Chérif Kouachi, 32, Saïd Kouachi, 34. These names were unknown days ago, but will now be remembered by the world as the suspected perpetrators of the Charlie Hebdo slaughter. Except that a year from now you won’t remember these names. Or, they might ring a bell, but you are likely to confuse them with Mohamed Merah or Mehdi Nemmouche, better known as the killers in Toulouse in 2012 and in Brussels in 2014. What will likely stick is the connection between Muslim-sounding names and gruesome terrorist acts. And it will be easy to slide from that association to another: Muslims are terrorists, especially in France.
There is no denying that killers committing horrific violence have claimed the mantle of Islam. Far-right politicians, professional Islamophobes, and internet trolls will not shy away from making this point. But if those folks are not the company you’d like to keep, it is vital to have a more well-rounded understanding of Muslims in France.
By most estimates, France has approximately 5m nominal Muslims. The word “nominal” is key, because most of them do not practice their religion, well, religiously. Like the majority of France’s Catholics, they may feel an adherence to an identity while believing little of the doctrine, and may even support the principles of separation of church and state embedded in the French concept of laïcité.
In truth, the vast majority of French Muslims feel very French. According to data from a rigorous survey carried out in 2008-2009, fully 75 per cent of Muslims feel either somewhat or very French. This number rises substantially among Muslims with French citizenship who are born in France and who speak fluent French. In addition, among immigrants, practicing Islam has only a minor downward effect on feeling French, and one that is not very different from a similar effect on immigrants who practice Christianity. Most Muslims in France lead normal, boring lives. They are likely to worry more about annoying colleagues at work and what they will eat for dinner than the latest in a long string of insulting cartoons.
At the same time, some pockets will rally to Muslim causes under specific circumstances. These people come from all walks of life, but the ones with the highest profile are young people, in hard-luck areas, who have little in the way of job prospects, local amenities, and hope for the future. Given their situation, they sometimes turn to Islam as an oppositional identity—a formal term for an “up yours” to those in power.
Most of these young people do not engage in terrorist violence. They might join pro-Palestine rallies, protest Danish cartoons, or even engage in Holocaust denial and bullying of Jews and “bad Muslims” in their schools. These activities can be aggressive. But they are not fundamentally different from other forms of youth protest in which participants mark their identity by deliberately upsetting the comfortable burghers of society.
Read more on Charlie Hebdo:
Charlie Hebdo attack: cartoonists’ responses
Charlie Hebdo will survive
Out of the roughly 5m nominal Muslims in France, there are perhaps 2,000 to 3,000 truly dangerous individuals who are susceptible to committing violence and who latch on to radical interpretations of Islam. One common pattern involves disaffected young men casting about for a purpose in their lives. According to Chérif Kouachi himself, for example, before turning to Islam he was a simple “delinquent” involved in drugs and theft. If a move toward Islam can be salvation for some, when the wrong person is connected with the worst strain, the consequences can be deadly.
There are multiple gateways to violent terrorism. In France in our era, the most common path is through radical Islam. But while the Charlie Hebdo slaughter is an indisputably tragic act, it is not an unprecedented one. In 1980, a bomb attack on a Paris synagogue killed four people. In the summer of 1995, France suffered a wave of assassinations and bomb explosions carried out by Khaled Kelkal, another disaffected youth who had turned to Islamic extremism.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, anarchists assassinated people, including both a French and an American president. In the 1960s and 1970s, left-wing extremists in Germany and Italy assassinated prominent businessmen and government officials. And white supremacists have killed for centuries, including most recently the slaying of 77 Norwegians by Anders Behring Breivik in 2011.
Understanding the longer-term context and grasping the diversity and fundamental stability of the Muslim community in France means it is much more accurate to view the Charlie Hebdo atrocity as an act carried out by violent men than as a symptom of a problem with Islam as a whole or as evidence that all French Muslims are prone to violence. France has faced these challenges before, as has the world in different permutations. We should mourn the victims and take a deep breath. We will get through this.