Fouad Saanadi is preaching to the converted, but not the mainstream Muslim community he belongs to. In a discreet building near city hall, the Bordeaux imam meets with bewildered parents and fragile youngsters, some of whom have never set foot inside a mosque.
Many come from troubled families and neighborhoods. Some are mentally unstable. He and a small group of experts are fighting a powerful adversary: militant Islam.
“My role is not to tell people the ‘good’ or ‘true’ Islam, but to help awaken a critical approach,” Saanadi says of Bordeaux’s year-old CAPRI program aimed at preventing radicalization. “We are not here to confront but rather to awaken a critical awareness.”
Bordeaux counts among a growing number of communities across Europe searching for ways to counter extremism, following a wave of largely home-grown terrorist attacks. The question is all the more important for France, the target of three terror strikes in two years, and western Europe’s biggest exporter of extremist fighters.
Unlike countries like Germany and Britain, France is a relative newcomer to approaches beyond law-and-order ones, and new efforts to branch out have not always proved successful. Indeed, a recent Senate report characterized the state’s approach in tackling radicalization a failure.
Today, there is a new sense of urgency to finding answers. Hundreds of foreign fighters are beginning to return to Europe, authorities say, posing risks as potential terrorists and recruiters. Some end up in French prisons, already considered jihadist breeding grounds.
“The European system is not experienced with dealing with so many radicalized people,” Khosrokhavar says. “We need to invent a new way of dealing with this sort of problem.”
A partnership between Bordeaux’s city hall and the regional Muslim federation, the year-old CAPRI program may be one sign of changing times. While the initiative is local, it offers a religious dimension to fighting radicalization – one that is drawing interest from other municipalities.
“For the youngsters and the families, the fact we’re doing this program with the Muslim community is positive,” says Bordeaux’s Deputy Mayor Marik Fetouh, who is also CAPRI’s spokesman. “It shows we’re not confounding Islam and radicalization, and often the theologians will create links between the families and CAPRI.”
Imam Saanadi gathers with half-a-dozen therapists, psychiatrists and legal experts to evaluate each new case. Of the 36 youngsters now enrolled, roughly 40 percent are women. A number are converts, or “born again” Muslims from largely secular backgrounds. The average age is 22. “It’s a puzzle,” Saanadi tells DW. “When we put together the different pieces, we can see whether to intervene or not.”
As secretary-general of Bordeaux’s Muslim federation, Saanadi himself ascribes to a moderate, government-sanctioned brand of Islam that respects French secularism but is not always considered legitimate among more fundamentalist believers.
Perhaps not surprisingly, he does not personally know anyone who has joined a jihadi movement. “Terrorism is a question for national education,” he says. “We see children at the mosque two hours a week. The rest of their time is at school.”
Whatever the cause, most agree that France has a serious problem. Roughly 700 French jihadists are still fighting in Iraq and Syria, according to recent government figures; another 1,350 suspected radicals are in French prisons, including nearly 300 with direct ties to terrorist networks.
Nationwide, authorities classify another 15,000 as extremists and potential security threats, including an estimated 200 or more in the southwestern Gironde department that includes Bordeaux. The state’s traditional law-and-order response has not proved effective, critics say.
“The state took too much time and now it’s searching for miracle solutions,” sociologist Ouisa Kies, an expert on radicalization in prisons, told DW.
Last year, the center-left government adopted a softer approach with uncertain results so far. It earmarked more than $300 million (284 million euros) for de-radicalization programs over three years, and rolled out the first of a dozen voluntary centers planned across the country.
But in February, a French senate report deemed the de-radicalization center, in the Loire Valley, a “fiasco.” Only nine youngsters had been treated there, it said, and it was currently empty.
The new government funding windfall has also helped fuel some 80 local initiatives, some with dubious credentials. “It’s becoming a market,” says Bordeaux’s main imam, Tareq Oubrou, who provides theological advice to CAPRI. “Everyone is becoming a de-radicalization specialist in two seconds.”
“As soon as there’s an initiative by a Muslim leader or members of the community there’s always suspicion,” says Kies, who believes the Muslim leadership nonetheless has a narrow but necessary role to play in countering radicalization.
In Bordeaux, Saanadi is the first to acknowledge the limits of his intervention. “There are no miracle solutions,” he says. “It’s very easy to destroy, but very difficult to reconstruct.”