There is more to Sunni militancy than language and culture

When I read a recent post by two of my colleagues suggesting that “French political culture” may be to blame for Sunni militancy around the world, Evelyn Beatrice Hall’s paraphrase of Voltaire came to mind: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” But that doesn’t prevent me from disagreeing with some of the premises of the piece by Will McCants and Chris Meserole, which confuses correlation with causation.

There is a long list of cities targeted by jihadis: Paris was attacked twice last year, in January (17 people killed) and November (130 killed, 400 injured); Brussels was targeted three times, once at the Jewish Museum in May 2014 (4 dead), and this month by the two suicide bombings that caused 35 deaths; Madrid was struck in March 2004 in an al-Qaida-related train bombing that killed 192 people and injured over 1,800; and the July 2005 series of suicide bombings in London killed 52 and injured over 700. 

It’s not just a European problem, of course—cities around the world have suffered jihadi attacks over the past several years, including Istanbul, Ankara, Beirut, Sharm el-Sheikh, Ottawa, Dhaka, Jakarta, and Nairobi, not to mention isolated strikes in Boston (in 2013), Sydney (in 2014), and San Bernardino (in 2015). 

Two of the European capitals that suffered heavy casualties have long histories of dealing with terrorism: London suffered numerous deadly attacks by the Irish Republican Army, and Madrid faced strikes by the Basque separatist militants of ETA. Neither government succeeded in preventing jihadi attacks. 

Who are foreign fighters?

According to a December 2015 report by the Soufan Group, European foreign fighters traveling to Iraq and Syria have come mainly from four countries: France (1,800 between June 2014 and December 2015), the United Kingdom (760), Germany (760), and Belgium (470). Belgium has the highest per capita number of foreign fighters in the EU. 

There are two types of foreign fighters: those from other Middle Eastern states who joined Da’esh (the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State) on the ground in Syria or Iraq, and those who are European passport-holders who go to the region to fight and then return to Europe. Attacks in European cities were perpetrated by European passport-holders, all young men with knowledge of the local environment, customs, and public transportation system. For example, the 2005 London suicide bombings were committed by English-speaking, British-born Muslim sons of Pakistani immigrants. All of the known attackers in Paris were EU citizens, and the two suicide bombers in Brussels were Belgian nationals.

No simple explanation

There are a number of factors explaining why the attacks in Brussels happened, and the French language is but a minor one. For one, as French academic Gilles Kepel has pointed out, the largest number of Belgian foreign fighters to go to Syria came from the Flemish-speaking part of Belgium, not the French-speaking part. But beyond that, it’s essential to recognize that in Belgium, governance issues have led to unfortunate intelligence failures. The country is run by no fewer than five governments, and there has been poor coordination (on the rise of jihad, among other issues) between the Belgian federal government and regional governments. 

France has the largest Muslim population in Europe, related to its colonial past in three North African countries: Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia. It is true—as Kepel states in his recent book—that many French jihadis are second- or third-generation immigrants who feel ostracized from French society. But the high level of unemployment among young people is not unique to young Muslims. Rather, it is a generational phenomenon that has more to do with the French society and the French economy. Unlike their parents who reached France in the aftermath of decolonization in the 1960s, many young people of North African origins now face a country with a much tighter employment market. They may be holders of French passports or identity cards, but they don’t otherwise feel part of the French system. They feel alienated. 

Finally, there is the key question of religion. For over a century, France has strictly separated church and state. Since 2004, a new law called “Loi sur la Laïcité” forbids “ostentatious religious signs” in public schools. This has led to a growing sentiment of dissatisfaction by a number of Muslims who already felt sidelined by the French mainstream. A portion of the Muslim population in France clearly rejects this legal framework, though some have also benefited from efforts to promote diversity. There are Muslim quarters, mosques, halal stores, and religious schools all serving a population of over five million Muslims in France. 

French leaders are aware that the country can do more to integrate and support its Muslim communities. France has established representative bodies such as the Conseil français du Culte Musulman, a federation created in 2003 that represents hundreds of Muslim associations. The French Ministry of Defense has appointed Muslim military chaplains, cities have inaugurated cemeteries with sections dedicated to Muslims, and more prayer rooms have opened across France. These are just a few examples of how the French government is trying to better address the alienation that some Muslims in the country experience.

We should be careful about pointing to language or culture to explain Sunni radicalism around the world. Instead, we should focus on challenges of integration and cooperation between and among countries—these are by far the top challenges for many governments struggling with the threat of jihadi terrorists.