In November of 2010, I sat down in an unobtrusive mosque along the Kostverloren Canal in Amsterdam’s Slotervaart suburb. It was a tricky little mosque to find – unlike any place of worship I’d seen, from any faith – more like a storefront than hallowed ground. Inside, the mood was quiet and sullen. The mosque’s imam, Muhammad Sajjad Barkati, looked at me askance when I told him I was a Canadian journalist researching Islamic radicalization in Europe. But he relaxed when I started speaking Urdu.
Mr. Barkati was also originally from Pakistan, and the mosque catered to Amsterdam’s Pakistani community. The word “radicalization” had thrown him off. Things were tense at the time in the Netherlands, with Geert Wilders, the extreme right-wing, anti-Islamic politician having riled up the Dutch with his apocalyptic rants about the growing Islamist threat.
“Everyone’s nervous,” Mr. Barkati told me, lowering his voice so even his trusted acolytes would not hear. “But let me tell you something: It’s the fundamentalists, the Salafis, who are the real problem. The Salafis are trying to convert everyone to their way of thinking. They are dividing the Muslim community.”
About 450 kilometres to the south, in the Seine-Saint-Denis suburb of Paris, I met one of those Salafis, a 25-year-old Parisian of North African descent who identified himself only as Abdullah. He was angry. He’d been born in France, spoke fluid French and said he loved French culture. “But I am Muslim,” he told me, “and the French authorities tell me that I can’t be both French and Muslim. So I have to choose.”
Abdullah was unemployed, under surveillance by the French police for his radical Islamist views, and searching for a way to express his anger. He lashed out at the treatment of immigrants, especially Muslims, by an increasingly Islamophobic French establishment and connected that treatment to the broader injustices meted out to his co-religionists around the world. Islam was under attack, Abdullah said, and it was up to young Muslims like himself to stand up for their faith.
If his story sounds familiar, it should. Abdullah is not so different from Mohammed Merah, the 23-year-old Frenchman of Algerian descent behind the string of cold-blooded shootings in Toulouse and the nearby town of Montauban. Mr. Merah made two trips to Afghanistan and, according to French authorities, was “categorized as a Salafist.”
To the vast majority of Europe’s moderate Muslims, these people also represent a growing threat to the Muslim community. From Amsterdam to Paris to Berlin, I found Muslims who railed against the Salafis, condemning their absolutist ideology, their unbending adherence to a literal interpretation of the Koran and the damage they were doing to Islam.
Now, once again, they’re in the spotlight. The murder spree in Toulouse deepens an already contentious debate over what to do about Salafism in Europe. German authorities have provided one solution: In December of 2010, police raided Salafi organizations throughout Germany, not because the Salafists had broken the law, but just in case. “For a well-fortified democracy,” said the German Interior Ministry, “it is necessary and demanded, without waiting for the jihad to occur in the form of armed struggle, to take action against anti-constitutional organizations.”
France has taken another tack, banning the full-face veil, the trademark of the Salafis. Norway has banned Saudi-funded mosques.
But experts have warned for years that these actions will be disastrous. And their predictions are proving distressingly true. The key argument made against such aggressive approaches is that they only push fundamentalists further into the margins, ultimately ending in violent radicalization. According to a report published in the academic journal Urban Studies in 2010, researcher Jean-Louis Pan Ké Shon said the ghettoization of immigrants, especially North Africans, in the suburbs of Paris has led to “a feeling of shame and guilt” and that the “internalization of this negative opinion causes a psychological destabilization that may lie behind crises and end in social exclusion or disaffiliation.” This institutional discrimination in France, the report said, keeps North African Muslims economically deprived and segregated in the poorest suburbs.
Add to this a fundamentalist outlook and a global environment in which Islam is in crisis and you have the perfect storm for the radicalization of young Muslims, warn researchers studying the Salafi phenomenon. In Global Salafism: Islam’s New Religious Movement, a 2009 collection of essays by experts on Salafi Islam, that theme appears repeatedly. Researchers such as Roel Meijer stress the need to engage Salafis in social and political discourse. Inclusion, they argue, will lead to moderation.
French leaders have obviously not been listening. In the lead-up to the April presidential election, anti-Islamic rhetoric has reached a feverish pitch and, with the Toulouse killings, will only get worse. For moderates such as Mr. Barkati, it’s a worrisome trend: Attacking Islam wholesale will only further divide the Muslim community and push more youths into the arms of radicals. “People like Wilders are hurting us,” he told me back in 2010. “We are trying to unite Muslims, so we can all live together in peace. But when Europe’s political leaders start to attack Islam, they only strengthen the Salafis. And I fear there will be more bloodshed as a result.”
Adnan Khan is a writer and commentator based in Kabul.