France and Islamist Terrorism: Lessons From a Troubled History

Mourners comfort each other near a tribute to the victims of the Bastille Day terror attacks. Nice, France, July 18, 2016. (Valery Hache/AFP/Getty Images)

After a terrorist inspired by the Islamic State again targeted France, attacking Nice on this year’s Bastille Day, many have wondered why the same country has been struck so repeatedly. The violence has included both spectacular coordinated acts and lower-level individual ones, and has created a background noise of insecurity in the country. Beginning with the attack on the Charlie Hebdo magazine headquarters in January 2015, France appears to have almost equaled the United States and Israel as the most hated countries among Islamist militants [Ed. note: this article was written prior to an attack on a church in northern France overnight, also reportedly claimed by ISIS].

There are several recent factors that explain the intensity with which jihadists target “the eldest daughter of the Catholic church,” as the French often describe their country. Domestically, the French commitment to enforcing a secular culture has been seen as an obstacle to the practice of the most traditional forms of Islam, championed by Muslims favorable to the revivalist movements coming from Egypt and the Arabian Peninsula. The bans on wearing headscarves in schools since 2004 and burkas in public spaces since 2010 are among the most notable emblems of the desire to ensure religion remains in the private sphere. This is clearly at odds with the way in which Islam is practiced in most of the Muslim world, where it not only involves spiritual and personal practice, but also provides the framework for social life and political activity.

Internationally, France is also seen as spearheading efforts to stop the spread of political Islam, combining diplomatic and often military activity to prop up secular regimes in the Muslim world and to prevent affiliates of al-Qaeda or the Muslim Brotherhood from seizing power. France and its military are instrumental in ensuring that the Sahel region of Africa—encompassing some of the largest countries on the continent—do not become a new safe haven for Islamist terrorists, as a replacement for Afghanistan under the Taliban.

While the sheer scale of the global jihad movement, and the effectiveness of real-time media coverage, may make strikes against France more noticeable, these are just the latest developments in a much longer relationship between France and Islam. Like all Christian countries bordering the Mediterranean, France has been involved in a protracted struggle with its Muslim neighbors, where political and military power have had at least as much to account for as spirituality. The phenomenon reached its climax with the Crusades, which, from the 11th to the 13th centuries, saw Christian soldiers, often led by French kings, attempt to reconquer the Holy Land.

Later, in the colonial period, France embarked on a quest to conquer vast swaths of the so-called Dar al Islam (“House of Islam”) to integrate it into its empire, which became the second-largest in the world by the end of the 19th century. With its strong association with Christianity (at least culturally, if not statutorily under the secular Third Republic in place between 1870 and 1939), the French empire often had to overcome rebellions encouraged by powerful Muslim movements, such as the Sanusiyya of North Africa, which felt that their prerogatives were directly threatened by these newcomers in their traditional areas of influence.

In the post-war period, and as the French empire was being dismantled, the former metropolitan center sought to support the secular, religiously moderate elites in the newly independent administrations of its Muslim ex-colonies. In North Africa in particular, the Francophone and predominantly secular classes were clearly preferred over their Arabic-speaking counterparts, who frequently favored the concept of a return to an “unspoiled” pre-colonial practice of Islam.

The long shadow of the former colonial power explains why Paris was struck by a wave of attacks by Algerian Islamists in 1995, targeting, among other locations, the metro system. The Islamic Armed Group presented these attacks as retaliation for French support to the Algerian army in its efforts to prevent the Islamic Salvation Front from reaching power in Algiers. Paris had become collateral damage of an internal conflict about the place of Islam in Algerian politics and society, and was seen by the Islamists as backing the secular, Francophone side; it had to pay the price for this.

Yet, for all this history of antagonism with groups fighting for their view on Islam to prevail, France has also attempted to develop a more conciliatory relationship with Muslims on several occasions. In some cases, this resulted merely from tactical calculations, such as when King Francis I struck an alliance with the Ottoman Empire in 1536; a decision which was seen as an unforgivable act of betrayal by other European Christian powers.

Colonialism led to a more troublesome display of French imperial power over Muslim subjects, intensifying with the conquest of Algeria in 1830. But pragmatism frequently prevailed, meaning that the colonial administration was often reticent to allow Christian missionaries to operate and instead worked closely with influential Muslim community leaders.

This approach reached a peak under Emperor Napoleon III, who was persuaded by some advisers to depict himself as the leader of an “Arab kingdom” in the making in North Africa, therefore repeating some overtures which had been made (with limited success) by his uncle during the revolutionary wars. The colonial period offered countless examples of officers or administrators deliberately cultivating close partnerships with influential religious leaders in an unlikely but highly effective alliance between the secular Republic and local spiritual powers. This amounted, in some cases, to a Gallic forebear of Britain’s “indirect rule” in colonies such as Nigeria.

France’s long and tumultuous relationship with Islam and its representatives puts into perspective the recent spate of Islamist terror attacks. While it reflects a long history of confrontation, it should not overshadow the many instances when the country was able to develop close cooperation with Muslim communities, even if for pragmatic reasons. This should come as some form of reassurance on the country’s ability to deal with the specific threats posed by Islamists, while engaging constructively with its Muslim population—the largest in Europe.

Dr. Berny Sèbe is Senior Lecturer in Colonial and Postcolonial Studies at the University of Birmingham.