Mohamed-Ali Adraoui, Research Fellow at Sciences Po Paris (Centre for International Studies)
For several years, the reference to “Salafism” has been one of the major discursive points used by many French politicians, and more broadly by opinion-makers, who are called upon to express themselves on issues related to Islam in France and in the world. Whether it is a question of the ideological substratum favoring terrorist violence, the reasons for the supposedly growing community spirit in certain neighborhoods where the Islamic religion is majority, or the debates on the visibility of the full veil or the burkini, radicalism today seems to have a name, that of Salafism.
In addition to the preconceptions associated with the term “Salafism” in the French political and media language (“fundamentalism”, “extremism”, “opposition to the values of the Republic”, “problems with equality between men and women”, etc.), it appears from the study of the arguments in reaction to “the Salafist threat” that the latter is the object of an exceptional framing, that is to say the construction of a legal, social, cultural, media, intellectual, political, and even military issue that does not translate into a “simple problem”, but into the definition of an enemy. Both internally and externally, “Salafism” is presented as the ideology that is in every way opposed to the system of norms that generate the unity of France and its principles through the Republic, placing it outside the field of acceptability. The Salafist has, then, become the paradigmatic figure of “otherness” and iniquity.
This article aims to shed light on the mechanisms of elaboration involved in this exceptional thinking, understood as a process by which an image of the Islamic fact in France and worldwide is thought out, formulated in such a way in the public arena that addressing the problems induced by Salafism, as well as the proposed solutions, participate in the creation of a Muslim exception. By analyzing the prevailing French discourse towards this revivalist ethic within Islam, whose followers say they are seeking the revival of the model of belief, practice, and even society that was supposed to prevail at the very beginning of this religion, that is to say at the time of the Righteous Predecessors (al-Salaf al-Salih), I propose to analyze the intellectual and political devices through which a state of symbolic and practical exception is created, which ends up challenging all French people of Islamic heritage living in France by reinforcing or creating the feeling of a religion marked by “the gangrene and the cancer of radical Islam”.
The main argument of this article is that “Salafism” has entered French politics in the mode of constructing the enemy, and the recourse to the rhetoric of an existential conflict generates an explanation of the problem that does not permit of usual solutions. Salafism is cast as an iniquitous, rising ideology by political, symbolic, and discursive modes, with its objectives seen as being not only to take power in the name of religion but also to ruin what France has been built on for several centuries.
The Salafists are Part of a Gradualist Strategy, or the Thesis of a War of Position against France
The denunciation of the Salafist matrix as structuring the most ontologically antagonistic version of Islam is set against what France is supposed to represent, in terms of republican principles above all, and the use of the semantic field defines a line of cleavage, tension, and reaction that amounts to a state of war. This is not classic war, since there are not armies which confront each other, but ideological camps. The Salafist assailant in this discourse is structured such that the only supposedly appropriate strategy to deal with it is based on the assumption that what is at stake is the essence of society.
In this construct, France is thus attacked, and the type of belligerence with which it must deal is gradual, progressive, and hidden. It is not an open conflict, but a loose, vicious, and disguised antagonism. Salafism and Salafists are therefore characterized by a movement acting first and foremost at the local level, refusing to openly confront a state that they know is too powerful for the moment, and thus favoring a strategy of small steps. This is what emerges from the speeches dealing with the Salafist issue in the mouths of political leaders who say they are aware of an ideology surreptitiously trying to gain influence by testing the republican resistance. This war of position, which seems to be irrevocably to the advantage of “the Salafist”—whose incarnation seems to oscillate between three privileged figures: the imam, the fighter/terrorist, and the militant—takes the form of a succession of attacks by radicals and counterattacks by the republican state, led by leaders who have finally understood the nature of the conflict and its stakes.
From the War of Position to the War of Movement? When the Salafist Threat becomes Jihadism
The emergence of Islamist terrorist violence targeting civilians indiscriminately has reinforced fears about Salafism and now encompasses a specific questioning linked to the weight of the cultural rupture induced by the identification of this type of Islam within jihadism. The logic of political, media, and intellectual exception, which has led to an awareness of the presence of religious communities building themselves as a counter-society that disavows republican principles, now concerns the security field. The metastasis that some observers seem to foresee in the outbreak of terrorist violence, without forgetting the phenomenon of departures to theaters of conflict where jihadist movements are involved (Syria, Iraq, Mali etc.), has updated the denunciation of Salafism by integrating a new argument, that of the “antechamber” of armed radicalism. Many politicians seeking to curb the current terrorist threat draw attention to the ideological, sociological, and political porosities between the quietist and militarized forms of Salafism. Proposals for the revoking of nationality, the decree of exceptions to the rule of law, as well as the announcement by former President Francois Hollande (r. 2012-2017), his successor President Emmanuel Macron (r. 2017-present), and a number of leading officials of a war situation, echo the recognition that Islamic radicalism is now not only the main and ontological enemy, but also the total one, which in fact no longer has any right to be in France.
This construction of the metaphysical and political exception can clearly be found in the debate launched by the deputy of Essonne, Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet (also a former Minister and a candidate to the French Presidency), on the necessary prohibition of Salafism, because this ideology, in addition to the psychological, cultural, and political rupture that it is accused of generating, is supposed to have socialized all the actors who have become violent jihadists in France. The construction of a total iniquitous figure finds its full manifestation in this proposal to outlaw Salafism, since this last one joins all the criteria (territorial, symbolic, security, political, cultural, and social) of the existential danger.
Kosciusko-Morizet was acting in a context where the Islamic State organization had declared war on France, making the call five days after the terrorist attack in Nice (14 July 2016) that killed 84 people, to “neutralize what feeds Daesh and fight against radicalization”. The former Minister bases her reasoning on the extraterritoriality of jihadism that now connects France to all theaters of operation where groups wishing to attack the states representing values they abhor may have settled. This is how the former Minister justifies the need to prohibit Salafism by the fact that “the war is first at home” and that “the Islamist leaders”—an equivalence seems to exist between Salafism and Islamism in her eyes—“manipulate weak minds”, forcing France to “lead the war on two fronts: against the thinking heads and against the radicalization which serves as a breeding ground for them”.
Identifying the Salafist matrix as the factor of social and cultural fragmentation in some neighborhoods, of terrorist danger, and of confrontation with republican values, especially secularism, Kosciusko-Morizet has coined the concept of “kufarism”, derived from the Arabic kafir, literally meaning something like “miscreant” and usually used to mean “unbeliever”, as one of the pillars of “radical Salafist ideologies” deserving to be dissolved in her eyes. Initiating a petition on her website in the summer of 2016 with the aim of banning all “Salafist” currents producing extremism, she set out the pillars of Salafism as including “kufarism”, “Wahhabism” (a strain of Salafism linked to the preaching of Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Wahab in the Arabian Peninsula in the eighteenth century), “Takfirism” (based on the anathematization of “bad” Muslims), and jihadism, The former Minister illustrates by this profusion of neologisms the increasing Orientalization of the debate, as well as a preference for explaining radicalism via the emergence and then the consolidation of an ideological movement imported from the Arab world within the French social body.
Another manifestation of the logic of exception induced by the awareness of the Salafist danger, and more specifically of the plural declaration of war (metaphysical, cultural, political, military) to which France is subject, concerns the very redefinition of politics within French society. If the issues seen as traditional or acceptable that are echoed in the public debate are not denied, the consolidation of a space of Islamic radicalism has pushed some of the main French leaders to think of the primacy of the question of identity, which is threatened by Salafism and by extension the presence of Islam in general in France. It is not surprising in this respect that Kosciusko-Morizet, and other leading figures such as Manuel Valls (a former Prime Minister and a candidate to the French presidency), have created what could be referred to as “front of realism”, one of whose particularities is a partisan ecumenism.
In the wake of the Nice attacks, Kosciusko-Morizet’s political stature rose, signaled by her public statements a few weeks later when a mosque in the city of Longjumeau, in Essonne where she is an elected deputy, was closed because it was judged to be led by a “Salafist imam”. In the discursive universe Kosciusko-Morizet has sought to create, the mosque would deserve this, and another member of her political axis, then-Prime Minister Manuel Valls, echoed her positive sentiments about this development, while denouncing the “communitarian spirit in certain banlieues”, and vowing to continue “the fight against radical Islam”.
Salafists and French Muslims: Exceptionalism and Generalization
If the consequences of the intellectual and political state of exception are numerous, there is one that stands out explicitly in that it participates in a fragmentation of the social body based on religious belonging, thus paradoxically taking up one of the structuring arguments of the Salafist actors, namely that the Muslim identity cannot be totally reconciled with French citizenship. Seeing itself challenged, even summoned to position itself against this ideology, “the Muslim community” thus becomes, at least symbolically, responsible for presenting common references with the iniquitous figure par excellence that the Salafist has become. This exception that French discourse seeks to create is not easily confined to Salafists, proper, because the common religious belonging (real or supposed) leaks into an implication of all co-religionists, which introduces the third category in the debate, the Muslims.
The public debate is characterized by a disparity of views on the question of the responsibility or innocence of Muslims in the emergence of a space of cultural or even political Islamic radicalism. An important thread in this debate is that of the exception through and within generalization. Muslims are expected to react against the Salafist threat, and to construct a religious identity and counter-discourse in opposition, which allows the reframing of the issue as a war within Islam, with an expectation (or hope) that the values of moderation and secularity will prevail. This injunction for Muslims to explicitly distance themselves from Salafism, and to condemn or even to fight it, is based on two presuppositions that reinforce a logic of exception that is no longer confined to Salafists alone but to all Muslims.
The first is the idea that Salafism is growing unstoppably and that, consequently, it can only be contained by the broadening of awareness that some politicians claim. Muslims, not only questioned as a single body, are thus essentialized for the supposed porosity that exists between their religion and the Salafist matrix, described as generating a discourse that is much more effective coming from Muslims than from the Republic. In this, the theme of “Salafist neighborhoods” is interesting because it synthesizes both the territorial fear of seeing geographic spaces secede (at least culturally) and the fear of dangerous social classes (since poverty is overrepresented among Muslims). The fear of, but also the battle for, French Muslims’ hearts and minds, is thus fused with the security concerns after the wave of jihadist attacks in France over the past few years, since these attacks are perceived by many French leaders as having arisen from the temporal and symbolic places framed by the Salafist imagination. These are the operating assumptions, along with the belief in the Salafists using a strategy of entryism, when something like the burkini is debated, and why it was taken seriously as a threat when it became more visible on beaches in the summer of 2016. From these postulates, the need for a republican counter-discourse among Muslims emerges as one of the consequences of the logic of exception around Islamic radicalism.
In a message posted on his Facebook page on 26 August 2016, Prime Minister Valls thus explicitly calls on his “compatriots to assume their responsibilities” against the breakthrough of a “mortifying (and) retrograde Islamism”:
The French, all the French, and the Muslims themselves, are waiting for a lucid look, for clear answers. They expect an Islam of its time, fully claiming the values of the Republic, to prevail. And it is first and foremost up to the Muslims of France to build it, to lead this cultural fight. They are the first to face the violence of the radical Salafist message.
The second presupposition echoes the fact that French Muslims have a specific responsibility because without a significant reaction on their part, the political extremes will take advantage of it, first and foremost the far-Right National Rally (previously the National Front) led by Marine le Pen. In this respect, Muslims have the responsibility not only to seize the debate on Salafism but also to reassure. In other words, their response is not only based on principles but also to give no reason to French non-Muslims to doubt them.
This call for a counter-offensive can also be carried out in the mode of a warning, thus reinforcing the process of building a Muslim exception in France. This republican consequentialism, embodied by Manuel Valls who went so far as to warn that “if Islam does not help the Republic to fight those who challenge public freedoms, it will be increasingly difficult to guarantee the free exercise of worship”, can contribute to a certain dynamic and process of othering of French Muslims in that it situates them in the discourse by reference to a factional threat with which they share common traits. Therefore, in this logic, it is understandable that by speaking out and proving not only their opposition to, but above all their war from within Islam against Salafism, French Muslims are (re)nationalizing themselves, and ultimately earning the stripes of a Frenchness that radicalism threatens more and more every day. Salafism, in this respect, seems to have been instituted consciously or unconsciously by a number of French politicians as the ultimate test through which French Muslims have to demonstrate their adherence to the values of a French Republic that claims the right to demand clear evidence of their sincerity and belonging, and in doing so, puts them to the test and legitimizes the idea that they are not entirely parts of the Nation yet.
European Eye on Radicalization aims to publish a diversity of perspectives and as such does not endorse the opinions expressed by contributors. The views expressed in this article represent the author alone.
 This name essentially designates the Companions of the Prophet Muhammad, as well as the faithful belonging to the two generations immediately following. These early days of Islam are thus posed in paradigmatic terms by the Salafists (believers who decide to follow in the footsteps of these predecessors), who claim to be returning to the source.
 “Fadela Amara: French Minister calls for full ban on burka”, Financial Times, 15 août 2009 : https://www.ft.com/content/9f37d5a0-88f9-11de-b50f-00144feabdc0
 Even though this is not corroborated by any rigorous sociological analysis.
 Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, “Vaincre la guerre asymétrique du terrorisme”, L’Opinion, 18 juillet 2016: https://www.lopinion.fr/politique/nathalie-kosciusko-morizet-vaincre-la-guerre-asymetrique-du-terrorisme
 Manuel Valls, ‘Taking Up the Debate on the Burkini’, Facebook post, 26 August 2016. https://www.facebook.com/notes/957051794790621/
 Manuel Valls, « Reconstruire l’islam de France », Le journal du dimanche, 31 July 2016 : https://www.lejdd.fr/Politique/Manuel-Valls-Reconstruire-l-islam-de-France-800035