Radical Islam sows its seed in Europe's fertile soil
Recruiters home in on cities where a sense of alienation has created a pool of disaffected young Muslims, DOUG SAUNDERS reports
By DOUG SAUNDERS
Saturday, September 10, 2005
PARIS - At a pleasant café in this downtrodden corner of Paris, Mahor Chiche interrupts the conversation to point to a bald, bearded, tunic-wearing teenager passing on the sidewalk. "Look," he says, "there's a Moussaoui."
The 30-year-old law student was born to Tunisian parents in this tough neighbourhood, and he knows the particularities of its dress code. Such young men, he explains, model their appearance after Zacarias Moussaoui, the immigrant to France who was charged with being the would-be 20th hijacker in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Mr. Moussaoui, to a surprising number of young French men here in the 19th district of Paris, is a role model. We know this not just because so many French teenagers here from moderate or non-religious North African families are now sporting the beards and tunics of the true believer and attending 5 a.m. prayers at fringe mosques, but also because many of them have followed more directly in the footsteps of their al-Qaeda role models.
In the past few months, at least eight young French-born men from this district have blown themselves up in Iraq. Another is believed to be the leader of a cell of insurgents within Iraq. A number have been arrested on their return from Iraq, and authorities believe they were planning to commit terrorist attacks within Europe.
Four years ago this weekend, the grubbier neighbourhoods of European cities produced an unprecedented threat to the world, after a Hamburg-based group of young North African and Middle Eastern immigrants organized the Sept. 11 attacks.
That first wave of al-Qaeda terrorists were all immigrants from Muslim countries to Europe or North America; they included Canadian terrorists such as Ahmed Ressam, the young Algerian man now in jail for trying to bomb the United States on Jan. 1, 2000.
But something has changed dramatically in the past four years. Across Europe, and possibly in North America, the new Mohamed Attas are coming not from immigrant enclaves, not from people raised in Muslim countries where religious extremism is part of the political culture. They are native-born citizens of their host countries, fluent in its language and culture, usually from families that are neither impoverished nor religious.
As the popularity of radical Islam has declined dramatically in Muslim countries -- not a single international terrorist figure has emerged from Iraq, Afghanistan or Palestine in the past four years -- it is becoming a fully European force in France, Britain, Spain, Germany and the Netherlands, forged in the bland concrete housing projects that ring the cities of Europe.
"It's not the ones from religious families who are turning into jihadists," said Rosa Tandjaoui, the daughter of Algerian and Tunisian parents who owns a bookstore here in the 19th district and whose children attend the same schools as the French suicide bombers.
"It's people from families like mine -- secular, patriotic French, educated. I worry about my son a lot -- I hope he doesn't become religious, and I will never let him go to prayers by himself. I've seen what happens to them."
At the centre of this neighbourhood are several complexes of huge apartment buildings, 22 to a block. At the centre of one of those blocks yesterday, a group of young Muslims leaned against the wall, passed around a joint and passed the time -- about the only activity available for a great many young men around here. Unlike their parents, they are not struggling in casual labour to build a future: They feel fully French, own name-brand clothes and have everything but a future. They discussed rap music and the forces that had turned several of their friends into jihadists.
"You can tell when they've gone over, because they were delinquents and all of a sudden they start acting very good, going to church, not smoking the hashish," said Mehdi, 21, whose parents came from Mali. "And they get really strict, telling people that they're infidels if they don't go to the mosque. They're being told things that sound really good -- it's like a cult."
The 19th district was once a surprisingly harmonious place, with halal and kosher butchers happily sharing sidewalk space. Then something abruptly changed.
Many people here say that occurred two years ago, when the leadership of the largest mosque was taken over by Algerians who had been members of the Islamist insurgency there. Others say it was the arrival of recruiters -- severe men in beards and tunics -- who set up a string of Middle Eastern sandwich shops along one street.
"Radicals are getting control of the mosques, it's true, but these are kids who don't even go to the mosque," said Mr. Chiche, who has formed a group to oppose extremist influences in the 19th district.
These listless and naïve youngsters, he explains, end up "buying the salad," to use the local expression.
"So this man comes to visit, from a Muslim group, and he sets up in the back room of one of the halal sandwich places - you get the sandwich for free, and then you get the intellectual salad on top of it. So he sells his salad -- and the young man has had no idea of these concepts; they sound good, so he eagerly embraces it."
French scholars of Islamic society now argue that radical Islam, which began as an export from the Middle East and Africa, is now an entirely European product, utterly devoid of links with actual Muslim countries.
"There is a kind of pan-European underclass that has formed, of young Muslim European citizens who have no real links with either European society or any real Muslim societies," said Farhad Khosrokhavar, a professor at Paris's School of Advanced Studies in Social Sciences who has recently compiled his field work in Muslim extremist communities in a book titled The New Martyrs of Allah.
"Across Europe, there are similar patterns of this exclusion -- in France in these cites [housing projects], in England in poor inner cities. They feel that this exclusion is not really economic, but cultural."
The recruiters move across Europe, homing in on cities where the deprivation seems to have created the largest numbers of disaffected young Muslims.
The Muslim community centres of Leeds seem to have been deliberately targeted. And many people here in the 19th district say that the recruiters arrived en masse, in what seems to have been a deliberate experiment in radicalizing a whole generation. They work fast: It only takes two or three days, people say, to turn someone's head around. Within months, they can be blowing themselves up in Iraq - or in London.
"This gives birth to a kind of imagination that is very disconnected from the reality of Muslim countries," said Prof. Khosrokhavar. "These recruiters construct an imaginary world of Islam. It is globalized, refashioned, and not referring to the actual reality of Muslims in the world. . . "
The response has varied. In Britain, the government has declared an end to its policy of multicultural tolerance. In the Netherlands, the population lashed out at Muslims. And here in France, there is a very serious proposal to start building government-funded mosques with government-trained and certified imams, as a typically French way to bring Muslim youths more closely into French society.
In the 19th district, the guys who escaped the lure of the recruiters look askance at this.
"These guys, the jihadists and extremists, are making it bad for all of us -- they're telling Europe that all of us blacks and Muslims are people who could turn into suicide bombers at some point," Mehdi said. "There's no point having government mosques or anything like that - it's up to us, here in the projects, to do something about this. We have to show them a better path."
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