George Packer on "the suburbs of Paris [as] incubators of terrorism"?
My friend Sperwer sent me a very long but interesting article by the American journalist, novelist, and playwright George Packer in the New Yorker, "The Other France: Are the suburbs of Paris incubators of terrorism?" (August 31, 2015). I offer a conversation between a moderate Muslim and a non-Muslim - Ben Ahmed and Valerie Tabet, respectively - over Islam as a factor in the creation of jihadists:
One evening, Ben Ahmed prepared dinner at the house of his next-door neighbor, Valérie Tabet, a widowed piano teacher whose daughter attends the same school as Ben Ahmed's kids. The two families are close. Tabet, who has pale skin and short, dark-blond hair, told me that it’s no longer safe for young children to be out alone on the streets of the 93, and Ben Ahmed has become a kind of father figure to her daughter. While Ben Ahmed poured crêpe batter onto a griddle in the Tabets’ dining room, he and Valérie discussed how someone becomes a terrorist.An interesting, if unsatisfying conversation. Tabet raised a good point. What the terrorists have in common is 'Islam.' Surely that must mean something. But the common ground shared by Ahmed and Tabet is riven with cracks, and we never quite entirely find out if the suburbs of Paris are "incubators of terrorism."
Ben Ahmed said, "I have the impression in fact that it's rather simple, how these people can flip from one day to the next."
"It isn't from one day to the next," Tabet said.
"For me, it's a question of people who either are psychologically ill, maybe a little crazy," Ben Ahmed said. "These people are very fragile, and at a given moment they're recruited by people—"
"There's too many jihadis for me to agree with you," Tabet interrupted. "The Kouachi brothers were fragile in their makeup - a lack of bearings, a lack of education, a lack of a vision of life, and later that leads to violence - but I don't agree that they were nuts."
Ben Ahmed said that this wasn't what he meant. In addition to the psychiatric cases, there were the psychologically weak, like the Kouachis: "These people would have got in a fight on the street for nothing, for a parking place." He added, "Coulibaly, he scares me a bit, because his family life was more normal." Somehow, Coulibaly was indoctrinated, and then he found it all too easy to find weapons.
"It's very easy to get them," Tabet agreed. "But there's a lot of people who are made fragile by society, because there's not enough work for everyone, because of social problems and all that. But what I see is that there's a point in common among those people - they're Muslims." She added quickly, "And it's not to point a finger, because I mean the potential terrorists. But the problem for me is what they hear in the mosques, in small groups." She spoke of radical imams preaching hate.
Ben Ahmed said that Tabet was simply repeating what she'd heard in the media.
"But someone indoctrinates them."
"The people who do that are in a network, but not in a network you would call Muslim," Ben Ahmed said. "Not in the mosque." He searched for the name of Coulibaly's recruiter in jail. "Djamel Beghal. He isn't an imam."
"You can't say that there aren't people who use religion to attract these youths."
"You say 'people,' sure, but you also said 'imams.' I'm not saying they don't exist, but you're generalizing from the exception."
"I'm saying there are many reasons, and the point in common is these are young Muslims. And that means something - it means that they're using religion."
Ben Ahmed seemed to be afraid that if he accepted Tabet's view he would end up vindicating the Islamophobes. He couldn't cross that line. The two friends were on the verge of an argument that might inflict lasting hurts.
"Your opinion is interesting," Ben Ahmed said. "The thing is, I’m convinced that this doesn't really happen in the mosques. It's in prison."
"Yes, that's certain," Tabet said.
"And there are people who come to the mosques to talk with some of them and succeed in capturing them, on the side."
They had found just enough common ground to move on.
I'm thus still stuck with the narrow distinction between Islamism and Islam . . .