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20 July 2016, Gateway House

Islamic State and France: mortal enemies

France's state policy of 'laïcité' (secularism) and its military interventions in Islamic countries has made it the prime target of IS in the West. The hardline French response to step up bombing campaigns against jihadis in Syria, Iraq, and Mali will likely continue, but conversely feeds IS strategy, which is to foment anti-Muslim sentiment among the non-Muslim French population.

Editor-in-Chief, Radio France International

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Finally, after two long days, the so-called Islamic State (IS) claimed responsibility for the horrific truck attack in the French Riviera capital, Nice, on Bastille Day (July 14, 2016) which left more than 80 people dead and 200 injured. Whether the murderous truck driver who mowed down the crowd of holiday-makers was a true jihadi or just a disgruntled individual is immaterial: the claim made by the IS left no doubt that it has made France one of its key targets.

France is not the only country to be regarded as kafir (an infidel) by the self-proclaimed caliphate: all of the western world, Shia Muslims, and even most Sunni Muslims, including those in the Arab Gulf states are kuffar (infidels) according to the IS and as such, deserve to be fought by its army of militants. But for the IS, France is a prime target, mainly – but not exclusively – for the following reasons:

  • The French state policy of laïcité (secularism);
  • The recent French military interventions abroad, mostly in Islamic countries (Mali, Libya, Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan) and
  • The sizeable Muslim community on French territory (between 4 million and 5 million, out of a total population of 66 million).

The French concept of laïcité is usually translated as ‘secularism’ but in fact, it goes well beyond that. India and the U.S., for that matter, profess to have secular constitutions but religion in all its aspects is widely prevalent in the public domain in both nations. By contrast, the French term ‘laïcité’ was coined in the early 20th century to curtail the Catholic Church’s influence on state matters by enforcing a strict separation between the church and the state. By law, the French state is strictly areligious. In actual fact, it has long been regarded as hostile to Catholicism.

With the current dynamics of diminishing religious practice among Christians set against the growing number of Muslims, Islam has become the target of ‘laïc’ public policies that are sometimes aggressively applied. For this reason, many Muslim citizens feel disenfranchised in France and denounce what they perceive as a prevalent ‘Islamophobia’. Jihadi organisations exploit this feeling of alienation and equate laïcité with atheism, making it unacceptable for any follower of the Islamic faith. Al Qaida (formerly) and IS (today) derived and continue to derive the legitimacy of attacking France as an atheist country from several verses of the Quran and various hadith (sayings of Prophet Mohammed that, along with the Quran, constitute the principal guidelines for practising Muslims) on how to deal harshly with non-believers.

Apart from the United Kingdom, France is the only European country with a meaningful military force which has been deployed over the past decades on external operations. These were conducted mostly in Africa, but also in Bosnia during the Balkan wars in the 1990’s; in Afghanistan after the Twin Tower attack in the U.S. on September 11, 2001; against Muammar Qaddafi, the deposed Libyan leader in 2011 and in Iraq and Syria in the past few years. The French military intervention in Mali in January 2013 was a decisive factor in preventing  jihadi attempts to seize the capital Bamako. To this day, French units still patrol Mali and target jihadi militants.

Moreover, although other countries are also engaged in operations abroad against jihadis, none of them (with the possible exception of the U.S.) has been trumpeting about their engagement the way France has. French leaders, by openly projecting France as an enemy of the IS and claiming responsibility for the hunting down and killing of IS militants, could well have attracted what will be justified by the IS as legitimate retaliation on French soil. France, of course, has just the opposite viewpoint: that it is the Islamic State that is the aggressor, fomenting terrorist attacks against French citizens even abroad and therefore France has no choice but to destroy the source of this terrorism from wherever it arises. It is not surprising therefore that the IS caliphate and the French government regard each other as mortal enemies.

A key objective in the IS’ strategy appears to be that by increasing the number of its deadly attacks in France, it will turn the non-Muslim French population, particularly the right-wingers, against Islam and the Muslims in France. If this results in retaliatory violence against the French Muslims, which so far have been kept in check, it would serve to further alienate them against the French establishment, which they would perceive as having failed to protect them against stigmatisation. In fact several weeks ago the head of internal security, Patrick Calvar, appearing before a parliamentary committee, expressed the fear that violent ultra-right organisations would wage a civil war against Muslims living in France.

As the French government tends to respond to each deadly attack by stepping up its bombings in Syria and Mali, it seems to feed the IS’ strategy much in the the manner of a self-fulfilling prophecy. A major contributory factor has been overwhelming public support for the French government’s decision to take recourse to the military option abroad, even in the face of a surge in terrorist attacks on its soil. For the time being at least, French authorities and opposition leaders alike are more convinced than ever that military retaliation is the right answer to these attacks and opinion polls show no sign that public support is faltering. With the next presidential election less than a year away, no leader wants to appear weak in the face of terrorism.

But if fresh terrorist attacks cause many more casualties, one cannot discount the possibility that French voters may have second thoughts and decide that, after all, the cost of foreign intervention by the military is too high a price to pay. However, there is no guarantee that the IS would exercise restraint in the very unlikely event of a cessation of the French bombardment of its strongholds in Syria and Iraq. There is, on the contrary, every reason to expect a continued targeting of IS militants and their leaders in West Asia in the coming months with a corresponding intensification of the terrorist threat in France.

Olivier Da Lage is editor-in-chief at Radio France International. He contributes to Gateway House in his personal capacity.

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