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The Diversity of Muslims in France Pre- and Post-Charlie Hebdo

0 Comments 🕔10.Aug 2015

This article is part of our feature Je Suis Musulman: European Muslims after Charlie Hebdo.

Woman with her son in Lyon suburb. Photo credit: BBC World Service


by Erik Bleich

Chérif and Saïd Kouachi were unknown in 2014, but in early 2015 they were trumpeted to the world as the perpetrators of the Charlie Hebdo slaughter. In 2016, however, the odds are good that you won’t remember these names. Perhaps they might sound familiar, but you may confuse them with Mohamed Merah or Mehdi Nemmouche, who carried out acts of terrorism in Toulouse in 2012 and in Brussels in 2014. For non-specialists, what is likely to remain is the mental connection between Muslim-sounding names and gruesome terrorist acts. For many, it is only a half-step further to another connection: Muslims are terrorists, especially in France.

There is no denying that in France and elsewhere in Europe, killers have claimed the mantle of Islam when committing horrific acts. A range of pundits and even some politicians have stressed an Islam-violence link repeatedly. But a deeper understanding of the situation requires a more nuanced perspective on the diversity of Muslims within France.

By most estimates, France has approximately 5 million nominal Muslims. The “nominal” is key, because most of them do not practice their religion regularly. Like the majority of France’s Catholics, they can feel 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 survey carried out in 2008-2009, fully 75% of Muslims feel either “somewhat” or “very” French. This number rises substantially among Muslims with French citizenship who were born in France and 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 seen among immigrants who practice Christianity.

Most Muslims in France care relatively little about cartoons that insult the prophet. Many do feel the sting of Islamophobia, however. Academic studies have shown that, even controlling for ethnic origin, French-origin people treat Muslims worse than non-Muslims. Moreover, when I carried out post-Charlie Hebdo interviews in Lyon, France, even well-integrated Muslims told me stories of how their children were racially insulted in schools, how dirty looks in the subway turned them around on their way to the pro-Republican January rally, and how they were afraid of anti-Muslim reprisals.

Although it is better to view most Muslims as well-integrated or as targets of discrimination, some pockets rally to radical 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.

Most of these young people do not engage in terrorist violence. They might join pro-Palestine rallies, protest Danish cartoons, or engage in Holocaust denial and bullying of Jews and ‘bad Muslims’ in their schools. These activities can be aggressive and at times even dangerous. But they resemble youth protest much more closely than proto-terrorism.

Out of the roughly 5 million nominal Muslims in France, there are perhaps 2,000 to 3,000 truly dangerous individuals who are susceptible to committing violence and who latch onto 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 these types of individuals are matched with strains of violent Islamism, the consequences can be deadly.

In today’s France, the most common gateway to violent terrorism 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 nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, anarchists were the problem, having assassinated both a French and an American president. In the 1960s and 1970s, left extremists in Germany and Italy murdered 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 long-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 a minority of radicalized and violent criminals than as a symptom of a problem with Islam as a whole or as evidence that French Muslims are prone to terrorism. France has faced these challenges before, as has the world in different permutations. It has emerged from these previous tensions, and it will do so again, now with the help of its Muslims citizens.


This article is adapted from a version published in Prospect Magazine.

Erik Bleich is Professor of Political Science at Middlebury College and a Senior Resident Fellow at the Collegium de Lyon. He is the editor of the 2010 book Muslims and the State in the Post-9/11 West, and the co-author of the Social Forces article “What Makes Muslims Feel French?”

This article is part of our feature Je Suis Musulman: European Muslims after Charlie Hebdo.



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