John Rosenthal on What Makes a “French” Jihadi

John Rosenthal has an excellent and thoughtful piece in Policy Review on what makes a French immigrant from a Muslim country turn into a Jihadi. It is a long essay based primarily on prison interviews conducted between 2001-2003 by Farhad Khosrokhavar, Quand Al-Qäida parle: Témoignages derrière les barreaux (When al Qaeda Talks: Testimonials from Behind Bars) which “provides us with an unprecedentedly large body of evidence on the backgrounds, worldview, and motivations of those who make the choice for violent jihad in the name of Islam.”

The piece is long and well worth reading. What I have excerpted below concerns the role of French TV in arousing hatred of France and the West. [Bold highlights mine.]

The French Path to Jihad

The transference of hate

In a long scholarly essay appended to the interviews, Khosrokhavar also identifies the primordial importance of their grievances and/or complexes vis-à-vis France in the biographical itineraries that have led the inmates to radical Islam and its “anti-Western” jihad. He notes in this connection what he calls a process of “generalization” of their hatred of France to “the West” as such. The morose broodings of an Ousman provide just one illustration. But the interviews bear witness not only to such a process of generalization of the inmates’ hate, but also — and, from the point of view of the real conduct of jihad, more crucially — to a process of transference of their hate from, so to say, its “lived” object, namely, France and French society, to an “imagined” object or, more precisely, two imagined objects that in the perspective of the inmates are fused into one, namely, Israel and the U.S.

“The West,” after all, is an abstraction. Inasmuch as it is a question of taking action — i.e., violent action in the framework of jihad — the designated target that stands in for the West in general and is substituted for France in particular is invariably the imagined Israelo-American monolith. The tight association of Israel and the U.S. in the discourse of the Islamists interviewed by Khosrokhavar is not, for the most part, given an openly anti-Jewish inflection. One highly revealing exception, however, is the “native French” convert. America, he says, “is hand in glove with the Jews” (248), and he denounces the “domination” of Muslims by “the yhudis [Jews] and American Zionists” (253).

One of the most fascinating and significant features of the Khosrokhavar interviews is that the mechanism of this transference of hate is clearly observable. Time and again, an inmate, having provided an inventory of the sources of his frustration in France, suddenly announces his intention to purge the full charge of his hatred in fighting against Israel and the United States. In virtually every instance, the switch that permits this transference to take place is explicitly designated. It is neither the preaching of radical Imams nor the indoctrination of Islamic organizations. Indeed, in a sense, it is not an ideological instrument at all, since the certainty with which it invests the inmates’ convictions about American and Israeli infamy — a quasi-certainty tantamount to what they know from their own experience — is created through non-verbal means.

Consider, for instance, the diatribe of “Moussa,” an Algerian-born Islamist who has lived for roughly a decade in France and is suspected of having ties with both the gia and al Qaeda. “Islam is what saves us from the West,” he says (52),

    from America, from all those who commit injustices against Muslims and oppress them: like Israel oppresses the Palestinian people. One sees on the television how the Israeli Army, with the help of America, mistreats the youth of the Intifada. When I see that, I want to go fight against them, against the Americans, against all those who repress Islam [italic emphasis added JR; bold RL].

“Karim,” a French national and another al Qaeda suspect, says that “France is pushing people toward extremism. . . . If you suspect the worst of us, we’ll end up doing what we are accused of.” Where exactly does such extremism lead? Karim explains further (92):

    You see: in prison the Jihadists are very respected by the other Muslim inmates. The others think that the Jihadists have dared to do what they, the other inmates, think is right but have not had the courage to do. They have taken action and given a good lesson to the Americans who are repressing our brothers in Palestine or in Afghanistan. Just watch the TV and the humiliation to which the Israeli army subjects the Palestinian chebab [youth] [emphasis added].

When asked “Who are the enemies of Islam?” “Jacques,” the Parisian-born fellow traveler, responds (220):

    You don’t see? There are the Jews who are trying to push the Palestinians into the sea. . . . There is America, which is the closest ally of Israel. It’s as if Israel were the 53rd state! They’re hand in glove. When one sees on the TV how the Israeli tanks fire on youths armed with slingshots or Molotov cocktails and no one moves a finger. One asks oneself whether there is any justice in the world [emphasis added]?

The implication of Jacques’ remarks is clear: something should be done. And pressed by Khosrokhavar on the matter, he explains: “There are days when I am ready to enlist in the struggle against the Americans and the Israelis” — before adding: “and then I calm down and I think of my life and my future” (224).

The source of the inmates’ convictions about the injustices of which they accuse France is experience. What, then, is the source of their convictions about the injustice they believe Palestinian Arabs suffer at the hands of Israel and its presumptive American accomplice? “The TV.

It is important to recall in this connection that the first language of most of the inmates interviewed is French. Some, like Jacques, do not speak Arabic or have at most only a very limited knowledge of it. “The tv” to which they allude for the most part is undoubtedly French television. In France, where the cable and satellite television markets remain relatively limited (and were even more so when the interviews were conducted) and where just two channels split the bulk of the network television audience for news programming, the“the tv,” generically designated in this way, typically means either tf1 (the only privately owned network to offer substantial news programming) or leading public broadcaster, France 2.

I noted the same effect in an essay I wrote in 2004:

    Secondly French Muslims get hatred from an “objective” “independent” source: the French media feed them a steady diet of horrifying images of the Palestinians, humiliated and murdered by the imperialist Israelis whose occupation is the cause of their despair and rage. This second image, brought to them not by their own preachers of hatred, but by French TV, corroborates everything they have learned from their Imams. As one Tunisian cab driver told me: “I wasn’t anti-Semitic until I saw what the Jews are doing to the Palestinians.” And when I asked him if these were images on Arabic satellite news, he responded, “No, French TV. French news.”

I have elaborated on this phenomenon in my essay on the ways that the image of Muhammad al Durah, constantly shown on European TV as a “get-out-of-holocaust-guilt-free-card” actually was a seen by Muslims in Europe as a call to Jihad.

It is, in effect, by way of the false immediacy of images of the Middle East conflict on the nightly news that the hatred the Islamists feel for France gets transferred to Israel. In the images of the Palestinian chebab doing battle with their homespun weaponry against the massively superior force of the Israeli Army, the French candidates for jihad see their own sense of victimhood reflected back to them in heroic guise. The Palestinian gunmen with their less wholesome Kalashnikovs and m16s remain outside the frame. So too, needless to say — since, in any case, it is not accessible in images — does all the background and context that could render Israeli military actions in the West Bank or Gaza comprehensible and/or dissipate the aura of absolute victimhood in which Palestinian Arabs are almost invariably bathed in the French media.

In order to appreciate just how deceptive the sense of immediacy relayed by these images can be, one need only consider the role played by France 2 in the creation of what has become the iconic representation of Palestinian victimhood: the image of 12-year-old Mohammad Al-Dura pinned against a wall and cowering behind his father’s body while allegedly caught in fire from an Israeli army post at Netzarim Junction in the Gaza strip. On September 30, 2000, at the very outset of the Second Intifada, France 2 broadcast footage of the seeming ordeal of Mohammad and his father, ending, after a mysterious cut, with the boy apparently lying dead on the ground. It was France 2 correspondent Charles Enderlin who identified the supposedly fatal fire as coming from the Israeli Army post. Indeed, Enderlin described the boy and his father as the “targets” of Israeli fire, thus seeming to imply that the killing of the boy was intentional. He would later explain the mysterious cut in the footage by claiming that the scene of the boy’s death throes was too heartrending to broadcast.

From the start, simple considerations of geometry contradicted France 2’s attribution of the gunfire to the Israeli Army. Some investigators went so far as to suggest that the entire episode had been staged. More recently, new evidence has come to light that clearly supports such allegations. Following years of stonewalling, in October 2004 France 2 agreed to allow three well-known French journalists — Luc Rosenzweig, Denis Jeambar, and Daniel Leconte — to view the unedited rushes filmed by the France 2 cameraman at Netzarim Junction. All three concur that the 27-minute reel consists almost entirely of obvious “play-acting” [mise-en-scene]. Jeambar and Leconte have politely allowed that the roughly three minutes depicting the Al-Dura episode “might,” nonetheless, be authentic. All three journalists likewise concur that, contrary to the claims of Charles Enderlin, the rushes contain no footage of Mohammad Al-Dura’s death throes. Confronted by the revelations of his colleagues, Enderlin has averred that even if his original report should turn out to have been false, “for me, the image corresponded to the reality of the situation not only in Gaza but also in the West Bank.”14

The effects of such would-be representative and symbolically charged images of the Middle East conflict upon French and, more generally, European public opinion are well enough known. But the Khosrokhavar interviews clearly reveal the incitement they represent — incitement, namely, to jihad — for those in Europe or, for that matter, around the world who are psychologically predisposed to identify most intimately with Palestinian grievances. “When I see that,” Moussa says, “I want to fight against them.” In this connection too, Ousman’s testimonial is perhaps the most revealing, for by comparison to the other inmates Ousman appears to be well-informed about Israel and the history of the Middle East conflict. It is worth underscoring — as his above-cited allusion to the German SS and the Jews makes clear — that he acknowledges the persecution to which European Jews were subjected under the Third Reich. Perhaps on account of this recognition, or perhaps by virtue of simple political realism, Ousman — in what amounts to a stunning admission for a self-professed Islamist — is prepared to accept the existence of Israel. Nonetheless, he says his rational assessment of the need to accept Israel is sometimes submerged in an irrational urge to see it “destroyed” (142):

    I know that Israel is there and is there to stay. . . . Some days, I say to myself: that is just the way it is and there is no use banging one’s head against the wall. But other days, when I hear the news about the death of young Palestinians killed by Israeli bombs or missiles, when I see the Israeli tanks on the tv that fire on youngsters who do not have one-one hundredth of their weaponry, then I say that it’s a calamity for Muslims and that it [Israel] has to be destroyed.

“I watch the tv every day,” he notes, “and it hurts me a lot. . . . One watches it all on the tv when they mistreat the young Palestinians and no one does anything” (150–51).

In response to the very next question — about 9/11 — Ousman warns that one has to treat “with caution” the information provided in the media. But this warning evidently does not apply to French coverage of the Middle East conflict. The images of supposed Israeli mistreatment of Palestinians are taken by Ousman and his fellow inmates as bearing a constant meaning that is fully independent of the specific context of the events being depicted. Revealingly, Ousman associates these images with, as he puts it, “all injustice”: “the sexual exploitation of children, the Americans who exploit Asia with their dollars, a girl who is prevented from wearing the veil” (151). “All of that,” he concludes, “drives me wild with rage” (152).

Palestinian suffering is thus elevated to a sort of summum of all unjust suffering, by which it follows that to redeem Palestinian suffering would be to redeem the injustice of the world. The religious structure of such thinking is obvious. The images are indeed “iconic” in more than just a metaphorical sense. But it is equally obvious that there is nothing specifically Islamic about such religious thinking and that it is also in evidence in the apotheosis of the Palestinian cause by a large part of the European and global left.

As Osama bin Laden put it:

The deliberate killing of children in Palestine today is the ugliest, most oppressive, and hostile act, and something that threatens all of humanity. History knows that one who kills children, even if rarely, is a follower of Pharaoh… Slaughtering children was something for which the head of oppression and unbelief, and hostility, Pharaoh was famous; yet the sons of Israel have done the same thing to our sons in Palestine. The whole world has witnessed Israeli soldiers killing Muhammad al Durreh and many others like him…

So in fact it is as if Israel — and those backing it in America — have killed all the children in the world. What will stop Israel killing our sons tomorrow, in Tabuk, al Jauf and other areas? What would the rulers do if Israel hroadened its territory according to what they allege is written in their false, oppressive, unjust books, which say “our borders extend as far as Medina”? What will rulers do except submit to this American Zionist lobby?

Rational people must wake up or what befell Muhammad al-Durreh and his brothers will happen tomorrow to their sons and women. The is no strength or power except in God…

The events of the 22nd of Jamada al Thani or Aylul (9-11) are merely a response to the continuous injustice inflicted upon our sons in Palestine, Iraq,…

“Nineteen students,” statement by Osama bin Laden, released by al Jazeera TV on December 26, 2001, printed in: Messages to the World: The Statements of Osama bin Laden, ed. Bruce Lawrence (Verso, London, 2005), pp. 147-48.

I think one can safely argue that the anti-Zionist, anti-American media, that so delights in images of Israeli and American misdeeds contributes significantly to the impulse that produces Jihad. Given that that media-produced skew is in part due to a rhetorical drive to push Israeli and American leaders towards a peaceful, negotiated solution, we find a remarkable and potentially deadly irony: our peace-minded media unleash the dogs of war. What better illustration of the Moebius Strip of Cognitive Egocentrism.

15 Responses to John Rosenthal on What Makes a “French” Jihadi

  1. Eliyahu says:

    I must say that I have lost a lot of respect for the intelligence of the Europeans [especially the French], all the more so for their common sense, since the al-Durah affair. Living here in Jerusalem, I watched a lot of news on foreign stations/networks [through Israel cable TV]in October/November 2000. I watched, inter alia, TV5, France2, & Arte. I saw that –besides the distorted films from Israel and the distorted commentary– Arab nationalist agitators such as Leila Shahid and Marwan Bishara [whose brother is a member of Knesset, Azmi Bishara] were all over the place. After a synagogue had been set on fire outside Paris in October/November 2000, Leila Shahid, the PLO spokesperson in France, was invited onto a TV news show. She was asked if the burning of the synagogue was antisemitism. “Ce n’est pas l’antisemitisme,” she answered shamelessly. Nevertheless, she was still invited to many TV interviews, as was marwan bishara. So the incitement was not only “news” films from the zone of conflict. Now, I saw that the French media were encouraging a hatred and a violent Arab reaction in France that was already striking the Jews there. I also foresaw that this approved violence would spill over to non-Jews in France. Was it so hard to foresee? I don’t think so. Indeed, LePen’s vote increased in the next presidential elections [2002?], along with that of his former comrade and rival, Megret. I had foreseen that too. Was it too hard for the ENArques to foresee? It seemed to me before the elections that many non-Jewish French would be so upset with the Jospin/Chirac govt for not suppressing the violence, that they would vote for LePen/Megret.

    I agree with you, RL, that much of the Israel-bashing is meant to divest Westerners of any sense of guilt for the Holocaust. But when they let the smearing and besmirching of Israel go so far that it threatens their own societies, then they seem mad to me. Or very foolish. So when the November 2005 riots broke out, I was not surprised. By the way, LaRepubblica reported shortly after the London 7-7 bombings that scores of cars were being burned in France every night. That was months before the November 2005 riots.
    Rosenthal’s article and your comments are very interesting. My conclusion, among others, is that the European political leadership are fools for fostering incitement that struck at themselves, not just at the Jews in their societies whom they do not care for at all, except in their usual hypocritical rhetoric. The EU cannot be looked to as a rational –let alone just– source of peacemaking for the Middle East, inter alia.

  2. Bill says:

    The references to using the Al Dura footage to incite antisemitic violence demonstrates one of the reasons that France 2 and Enderlin will likely always have the upper hand in any trials they initiate against their critics. For the good of the Republic, as a judge, would you want the national media to be held libel for any criminal action inspired by that imagery?

  3. Rob says:

    Excellent article, RL. We need more work on this to tie down just how and to what effect the media images influence susceptible individuals psychologically. It’s not limited to jihadis — ordinary people of good faith and decent instinct can be swayed to exterminationist positions by what they read, and especially see, in the media.

  4. Mommy, They’re Doing it Again

    Two brief vignettes: Shortly after 9/11, a mother of a four year told me that she had left the TV all day that terrible day. She didn’t realize that her 4 year old was watching the replays of the attack

  5. chevalier de st george says:

    I was very impressed by this passage by VDH after reading Richard’s honor shame analysis of Arab muslim mentality. I believe it supports admirably the theory.

    ” They arose not from anything we did or any Western animosity that might have led to real grievances, but from self-acknowledged weakness, self-induced failure, and, of course, those perennial engines of war, age-old envy and lost honor — always amplified and instructed by dissident Western intellectuals whose unhappiness with their own culture proved a feast for the scavenging al-Qaedists.”
    “al-Qaeda and its epigones were weak and could not defeat the West militarily. But their genius was knowing of our own self-loathing, of our inability to determine their evil from our good, of our mistaken belief that Islamists were confused about, rather than intent to destroy, the West, and most of all, of our own terror that we might lose, if even for a brief moment, the enjoyment of our good life to defeat the terrorists.”

  6. chaim shmuel says:

    the article by john rosenthal is very, very interesting. however, i have a bone to pick with you. This seems to be your underlying motif, the core of every post you have at this site: “the only way the Arab world will ever achieve some semblance of democracy is in learning from the Israelis. But that would mean, of course, swallowing pride and learning some modesty”. But what is the distinction that you always draw? ‘We’ bend over backwards for peace, for restraint, for international approval, while ‘they’ ruthlessly pursue jihad, manipulating us in the process. Therefore, ‘we’ are commendable, and ‘they’, despicable. But Israel, and more broadly, the Jews, always fail precisely when behave this way. They appear ridiculous and contemptible, and rightly so. This bears a striking similarity to what the inmates say…
    …about their efforts at assimilation, which is very compelling. i found it quite believable, natural, and, resonant. For example: ‘“One imitates them,” he says, referring to “Westerners” in general, “and one thinks that’s good and one tries to become a little Westerner, even though the West despises us and finds us even more hideous when we imitate it. The Muslim loses his dignity and his sense of honor and becomes like a monkey who imitates his master: the West”’. We see clearly what the problem is, and it’s a very old, and very serious concern, both for individuals and for groups of any kind. If i’m not mistaken, before herzl wrote ‘the jewish state’, he was asking the pope for an audience so as to discuss a way of converting all the jews. it was the dreyfuss affair that changed his mind…the inability to integrate into french society…

    It isn’t so good they found jihad, sure, especially for jews, but you can see how vapid, how morally depraved western society is, how reasonable it is for them to hate France, and the reasons they hate it. Let me clarify: Jihad, not reasonable. Hating France, reasonable. Of course you could say something like it’s their fault for not integrating, but that is not an adequate solution. Ok, so you say to them, you should be more like us. They have found a way to be more like us, at least ‘us’ before we go astray: they have stopped imitating the master, they stopped trying to be a part of a society that rejects them, which, i think, is pretty admirable. We should learn from them! They have sought and found a way to gain self-respect, and even, yes, honor. This is a fundamental part of making peace with your surroundings, and it is a very widespread struggle, not just Islamic. Rosenthal notes: ‘It is important to note that in the most psychologically informative accounts, the primary feeling is of “not being French.” The “discovery” that the “authentic” — or, at any rate, “not French” — self is in fact Muslim is a secondary interpretation of this sense of “otherness.”’ Even if the outcome is terrible, you have to admit that the logic is valid, and those early years of Israel’s existence is proof of the manifestation of that inner desire to not be like everyone else.

    Why would they want to be like Israel? Israel could not even outrank the United Arab Emirates in the list of most corrupt countries, and that is just one in a host of problems with the country. ( The fundamental problem is that Israel is becoming like any other Western nation, whose people are concerned basically with leading an affluent, comfortable, easy life, kind of like this one: “But my ideal was to be French, to act like the French: to have my wife, my kids, my car, my apartment, my house in the country, to become an average Frenchman and live in peace. . .” Voter turnout was the lowest it has ever been this past election. One Rabbi here in Boston asked me if I had been to Israel. I said yes, I stayed in Tel Aviv. He said, chuckling, but Tel Aviv isn’t Israel; it’s a suburb of Los Angeles.

    We see plainly from Rosenthal’s article there is absolutely no reason for the Arabs or Muslims to want to be more like us, at least not the present incarnation of us, unless we want them to have the same kind of reaction they do with the French.

  7. […] — Print This Post Chaim Shmuel left a long and challenging note in response to my post on the impact of the media on European Muslims. I […]

  8. Webloggin says:

    John Rosenthal on What Makes a “French” Jihadi

    Ahmadinejad took the opportunity to once again claim that Israel will cease to exist in the near future by stating that it would be gone just as the former USSR had disappeared. I imagine that means that he believes that Israel will be broken up and di…

  9. […] tion has taken place not merely (or even primarily) through satellite TV and internet, but from the MSM. As one Tunisian cabdriver told me in Pari […]

  10. […] images that they, like their Muslim brethren, see on their TV screens? And those images, which turn previously “moderate” Muslims into Ji […]

  11. […] Rosenthal, one of the best journalists covering the strange world of French politics and Jihad, has an article at PJMedia on the Kafka-in-Wonderland world of the infamous Chamber 17 of the […]

  12. […] Rosenthal, einer der besten Journalisten, der über die seltsame Welt der französischen Politik und des Jihad berichtet, hat einen Artikel bei PJMedia stehen, in dem es um die kafkaeske Welt der berüchtigten […]

  13. […] Rosenthal, one of the most astute journalists at work in Europe today, whose work I have featured a number of times here at the Augean Stables, has an excellent article up at PJMedia on the French […]

  14. […] [98] Farhad Khosrokhavar, Quand Al-Qaïda parle : Témoignages derrière les barreaux (Paris: Grasset & Fasquelle, 2006); John Rosenthal, “The French Path to Jihad,” Policy Review, Hoover Institute (discussed at the Augean Stables, […]

  15. […] John Rosenthal on What Makes a “French” Jihadi | Augean StablesJohn Rosenthal writes on European politics and transatlantic relations. … John Rosenthal writes on European politics and transatlantic relations. His work has appeared in English, French and German in publications such as Policy Review, The Claremont Review of Books, The New York Sun, Les Temps Modernes, […]

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