Why has France become a safe haven for extremism in Europe?
Casting blame on those responsible for the rise of the Islamic State in various parts of the Middle East and its disconcerting extension into other parts of the world is a futile exercise. The fact that the Islamic State has developed a global sphere of influence and is able to spread instability unimpeded necessitates detailed investigation, but it is important to note that the current state of affairs is the result of the faults, shortcomings, and negligent decision-making of many actors. What matters now is that the Islamic State is making advances on multiple fronts and the international community is barely committed and insufficiently united to be able to tackle its unchecked growth.
In 2017, the Islamic State has been implicated in attacks in Baghdad, Istanbul, Kabul, Westminster, Manchester, Melbourne, Jakarta, Minya, London, and even Tehran, and the perpetrators have mostly been able to avoid consequences after boldly claiming responsibility, except in the cases where they were shot dead by law enforcement officials.
What’s more, some European countries—especially those where the far right is rising, such as France—have become havens for such groups.
The Growth of the Far Right and Islamophobia
The French version of secularism—laïcité—is believed to have come into being in 1871. Part of what makes laïcité unique is the persistence of French authorities in turning their version of “secularism” into a state religion, leaving no room for criticism. Some prominent commentators and journalists, including the University of Houston’s Robert Zaretsky, have argued that French secularism has made the country a fundamentalist republic, which opens the door for such tragedies as the Charlie Hebdo shooting.
But following the establishment of the Third French Republic and state secularism, the country started to sing the hymn of exceptionalism. The concoction of its distinctive version of secularism has also resulted in an exclusionary approach to minorities and faith groups, paving the way for the rise of Islamophobia, xenophobia, and other forms of racial and religious hatred. As a result, it’s not surprising that groups such as the Islamic State have found France a fertile ground to expand their activities. Several scholars have voiced concerns that the French integration model for minorities has hit a disappointing stalemate.
Moreover, France doesn’t seem to be strictly concerned about cracking down on groups which by some standards are “extremist” and alternatively viewed as legitimate opposition groups.
A notorious example of one such group is the militant cult in exile, People’s Mujahedin of Iran, alternatively referred to as PMOI or MKO. Founded in 1965, it boasts of being an alternative to the current political establishment in Iran, or a shadow government. Part of the early days of the Islamic Revolution in 1979, it contributed to the Iranian people’s ideals of freedom, self-determination, and right to decide their future. But as the chaos of the early 1970s subsided, MKO became progressively disenfranchised as its senior figures were denied leadership positions in the new government. The group failed four times to gain seats in parliament, the Assembly of Experts, and Sa’adabad Palace.
Shortly afterward, the group began to resort to violence to achieve its goal of eliminating the government in Tehran quickly and efficiently. MKO was designated as a foreign terrorist organization by the governments of the United States, United Kingdom, and Canada, as well as by the European Union. But between 1981 and 1986 and since 2003, MKO has been sheltered in Paris, and the majority of its rallies and demonstrations take place in French cities, attended by thousands of people. There’s no official relationship between France and MKO, but given their ultra-right worldview and their overtly anti-Iranian attitudes, France currently seems to be the safest place to host MKO. The “Republican” administrations of France, who don’t shy away from showing their reluctance to improving bilateral relations with Iran find the Mojahedin-e-Khalq Organization a leverage of authority over Tehran and also see no harm in letting the proxy group continue operating in disguise and publicly. Although advocacy for “regime change” in Iran dates back to the early years of the Islamic Revolution in 1979, MKO still sticks to this mentality and France finds it of some value to allow MKO’s existence. However, the most remarkable development is that in January 2009, MKO was delisted as a foreign terrorist organization by the European Union shortly after being delisted by the United Kingdom in 2008. This means although they don’t have official status, they’re not considered a “harmful” or violent group anymore. As things stand now, in the view of the high-ranking EU authorities, MKO is a “dissident” group in exile, whereas in the eyes of millions of Iranians, it’s a cult responsible for the assassination of politicians and mass murders starting in early 1970s until their bombing of the UN compound in Iraq in 2009, prompting UN withdrawal from the country.
The Islamic State, too, has strong ties to France. According to the Global Terrorism Index 2015 released by the Institute For Economics and Peace, around 2,000 French fighters have joined its ranks. France has been a frequent target of major Islamic State attacks since 2014.
Moreover, the French authorities’ failure to cooperate effectively with non-hostile, non-aligned governments has presented a misleading image of the country’s ability to work with those international partners with which it may not have shared interests. When Iranian President Hassan Rouhani paid an official visit to France in February 2016—the first head of Iranian government in 16 years to travel to Paris—Elysée Palace called off a dinner ceremony for the dignitaries of the two governments after Rouhani requested that a halal meal be served at the banquet and alcoholic beverages be taken off the dinner table. The small disagreement overshadowed the media coverage of President Rouhani’s first “charm offensive” in Europe.
One trend is clear: France insists on promoting and upholding its exclusive version of secularism. The inflexibility and ultra-nationalism in the policies of the far-right politicians and parties in France, especially those of the National Front and Marine Le Pen, are reminiscent of the former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s radical religious viewpoints and ultra-nationalism. Ahmadinejad’s actions prompted the immigration of thousands of people of faith, and either intentionally or inadvertently stigmatized the nation’s constitutionally recognized religious minorities.
The French system doesn’t seem to have frameworks that enable harsh and unconditional crackdown on extremists. The Islamic State has found France a safe haven to plan and carry out attacks without facing consequences. The most notable difference lies in the way French criminal law works. It’s a common and well-known trend that French authorities raid restaurants, bookstores and take other actions to disrupt alleged extremists but don’t take serious steps when they urgently need to stifle the rise of extremism, Islamophobia and bust the real terrorist cults that undermine the security and peace of their borders and disrupt international peace and security. I can refer to it as the French double standards on tackling terrorism and violent extremism. Moreover, France has a history of violence in its encounters with the Middle East and North Africa and an exclusionary attitude toward its Muslim population—fueled by the inflammatory, anti-Muslim rhetoric of its leaders. And the Time magazine once asserted that France’s prisons have become a recruiting ground for extremists, which is a viable assertion.
When France wields its state secularism in such a way that faith minorities feel regularly excluded and snubbed, it’s no surprise that extremist cults like the Islamic State feel empowered.
Kourosh Ziabari, Contributor
MA International Multimedia Journalism student, University of Kent, FCO Chevening Scholar Iran 2016/17