By: Ahmad Saiful Rijal Hassan [15 Jan 2021]
While the world faces a huge battle against COVID-19, a series of terror attacks in France have sent shockwaves of fear and anguish into the French public’s minds.
On 16 Oct 2020, a middle-school history teacher was decapitated in a suburb north of Paris. He had shown Prophet Muhammad’s caricatures (peace be upon him) from the satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo, during a class discussion on the freedom of expression, which later incited anger among their local Muslims.
The victim’s 18-year-old attacker, Abdoullakh Anzorov, was shot and killed by the police in the aftermath. He was a refugee of Chechen origin who grew up in France. He was also known to be active on extremist social media sites. And according to his Twitter account, he was on a mission to look for those who have offended Islam.
Less than two weeks later, a teenager went on a knife rampage in Nice’s church, leaving two people dead through stab wounds and one partially beheaded. The Tunisian-born attacker, Brahim Aouissaoui, was shot by the police and taken to hospital in a life-threatening condition. Although this attack’s motive is unknown, the authorities are treating the case as an act of terrorism. 
These attacks have been described as responses to controversial cartoons’ republication, which reignited the debate about Islam and freedom of expression in France. When he was asked to respond to the waves of attacks, President Emmanuel Macron blamed ‘Islamism’. Before the attacks, he had described Islam as a religion “in crisis”, prompting outrage in the Muslim world . His rhetoric inevitably led to France’s social instability and aggravated the problem of radicalisation that is still grappling France today.
RADICALISATION – A CONUNDRUM
The attacks have spurred scholars and observers to address the root causes of the terrorist scourge in France. One may argue that what motivated the attackers to commit such atrocities was due to the blasphemous cartoons.
Although many Muslim leaders and scholars have denounced the gruesome attacks, some view that blasphemy is still punishable by death under the norms of the medieval Islamic period , here is where contemporary Muslim scholars must directly address the fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence) texts related to blasphemy.
Many French Muslim youths also fall prey to radicalisation due to socio-economic marginalisation and “ghettoisation” – a term used by Macron to describe the plight of Muslims living in the ghettos. Experts have pointed out that social conditions in these ghettos are the primary reason why Muslim youths there favour extremism and become vulnerable to radicalisation.
In one of his studies, Matthew Moran, a Professor of International Security and Co-Director of the Centre for Science and Security Studies at King’s College London, argued that the experience of Muslims living in ghettos “fosters confusion and frustration, and contributes to an identity crisis, which, in turn, creates space for the cognitive openings that can open the door to radicalisation and ultimately violent extremism.” 
BATTLE FOR THE HEARTS AND MINDS
In the event of adversity, especially after a terror attack, governments’ responsible approach would be to rally the population and stand firm against any threat. But it was different for France. Its government seemed to shift the blame and direct its rhetoric towards stigmatising its Muslim population.
France’s hard-line Interior Minister, Gerald Darmanin, indirectly referred to Muslims as “enemies from within” . He was also quoted to instruct police raids on Muslim individuals and organisations, who “were not linked to the investigation but to whom [they] are willing to send a message.”  Such statements show that the French government has failed to protect its citizens and have made Muslims scapegoats.
By stoking the flames of Islamophobia, radicalisation will continue and escalate. This fans ISIS and other like-minded groups’ rhetoric – that the ‘infidels’ are waging a crusade against Muslims. And France has inexplicably fed to the same radical narratives championed by ISIS who had praised Anzorov’s action as an act of martyrdom – no less than in its editorial, Al-Naba’. 
An excerpt from the article reads that the killing of the “crusader criminal gladdened the hearts of Muslims by protecting the honour of the Prophet.”  ISIS also calls for its supporters to attack Western entities in their countries of residence.
By now, France should have realised that apart from hard power tactics, countering radicalism is ultimately a battle for the hearts and minds. The ability to understand how radicalisation processes work is paramount to effectively finding solutions to the problems they are facing now.
PROPOSALS FOR TACKLING RADICALISATION
Eradicating radicalism and extremism has proven to be very difficult, and a long-term fight requires continuous efforts from governments and the local communities. Apart from addressing the socio-cultural divide that separates those living in the ghettos from mainstream society, there are other key steps that the French government should consider.
The first is to understand the pathway of radicalisation in France’s context. What are the root causes, and why are people engaging in violence? This way, policymakers can work with the religious communities – especially the scholars – to make informed decisions to counter extremism and radicalism.
France also needs to avoid disaggregating acts, appearances and practices in assessing radicalism. This was the case when its former Home Affairs Minister, Christophe Castaner while speaking at a hearing before the Law Committee of the National Assembly, listed some indicators that should trigger a thorough investigation by the police such as the growth of beard, rigid religious practices particularly during Ramadan and the wearing of the full-face veil . Contrary to countering radicalism, such ‘indicators’ may even encourage Muslims’ marginalization and make them vulnerable to radicalisation.
Second, when discussing identifying vulnerable individuals, French Muslims must be assured that they are not being targeted or viewed in constant suspicion by the government. They can focus on building capacity and strengthening social resilience to improve general conditions on the individual and societal levels. The government should also provide credible alternatives for disenfranchised Muslims to voice their grievances.
And third, France needs to create social conditions conducive to harmonious multi-religious living where treatment of religions and positive civic relations among its societies are equal. As the world changes with modernisation and globalisation, the political system and governance system need to evolve. While secularism has been accepted as a governance system for centuries in France, it is important to relook at the understanding and reinterpret secularism based on today’s socio-political context.
Take Singapore, for instance; it is a secular state, and it is obliged to treat all individuals as equal citizens regardless of religion. The freedom to practice religion is protected.
SEA OF CHANGE
The task at hand for France will require a sea of change in how the government addresses these issues. It will no longer be viable to craft a national counter-radicalisation policy when marginalisation and Islamophobia have not been addressed thoroughly.
Winning the battle against extremism and radicalism will require revolutionary thinking on reforming secularism’s very French idea and creating an environment that will dissuade disgruntled French Muslims to reconsider their position on supporting radical or extreme narratives espoused by terror groups.