The Charlie Hebdo massacre has set the “Clash of Civilizations” narrative onto a freewheeling collision course, with irreverent cartoonists catapulted into free-expression martyrdom, xenophobic rhetoric vilifying Islamism as a “cancer” on “the West,” and elsewhere in the world, fundamentalist backlash against Western blasphemers. Et patati et patata—waves of reaction ripple out in all directions. But the mass anxiety over “Eurojihadism” tends to promote confusion rather than clarity on what really drives France’s “Muslim problem,” and obscures the need for a nuanced public discussion.
One prominent theory about Islamist extremism in Europe is that it is rooted in social alienation. But in debates on the intersection of religion and security, simply blaming a lack of “integration” assumes a pathology among a certain segment of disenfranchised Muslim youth, without interrogating what “integration” actually means to different communities (Cultural homogenization? Secularization? Civic participation?).
Of course, many French youth of immigrant and Muslim backgrounds do suffer systemic social ills, but the threat of terrorism is not the reason to care. We should care because it is wrong for a democratic society to marginalize vulnerable people through institutionalized discrimination. If there is a crisis pervading French Muslim communities, it is not budding jihadism, but entrenched segregation and socioeconomic instability, which ultimately present a more extreme menace than extremism.
As for the relatively few extremists in a sea of disenchanted young people, studies show a surprisingly varied profile for so-called “homegrown jihadis.” Often, youth who become “militants” are not the most disadvantaged; some are relatively “Westernized” millennial converts. According to a study cited by the Christian Science Monitor, “many of those fighting abroad are not poor or vulnerable at all….for example, 84 percent of families of radicalized youths come from the middle class. Only 10 percent had grandparents that weren’t French.”
Two of the Charlie Hebdo attackers, Algerian-descendent brothers Cherif and Said Kouachi, were not the offspring a un-integrated, conservative Muslim home, but rather, wayward products of the French foster care system.
The real problem with extremism lies in the mass public reaction to singularly horrific acts, which tend to solidify distorted stereotypes and fuel social strife. Rising far-right movements like Germany’s neofascist Pegida and France’s Front National are milking the Charlie Hebdo killings to stoke jingoistic reaction. FN chief Marine Le Pen recently proclaimed in The New York Times that France was under attack by “totalitarian ideology” and called on French Muslims to prove their loyalty to the West. The climate of hyper-nationalism, by feeding off fear, ignorance and a crusade mentality, threatens to eclipse the very ideals of laïcité and liberté the West claims to embody, thus mirroring the very fundamentalists these campaigns demonize.