in which no distinction is made between civilians and combatants. Because of Muslim military weakness in the perceived confrontation with the West, terror is deemed a necessary tactic to demoralize and intimidate the enemy into submission.

Luckily, the vast majority of French Muslims have rejected the call of jihadism. Data show that almost 75 percent identify with the victims of jihadist attacks, while core supporters of jihadism stand at around 20,000 citizens of France. This means only approximately 1 among every 250 French Muslims likely supports this violent ideology. That is still a large increase from two decades ago, and underscores that this movement presents a real challenge. But France is not unique in confronting this problem.

The ideological polarization in the United States has blinded journalists. The lazy habit of explaining violent Islamism either as a manifestation of Islam or as a reaction to racism is highly misleading—and, in both misconceptions, it confirms the jihadist narrative that the religion demands bloodshed and that the Western world is forcing this upon Muslims.

There is too much at stake for Europe, and for the world, to keep viewing jihadism in France through American goggles.

Hugo Micheron is a post-doctoral researcher and Bernard Haykel is a professor of Near Eastern Studies, both at Princeton University.