Bin Laden’s Backfire

Jonathan Laurence and
Jonathan Laurence Former Brookings Expert
Justin Vaïsse
Justin Vaïsse Former Brookings Expert, Director, Policy Planning Staff - French Ministry of Europe and Foreign Affairs

November 1, 2010

In his recently released audio recording targeting France, al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden was likely trying to further antagonize the tense relationship between the French state and the country’s Islamic population to further his goal of radicalizing European Muslims. But bin Laden demonstrated a fundamental misunderstanding of the current French social landscape: Rather than exacerbating tensions, his clumsy intervention might actually help fix some of the damage done by the French government’s hot and cold relationship with Muslim communities.

The country’s record during the last two years has been mixed for Muslims in France. At the local level, integration is indeed taking place: Islam is increasingly accepted as part of the French landscape; Muslim chaplains have been appointed in the armed forces; and mosque construction is no longer controversial, as it was earlier this decade. Today, French Muslims are more inclined to demonstrate in the streets over controversial pension reforms, than in support of cultural or religious issues. And radicalization remains at a low level.

But judging by its recent initiatives, President Nicolas Sarkozy’s government seems to be doing all it can to reverse these gains. In 2009 and 2010, an official, state-sponsored debate on “national identity” took on xenophobic and anti-Islam undertones, singling out the Muslim community. One government minister notoriously declared that she expected young Muslims to stop wearing their baseball hats backward, stop speaking slang, find a job, feel French, and love France. The recent debate over a law banning the burqa, passed by Parliament on Oct. 11, has only reinforced that impression. (Another cabinet member said the law was necessary to “eliminate the cancer of Islamism.”) Among the roughly 3.5 million Muslims in France, there are only 2,000 burqa wearers — and though the vast majority of French Muslims and community leaders condemn the wearing of full-body coverings, the government’s single-minded focus on the issue made many feel stigmatized and singled out.

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