The Grand French Debate – Radicalization of Islam or “Islamization of radicalism”?

Gilles Kepel & Olivier Roy

Gilles Kepel & Olivier Roy

Since the Paris attacks of November 13, striking French society in its heart, the origins of jihadist terrorism and, more particularly, the role of religion in the process of radicalisation has been the subject of an increasingly lively debate. As France responds and attempts to understand, prevent and fight radicalization of youth, scholars Gilles Kepel and Olivier Roy, both internationally recognized political scientists and Islam specialists, have been engaged in a bitter debate in the French media scene. Kepel teaches at Sciences Po Paris and the ENS and has authored dozens of works on Islamist movements, the latest being “Terreur dans l’Hexagone, genèse du djihad français” (éd. Gallimard, 2015). Roy is currently based in Florence, teaching at the European University Institute where he coordinates the Mediterrenean program, and has also published various essays on political Islam, the latest being “Rethinking the place of religion in European secularized societies : the need for more open societies”, the conclusions of the Research Project ReligioWest.

The French specialists offer dichotomous interpretations of the phenomenon, each proposing a different starting point for the analysis. Is the form of terrorism we are facing today a consequence of the Salafism promoted by Saudi Arabia (Kepel) or is it rather the product of a “nihilist and generational revolt” of young people who are attracted by radicalism per se (Roy)?

While both political scienctists acknowledge the spread of Salafism in French suburbs[i], the common ground ends there.  All remaining factors of the jihadist phenomenon are subject to discrepancies of opinion that are fought out in interviews and opinion columns.

Roy – “Islamisation of radicalism”

Roy objects to Kepel’s theses, stating that the phenomenon observed is the fruit of an “islamisation of radicalism” instead of a radicalization of Islam. He specifies that “we are confronted with a very stable phenomenon since 1996: the radicalisation of two categories of young French citizens, namely ‘second-generation’ Muslims and converts ‘de souche’ (ethnic French people).” In Roy’s opinion, this radicalization does not date back to Abu Mus’ab al-Suri’s online publication of “Call to Global Islamic Resistance” in 2005, as suggested by Kepel, but rather to “Khaled Kelkal and the Paris RER and Metro Bombings, when the [Algerian] GIA (Armed Islamic Group) started recruiting young second-generation ‘beurs’ in 1995.”[ii] For Roy, the causes of radicalization are neither structural nor the consequence of Salafism, nor, for that matter, the result of a “revolt of Islam” or “Muslim anger” against imperialism – the latter being a point of view advocated by François Burgat and Jean-Pierre Filiu that Roy considers a “third-world vision »[iii]. Indeed, he describes the origins of radicalization as the effect of a generational, cultural and political schism of young people fascinated by violence and in search for a cause for their personal revolt. Consequently, the rise of jihadism in France would be explained by the isolation of those young people from Muslim communities and their families, as well as by the break from what the latter represent in terms of religion and culture. According to Roy, disillusionment regarding the future (“no future”-nihilists wanting to be superheroes[iv]) and the “lack of a culturally inserted religion” conveyed by their parents is what pushes young converts and second-generation Muslim immigrants to adhere to an “Islam of schism” (“islam de rupture”), rejecting not only Western culture but also that of their parents, both symbols of their self-hatred. As the terrorist group offers the “certainty to terrorize” to those radicalized according to a “Western tradition” of “esthetics of violence”[v], and without the need of a particular intellectual prerequisite or religious path, those joining ISIS would be doing so for purely opportunistic reasons. Roy argues that the nebula draws from a pool of previously radicalized young people who are attracted by radicalism itself and not particularly by ISIS’ ideology, thus, radicalization would be taking place on a different note than Salafism, in a more “mystical” way. Finally, the organization’s recruits seek an exception from religious obligations through the “final redemption” of martyrdom.

Kepel – The rise of Salafism and a flawed French society

Vehemently contrasting the views of Olivier Roy, Gilles Kepel develops a classification of three generations of jihad whose developments he regards as crucial for understanding the present: the first generation starting in 1979 in Afghanistan and continuing until 1997 in Algeria, the second phase covering Al-Qaida under the leadership of Ben Laden, and the third beginning with al-Suri’s publication in 2005 and persisting until today. He contrasts Roy’s theses by emphasizing the importance of understanding jihadism through an analysis taking Islam as the starting point. For Kepel, focusing on the term ‘radicalism’ translates not only the fear of being accused of islamophobia, but also the “willingness not to address the particular challenge of jihadist terrorism and its relationship with the complex and ambivalent phenomenon of Salafism.” Hence, the logic of jihadist terrorism should be reframed in terms of a salafist dynamic that has its roots in the Middle-East and that is the “carrier of a schism of values that breaks with European societies”. With Europe being “the soft underbelly of the West” as the target of global jihad par excellence since al-Suri, together with the riots in the suburbs and “massive political participation of the children of Muslim immigration”, the scholar explains how Salafism made its appearance in France – even though it influenced only a minority advocating “dissent (al bara’a) with the values of the miscreant West and an exclusive allegiance (al wala’) to the most rigorous Saudi ulemas”. According to Kepel, France should now concentrate not only on investigating how individuals make the step from Salafism to taking up arms, but also the flaws of a French society that has allowed its enemies to plant their roots in its core. He and Roy agree that those young people from unprivileged neighborhoods see no bright future for themselves, however, the former regards their joining of ISIS not as an act of nihilism but as an adherence to the alternative utopia the group offers to those individuals. In a nutshell, the determinant matrices of interpretation for Kepel are the hegemony of Salafist discourse and the flaws of a French society he considers as hardly inclusive, therefore constituting a fertile ground for the establishment of identity movements, the ultimate goal being the eruption of a civil war.

Less debate, more (and better) action

Regardless of the dimensions the personal quarrel between the researchers has taken in the French press over the past few months, it should not divert us from the content of the dispute, which is of tremendous importance for political decision-makers and civil society in general. Facing a menace of such magnitude as the terrorist threat today, it is crucial to listen to all arguments (of which many are not mutually exclusive but complementary) and conceive an integrated and comprehensive approach to prevent, detect and combat radicalization where it grows. Evidently, the problem is highly complex and requires additional research. As the approximately 4,000 personnel records of foreign fighters that were stolen by a defector and analyzed by the CTC at Westpoint have shown, diverse theories might apply to different individuals joining ISIS. We still have much to learn about the origins of the phenomenon.

The surprisingly great diversity in origin, age, marital status, employment, educational background and aspirations among recruits’ profiles reveals the difficulty to develop an operational strategy and concrete tools for those who have to confront radicalism and terrorist threats as part of their professional activity. As French Senator Nathalie Goulet calls for pragmatism and modesty of the scientific community, she also points out the desperate need for a “task force” in order to coordinate and unify the efforts and action taken against radicalization. Because providing an adequate toolbox to those dealing with the problem in practice should ultimately be more important than fighting over theories.

[i] “In 1986, when I was conducting the research for my book Les banlieues de l’Islam, there was no trace of Salafism in France. It appeared after the Gulf War of 1990, with Saudi help. It gained momentum since 2005, with numerous markers of Salafism in the ‘quartiers’ [districts] today, not to mention its omnipresence on the internet.”,, accessed on April 19, 2016,
“I agree with Kepel that Salafism is spreading in the suburbs.”,, accessed on April 19, 2016.

N.B.: All translations in this article have been provided by the author.

[ii] L’OBS 2683-07/04/2016, p.86.

[iii] L’OBS 2683-07/04/2016, p. 85.

[iv] L’OBS, 2683-07/04/2016, p. 86, 88.

[v] L’OBS, 2683-07/04/2016, p. 85.


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