By Mark Esposito
The horrific events that played out in Paris certainly will bring fundamental change to that society. Much like our 9/11, the massacres at Charlie Hebdo and a kosher deli have mobilized the French nation to a new awareness of the threats faced by ordinary citizens from radicalized religionists with declared goals of global caliphate and violence against any culture espousing Western liberal values. This clash is particularly acute in France where Europe’s largest Muslim population resides – many of whom are defiantly unassimilated into French society – and where, simultaneously, allegiance to irreverence to any form of authority creates is its own religion.
The French tradition of vocal disdain for hypocrisy and oppression spans centuries. In fact, the works of the magazine Charlie Hebdo have their roots in the Parisian scandal sheets of the 18th Century that skewered the pomposity of the likes of Marie Antoinette who famously offered the prescription for rampant poverty as a callous and obnoxious invitation to eat cake. Few were sad to see her bow in homage before Dr. Guillotine’s machine.* Using ridicule as a weapon, these political pamphlets galvanized support among the French literate population against the notion of the Divine Right of Kings – the fundamentalism of the day.
The tradition of Franco defiance of authority found its most ardent defender in playwright, poet, philosopher, and wit, Voltaire, whose ridicule was so searing it cost him a timeout in the Bastille prison where, as he would write later in his monumental work, Candide, he “was never incommoded with the sun.”
A detractor of religious and political oppression, Voltaire found his most arresting target in the Catholic Church which exercised power in both realms and to the furtherance of both. Understanding the power of an organization that claimed imprimatur from an unseen, unprovable, omniscient being responsible for creation itself, and that ruthlessly protected and coveted that power, Voltaire employed the only power at his disposal:
It is characteristic of fanatics who read the holy scriptures to tell themselves: God killed, so I must kill; Abraham lied, Jacob deceived, Rachel stole: so I must steal, deceive, lie. But, wretch, you are neither Rachel, nor Jacob, nor Abraham, nor God; you are just a mad fool, and the popes who forbade the reading of the Bible were extremely wise.
Thus the tradition of French antipathy to both overbearing religion and hypocrisy has firm historical roots. In fact, the French are arguably the least religious population in all of Europe which itself has seen a waning of religiosity.
Against this backdrop, the French Muslim population remains isolated economically and culturally. About 10% of the French population, Muslims number around 5-6**million souls. Just over 1/3 consider themselves “observant,” and about 20% regularly attend weekly services. A recent poll found Muslim applicants for jobs about 2.5 times more likely to be turned down than Christian applicants. While France has enjoyed some success at integrating Muslim immigrants into French society (as compared to the dismal results in the rest of Europe), the success is still blunted by the violent riots through the 1990s and culminating with the three-month calamity in 2005 in Clichy-Sous-Bois which spread to other nearby Parisian communes. Unemployment in this eastern suburb of Paris remains at 20% with it ranging as high as 50% in the housing projects frequently housing working age Muslim immigrants.
The disaffection of thirty-something French Muslims has been heightened by introduction of Wahhabism into the poverty. Seeking something to believe in, this fundamentalist version of Islam offers the same notions of hope and salvation in the afterlife that fundamentalist Catholicism offered the economically trapped feudal peasants of Europe in Voltaire’s time. And it comes with the same terrible price – ruthless adherence to dogma and unquestioned allegiance the infallible pronouncements of the ruling religious class of priests.
Political turmoil in Syria, Egypt and Iraq in the wake of the Arab Spring in which secular dictators were overthrown in favor of religious ones save only in the case of Egypt, has led to a crusade-like exodus of young French Muslims into the MidEast to fight for fundamentalist groups like ISIS. Most experts place the number of young French Muslims on the desert battlefields at around 1000. Though an insignificant number of the entire population, these soldiers of Islam become further radicalized as part of their military training thus representing a force worth many times their numbers.
The ominous question then becomes what will happen with these battle hardened jihadists return to their homes in the Western democracies like France and the U.S. and how can an open society address that problem?
That discussion will be held in Part 2 of this series.
~Mark Esposito, FFS Contributor
* Though credited in popular lore as the inventor of the execution machine, Dr. Guilliotine, in one of history’s ironies, was a vocal opponent of capital punishment and only endorsed the device created by Antoine Louis as a more humane way to die.
** French law prohibits surveying the population with questions about their religion so the figures are only estimates based on demographic analysis.