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interview: mamoun abdelali

The conflict in Iraq  serves as a kind of orientation for young takfiris today who decide to wage a jihad because they read in Islamic books that Muslims must wage jihad. Talk to me a bit about your personal journey. You grew up here in a Muslim environment. Tell me how that happened.

I was born in '68 in Mantes-la-Jolie, at the Mantes-la-Jolie hospital. I grew up in Val-Fourré. I was there when Val-Fourré sprung up, because in 1968, the shopping center here and all of the buildings behind it did not exist. And as I was growing up, work was gradually completed.

The Hebrews arrived in the late '60s and early '70s; they had just moved into those new houses in Mantes-la-Jolie. After that, in and around '75, the first prayer room was opened in a tower block next to the hospital, one of the tower blocks that is not standing today because it was demolished again in the early '90s. And so that mosque operated for five years, until '81, because the first foundation stone of the big new mosque in Mantes-la-Jolie was inaugurated in 1981, and building was completed in '81, and the prayer room was closed at that time.

So from that point, there was a very strong revival of religious practice on the Montois, especially in the factories. It was at that point that major strikes were called, triggered by the fact that the French mentalities had not evolved. They still had the notion that these immigrants were still indigenous subcitizens who were there to work as labor and that they should leave again. Those people settled in, especially with the law of Giscard d'Estaing, [president of France from 1974-81], which settled the immigrant population beginning in and around '74, after the crisis. ...

By bringing over the --

By bringing about family settlement, absolutely. They put an end to immigration and enacted a policy of settlement. At that point, Muslim men and women began to integrate, but with their culture. Because they have mosques and by opening Quranic schools, those children grew up in an environment where the religious cadres did not learn French, so there was a language barrier. There is also the culture, because those people grew up in France. Well, those people were not tolerated. So for the most part, they sunk into delinquency, delinquency in all of its forms: drugs, all sorts of --

[Crime?]

There you go. Offenses and other acts, thefts, etc. And the other part, a very small part -- barely 5 percent -- managed to integrate. And after that, the young people were not very into the religion.

photo of abdelali

Mamoun Abdelali is a local Muslim leader in Mantes-la-Jolie, France who considers himself politically moderate. Although he rejects the type of radical Islam that other young French Muslims subscribe to, he understands how it can take root in his comunity. "There is an ideal breeding ground:" he says, "unemployment, ignorance, academic failures, professional failures, rejection by French society due to the fact that there is no work or housing, and, for the most part, a very low education level and therefore very little knowledge of Islam, and in addition, an enormous level of frustration and a huge identity complex." This interview was conducted on Oct. 12, 2004 and translated from French.

It was only beginning in the late '80s that the young people began to be more mature. For some, the older brothers started to see in Islam something that dealt with their frustrations, that dealt with their identity crisis -- not being French, because they were not accepted by French society; not having work or accommodation or other forms of recognition. They call themselves Mohammed, Mohamadou or Mahomet ... Mohamadou for the sub-Saharans, those with dark skin, or Mahomet for the Turks. It is the same name anyway; it is the name of the prophet in the different dialects.

After that revival among those young people -- unfortunately, it was a revival that was not based on knowledge. That is to say that this new wave, this passion for religious practice, was not supervised by these Arabic-speaking imams, who did not control those young people and some of whom were even surprised. They did not want any part of it: "Where are these young people from? Who do they think they are?" ... And so they did not really accept those young people, who therefore educated themselves in an Islam that was very independent of their country of origin.

So when you see young Muslims, what are called Salafists, or other [sects] like the Tablighs or Sufists, etc., they are very detached from their culture of origin, and it is very scripturary. It is very classified in relation to the references, to the sources of Islam, particularly the Quran and Sunna, and not to what the mufti of Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia or Senegal or some founder of a Sufi brotherhood or other says. It is being very referenced to the texts. They were very decontextualized. They were on a cloud, in another world, which was the world of books, the world of the life of the prophet, of the companions, of the Salafs.

So, flying over this cloud of glory, well, they wanted to -- when they came back out onto the street, it was kind of a drug, which I regret, because I think one does not live, one does not consider those stories in order to dream, but in order to try to better meet the challenge, to develop, thanks to those convictions, thanks to the benefits that this culture of Islam can bring; in particular, nobility of character, all of this good behavior which the prophet and his companions were able to show us as examples.

So, in fact, there is a split between you and your comrades. ...

I was into the Quran -- this was in the '80s, early '90s. We are in the mold. The point at which the judgment was made was when there was an increase in the number of crooks, a larger split even within the Muslim intra-religious community, where there was a religious radicalization in every sense. The Sufis became increasingly Sufist; the Salafis became increasingly Salafist; the Takfiris became increasingly Takfirist. ...

What caused that phenomenon? Why did it happen?

So you have to know that Salafism emerged at that time. What is Salafism? It is precisely due to the absence of supervision in the mosques that those young people who had this passion for Islam had to refer to the mufti of the Near East.

So for Muslims who do not share the dogma, are they as dangerous to non-Muslims?

First, they are dangerous to Muslims, because, in any event, most of them consider us to be the same. They do not make a distinction. They will certainly be quicker to attack us because we are more vulnerable than they are; we are closer to them and more vulnerable. We are more vulnerable than you.

In particular, some of them will try to take over the mosques in order to carry out this recruiting. They would succeed in doing this for 16 months between '94 and '95, particularly in Mantes-la-Jolie. They will recruit young people and give weight to their actions.

On the other hand, they develop faster and more discreetly in countries where the community system is in place -- like in England, which I had already seen, I already knew about, because there, since the regime itself recognizes the uniqueness of a community and grants it all of the means to flourish, it is easier to see the ramifications within the Muslim community, especially because the Muslim community is involved in those environments, while French society is much more egalitarian and republican in the sense that it advocates citizenship and there is no intermediary between the citizen and the republic. There is not this notion of communitarianism. Well, they reveal themselves much more easily in France. They are much more careful in France. ...

Can you explain to us how the young people were recruited over here?

There is already a predisposition. There is an ideal breeding ground: unemployment, ignorance, academic failures, professional failures, rejection by French society due to the fact that there is no work or housing, and, for the most part, a very low education level and therefore very little knowledge of Islam, and in addition, an enormous level of frustration and a huge identity complex.

So when these young people, who for the most part are former delinquents, are told to continue to be delinquents in the name of Allah, to continue to steal, but in the name of God, it creates new breeds of incurable delinquency that can no longer be dealt with, because when you know a normal delinquent who commits exactions, steals, picks pockets, deals drugs, etc., deep down he knows that what he is doing is wrong. But when he is told that he is doing that wrongful act in the name of Allah, it is transformed into an act of worship. Do you realize that? How can you expect him to repent? He can no longer repent. That is where the seriousness lies.

That is why I am sounding the alarm that it is time to take preventive action, to stop being terrorists, and for us, the French secret services and others, to notice that the young people are drifting away, but supposedly on the pretext that the entire network or the head of the network will be caught, or to let those young people deviate and not tell them to be careful; [they] are in danger.

Today, in order to open a prayer room or a mosque, safety standards have to be complied with. Why? To protect what? To protect the body and life of the people. Whose life? The life of the people, of the practitioners and, therefore, of Muslims. Why are we so careful to protect the life and body of the people and not careful to protect their conscience and soul? We ignore the ramifications; we know that there are ramifications, and we do not give a damn. As long as the mosque complies with the safety standards, as long as, if there is a fire, there are no flammable products and there are extinguishers and emergency exits, there are safety and urban planning rules, etc., we do nothing. But when it comes to alerting people when we know that things are going on, where the soul and conscience of young Muslims are at risk, nothing is done, because we want to catch them, we want something spectacular, and we want to be promoted.

This is recruiting, but the supervision -- how is that done?

When a young person is detected, at first it is through a leisure activity. The young person is drawn in using money, and he is given little gifts. Already drawn in, the person -- every time he sees you, he comes towards you. You have given him money, and so he knows that you are a source of income. After that, he agrees --

[What types of gifts?]

A small gift. "Here you are; go buy yourself something" -- a package of cigarettes or a snack if he is hungry. After that, there is a scathing speech; that is to say, the person is spoken to. In particular, anti-Semitism is emphasized: the Jews, Israel, the Jews in France, the Zionist network.

The young person is made to believe that he is above all of that and that he has been detected and that he is enlightened compared with all of those major Western thinkers who try to impose atheism or Judaism or Christianity; therefore, all those who are considered to be enemies of Islam. And although they in the end did not worry you, they know what you are; they have discovered you; they have discovered your game.

So that already gives them value: "Oh, I am someone more important, because I thought I was a little punk." You can translate that expression however you wish. "Today I am someone who can decide the future of my society." And so it goes further, in the sense that violent acts will be justified by arguing a tooth for a tooth, lex talionis: "In Bosnia, 200,000 Muslims were massacred. I have the right to massacre 200,000 Christians in France if I want to." That is lex talionis, and so it is fair.

So many Americans are organized in Iraq, Palestine and Sudan; there are bombardments, raids of fire and all that. Everything the West does in general, they lump everyone together. It is the same enemy; there is only one head that is called the devil, embodied by Bush or whatever symbol. In any event, it is the enemy from the West. And so that young person is going to be indoctrinated in such a [way that] he can no longer return and which will facilitate, or rather which will make him completely [buy into] the action of exaction. To him, the act of violence will be a logical action.

Often, the good works make available to those young people who are often qualified in a combat sport -- they have diplomas that enable them to do combat sports, other athletic sports, etc. And so, thanks to these municipal infrastructures, they detect those people who might be integrated into the movement, and they put out feelers. They feel out the person until they find the ones, of course, since it happens very quickly. Many of them match up quickly and enter the movement. ...

It was in the '90s, when I began to be much more mature and to have a critical mind, that they tried. They felt me out. Fortunately, I was not the one who matched their profile. I thank God for having protected me from that scene, which stands in the way of Islam and God, and which in no way corresponds to the values of Islam. So I say this clearly and with determination: Those people have nothing to do with Islam. ...

Is it still going on?

Yes, of course. Not necessarily in the [athletics]; it is not the only area of action. ... They work the area where they have feelers out. Now there is even the market, illegal rooms in homes or prayer rooms, the cellar of Mantes-la-Jolie. ...

Today, with the war in Iraq, there seems to be a new television [recruitment tool]. Is there more radicalization?

Of course the conflict in Iraq is but one of many, but it serves as a kind of orientation, meaning that young Takfiris today decide to wage a jihad because they read in Islamic books that Muslims must wage jihad. And so they ask where the jihad is. Well, it's in Kashmir, Chechnya; before that, it was in Yugoslavia.

Many young people went to Iraq. They left France and went to Iraq to wage a jihad, to kill Americans, many of them armaments experts, experts in explosives, etc. ...

Are there any reasons [for the young French to go to Iraq]?

Very, very few, but there are some. It starts with a conflict, like many others; then many young people decide to go there. They go to kill Americans, to kill some Americans. They feel like massacring them because it's considered a legitimate war, legitimate in the eyes of the Arab world and many other countries, in particular Arab countries that condemn the presence of Americans in Iraq. This gives them a kind of free reign, so to speak.

And the Americans are very vulnerable. The American Army is very vulnerable, so they go there and massacre Americans without any problem, without remorse. ... It's true that they favor places where there's a certain legitimacy to wage combat and therefore a certain easiness to commit attacks, which allows them to train for combat, so that later, when it becomes more difficult, they will already know how to go about it. ...

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posted jan. 25, 2005

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