Will McCants and Chris Meserole’s pieces (I, II & III) on The French Connection – or how “French political culture” were to drive disproportionate foreign fighter rates in France, Belgium and Tunisia – caught much attention. Yet, I fear that their postulate of a coherent “French” linguistical space and political culture that drove foreign fighter movements is not only based on a basic misunderstanding of the countries in question, but also results in a simplistic and terribly misleading explanatory theory.
Here is why:
1) Belgium is not France
In their Foreign Affairs piece the authors argued that “French-speaking Belgium” “has produced far more foreign fighters [than the UK].” Yet, Belgium is of course not solely French-speaking. In fact most Belgian foreign fighters come either from Brussels, where French is the no 1 language, but hardly the only one, or and Flemish-speaking Flanders, where speaking French will oftentimes be ill-perceived. Indeed, distinctly French-speaking Wallonia produces far, far less foreign fighters. (See here.)
- Political Culture
Yet, “’Francophone’ is a proxy for something else […] [namely] French political culture, specifically the French approach to secularism or laïcité.”
The problem with this is that French laïcité is a very, well, French concept. Belgian laïcité would not in fact be considered laïque in France, but is instead far more similar to the German or Dutch models of secularism.
Now in truth neither of these basic misunderstandings really seem to matter because when the authors say laïcité or Francophone they purport to really mean “public national debates about whether to ban face veils, which are commonly worn by Muslim women in particular.”
I am not sure whether the face veil really is all that common among Muslim women, but the bigger problem lies with the fact that, unlike what they claim, “France and Belgium […] are [not!] the only two countries in Europe to ban the full veil in their public schools.” The Dutch also did as well as parts of (Italian-speaking) Switzerland and Italy. This is not even to mention the Swiss vote that outlawed minarets back in 2009 and which in all logic should have had a comparable effect.
2) Tunisia is not France either
Tunisia of course had a revolution in 2011 and in elections in the fall of that year elected the political Islamists of Ennahda with a more than comfortable majority. Now try and imagine a Christian Democratic party winning elections in France.
The authors are accurate is that identitarian issues such as the right to carry a niqab at university became an important political issue following these elections. But fundamentally the position of people willing to outwardly show their religious adherence massively improved with the revolution. What would have been immediately punishable previously, now was hotly being debated, not anymore simply outlawed.
The authors would most likely argue that the such a debate per se is sufficient to radicalize people regardless of its outcome. There is a certain paradoxical nature to this argument – surely the outcome of a debate would have an impact on the perception of that debate. Even if we ignore this for a second though, it is clear that such public debates took place elsewhere also, yet did not produce the same results. In Austria the national parliament rejected a similar law for instance, in Germany a student in Bavaria was prevented from coming to school with a face veil and a governmental party (the CSU) is in favor of of outlawing the face veil.
3) Can Only Muslims Radicalize?
I doubt that the authors would agree with the implication of the above question. Still, their whole argument is construed on the ratio of Sunni Muslims who become foreign fighters. Their “radicalization rate” is “the number of foreign fighters from a country divided by its [I assume: Sunni] Muslim population.” In other words, the 20% of converts according to McCants himself – Olivier Roy cited figures in the 30% during a presentation I attended last week – that are part of France’s foreign fighter contingent weigh in on “radicalization rates” of Muslims. It is very likely that they raise the ratio without being included in the denominator.
Apart from a skewed comparison with countries lacking converts, e.g. Saudi Arabia, the very idea that Sunni Muslims were somehow the only ones prone to radicalization is bothersome. It also doesn’t bear out in the data, where converts have become increasingly prominent over the last twenty years and in particular in parallel with the war in Syria (and the debate on the interdiction of the niqab if you want).
4) Regional Differences Matter – Everywhere
The authors cite three locations that anecdotally were to showcase their argument of Francophone, urbanized areas marked by high youth unemployment being particularly likely to provide foreign fights. To include Ben Gardane, a city of 60.000 in the middle of nowhere and near the Libyan border, in the same discussion of urbanization problems as “the Parisbanlieus” [sic!!] poses all kind of problem of course. I will not even go into them here as they seem too obvious.
Note additionally that the situation in some outer parts of Marseille is not much different from that in Seine-Saint-Denis, yet radicalization rates vary widely between them. They clearly are exposed to the same national debates of course, so to what extent can those national debates really explain radicalization rates? Arguably a similar comparison could be made between, say, Molenbeek and Schaerbeek or Anderlecht.
What the authors also never address is that Turkish-origin Belgian Muslims hardly ever radicalize. Their response to differences in Flemish versus Walloon radicalization rates is that the Flemish were still part of the same “national political debate” [their italics], which if you know Belgium is an amusing concept. What’s worse though is that the French-speaking, Wallonian Sunni Muslims (and the Turkish-origin ones all over the country) are also part of those supposed national debates, yet hardly ever leave for jihad. Clearly, something else is aloof here.
I do think that McCants and Meserole have at an interesting point, if you take their argument to be that the virulence of political debate leads to radicalization. High radicalization rates around Nice for example, one of the Front National’s strongholds, but also in Flemish Belgium, where the Nieuw-Vlaamse Alliantie plays an important role, point to that. It holds far less in Ben Gardane, where, by the way, the identitarian debates taking place in Tunis only limitedly play a role.
Meserole argues that it is very problematic to ignore the national at the expense of the regional (“co-ethnic”). This might very well be true, but it seems at least as problematic to ignore what is going on regionally at the expense of the national level. Especially, if the alternative leads to the kind of simplistic, broad-stroke explanation that an ill-defined, supposedly coherent “French political culture” were responsible for engendering foreign fighter flows.