Three of Germany’s Islamic associations forge an “Islamokemalist” front

Amidst escalating political tensions between Germany and Turkey, three of Germany’s Turkish-dominated Islamic associations have made clear their perspective on the causes of the current diplomatic spat.

Joint press release

On the anniversary of last year’s military coup attempt in Turkey, the DİTİB, IGMG, and ATİB organisations issued a joint press release, calling for a “about-face in German-Turkish relations”.(( http://ditib.de/detail1.php?id=610&lang=de ))

In this document, the three signing associations bemoan that “Europe’s highly reserved reaction” to the attempted putsch had “deeply unsettled the people of Turkish descent. It is more necessary than ever to lift German-Turkish relations to the usual, cordial level.”

“Lack of solidarity”

The core message of the statement centres on Europe’s failure to “recognise the great trauma of July 15 [2016]”. DİTİB, IGMG, and ATİB criticise what to them appears to be “widespread disappointment at the failure of the coup”. They castigate the “lack of solidarity with the Turkish people, considering 249 dead and thousands injured”.

The three organisations greeted the conciliatory signals made by Germany’s Vice Chancellor and Sigmar Gabriel, who had in the past repeatedly stressed the need to be supportive of Turkish democracy against the coup plotters.

The Gülenist foe

Overall, the statement paints a picture of Turkey as beleaguered by internal and external enemies, ranging from a PKK terror campaign to instable neighbouring states. It is against this backdrop that DİTİB, IGMG, and ATİB see the coup attempt as having been committed by “a sect-like parallel state, which has infiltrated nearly the entire state apparatus through illegitimate networks and unlawful means” – i.e. the Gülenists.

Implied in this argument is always the suspicion that Germany is either too soft on Gülenists or that it even actively endorses the movement. In fact, a Turkish tabloid recently claimed that the Gülen organization was “Germany’s long arm”.(( https://twitter.com/ercankarakoyun?lang=de ))

Bridging old divides between DİTİB, IGMG, and ATİB

Yet it is not only the statement itself that is of interest but also the entente of the three organisations responsible for its drafting. DİTİB, IGMG, and ATİB joining hands represents the convergence of previously disparate groups under the shared commitment to a strong Turkey led by an increasingly authoritarian President.

DİTİB, the subsidiary of the Turkish Presidency of Religious Affairs (Diyanet) and thus an indirect organ of the Turkish statem has always pursued a line broadly sympathetic to current Turkish governments. Recently it has come under increasingly tight control of the AKP administration.

Islamists and nationalists

IGMG – in its full name “Islamic Community Millî Görüş” – is an offshoot of Necmettin Erbakan’s Islamist movement. As such, it did not use to be on good terms with DİTİB, as long as the old Kemalist elites were in charge of the organisation. This changed after Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s arrival in power: Erdoğan’s own AK Party is a spin-off of Erbakan’s movement.

Finally, ATİB – the “Union of Turkish-Islamic Cultural Associations in Europe” – represents a stridently nationalistic version of Turkish Islam. Whilst some of the Union’s funding is derived from the Turkish state and Diyanet, it also has long-standing ties with hardline Turkish nationalism as incarnated by the “Grey Wolves.”

The rise of “Islamokemalism”

As such, ATİB’s co-signing of the press release with DİTİB and IGMG mirrors the rallying of Turkey’s far-right MHP party to Erdoğan’s persona and his authoritarian leadership style. In this respect, the agenda of the three associations is not as much Islamic as it is concerned with projecting a strikingly nationalistic picture of Turkish greatness.

Şahin Alpay, one of Turkey’s leading intellectuals arrested since the coup attempt, has referred to this marriage of authoritarian nationalism with Islamist references as “Islamokemalism”.(( http://www.zeit.de/politik/ausland/2016-10/sahin-alpay-journalist-gefaengnis-silivri-tuerkei-putsch )) This term perhaps better than any other captures current developments in Turkey.

Capture of underage female IS-supporter in Mosul shows extent the group’s appeal

 

As the so-called Islamic State’s last bastions in Mosul fell, Iraqi soldiers and militias captured a host of IS-fighters. Amongst them were a larger number of foreigners who had joined the terrorist group over the preceding years.

Trip to the Levant in 2016

Yet few arrests have called forth more international attention than the case of Linda Wenzel, a 16-year-old girl from a small town in Saxony, Germany. She was discovered by Iraqi forces in a tunnel along with 20 other female IS-supporters, three of whom were also German.((http://www.sueddeutsche.de/politik/islamischer-staat-vermisste-jaehrige-aus-sachsen-im-irak-aufgegriffen-1.3599355 ))

The teenager had left her home in 2016 and had been missing since then. Her turn towards jihadism had occurred unbeknownst to her parents and her family. According to investigators, online conversations with IS-sympathisers were key in swaying the girl to travel to the Levantine battlefields via Frankfurt and Istanbul.((http://www.spiegel.de/politik/ausland/islamischer-staat-die-dschihad-braut-aus-pulsnitz-a-1159114.html ))

“Jihadi bride”

Her precise role within IS remains unclear. Iraqi sources have described her as a sniper; yet given the group’s conservatism in gender matters it seems unlikely that the young woman was allowed to play an active combat role, even if she should have wished to do so.

According to intelligence sources, she was married off to a Chechen IS-fighter; a fact that has led many media outlets to refer to her as a “jihadi bride.”(( http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2017/07/18/teenage-german-isil-bride-captured-mosuls-old-city/, http://www.spiegel.de/politik/ausland/islamischer-staat-die-dschihad-braut-aus-pulsnitz-a-1159114.html )) This points to the ways in which the IS’s female recruits are seen as even more ‘exotic’ and quintessentially incomprehensible than their male counterparts.

IS’s female members

Yet in contrast to many other jihadist groups, the IS has been extremely adept at attracting female supporters. According to the German domestic intelligence service, the Verfassungsschutz, 20 per cent of Germans who have joined the group are female. And among the minors flocking to the caliphate, 50 per cent are women.(( http://www.zeit.de/gesellschaft/zeitgeschehen/2017-07/islamischer-staat-linda-w-dresden-is-kaempferin ))

German Islamic studies scholar and counter-terrorism expert Marwan Abou-Taam points to the ways in which the IS has managed to offer an appealing vision to many young women. Many are taken in by the glossy portrayal of jihadi fighters online. Becoming a wife and child-bearer to a fighter provides new sense and meaning, Abou-Taam highlights.((http://www.zeit.de/gesellschaft/zeitgeschehen/2017-07/islamischer-staat-linda-w-dresden-is-kaempferin ))

Extradition to Germany

Not all women are joining the IS for personal or marital reasons, however: many wish to make a contribution to the creation of the caliphate and are highly ideologically motivated.

Whether this was the case for Linda Wenzel remains to be seen. Personnel from the German Embassy are in touch with her and the other German women arrested in Mosul. It is understood that Germany will seek their extradition. If they remain in Iraq, the women may be facing the death penalty, as marriage to and support of IS-fighters are treated as a capital offence in Iraq.(( http://www.zeit.de/gesellschaft/zeitgeschehen/2017-07/islamischer-staat-linda-w-dresden-is-kaempferin ))

Challenge of reintegration

In her home town of Pulsnitz in Saxony, public opinion is split on Linda Wenzel’s arrest and her potential return. Some of the town’s inhabitants expressed relief that the girl had been found. They hoped for a speedy reunion with her parents.

Others openly voiced their fears. One of the girl’s former neighbours asserted that “we don’t need her here. At the end of it, she might show up with an explosive belt.”(( http://www.spiegel.de/politik/ausland/islamischer-staat-die-dschihad-braut-aus-pulsnitz-a-1159114.html ))

This highlights once more how the arrest of the so-called “foreign fighters” that had joined extremist groups in Iraq and Syria is not so much an endpoint as a new start to the problem: the meaningful reintegration of these men, women, and children remains an issue that European governments will have to struggle with for the foreseeable future.

Forever in transit: New report highlights plight of Syrian refugees

For his reportage “Stranded. Refugees Between Syria and Europe” the writer Tayfun Guttstadt travelled to the cities of Turkey and along the Turkish-Syrian border. In conversation with Sonja Galler, he talks about the precarious situation faced by Syrian refugees, their legal status and Turkey′s lack of any kind of integration concept

Turkey is one of the most important transit nations for refugee flows en route to Europe. At the same time, Turkey has itself become a migration country in recent years: at around three million, the nation hosts the largest number of Syrian refugees worldwide. NGOs estimate the actual number of Syrians in Turkey is closer to 3.5 million, as not all refugees have been registered yet.

For the EU and the Turkish government, the six-figure number may first and foremost serve as an argument in a domestic and foreign policy game that both areplaying to serve their own political ends. But how are the refugees themselves faring? Those that are “stranded” in Turkey and decided to remain there for a wide variety of reasons.

The Hamburg writer Tayfun Guttstadt, who reported on the Gezi protests in his first book “Capulcu“, has resumed his travels and spent time talking to (among others) Syrian refugees between Istanbul, Hatay, Gaziantep and Diyarbakir about their lives, political views, hopes and disappointments.

Strong desire to return home

The resulting work is a densely narrated reportage, abundant with conversations with friends, casual acquaintances and people from all walks of life, sprinkled with observations and background information. It provides a manifold insight into the precarious social and legal situation of Syrians and other refugees in the country, people who fluctuate between staying and travelling on.

“Most refugees live in hope of being able to return soon. Others feel at home in Turkey, because for example the culture is quite similar, or they’ve found a job, or made friends. Others stay because they don’t know what else to do. Other reasons to stay are the fear of continuing illegally to Europe or doubts over whether things would be better there,” says Guttstadt.

Only a small percentage of the refugees are living in one of the camps set up by the Turkish government close to the Syrian border and from which only a few more than airbrushed images reach the public domain. Just as it is to other journalists, access is also denied to Guttstadt on his travels.

Poverty risk in the metropolis

The overwhelming majority muddle through in one of the country’s cities. There may be more opportunities here, but the risk of falling into poverty is also high: refugees often live in over-priced, cramped accommodation working without permits “for a pittance in industry or on a building site, fielding accusations that they’re taking work away from Turks and Kurds,” says Guttstadt.

Without a work permit – something that few employers go to the trouble of obtaining for their employees – access to welfare is barely possible. Child labour, in the textile industry for example, is also an issue. However, the authorities frequently turn a blind eye to illegal work or new businesses that haven’t been correctly registered.

But Guttstadt does include more positive biographies in his book and reports on wealthy individuals who have rented or even bought apartments and houses and who have relocated their businesses to Turkey. Artists, intellectuals and musicians gather in Istanbul, which has developed into one of the exile centres of Syrian intellectuals alongside Gaziantep and Berlin.

A peculiarity of the Turkish asylum system means, however, that in accordance with the Geneva Refugee Convention, the refugee status does not apply to Syrians for whom a special status was created in Turkey, which officially allows them to use the public health system and now the education system too. But there is often a lack of appropriate capacity to guarantee these promised rights.

In this context, the reportage also shines a light on civil society efforts: the local initiatives and aid organisations that offer support to the refugees, sometimes under makeshift conditions, trying to offer language courses and provide psychosocial support. Guttstadt also visits the controversial aid organisation IHH, predominantly active in the Sunni milieu – the offshoot of which was banned in Germany.

No integration concept

But we also hear the views of people on the street, taxi drivers and their highly subjective comments, which range from racist resentment through to understanding and expressions of empathy, show that in Turkey too, the issue is emotionally charged.

“First and foremost among nationalist AKP opponents, there is a commonly-held view that the Syrians are living the high life at the expense of the country’s citizens. The most vociferous supporters on the other hand are full of religious pathos, in which the needs and interests of the refugees barely play a role. Very few actors in Turkey recognise that the refugees deserve the same rights as any other person,” says Guttstadt.

Guttstadt also has unequivocal words of criticism for the Turkish government: “There is no discernible integration concept, the situation is characterised by emergency solutions. Always under the assumption that a few ‘guests’ have to be looked after just for a short while, because Assad will in any case be toppled tomorrow or the day after. None of the parties giving serious attention to the rights of refugees. The AKP uses a romanticised rhetoric, which barely conceals its political exploitation of the situation, above all in domestic and EU policy,” says Guttstadt.

The discussion concerning the naturalisation of Syrian refugees is also to be viewed in this context: It is “controversial because the AKP is doing all it can to fit the majority Sunni refugees – non-Sunnis only come to Turkey unwillingly – into its social model.”

Sonja Galler

© Qantara.de 2017

Translated from the German by Nina Coon

Manchester bomber’s Libyan experiences and radicalisation

Manchester bomber Salman Abedi, 22, may have been radicalised through his connections to Libya. His father fled Libya to escape Ghadafi because Abedi senior was connected to the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), which had tried to assassinate Ghadafi. LIFG was prominently represented at the Muslim-Brotherhood-affiliated Didsbury Mosque which the Abedi family attended. After 9/11, the LIFG was declared an Al Qaeda affiliate and its funding was cut off. The Abedi family’s escape of Libya occurred before the birth of Salman Abedi; however, when Salman was 16, Abedi senior returned to Libya after the Arab Spring when the opportunity to finally overthrow Ghadafi presented itself.

As a result, Salman Abedi moved often between war-torn Tripoli and Manchester. At some point, it is suspected that he went with other Libyans to fight in Syria, where he saw American bombs killing Muslim children. He was full of contradictions, as he drank and used drugs but was violent towards women who adhered to Western sexuality norms.

Salman Abedi was radicalised into a different form of violence than his father. While his father abhorred ISIS, Abedi embraced it after his experiences with cultural clash and violence in Syria. This led to the tragic events last week.

Marine Le Pen says Assad solution to Syria crisis

French far-right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen on Monday called Syrian President Bashar Assad “the most reassuring solution for France,” a major divergence with her nation’s official policy.

Le Pen, head of the National Front, spoke after meetings with Lebanese President Michel Aoun and Prime Minister Saad Hariri. They were among numerous officials, including the Christian Maronite patriarch, that Le Pen was meeting on her two-day visit to Lebanon, a former French protectorate.

The trip represented the first major foray into foreign policy for Le Pen, a leading candidate in France’s April 23 and May 7 election.

She said she told Hariri that there is “no viable and workable solution” to the Syrian civil war beyond choosing between Assad and the Islamic State group.

“I clearly explained that in the political picture the least bad option is the politically realistic. It appears that Bashar al Assad is evidently today the most reassuring solution for France.”

Le Pen has made known her preference for Assad in the past — a position that runs counter to the French government’s strong anti-Assad approach — but it carries extra weight being stated while on a foreign visit with a Syrian neighbor, and during unusual meetings with the nation’s top officials. The trip is Le Pen’s first real public foray into foreign policy.

Before meeting with the prime minister, Le Pen had a visit with Aoun, the leader of a Christian party allied with the Iranian-backed Hezbollah militia fighting on the side of Assad.

Le Pen said she and Hariri, who has longstanding ties to France, agreed on “the absolute necessity” for nations wanting to fight the Islamic State group tearing Syria and Iraq apart to come “to the table,” an apparent reference to formal talks. She noted the threat to France of the Islamic State group which has claimed deadly attacks in Paris, Nice and elsewhere, and has lured hundreds of French youths to the war zones in Syria and Iraq.

Le Pen was also using her two-day visit to the former French protectorate — and her unusual encounter with a foreign president — to appeal to the thousands of French voters in Lebanon.

Travel Ban Drives Wedge Between Iraqi Soldiers and Americans

President Trump’s Jan. 27 executive order has driven a wedge between many Iraqi soldiers and their American allies. Officers and enlisted men interviewed on the front lines in Mosul said they interpreted the order as an affront — not only to them but also to fellow soldiers who have died in the battle for Mosul.

“An insult to their dignity,” said Capt. Abdul Saami al-Azzi, an officer with the counterterrorism force in Mosul. He said he was hurt and disappointed by a nation he had considered a respectful partner. “It is really embarrassing.”

“If America doesn’t want Iraqis because we are all terrorists, then America should send its sons back to Iraq to fight the terrorists themselves,” Capt. Ahmed Adnan al-Musawe told a New York Times reporter who was with him this week at his barricaded position inside Mosul.

Col. John L. Dorrian, the spokesman in Baghdad for the American-led operation against the Islamic State, emphasized that the president’s order was temporary, calling it “a pause.”

German courts seek to move beyond counter-terrorism measures in path-breaking trials of fighters from the Syrian battlefields

From organisational to substantive criteria

Over the past few months, German prosecutors have cautiously embarked on new paths to bring to justice crimes committed in the Syrian Civil War. Like most of their European counterparts, German investigators had so far remained focused on offences against counter-terrorism provisions (codified in Germany under §§129a and b of the country’s criminal code).(( https://dejure.org/gesetze/StGB/129a.html ))

Consequently, until now verdicts were based on charges of terrorist conspiracy (Bildung einer terroristischen Vereinigung) and thus on purely formalistic criteria: what was penalised was only the formation or support of a terrorist association, not the substantive rights violations that perpetrators had committed in the Syrian war zone.

However, amidst the increasing rates of the return of German foreign fighters – of the more than 750 that have made their way to Syria, more than 250 returned ((https://www.icct.nl/wp-content/uploads/2016/03/ICCT-Report_Foreign-Fighters-Phenomenon-in-the-EU_1-April-2016_including-AnnexesLinks.pdf , pp. 25 f.))– and against the backdrop of the growing number of Syrian refugees in the country, prosecutors are apparently seeking to enable more ambitious judicial proceedings taking the commission of international crimes – violations of fundamental human rights and of international humanitarian law – into account.

The case of Aria L.

In July 2016, the German national Aria L. was sentenced to two years imprisonment for war crimes by the Higher Regional Court in Frankfurt. Having travelled to Syria in spring 2014, L. had not directly participated as a fighter in the Civil War – at least not to the court’s knowledge. However, pictures of L. posing next to the severed heads of two Syrian government soldiers made their way on to Facebook. ((https://olg-frankfurt-justiz.hessen.de/irj/OLG_Frankfurt_am_Main_Internet?rid=HMdJ_15/OLG_Frankfurt_am_Main_Internet/nav/d44/d4471596-ad85-e21d-0648-71e2389e4818,3ed60b46-2d1d-d551-d064-8712ae8bad54,,,11111111-2222-3333-4444-100000005004%26_ic_uCon_zentral=3ed60b46-2d1d-d551-d064-8712ae8bad54%26overview=true.htm&uid=d4471596-ad85-e21d-0648-71e2389e4818 ))

The Court viewed L.’s actions as fulfilling the criteria for war crimes set out in §8.1.9 of the Code of Crimes against International Law (Völkerstrafgesetzbuch), the code translating the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court into domestic German law: L. was condemned for having treated a person protected under international humanitarian law – a category which includes enemy forces that are hors de combat – in a gravely degrading manner. ((https://olg-frankfurt-justiz.hessen.de/irj/OLG_Frankfurt_am_Main_Internet?rid=HMdJ_15/OLG_Frankfurt_am_Main_Internet/nav/d44/d4471596-ad85-e21d-0648-71e2389e4818,3ed60b46-2d1d-d551-d064-8712ae8bad54,,,11111111-2222-3333-4444-100000005004%26_ic_uCon_zentral=3ed60b46-2d1d-d551-d064-8712ae8bad54%26overview=true.htm&uid=d4471596-ad85-e21d-0648-71e2389e4818 ))

From foreign fighters to Syrian nationals

Significantly, the Völkerstrafgesetzbuch also contains provisions of universal jurisdiction; i.e. provisions allowing German courts to prosecute genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes even if they are committed by foreign citizens abroad. Normally, national courts do not have the authority to adjudicate on acts that have no connection either with the national territory (territorial principle) or with national citizens (principle of nationality). ((http://www.gesetze-im-internet.de/vstgb/__1.html ))

Consequently, the code offers the possibility to bring to justice not just ‘foreign fighters’ (German nationals or residents that have travelled to the Middle Eastern theatres of battle) but also Syrian nationals that have sought refuge as asylum-seekers in Germany after having committed international crimes. In fact, at least one trial against a Syrian national is ongoing in front of a German court, and another in preparation. The offences involved include attacks on protected persons, torture, and pillaging. ((http://www.ejiltalk.org/justice-for-syria-opportunities-and-limitations-of-universal-jurisdiction-trials-in-germany/ ))

Information from within a divided Syrian community

Syrian refugees are by now systematically asked whether they have witnessed crimes against humanity or other offences justiciable under the German code, or whether they can even name perpetrators of such offences. Asylum authorities have sent 25 to 30 tips to prosecutors per day, amounting to over 2000 indications of international crimes over the course of 2015. ((http://www.abc.net.au/news/2016-05-01/refugee-influx-spurs-germany-to-tackle-syrian-war-crimes/7374152 , http://www.ejiltalk.org/justice-for-syria-opportunities-and-limitations-of-universal-jurisdiction-trials-in-germany/ ))

At the same time, some of these tip-offs is either not verifiable, based only on rumour, or reflective of the distrust and recriminations prevailing between different groups fleeing the ravages of the Syrian war. Investigators noted that informants sometimes accused members of other ethnic or religious groups of having perpetrated war crimes without being able to furnish concrete evidence for these claims. ((https://www.tagesschau.de/inland/kriegsverbrechen-101.html ))

Challenges of evidence collection

This highlights the challenges involved in the collection and evaluation of testimonies and evidence. These challenges only grow in importance due to the fact that investigators have of course no access to the sites of crimes in Syria. Often, evidence is insufficient for the opening of legal proceedings but substantial enough that suspicions remain, leaving a bitter aftertaste among prosecutors as well as among Syrian human rights groups striving to bring perpetrators of international crimes to justice. ((https://www.tagesschau.de/inland/kriegsverbrechen-101.html ))

A related concern is that prosecutions under the provisions of the Völkerstrafgesetzbuch only target a small sub-section of war criminals from the Syrian battlefields. First of all, those responsible for the large-scale orchestration of fundamental rights violations have not left Syria and asked for asylum in Germany – meaning that German prosecutors must confine themselves to go after the small fry only. ((http://www.ejiltalk.org/justice-for-syria-opportunities-and-limitations-of-universal-jurisdiction-trials-in-germany/ ))

Moreover, there is a concern that the henchmen of Bashar al-Asad will by and large escape judgement under these provisions, since comparatively few of them have asked for asylum in Europe. ((http://www.abc.net.au/news/2016-05-01/refugee-influx-spurs-germany-to-tackle-syrian-war-crimes/7374152 )) This does not obviate the need to bring to justice fighters and commanders of other factions, above all of the more brutal Islamist and jihadist groups. Yet given the fact that it is still above all the Asad forces that have “shredded the laws of warfare”,(( https://www.hrw.org/news/2016/06/24/syrian-refugees-help-nab-suspected-war-criminals-europe )) a failure to prosecute government personnel means a heavily lopsided judicial treatment of the Syrian quagmire.

Thus, while the activation of the substantive provisions of the Völkerstrafgesetzbuch constitutes a step forward compared with the prosecution under the blanket terms of counter-terrorism legislation that punishes a formal status rather than actual offences committed, bringing justice to bear on the perpetrators of international crimes in Syria remains fraught with difficulties.

France to invest $47 million in Sahel counterterrorism training program

France plans to invest 42 million euros ($47 million) to help countries of Africa’s Sahel region prepare to face jihadist attacks similar to those that killed dozens in Paris in 2015, an interior ministry official said on Friday.

The Sahel, a politically fragile region whose remote desert spaces host a medley of jihadist groups, is seen as vulnerable to further attacks after strikes on soft targets in Burkina Faso and Ivory Coast earlier this year.

Nearby Senegal, a Western security partner with a long history of stability, has so far been spared.

“In future we will train all the countries of the G5 Sahel and Senegal with 42 million Euros in financing, including 24 million Euros for equipment,” said a spokeswoman for Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve during his visit to Dakar on Friday.

G5 Sahel is a regional security organisation composed of Chad, Niger, Burkina Faso, Mali and Mauritania. The investment period is 2017-2022, the spokeswoman added.

French riot control officers from the CRS are currently in Senegal for a month training Senegalese police forces to combat urban attacks on soft targets ahead of the broader programme.

In the simulation exercise watched by Cazeneuve as well as army elites and foreign diplomats, Senegalese police arrived swiftly on the scene after masked jihadists killed three students before holing up with hostages inside a university bus.

The jihadists were killed and the remaining hostages released and given medical treatment in the drill.

“We have reinforced police cooperation so that the first ones on the scene, the specialized forces, can intervene in case of mass murder with a highly efficient response,” said Cazeneuve in a speech shortly after the demonstration.

Former colonial power France retains a military presence in Senegal with 350 soldiers. A much larger force of 3,500 is spread across Chad, Mauritania, Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso to hunt down jihadists.

Senegal’s ally the United States has also boosted military cooperation with the country and this year signed a cooperation agreement to ease the deployment of American troops there.

 

Number of French jihadists in Syria and Iraq decreases

The number of French citizens traveling to join Islamic State in 2016 has dropped drastically from last year, Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said on Tuesday, putting the fall down to military reverses suffered by the militant group.

Speaking to security agents at the ministry, Cazeneuve said there had been a “fourfold decrease” with just 18 French people recorded traveling to the area in the first six months of the year compared with 69 in the corresponding period in 2015.

The depletion, he said, was explained by the group’s recent losses on the ground but also by France’s “enhanced anti-terrorism efforts.”

According to interior ministry figures released on Tuesday, 689 French citizens are still in the region, including 275 women and 17 underage fighters.

More than 900 people have been identified as having either attempted to travel to the region or expressed a desire to go there, the ministry’s figures showed.

Why French military may be more tolerant of Muslims than French society

March 1, 2016

Abdelkader Arbi’s office is fairly typical for an employee of the French military, with its spacious desk, ceiling-high French flag planted in one corner, and a portrait of President François Hollande affixed to the wall.

But from time to time, it serves an unorthodox purpose for a room in a state-run building: when the Army prayer room is unavailable, it becomes a makeshift mosque for soldiers who don’t have a place to pray.

“Obviously, soldiers need to learn to live together, but sometimes it’s just not convenient or practical for them to pray,” says Mr. Arbi, the French military’s first ever Muslim chaplain, who is celebrating his 11th year in the position. Soldiers often live up to six in a dormitory or work in an open space during the day, which can be a challenge for practicing Muslims trying to observe the required five daily prayers. “They come to pray here so they don’t bother anyone.” In a country that struggles with fears of radicalization and the perception that its definition of secularism is synonymous with Islamophobia, the military offers a model for embracing religious freedom without completely banishing it in the public sphere. While it is theoretically illegal for a chaplain to preside over a public school or office building, church and state are still entwined in the military. And in recent years, the government has worked to make sure religious freedoms are extended to the growing number of young Muslims joining the Army.

“These soldiers simply want to do their jobs while fully respecting their religion,” says Arbi. “They finally feel like they’re being treated equally. After all, everyone here is fighting for the same cause – France.” 

Allowing soldiers to pray on military grounds wouldn’t necessarily be shocking, except that this is France – a country that prides itself on its strict secularism laws, or laicité.

France has fought hard to uphold laicité, including through bans on wearing conspicuous religious symbols in schools since 2004 and the burqa in public places since 2010.

But a clause within a 1905 law to separate church and state makes a provision for people in public prisons, hospitals, and boarding schools – anywhere where an individual does not have free access to traditional religious facilities. In these cases, the government must provide access to a state-appointed chaplain.

The 1905 law parallels a similar one from 1880 that provides the same rights to members of the French Army. There are currently 38 Muslim chaplains in the military, along with the more than 200 chaplains from Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish faiths.

“Religion can’t be practiced in many places in France, but for those who don’t have all their rights, religion is a way to give them this liberty back,” says Valentine Zuber, a professor of religious studies at the Paris-based Practical School of Advanced Studies (EPHE).

But this hasn’t always applied to everyone. While Christian and Jewish soldiers could frequent the on-site prayer halls and chaplains, Muslim soldiers were largely excluded from religious life, even 100 years after religious freedom provisions allowed for military chaplains. Practicing Muslims felt compelled to hide their daily prayers before Arbi arrived at the Vincennes military fort on the outskirts of Paris in 2005, and had little recourse when faced with racist jokes, insults, or feelings of exclusion. 

But that sort of behavior is untenable today due to the Army’s growing Muslim contingent, which represents around 10 to 20 percent of France’s military population. The push for Muslim chaplains finally came in 2004, when a study that looked at second-generation immigrants in the Army showed widespread and primarily religious discrimination.

Samir, a soldier in the south of France and second-generation Moroccan (identifying details have been changed to protect his anonymity), was a practicing Muslim when he first entered the Army in 2005. While his religious practice now extends only to abstaining from eating pork, Samir says he has seen the difference between life with and without religious freedoms.

“Ten years ago, Muslims simply didn’t practice their religion on the base,” says Samir. “The officers didn’t want to see it.”

And while racism and religious discrimination still exists within the ranks – Samir says he recently heard a young officer berating a Muslim soldier for praying in his room – attitudes towards North African and black soldiers is improving. “This new generation of soldiers is very diverse and things are changing for the better, even if that evolution is taking place very slowly.”

Since Muslim chaplains have arrived on the base, soldiers are allowed to pray in their rooms, consult with chaplains when necessary, and choose halal food packs during overseas missions. Some chaplains help organize annual trips to Mecca for the Hajj pilgrimage. But otherwise, the country’s laicité laws are applied in a similar fashion to that of public spaces – no outward religious symbolism is allowed.

“We can’t express anything apparent about our religion,” says Samir. “No chains, no beards – we have to remain neutral. The only place we can pray is in the military chapel or our bedroom.”

Maintaining a balance between overt and private religious practice and a middle-of-the-road approach to providing support – chaplains do not have the right to proselytize – could be what keeps the military’s version of secularism functioning. Unlike in public office buildings or schools, where laicité debates have created deep tensions, the practice of religion in the military generally remains clear of suspicion or scandal.

Hovering between the public and private, the military allows for individuals to practice their religion as long as it does not disturb public order – the original definition of laicité.

“The military seems to be the place where neutrality and freedom are the most respected in France,” says Zuber.

And because the state funds military chaplains, in a country where the government is prohibited from financing religious institutions or employees, the religion itself is given a certain presence and credibility, she adds.

“Our current system of laicité doesn’t allow us to apply similar rules anywhere else,” Zuber says, “but maybe if the role of chaplains were better understood, it would change people’s mentalities. For now, there is no political willingness to do so.”

The moderate approach could also be seen as an attempt to keep radicalization at bay. While France has had problems with radicalization in its prisons, instances within the military remain uncommon. Still, Arbi says that even if he has rarely seen a soldier exhibiting signs of radicalized thoughts, it is his role to remain vigilant, especially since terrorist attacks traumatized France in January and November of last year.

“Anyone can go off the rails, but this isn’t a Muslim problem,” says Arbi. When Mohammed Merah went on a shooting spree in Toulouse in 2012, two of the three soldiers killed were Muslim. “These are French soldiers and even though it might be difficult to remember, Islam is not a ‘foreign’ religion. The relationship between Islam and France has a huge history.”

As France continues to debate the balance between promoting secularism and discouraging Islamophobia, Arbi says that the opportunity for Muslims in the military to practice freely is insurance against Muslim resentment festering into radicalism. The best way to approach things, he says, is like parenting – treating each person equally is fundamental.

“Our job is to make war,” says Arbi. “But if soldiers don’t feel equal among themselves, that war can turn inward.”