La Fracture [The Fracture]

Al-Britannia, My Country: A Journey Through Muslim Britain

Europe’s Angry Muslims: The Revolt of the Second Generation

Dan Kitwood/Getty ImagesVisitors at an amusement park in London during an Eid celebration, July 2014

One of the consequences of the defeat of 1 That longed-for fracture gave Kepel the title of his latest addition to the vast literature on the subject, La Fracture, published a few months after its author was included on a hit list of seven French public figures singled out for execution by the jihadi assassin Larossi Abballa. (Abballa was killed by police in June 2016 after murdering a police officer and his wife.) “If you want to kill me, kill me,” Kepel taunted the jihadis during an interview in April 2017 with The New York Times.

In contrast to attacks committed by non-Muslims such as Stephen Paddock, who massacred fifty-eight people at a concert in Las Vegas on October 1, 2017, jihadi attacks have repercussions on the communities and traditions that are believed to have encouraged them. Each atrocity increases by a fearsome multiple the distrust, surveillance, and interference to which Muslims in the West are subject. In the month following the Arena bombing, the Manchester police logged 224 anti-Muslim incidents, compared to thirty-seven in the same period a year earlier. On June 19, 2017, when a white Briton, Darren Osborne, plowed his van into a group of Muslims in North London, killing one, many Britons, including ones I spoke to, felt that the Muslims had had it coming.2 This is what Kepel means by fracture: jihadism engenders a reaction “against all Muslims,” while populist politicians “point the finger at immigrants or ‘Islam.’”

Many Europeans of Muslim heritage, of course, are contributing to the life of their adoptive nations, very often while retaining elements of their faith and culture.3 But with each jihadi attack, the oft-heard formula that Islam is a religion of peace that has been perverted by an isolated few loses currency.

This was brought home to me a few days after the North London attack as I listened to an exchange on a popular radio show between the host, Nick Ferrari, and Khola Hasan, a prominent female member of one of Britain’s sharia councils. (These bodies spend much of their time dissolving unhappy marriages contracted under Islamic law and have been criticized for arrogating the duties of the state.) It began with Hasan dismissing 4

Bradford, in West Yorkshire, is one of several former manufacturing towns in England that have given shape to multiculturalism in its most controversial form. Not all of Britain’s Muslims live in enclosed communities, by any means; the Muslims of East London and Leicester are substantially intermixed with other arrivals of various religions. But parts of Bradford—in the tight little streets around Attock Park, for instance, where the women dress in Pakistani jilbab gowns—are defiantly monocultural. Bradford’s Muslim community of at least 130,000 is dominated by families from a single district of Pakistan-administered Kashmir, many of whom migrated in the 1960s. The skyline is punctuated by the minarets of 125 mosques, and the city’s systems of education, philanthropy, and commerce (not to mention marriage and divorce) have been formed by the attitudes of a close-knit, extremely conservative community. Poverty and drug-related crime have afflicted the town, but I was told repeatedly during recent visits that if it weren’t for their cohesion, ethos of self-help, and faith in an exacting but compassionate God, the Muslims of Bradford would be much worse off.

In recent years, England’s encouragement of multiculturalism has weakened in response to terrorist attacks and a rapid increase in the Muslim population, which has doubled since 2000 to more than three million people. By 2020 half the population of Bradford—which, besides being one of the country’s most Muslim cities, has one of its highest birth rates—will be under twenty years old. Responding to this demographic shift and the fear of terrorism, Britain under David Cameron and, more recently, Theresa May has given the policy of multiculturalism a very public burial, a shift that seems entirely in tune with the defensive impulses that led a small majority of voters to opt for Brexit. (I was told in Bradford that many Muslim inhabitants of the city also voted for Brexit, to indicate their displeasure at the recent arrival of Polish and Roma immigrants.) Typical of the panicky abandonment of a venerable article of faith was May’s reaction to the terrorist attack on London Bridge in early June 2017, after which she demanded that people live “not in a series of separated, segregated communities, but as one truly United Kingdom.” A central element of the government’s anti-extremism policy is the promotion of “British” values such as democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, and tolerance.

One of the observations made in the 1975 government report on education was that the mothers of some pupils in British schools might be living “in purdah, or speak no English.” The report’s tone was neutral—nowhere did it suggest that this represented a threat to the civic state. In today’s environment, however, this statement might seem to provide evidence of communities spurning the British way of life—and along with it the values of emancipation and individual fulfillment that official British culture holds dear. The ghetto, runs this line of thinking, is the first stop on a journey to extremism and terrorism.

That such a direct connection exists between Muslim communities and extremist organizations is of course widely contested. In fact, many Islamist terrorists have left suffocating communities in order to find a new “family” among globalists whose aim, in the words of another French scholar of jihadis, Olivier Roy, is “a new sort of Muslim, one who is completely detached from ethnic, national, tribal, and family bonds.”5 It is most often this new “family,” and not a Muslim-dominated hometown, that inculcates jihadist ideology. The very Muslim societies and schools that Britons criticize for their illiberal attitudes may, because they encourage family and community cohesion, be a more effective obstacle to revolutionary jihadism than any amount of government propaganda. But Britons from the liberal left and the patriotic right both view conservative Muslim communities as patriarchal, chauvinistic, and homophobic—in many cases with good reason. And the old policy of deferring to more “moderate” Islamic groups has been undermined by the perception that they are stooges, or not very moderate.

The end of multiculturalism and its replacement with heightened surveillance and the emphasis on national cultural values are dealt with in detail in Fergusson’s Al-Britannia. Under the government’s anti-radicalization program, called Prevent, teachers, hospital staff, and other public sector workers must report anyone they regard as actual or potential extremists. Everyone agrees on the necessity of identifying potential radicals, whether Islamist or neofascist, but under Prevent many Muslims have been unjustly labeled, bringing shame that lasts long beyond the “voluntary” counseling that follows referral. And the gaffes committed in the name of Prevent are legion. The room of an Oxford student (a Sikh, as it happens) was searched after she was overheard praying, and a fourteen-year-old schoolboy was questioned by the authorities after he used the word “ecoterrorism.”

Britain’s newfound hostility toward illberal Muslim enclaves was brought to light by a national scandal in 2014, when details were revealed of an alleged plot to Islamize schools in Birmingham, the country’s second-largest city. Over the previous decade there had been a concerted effort to bring more Muslim staff into schools in Muslim-majority parts of Birmingham. Regular prayer and the Ramadan fast were assiduously promoted by school authorities, and some segregation between the sexes was introduced. On occasion teachers expressed rebarbative views on homosexuality and women’s rights. But in reinforcing these Islamist values—and downgrading the “British” values they were supposed to champion—the educators at these schools also created the conditions for a rise in academic and disciplinary standards, with a concomitant effect on exam results and employment opportunities.

After the scandal broke, teachers were suspended at three Birmingham schools, which had an adverse effect on morale and exam results. Just one disciplinary charge was upheld by the subsequent tribunal, and allegations of a plot have been discredited. But the damage to the reputation of the schools and their pupils has been considerable.

For Fergusson, the fracture in today’s Britain isn’t so much between Muslims and non-Muslims as among Muslims: the young are pushing against their parents, and the combination of sexual temptation and stalled incomes (marriage is a luxury many cannot afford) creates frustration that can slide into nihilism. Fergusson has been criticized for being too sympathetic to some Islamists who have been painted as menaces by the media, such as Asim Qureshi, a senior member of the Islamic advocacy group Cage, who in 2015 described Mohammed Emwazi, the British ISIS militant known as “Jihadi John,” as a “beautiful young man.” But Fergusson’s belief that British Muslims should be valued because of their faith, not in spite of it, is a major improvement on the self-interested toleration that has often passed for an enlightened position on the Muslim question.

The late American political scientist Robert S. Leikin, for example, whose book Europe’s Angry Muslims was recently reissued with a preface on the rise of ISIS, argued that one reason Westerners must combat anti-Muslim discrimination is that “such bigotry robs us of allies, including Muslims in the West, just when we have an imperative need for informants.” It is hard to think of a statement against intolerance more hostile to the notion that a Muslim might actually be “one of us.”

While Fergusson believes that recognizing the faith and values of Muslim communities is essential to society’s cohesion, Kepel regards it as a weapon that has been placed in the hands of Islamists by liberal bleeding hearts. Kepel’s journey is an interesting one. In 2004 he was a member of a commission that recommended—and secured—the prohibition of ostentatious religious symbols in French schools (the so-called “headscarf ban”). But he has also spent much of his career as a high-flying academic investigating the combination of poverty, cultural entrapment, and Salafist ideas that has created a sense of alienation in today’s Muslim generation. His previous book, Terror in France, was a meticulous modern history of Muslim France through various causes célèbres, from the publication of cartoons lampooning the Prophet Muhammad in 2005, to Marine Le Pen’s complaint in 2010 that sections of society were under “occupation” (for which she was acquitted on hate crime charges), to the first jihadist attacks on French soil in 2012.

Especially interesting in light of the Muslim generational divide that Fergusson concentrates on is Kepel’s description of an abortive attempt by the Union des organisations islamiques de France to impose order on the riot-hit banlieus in 2005. This body of religious and lay leaders, considered by many to be the most powerful in France, had lost prestige because of its inability to prevent the passing of the headscarf ban, and was dominated by aging Muslim Brothers out of touch with the young who were out trashing cars. The fatwa issued by the union’s theologians declaring vandalism to be haram, or illicit, had the opposite effect of the one intended. The following day more than 1,400 vehicles were destroyed and thirty-five policemen were wounded.

Kepel’s La Fracture is a collection of radio essays and commentaries on events in France and the Islamic world. Its most interesting part is the long epilogue, in which he displays his distrust, common among establishment intellectuals, of communal politics, which are held to be at odds with French republicanism’s emphasis on equal opportunity. The trouble, as Kepel sees it, lies not simply in the violence the jihadis perpetrate, but in the long game of their fellow travelers who aim to foment the fracture while working just within the framework of the law. In a secular republic like France, he writes, “a religious community cannot be represented as such in the political sphere”—but this is exactly the principle that a new generation of Muslim activists is trying to subvert.

Kepel singles out Marwan Muhammad, the energetic and well-educated young leader of a pressure group called the Collective against Islamophobia in France, as perhaps the most dangerous of these fellow travelers. Over the summer of 2016, following a jihadi attack in Nice that killed eighty-six people, several seaside towns issued a ban on burkinis. Muhammad was prominent in orchestrating the subsequent protests against what he called a “hysterical and political Islamophobia,” which gave France much unflattering publicity and ended with a judge declaring the bans illegal. Kepel regards the storm around burkinis—along with another outcry around the same time over the mistreatment of two Muslim women in a restaurant—as populist agitations masquerading as human rights campaigns. He accuses such movements of calling out instances of “Islamophobia” (the quotation marks are his) with the express purpose of making Muslims feel like victims.

There is no room for naiveté in this discussion. Plenty of Westerners were told by Ayatollah Khomeini while he was in his French exile that he had no desire to introduce Islamic rule in Iran. Within a year of his return to Iran in February 1979 the country was an Islamic republic. It is possible that Marwan Muhammad and others dream of a Muslim France. I don’t know if this is the case and neither does Kepel—though he has his suspicions. Certainly, there is much in the doctrinaire French enforcement of laïcisme that reminds of me of the despairing measures of Turkey’s secular republic before it was finally overwhelmed by the new Islamists led by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. But France, despite its large and fast-growing Muslim population—around 8.4 million, or one-eighth of the total population—isn’t about to fall to the new Islamists. And whatever the ultimate goal of activists like Muhammad, their entry into the political mainstream and adept advocacy for increased rights bode well for the goal of integrating Muslims into European institutions.

President Emmanuel Macron has made friendly overtures to France’s Muslims, and during his campaign last year he acknowledged that terrible crimes were committed by the French in Algeria. On November 1 anti-terrorism legislation came into force that transferred some of the most repressive provisions of France’s state of emergency—which ended on the same day—into ordinary law. Prefects will continue to be allowed to restrict the movement of terror suspects and shut down places of worship without a court order, even if raids on people’s homes—a particularly controversial feature of the state of emergency—are now possible only with the permission of a judge. To be Muslim will be to remain under suspicion, to be belittled, profiled, and worse. As in Britain, the short-term imperative of keeping people safe is proving hard to reconcile with the ideal of building a harmonious society.

Europe has become more anti-Muslim as it has become more Muslim. Though it is hard to find many cultural affinities between the Pakistanis of Bradford, the Algerians of Marseille, and the Turks of Berlin, Islam remains the main determinant of identity for millions of people. That this is the case in hitherto multicultural Britain and laïque France suggests that, for all the differences between the two countries’ systems and the relative tolerance of the British one, neither has been able to solve the problem of Muslim integration. As long as this remains the case, and as long as the Muslim population continues to increase so quickly, Islam will continue to cause apprehension among very large numbers of Europeans. They have made their feelings clear by supporting anti-immigration candidates in election after election across the continent, stimulated in part by Angela Merkel’s profoundly unwise decision in 2015 to admit more than one million refugees to Germany.

The panic is caused by rising numbers, sharpened by fears over terrorism. Governments can act to allay both of these things, and they are acting. But they must also recognize Islam for what it is: a European religion. Seldom does mainstream Western discourse make room for the good Islam does—stabilizing communities, minimizing crime and delinquency, and providing succor for millions. Like the Christian temperance movements of the nineteenth century, Islam wards off the alcoholic disarray that descends on many towns on Friday and Saturday nights; you only need visit the emergency room of an urban hospital in “white” Britain to see the wreckage. There are many factors in Europe’s Muslim crisis, but perhaps the most fundamental is that Islam is never part of any general consideration of values in a successful modern society. Its position is at the margins of society, spoken at rather than engaged with.

  1. 1

    In support of this thesis Kepel cites an influential online screed by a Syrian-born veteran of the Afghan jihad who goes by the nom de guerre Abu Musab al-Suri. His Call for a Global Islamic Resistance (2005) prophesies a civil war in Europe that will create the conditions necessary for the triumph of the global caliphate. ↩

  2. 2

    See my article following that attack, “Britain: When Vengeance Spreads,” NYR Daily, June 24, 2017. ↩

  3. 3

    The mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, for instance, enjoys much popularity among liberal-minded Londoners of all backgrounds, while not hiding the fact that his faith is important to him. ↩

  4. 4

    Although Muslims are nowadays more represented in French public life than they once were, and an estimated fifteen of them entered the National Assembly in the 2017 elections, in some of the Muslim-majority communes around Paris one still has the impression of being in a French colony. In and out of the regional administrations step men and women “of French stock,” as the somewhat agricultural phrase goes, salaried, suited, and assured of a decent pension. They are administrators of a brown population as surely as their forefathers were in Oran or Rabat. ↩

  5. 5

    See Olivier Roy, Jihad and Death: The Global Appeal of Islamic State, translated by Cynthia Schoch (Hurst, 2017). ↩

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