French Muslims against radicalisation

Fight the good fight

In Bordeaux, Muslims have gone on the offensive against radical Islam within their communities. Yet their efforts are not to everyone′s taste – religion in France remains a highly personal matter. Elizabeth Bryant reports from Bordeaux

Fouad Saanadi is preaching to the converted, but not the mainstream Muslim community he belongs to. In a discreet building near city hall, the Bordeaux imam meets with bewildered parents and fragile youngsters, some of whom have never set foot inside a mosque. And yet they have come to the imam.

They are seeking guidance, something Saanadi is only too happy to offer. But there is also another reason for meeting them: the imam hopes that by presenting them with alternatives, he can protect young Muslims from potential radicalisation. After all, he and his band of experts are fighting a powerful adversary: militant Islam.

"My role is not to tell people the 'good' or 'true' Islam, but to help awaken a critical approach," Saanadi says of Bordeaux's year-old CAPRI programme aimed at preventing radicalisation. "We are not here to confront, but rather to awaken a critical awareness."

 Bordeaux counts among a growing number of communities across Europe searching for ways to counter extremism, following a wave of largely home-grown terrorist attacks. The question is all the more important for France, the target of three terror strikes in two years and western Europe's biggest exporter of extremist fighters.

Unlike in countries such as Germany and Britain, projects like CAPRI are relatively new in France. The country′s lay constitution means that the state has traditionally kept out of issues relating to religion. A recent Senate report even condemned such initiatives as failures.

While social, political and psychological factors are key drivers to radicalisation, some experts also believe the country's fiercely secular mindset and difficult relationship with Islam pose additional obstacles. "It is in the name of religion that they have become radicalised," Farhad Khosrokhavar, a Paris-based sociologist and jihadist expert explained. "They identify with this radical version of Islam, so you cannot ignore it."

Looking for solutions

Today, there is a new sense of urgency to finding answers. Hundreds of foreign fighters are beginning to return to Europe, authorities say, posing risks as potential terrorists and recruiters.

Imam Fouad Saanadi in the CAPRI project office in Bordeaux (photo: DW)
Sustainable project initiatives to combat radicalisation among Muslim teenagers: religious clerics often put families in touch with CAPRI. Imam Saanadi (right) evaluates each new case with half a dozen therapists, psychiatrists and legal experts. Of the 36 youngsters now enrolled, roughly 40 percent are women. Many are converts or "born again" Muslims from largely secular backgrounds

Whatever the cause, most agree that France has a serious problem. Roughly 700 French jihadists are still fighting in Iraq and Syria, according to recent government figures; another 1,350 suspected radicals are in French prisons, including nearly 300 with direct ties to terrorist networks.

Nationwide, authorities classify another 15,000 as extremists and potential security threats, including an estimated 200 or more in the south-western Gironde department that includes Bordeaux. The state's traditional law-and-order response has not proved effective, critics say.

"The European system is not experienced with dealing with so many radicalised people," Khosrokhavar says. "We need to come up with new ways of dealing with this sort of problem."

A partnership between Bordeaux's city hall and the regional Muslim federation, the year-old CAPRI programme may be one sign of changing times.

Fighting terrorism with education

"For the youngsters and the families, the fact we're doing this programme with the Muslim community is positive," says Bordeaux's Deputy Mayor Marik Fetouh, who is also CAPRI's spokesman. "It shows we're not confounding Islam and radicalisation."

It is often the clerics who put families in touch with CAPRI, says Fetouh. Imam Saanadi gathers with half-a-dozen therapists, psychiatrists and legal experts to evaluate each new case. Of the 36 youngsters now enrolled, roughly 40 percent are women. A number are converts, or "born again" Muslims from largely secular backgrounds. The average age is 22.

French-Iranian sociologist Farhad Khosrokhavar (photo: AFP/Getty Images)
French-Iranian sociologist Farhad Khosrokhavar has conducted in-depth research into the radicalisation of young people in France. Most terrorists had become ″de-Islamised, before becoming ′born again′ Muslims,″ he writes in his most recent work ″Radicalisation″, which has also been translated into German. Frustration over perceived inequalities within society becomes ″divine wrath″ – a phenomenon which is also found among ″disenchanted Christians″ and ″secularised Jews″. According to Khosrokhavar, this type of religious development requires new explanations

As secretary-general of Bordeaux's Muslim federation, Saanadi himself ascribes to a moderate, government-sanctioned brand of Islam that respects French secularism but is not always considered legitimate among more fundamentalist believers. Perhaps not surprisingly, he does not personally know anyone who has joined a jihadi movement. "Terrorism is a question for national education," he says. "We see children at the mosque two hours a week. The rest of their time is at school."

No silver bullets

"The state took too much time and now it's searching for miracle solutions," says sociologist Ouisa Kies, an expert on radicalisation in prisons. Last year, the centre-left government adopted a softer approach with uncertain results so far. It earmarked more than $300 million (284 million euros) for de-radicalisation programmes over three years and rolled out the first of a dozen voluntary centres planned across the country.

But in February 2017, a French senate report deemed the de-radicalisation centre, in the Loire Valley, a "fiasco." only nine youngsters had been treated there, it said, and it was currently empty.

The new government funding windfall has also helped fuel some 80 local initiatives, some with dubious credentials. "It's becoming a market," says Bordeaux's main imam, Tareq Oubrou, who provides theological advice to CAPRI. "Every two seconds, someone becomes a de-radicalisation specialist."

In Bordeaux, Saanadi is the first to acknowledge the limits of his intervention. "There are no miracle solutions," he says. "It's very easy to destroy, but very difficult to reconstruct."

Elizabeth Bryant

© Deutsche Welle 2017

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