The French Path to Jihad

By Rosenthal, John | Policy Review, October-November 2006 | Go to article overview

The French Path to Jihad


Rosenthal, John, Policy Review


  I understood that I was different, that I was not French, that I would
  never become French and that I had no business trying to become French
  either. I took it well. I was proud of my new Muslim identity. Not to
  be French, to be Muslim, just that: Algerian too, but, above all,
  Muslim. That was my reconquest of myself, my burst of lucidity, my
  awakening. I was rid of the malaise from which I had suffered and all
  of a sudden I felt good about myself: no more impossible dreams, no
  more desire to become part of this France that did not want me. And,
  above all, I started to nourish a tremendous hatred toward the Fascist
  regime that had rejected the vote of the Algerian people for Islamic
  rule.
  --"Ousman," an Algerian-born Islamist in French prison (1)

  I have a more technical point to--today. I stand here as a French
  citizen. I want to make clear that I am not French and have no
  relation. I'm a sworn enemy of France. So I want to make this in the
  record that I'm not French, okay? I tell you I am a Muslim, and I have
  nothing to do with a nation of homosexual Crusaders. And I am not a
  frog. That's the first thing....
  --Zacarias Moussaoui, to the U.S. District Court for the Eastern
  District of Virginia, February 14, 2006 (2)

HOW DOES ONE become a jihadist? Just how unprepared Americans have been to confront this question was made embarrassingly clear during the recent trial of Zacarias Moussaoui as large parts of the established media dwelt thoughtfully on Moussaoui's broken family and childhood spells in an orphanage--as if such banal details could somehow account for the behavior of a man who has pledged allegiance to Osama Bin Laden, been found guilty of plotting to fly a jetliner into the White House in connection with the 9/11 plot, and testified to his readiness to kill Americans "anytime, anywhere" (3) every day until his death. Moussaoui was apparently supposed to be just like you and me--the defense witness who recounted for the court the allegedly sad story of young Zacarias was a social worker from Greenville, South Carolina--only not as well-adjusted. At the other extreme, a current of opinion has emerged that is widely represented in the "new" media and that offers a ready-made and conveniently foreshortened answer to the question: one that spares the investigator all need to enter into the details of individual life histories. How does one become a jihadist? By being a Muslim. For the representatives of this current, whose more or less openly avowed "Islamophobia" can easily degrade into simple racism, the jihadist threat is entirely a product of Islam or the "Muslim world" and consequently wholly alien to "the West."

It is a pity that, in effect, none of the media--neither the old media nor the new--took advantage of the unique opportunity provided by the Moussaoui trial to seek more convincing answers. To this day, for instance, despite the sensation created by Moussaoui's decision to take the stand, the full transcript of his testimony has never been published. If Americans were able to consider the portrait of Moussaoui that emerges from his own words, what they would discover is a figure who is neither so familiar as the sympathetic psychotherapeutic accounts in the old media suggest nor so alien as the theories of the new media pundits would lead one to assume. Of course, it would be hazardous to attempt to generalize from the single case of Zacarias Moussaoui. But a just-published collection of interviews with suspected members of al Qaeda in French prisons, Quand Al-Qaida parle: Temoignages derriere les barreaux (When al Qaeda Talks: Testimonials from Behind Bars), provides us with an unprecedentedly large body of evidence on the backgrounds, worldview, and motivations of those who make the choice for violent jihad in the name of Islam.

The interviews were conducted between 2001 and 2003 by Farhad Khosrokhavar of France's preeminent social science faculty, the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales. …

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