28.02.2018 Author: Catherine Shakdam

The Ghost of Mistakes Past: Islamic Jihadism and France’s Colonial Past


With Daesh militants all but defeated, another battle – one more serious as we may soon find out, has seen western capitals struggle with that very ideology they say to abhor, and yet tacitly supported, as part of their desire to quiet certain geopolitical dynamics in the Greater Middle East region.

France, arguably more predominantly, has wrestled with the repatriation of its ‘Jihadists’ – not all of whom foreign as popular belief would assume. Among France’s most infamous Terror’s militants, sit converts, French born and bred individuals, who, out of ideological inclination embraced Salafi/Wahhabi Islam’s most radical interpretation of the Scriptures: Takfirism.

It is pertinent to note for accuracy’s sake that, Takfirism, and the very concept of Jihad Salafi/Wahhabi clerics advocate, stands antithetical to normative Islam – whether Sunni or Shia. Takfir, which essentially declares an individual’s life forfeited on the basis that he or she is considered to exist outside the realm of Islam, runs again Islam’s most sacred principles of religious freedom, liberty, and above all free will.

While self-defence is indeed enshrined as an inherent Islamic right – and one may posit duty, any affront to a person’s right, dignity, and intrinsic humanity remains a crime, to which no rationalisation could ever be offered. Such reality has not of course prevented men of power to abuse their station by arguing needs over principles so that truths could adhere to their rationale, rather their rationale to espouse Truth.

Religion, while maybe the most powerful catalyst for such cognitive dissonance holds no monopoly … politics and nationalism have too, wielded reason and necessity to run counter to nations and groups’ self-proclaimed beliefs and/or principles.

Colonialism in that context runs parallel to Daesh’s base narrative as it posits ‘liberation’ to rationalise military interventionism and thus justify the violence war inevitably bring in its wake. If Terror has been condemned and decried as a modern-day plague born in a religious vacuum, we ought to realise that its rhetoric is rather ‘conventional’ – at least as far as the rationalisation of violence is concerned. History attests to this.

It is what underpins Terror we ought to address – or maybe better yet map out, before we can ambition to defeat it. Such feat will require we look back at those events, which, compounded across many great decades, led to the rise of Daesh as both a religious and political ideology. If reactionary Jihadism is not indeed a new concept, it was nevertheless revived as a response to a socio-political reality we have yet to admit accountability for.

France’s colonial footprint and the codification of just violence

When France set its eyes upon Algeria back in May 1830, it is freedom from persecution its government advocated to the local populace. And yet, what befell Algerians was indeed servitude. Maybe one France would consider just in the light of the socio-political oppression which existed under the rule of the Ottomans, but that would be to defend slavery from the viewpoint of the enslaver, inferring that precedence should be given to a certain elite.

Such elitism is actually what has fed much of the ideological distortions we grapple with today.

Freedom and Democracy one would like to think are principles which should suffer no such caveats. And yet … yet wars of occupation and colonialism itself were built upon allegations of moral grandeur. What is most interesting is how regimes, governments, and ideological complexes have used eerily similar narrative to support their reasoning

Addressing the French Parliament in 1882, Jules Ferry encapsulated France’s position and ambition as follow: “We must believe that if Providence deigned to confer upon us a mission by making us masters of the earth this mission consists not of attempting an impossible fusion of races but of simply spreading or awakening among the other races the superior notions of which we are the guardians.”

In 1884 Ferry added: “The superior races have a right to dominate the inferior races, to civilize them.”

It is then that this very French notion of ‘mission civilisatrice’ – this mission to civilise the infamous ‘other’ became an institution onto itself, forever the cornerstone, and expression of France’s Republicanism.

A pamphlet issued prior to France’s invasion of Algeria carried the following narrative: “We French, your friends, are leaving for Algiers. We are going to drive out your tyrants, the Turks who persecute you, who steal your goods, and never cease menacing your lives, … our presence on your territory is not to make war on you but only on the person of your pasha. Abandon your pasha: follow our advice. It is good advice and can only make you happy.”

Daesh ideologues argue to this day the ‘morality’ of their aggression in the name of that same elusive concept: Freedom – freedom from the yoke of western civilisation, freedom from religious falsehood (or so they claim), freedom from the enemies, freedom from all they claim holds sway over the ignorant masses.

War as it were has its own language, and it is often it is dressed in claims of peace and security.

France’s North African ambitions and subsequent footing into the Islamic world early 19th century – a world it knew very little about safe maybe from what transpired from Napoleon’s Egyptian adventures, set the tone for centuries of misses, mistrusts, and a resentment which came to feed into Jihadism as the expression of a stolen religious identity and robbed national pride.

Jihadism interestingly enough was, once upon a time, a weapon western capitals had little qualms wielding. On the wake of WW1 Germany was rather keen to see a disintegrating Ottoman Empire call for Jihad against France and Britain so that their respective holds over the Islamic World by way of the colonies would wane. Although such calls were never answered, the logic behind it still holds.

Pan-Islamism remains a powerful dynamic -a devastating one when left in the hands of warlords, as it cuts across national and tribal borders, making its ideologues titans over a sizeable world population. Add to that genuine grievances and a yearning for social-economic empowerment and the rise of Daesh as a trans-national pan-Islamic movement does indeed makes sense.

What is most troubling today is the fact that Daesh’s frontline may soon shift away from the Middle East to a more welcoming landscape right at the heart of the Old Continent. France has borne the brunt of Terror’s fury too many times not to realise that its borders have been already breached.

Unlike Iraq, which, as a nation, found strength in unity through the recognition of its diverse ethno-social political and religious make-up, France stands divided in the conceptualisation of its sovereignty.

France’s difficult colonial past and Paris’ inability to allow its immigrants to find a space within which to find themselves under France’s Republican system has fed a socio-political psychosis that has now reached boiling point. France’s infamous ‘banlieues’ – the violence of late that has transpired from its quarters attest to that.

The rise of the far-right also sits a clear indication of France’s profound social malaise, one which runs parallel to the radicalism of France’s Jihadists.

French President Emanuel Macron warns in his book: Revolution, against those divisions radicals of all flavours have argued to garner support to their respective cause.

“We have an enemy – ISIS. We must fight that enemy relentlessly, both within and without our borders and beyond. However, this in no way provides justification for muddying the issues or being driven apart by tangential quarrels.”

And: “More broadly speaking, the social disintegration that we are currently seeing fuels an identity crisis, which in turn paralyses our ability to act with a single voice.”

How France will address this new challenge will undoubtedly have far-reaching consequences. But before any progress can be made, France will need to own those dynamics it itself architected to the tune of its own territorial ambitions, and intellectual elitism.

What France will do with its Jihadists, and how it will untangle the rationale behind the rise of reactionary Jihadism among its native population will determine much of Europe’s future.

Catherine Shakdam is the Director of Programs of the Shafaqna Institute for Middle Eastern Studies and a political analyst specializing in radical movements, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.

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