Facing the Unknown Peril

“WHEN THE peril is unknown, enraged fear produces the same effects as blind temerity.” The words belong to Cardinal de Retz (1613–79), who was no stranger to Parisian carnage. What the bitter experience of several decades of terror attacks in Western countries suggests, however, is that Retz’s dictum needs to be turned inside out: Enraged fear creates the illusion that we know the source of our peril, and it is this false certainty that leads to foolhardy blindness.

Gripped by agitation and anxiety since the bloody attacks in Paris on November 13, we in the West have been generally reluctant to admit how little we understand why we are so hated. Politicians and commentators alike have been quick to identify this or that “root cause” of senseless mayhem and death. Senseless the bloodletting may have been—yet there’s been no shortage of observers prepared to make sense of it by providing biographies of the perpetrators, ascribing motives to their actions, imagining the alleged strategic aims of those who are supposed to have commissioned them, and denouncing the depredations of the powers thought to have provoked them. Living with a known peril is apparently a tolerable stress; living with an unknown one is simply unbearable. Hence we fill the void with words and try to fathom the abysses of loathing, to bury the terrifying unknown in layers of purported explanation.

The attacks of November 13 struck closer to the French heart than the attacks of January 7–9. One has to choose one’s words carefully. To describe fans of the Eagles of Death Metal or aficionados of Cambodian cuisine as innocent is not to suggest that satirical cartoonists or kosher-supermarket shoppers somehow deserved their horrifying fate. But the slaughtered cartoonists and the murdered Jews lent themselves to a kind of narrative that Friday the thirteenth ruled out. November’s targets lacked the symbolic specificity of January’s. Although Le Bataclan, the music venue where scores of young concertgoers died, was described by a spokesman for the Islamic State as a den of “prostitution and vice,” his words implied a more encompassing synecdoche: Le Bataclan stood for France and France for the West, for everything not in conformity with the phantasms of the self-styled caliphate that has established its “capital” in Raqqa, Syria.

With blind temerity, French Rafale jets then promptly unloaded tons of retaliatory bombs on that city, even though the strategic aim of this attack—to slow the radicalization of delinquents in Brussels and Paris—was no more clearly achieved on November 16 than it had been on November 12. Indeed, one line of commentary on the events holds that to harm isis works ultimately to aid its recruitment efforts—even though this, too, is one of those all-too-confident assertions with which we try to comfort ourselves by pretending that we know the enemy better than we do.

Robert S. Leiken knows the jihadist peril better than most, having devoted many years of study to Islamic extremism in the West for his book Europe’s Angry Muslims (2012; now out in a revised edition from Oxford University Press). He is under no illusion that the post hoc narratives we piece together after each new attack can “explain” the appeal of terror as a tactic. He rehearses all the usual structural explanations. Europe in its long-forgotten boom times after World War II imported non-Western “guest workers,” with no intention of moving its former colonial subalterns into permanent settlements. Nevertheless, when the boom ended, the “guests” did not return to their countries of origin and immigration did not cease, even after the Schengen Agreement had relaxed border controls within Europe. Guest workers sent home for brides and established families while trying to keep faith with the mores of their homelands—meaning not only religious customs and practices but also traditional folkways, some of which proved difficult for host populations to accept. The children born to these immigrants of the first generation have in some cases found it hard to adapt to the conflicting demands of parents and host country, creating what has been called the “crisis of the second generation,” a double reaction against both the parental culture (or the perceived lack thereof) and the host population’s hostility.

In bewilderment, anger, and distress, some second-generation European Muslims veer toward traditions more extreme than anything their parents would have wished for them. Others turn to crime; still others to political radicalism. And lately, criminality, radicalism, and religion have all converged in murderous terror attacks—murderous but also suicidal. Indeed, this latter tendency almost suggests that the perpetrators find it impossible to imagine a future for themselves in the world bequeathed them by their elders, and can envision no way out except death for themselves and their reluctant hosts.


In the end, however, no such structural explanation can satisfy, because none can explain why only a small minority of the second generation has turned to violence. After one has read the explanations of the experts, the mystery remains intact, the contradictions impenetrable. How could Hasna Aït Boulahcen—who died with her cousin Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the alleged terrorist instigator, in a police raid in the Paris suburb of Saint-Denis on November 18—have gone in a few months from boozy nights on the town to a face-shrouding niqab and apparent embrace of the fanatically puritanical Islamic State? How could Abaaoud have gone from a Brussels suburb to the killing fields of Syria, where he was filmed in a pickup truck dragging the bodies of dead Syrian soldiers? To examine what might lie behind such abrupt personal transformations, Leiken revisits the cases of two generations of previous “homegrown” terrorists, reminding us that the phenomenon of indigenous-jihadist violence is not new. He also reveals that, despite the initial impulse to avenge the outrage, the pain does slowly ebb away while the contradictions remain as intractable as ever.

The difficulty of grasping the motivations of these native-born adherents of an utterly alien ideology has heightened the tensions that political scientist Laurent Bouvet describes in L’insécurité culturelle (Cultural Insecurity), a book published in France last year, before either the January or the November attacks. Bouvet knows that structural factors alone cannot account for cultural insecurity, which he defines as “the expression of an anxiety, a fear, not to say a dread concerning what people experience, witness, perceive, and feel . . . with respect to upheavals in the world order and changes in society.” Such dread is felt not only by what the French delicately term les minorités visibles but also by les petits blancs—i.e., whites (is white a color less visible than black or brown?) of modest background and European extraction who are caught, like the immigrant populations they take to be their antagonists, between family traditions and a Europe itself writhing in economic distress and social fevers. Both the older host population and the more recent arrivals complain of having lost their homelands, of feeling adrift in a heartless and unrecognizable world. Hence, like generations past, they search in their disparate ways for a more “authentic” existence, whether in the consolations of purified religion and the paroxysms of jihadist violence on the one hand or, on the European side, in populist nativism and calls for renewed border controls and restored national sovereignty.

Christophe Guilluy, the author of a 2010 book called Fractures françaises (French Fissures), is particularly struck by the way these cultural cleavages have been inscribed in the physical landscape. Suburbs originally built to replace the dilapidated tenements inhabited by the white working class have increasingly become ghettos isolating immigrants of color from the host population. The long subway rides they must take to their workplaces, if they are lucky enough to be employed (youth unemployment rates in some Paris suburbs run as high as 50 percent), serve as daily reminders of their remoteness from all that society takes to be “central.” And French civilization is built on centralization, however elusive the center may be even for the native-born: Think of Balzac’s provincial heroes forever fighting their way to whatever they imagine the center of society to be. But all too many immigrant youths have no reason to board those subways: They cannot get jobs, because their “foreign-sounding” names and ghetto addresses send the wrong signals to prospective employers, as a recent damning report from the Institut Montaigne reveals.

Still another French scholar, Cécile Alduy, who teaches at Stanford, has shown how Marine Le Pen, the leader of the extreme-right-wing Front National, has tried to turn the logic of discrimination against immigrants on its head. Le Pen points to government efforts to accommodate minority cultural and religious needs by, for instance, offering state aid to build mosques and medical assistance to immigrants not covered under France’s national health insurance: Such “special treatment” of immigrants is, for her, evidence of “antiwhite racism.” Unlike her counterparts on the American right, however, she does not attack the welfare state as such, because the French are attached to it. She argues instead that state generosity is incompatible with (relatively) open borders, because it attracts the wretched of the earth to a France already overrun by unassimilable numbers of “them.” Never mind that Germany took in several hundred thousand Syrian refugees last year, while France agreed (under German pressure) to receive only twenty-four thousand. After the Paris attacks, President François Hollande, to his credit, moved to increase the French quota to thirty thousand over the next two years despite evidence—on which Le Pen gleefully capitalized—that at least two of the attackers had returned to Europe from Syria by infiltrating groups of refugees. But on November 25, Prime Minister Manuel Valls struck a very different note, calling on Europe to “close its borders” in response to “the jihadist menace.” “We can no longer welcome refugees in Europe,” he added. “If we do, people will no longer want any part” of the European Union, thus reinforcing Le Pen’s insistence that the EU is nothing but “a Trojan horse” for the hordes of foreigners engaged in what European xenophobes like to call “the great replacement.” That phrase was coined by the writer Renaud Camus, who on November 20 joined a tiny party affiliated with Le Pen’s. Although Hollande’s personal approval rating rose by 17 percent after November 13, as it also did after the January attacks (before subsiding again to abysmal levels never before seen in the Fifth Republic), it was the Front National that gained the most in postattack polling for December’s regional elections, winning the opening round but failing to capture any regional governments.

All this has only heightened the “cultural insecurity” of minority communities, including those that live beyond the Périphérique—the ring road around Paris that demarcates the Pale of Settlement for some of France’s angriest youths. The capital’s northeastern suburbs saw some of the worst rioting in 2005. As Leiken notes, those riots had little or nothing to do with religion—the principal causes were chronic youth unemployment and widespread police harassment—and everything to do with the seething resentments that develop in any society in which large populations are relegated to second-class citizenship.

Yet such resentments should not blind us to the progress that France has achieved in the effort to adapt to new conditions on the ground and revise its traditional insistence on cultural assimilation as a prerequisite of citizenship. It’s impossible to appreciate the true texture of France’s tentative and halting adjustments to the complexities of a more diverse society when you look at them exclusively through the lens of Islamist radicalism. The changing European social landscape has been the subject of intense scholarly scrutiny for decades, from Gilles Kepel’s Les banlieues de l’islam (Suburbs of Islam, 1987) to Nilüfer Göle’s Musulmans au quotidien (Everyday Muslims, 2015). Americans know well from their own not-so-distant past that shocking outbursts of lethal violence can coexist with less visible steps toward necessary and long-overdue social change.

But there’s no denying that the French atmosphere has changed in palpable ways since November 13. In a way, the shock is greater than was that of September 11 to the United States, because these perpetrators were neighbors and their weapons relatively easy to acquire. No airplanes needed to be commandeered; restaurants and concert halls cannot be fortified as readily as airports. Nor can Europe shut down the black market in weapons or police all its suspected radicals. France alone has more than ten thousand names in its state-security files, the so-called Fichier S. Not all are potentially violent jihadists, but their number is large enough that even with the additional powers granted to the police under the extended, ninety-day state of emergency that the French parliament overwhelmingly approved after the November attacks, they cannot all be kept under constant surveillance or house arrest.

Olivier Roy, a leading specialist on political Islam, has observed that what we have seen in recent years is not so much “the radicalization of Islam as the Islamization of radicalism.” Who can say what the recent convergence of the world of petty criminality with the global fantasies of the Islamic State portends? I have no wish to join the ranks of those overconfident commentators who believe they can penetrate the veil of Cardinal de Retz’s “unknown peril” in order to pick the perpetrators of future crimes out of a lineup of deceptive look-alikes. I will note, however, that radical movements built on illusory analyses of the balance of existing forces sometimes burn themselves out in apocalyptic eruptions.

I say this without any confidence that I am right. Revulsion and disgust do little to promote clear thinking, so I will end as I began: by reiterating my belief that we really know very little about the nature of the peril we face, and must therefore weigh our next moves with the greatest care, heeding past failures bred by the need to try something new.

Arthur Goldhammer writes widely on French politics and culture.