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.