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Bin Laden's Backfire

In taking up the cause of French Muslims, al Qaeda is only bringing the government and the Islamic community closer together.   

In his recently released audio recording targeting France, al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden was likely trying to further antagonize the tense relationship between the French state and the country's Islamic population to further his goal of radicalizing European Muslims. But bin Laden demonstrated a fundamental misunderstanding of the current French social landscape: Rather than exacerbating tensions, his clumsy intervention might actually help fix some of the damage done by the French government's hot and cold relationship with Muslim communities.

The country's record during the last two years has been mixed for Muslims in France. At the local level, integration is indeed taking place: Islam is increasingly accepted as part of the French landscape; Muslim chaplains have been appointed in the armed forces; and mosque construction is no longer controversial, as it was earlier this decade. Today, French Muslims are more inclined to demonstrate in the streets over controversial pension reforms, than in support of cultural or religious issues. And radicalization remains at a low level.

But judging by its recent initiatives, President Nicolas Sarkozy's government seems to be doing all it can to reverse these gains. In 2009 and 2010, an official, state-sponsored debate on "national identity" took on xenophobic and anti-Islam undertones, singling out the Muslim community. One government minister notoriously declared that she expected young Muslims to stop wearing their baseball hats backward, stop speaking slang, find a job, feel French, and love France. The recent debate over a law banning the burqa, passed by Parliament on Oct. 11, has only reinforced that impression. (Another cabinet member said the law was necessary to "eliminate the cancer of Islamism.") Among the roughly 3.5 million Muslims in France, there are only 2,000 burqa wearers -- and though the vast majority of French Muslims and community leaders condemn the wearing of full-body coverings, the government's single-minded focus on the issue made many feel stigmatized and singled out.

Enter bin Laden. On Oct. 27, the al Qaeda leader issued a two-minute declaration threatening the death of seven hostages taken six weeks ago in Niger by offshoot-group al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and warning of attacks if France continues fighting alongside the United States in Afghanistan and proceeds with the burqa ban. "Since you have acted tyrannically, believing that you have the right to prevent free-born women from wearing the veil, don't we have the right to expel your invading men by slicing their necks?" he said.

This was a purely opportunistic intervention by bin Laden, on several counts. There is little evidence of operational contact between al Qaeda leaders and AQIM; bin Laden most likely has little to no control over the fate of the hostages, and his warning was likely more about reinforcing the group's global brand. But al Qaeda's latest gambit will not lead to any change in the burqa ban or curtail French involvement in Afghanistan. "Obviously, France doesn't let anyone dictate its policies, and certainly not terrorists," a defiant Sarkozy told reporters at an EU summit last week. But paradoxically, the unintended effects of this declaration could be quite positive for French Islam and could actually help heal some of the wounds in a society divided by religion.

Consider what happened six years ago when France adopted a law banning the wearing of headscarves by girls in public school classrooms. Many Muslims found the urgency and vehemence of that debate to be disproportionate to the actual number of girls who wore a foulard to school (estimated to be around 1,250 when the law was passed). At the time, 71 percent of French Muslims thought there was "too much" discussion about the headscarf issue.

Three months later, two French journalists were taken hostage in Iraq, and their kidnappers demanded the immediate repeal of the ban in return for their freedom. Yet this only served to unify a country that had otherwise been divided over the politics of the veil debate: Even opponents of the ban who had organized demonstrations led unanimous calls for all schoolgirls to respect the new law. Muslim leaders almost universally denounced the foreign interference in their internal affairs. When one high school student remarked, "There will be no blood on my headscarf," the phrase became a rallying cry for French Muslims, appalled by the violence being perpetrated on their behalf. 

Of course, there is little chance that burqa wearers will suddenly welcome the law (which enters into force on April 11, 2011) banning the religious garments from the public space. Still, bin Laden's message has offered a welcome opportunity to clarify once again where French Muslims stand when extremists attempt to hijack French domestic political issues to further their own agenda.

Here again, Muslim leaders have reaffirmed their loyalty to the French Republic and demonstrated their solidarity with overall public opinion by issuing denunciations of bin Laden's statement. The French Council for Muslim Faith (CFCM) issued a statement saying, "these questions are an internal affair for France" and "in the name of Islamic values… the CFCM totally condemns any act of hostility targeting our nation or our compatriots, no matter its source." Even the Union of Islamic Organizations in France, which has traditionally promoted a more assertive and politicized Islam in France, was similarly unequivocal: "Any attack on French security is a direct attack on its Muslims."

Could it be that bin Laden has succeeded in renewing the bond between French Muslims and the state after two bitter years of division and recriminations over national identity and burqas? French Muslims' ready denunciation of terrorism is further evidence that they are at home in French society, but it is also a depressing reminder of the misgivings that they face. The specter of al Qaeda has cut two ways for French Muslims since 2001 -- spreading fear of Islam but also providing the opportunity for better integration.

By all appearances, it seems that bin Laden's latest communiqué may have the effect of actually repairing the relationship between the French Muslim community and the wider electorate -- and uniting them in a common cause: the battle over retirement benefits and budget cuts.

PHILIPPE DESMAZES/AFP/Getty Images

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