Wash U Expert: Charlie Hebdo terror attack feeds on centuries-old tensions

Attacks likely to strengthen far right, says Islamic culture expert

The secular, anti-immigration and Islamophobic divisions now gripping France have their roots in the nation’s 200-year history of close interaction with Algeria and its strong 19th-century tradition of opposing organized religion of any form, suggests John R. Bowen, PhD, a sociocultural anthropologist who has written four books on Islam’s interaction with Western societies.


“France has a long tradition of combat between the republic and the church, but I think the attack on Charlie Hebdo, and indeed other violence related to Al-Qaeda and AQIM (Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb), is more about the longstanding proximity of France to the Muslim world,” said Bowen, the Dunbar-Van Cleve Professor in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis.

“What’s behind the attacks is what’s behind Jihadi attacks in all parts of the world,” Bowen said. “It’s fueled by rage at longstanding issues and attacks on Muslims in various parts of the Middle East and the Muslim world, and in particular in France.”

Bowen is a frequent commentator on Islamic issues in Europe. He is the author of “Why the French Don’t Like Headscarves: Islam, the State, and Public Space” (2007) and “Can Islam Be French? Pluralism and Pragmatism in a Secularist State” (2011). His most recent books are “A New Anthropology of Islam” (2012) and “Blaming Islam” (2012).

To really understand why the Charlie Hebdo attack occurred, Bowen argues, you must look at France’s long, tumultuous and very intimate relationship with the Islamic world, beginning with their conquest of Algeria in 1830.

The Algerian war for independence from France, which lasted from 1954 until 1962, left bitter scars on both sides and it remains a sensitive issue in French politics. Unlike many colonial powers, France continues to be closely involved both economically and militarily in Algeria and other former colonies in the Middle East and Africa.

“They continue to have very strong military involvement in Mali and in the air over other parts of the Middle East — Syria and Iraq — and they were a major force in the flights over Libya,” Bowen said. “So France, maybe even more so than America, is a target for jihadists because they see it as a major military force opposing them.”

The current anti-immigrant and anti-Islamic tensions in France, said Bowen, also are a direct result of the post-World War II manufacturing boom that brought thousands of poor, unskilled laborers from Algeria and other predominantly muslim North African countries to work in the factories of France.

Now, many of those factory jobs are gone, but the immigrants and their descendants remain. Poor, jobless and shunned by mainstream French society, these immigrants are primed to lash out in protests that usually have more to do with economics than religion. Still, it is often religious differences that get the blame, Bowen said.

All of this tension has made France a fertile recruiting ground for Islamic terrorist groups, he added, noting that as many as a thousand young men from the immigrant communities of France are now fighting with Al Qaeda in places like Iraq and Syria.

As Bowen explains in a recent Time magazine commentary, “when disaffected young men and women tune in to jihadi web sites, they find French-speaking Muslims telling them of the sins their government is committing against their ‘brothers and sisters’ in Iraq and Syria. Resentment at French racism, at the series of largely symbolic measures taken against Muslims, such as the 2010 ban on wearing face-veils in public, add to this anger, and lead some towards fighting.

“France will not change its decades-old foreign policy, nor are rights and practices of satire likely to fade away,” he concludes. “But the main impact may be to use the attacks as an excuse to blame Islam and immigration for broad anxieties about where things are going in Europe today. Such a confusion can only strengthen the far right.”