Essay by Islam expert Gilles Kepel

The new jihad and its mentors

Islamist attacks such as those that took place in Paris this last autumn evidence a new kind of perpetrator. In place of individual terror organisations, networks appear to have emerged that sermonise on the cultural rift and provoke radical acts. By Gilles Kepel

On 3 October 2019, a computer technician working at the police headquarters in Paris responsible for combatting jihadism, attacked five colleagues with knives, killing four of them before being himself shot dead by a police officer. Mickael Harpon, born in the French Antilles and partially deaf, had converted to Islam in 2008.

In the small town of Gonesse, where he lived, he was a devout member of a mosque congregation where the chief imam represented a group associated with the Muslim Brotherhood – the Conseil Theologique des Musulmans de France. Another imam, a Moroccan national responsible for leading daily prayers at the same mosque since 2017, had already been blacklisted by security agencies and should have been expelled in 2015 owing to his radical Salafist preaching.

But the deportation was rescinded and the imam arrived at the Mosquee de la Fauconniere in Gonesse, after being sacked by a nearby Muslim place of worship because he "had caused chaos at the mosque with the rabble" – the words of the former regional mayor and current parliamentary representative of the constituency.

Due to a coincidence that is by no means unusual for jihadism, this act of violence took place on the same day as a trial in the court building next door against the female commando accused of trying to detonate a car bomb on 4 September 2016 – not far from Notre Dame cathedral and also very close to the police headquarters.

Too much emphasis on the religious aspect?

On that morning, the court was also dealing with the case of a female convert to Islam accused of attacking a police officer with a knife as he tried to arrest her. The Islamic State (IS) in Raqqa claimed responsibility for this attack. The group had manipulated its perpetrators – women of low intelligence, some of whom were suffering from severe psychological problems.

Even 10 days after Mickael Harpon's act, neither the IS nor any other jihadist group claimed responsibility.

French President Emmanuel Macron during the funeral for the four murdered police officers (photo: Reuters)
A European jihadism of the "fourth generation"? The attacker who killed four people in the Paris police headquarters was, according to the French anti-terror prosecutor's office, a supporter of a radical form of Islam. According to the public prosecutor's office, he had a radical view of Islam and had had contact with members of the radical Islamic Salafist movement

As far as the killer's thought processes can be reconstructed, it was a decision he came to of his own accord. Commentators on Islamism in France are now debating the question of what drove this person to carry out the violent attack of 3 October – a man who faced additional mental pressure due to his partial deafness. Was it the cultural rift between the values of the "infidel" society that the Salafist or Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated imams are trying to incite (without explicitly calling for violence), or is the religious dimension of his crime being subjected to over-interpretation?

Should the first hypothesis turn out to be accurate, the university lecturer and playwright Rachid Benzine believes there is a danger that a fundamental mistrust of Islam per se – and not just of militant Islamists or jihadists – could take hold in society. A mistrust that will only be further exacerbated by all those who claim the crime has "nothing to do with Islam".

Ideologues of the cultural rift

In France, the European country where the Muslim share of the population is the largest, we are seeing a debate like the one currently being conducted in Germany. In the case of France, where the secular- and progressively-inclined intelligentsia still likes to hope that religious affiliation is not a key determinant of identity and that socialisation results in an emancipation that allows compliance with the core values of the Republic – liberty, equality and fraternity – the Harpon affair throws up a larger problem.

How should "radicalisation" be defined? Does the concept have an operative meaning? Or is it simply a fuzzy generic term that prevents us from imagining an ideological continuum that extends on the one hand from the cultural rift between the Salafists and Muslim Brotherhood and the values of western democracy in the name of Sharia, to the deployment of violence on the other?

In his book "Milestones", to this day the most influential manifesto in Islamist politics, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood's most influential theorist Sayyid Qutb pointed to the tactical difference between the "phase of weakness" (istid'af) and the "phase of strength" (tamkîn) in the fight to create the Islamic state during the time of the Prophet Muhammad.

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