My post last Wednesday titled "Sorry to Disappoint" has provoked a lot of mail: some of it positive and a lot incredulous. I have heard about the videos with the French rioters chanting "Sarkozy, dirty Jew!" – yes, that is what they are saying: "sale juif", not "fasciste" – and yelling "Allahu Akbar!". These video clips are often getting cited as definitive proof that the riots do indeed have an Islamic or Islamist background.
Let me say something point blank: the teenage rioters in the French banlieues are not jihadis.
Those suggesting that they are, at least if they mean for the suggestion to be taken seriously, are not doing anything to help their credibility. A few of the rioters are undoubtedly dumb enough that they could be jihadis in the making. But that is another matter. As a rule these kids are much more likely to be influenced by rappers than imams. Interviewed for an article in the Neue Züricher Zeitung (12/13 November), the political scientist and specialist on French Islam, Franck Frégosi, notes that despite the fact that a large majority of the young "banlieusards" come from Muslim families, they "don’t give a damn" about everything connected to mosques and religion. As Frégosi puts it: "We are dealing with a population group that is light years away from these sorts of things."
What then of the cries of "Allahu Akbar"? Well, we would need to know more about who exactly was doing the yelling and in what circumstances. I suppose it is possible that some genuine Islamists mixed in with the rioters – though if so they were defying the express orders of the most prominent Islamist organizations in France. But it strikes me as more likely that the would-be fearsome Islamic warriors filmed while bravely assaulting inanimate objects in the French banlieues are just more dumb kids acting out their defiance of authority. A teenager from the French banlieues yelling "Allahu Akbar" is no more proof that he is an Islamist than a teenager from Seattle wearing a Che t-shirt is proof that he is a Marxist-Leninist.
It is even possible that the celluloid "Jihadis" were not so dumb, after all: that, on the contrary, they were consciously playing to the gallery. A report in the French weekly Le Canard Enchaîné (9 November) notes that much of the video of the French riots being used in the media has been filmed… by the rioters themselves. The French television channels, not being particularly eager to send their own teams into the trouble zones, apparently represent a thriving market for such homemade video. Le Canard Enchaîné cites Arnauld Muller of the French satellite channel Canal+: "The risk is that one will find oneself confronted by guys throwing Molotov cocktails only in order to be able to sell the video afterwards."
None of this is to say that the Islamists do not have, so to say, an "interest" in the riots. They definitely do and I suggested in my previous post what it is: namely, to be able to present themselves to the official state instances as the guarantors of order. For further analysis in much the same vein, see Olivier Guitta’s piece "In France, An Islamist Opportunity?" on Tech Central Station.
And as for the chants of "Sarkozy, dirty Jew": well, one most certainly does not have to be Muslim, much less an Islamist, to call someone a "dirty Jew" in France. Indeed, this episode might count rather as evidence that the kids from the banlieues are better assimilated than is generally assumed. Lest this remark seem flip, I refer you to my 2003 essay in Policy Review on "Anti-Semitism and Ethnicity in Europe", where the French case is discussed at length.
- November 14th, 2005