From Petty Crime to Terrorism

I grew up in France. I know the French language inside out. I follow the French media. In that country, France, people with a Muslim first name are 5% or maybe, 7% of the population. No one estimates that they are close to 10%. I use this name designation because French government agencies are forbidden to cooperate in the collection of religious (or ethic, or racial) data. Moreover, I don’t want to be in the theological business of deciding who is a “real Muslim.” Yet, common sense leads me to suspect that French people who are born Muslims are mostly religiously indifferent or lukewarm, like their nominally Christian neighbors. I am not so sure though about recent immigrants from rural areas bathed in a jihadist atmosphere, as occur in Algeria, and in Morocco, for example.

In spite of their small numbers, people with Muslim names commit 100% of massacres of strangers in France. (A country with strict gun laws, incidentally.) This does not prove anything but it certainly calls attention. I am trying to make sense of this while remaining fair.

People with Muslim names (henceforth, “Muslims”) are found in all corners and at all rungs of French society. They are in business, in government, in the hospitals, and in showbiz. Many serve in the armed forces. (The first French soldier who died in the NATO expedition in Bosnia was named, “El Hadji.”) Many are in the police, a traditional ladder of social mobility that my own father climbed seventy years ago. (The cop the terrorists murdered outside Charlie Hebdo had a Muslim name.)

A disproportionate number of Muslims who live in France are recent immigrants, or the children of recent immigrants. Most of those come from underdeveloped areas in north Africa and in sub-Saharan west Africa. Their recent immigration would place them near the bottom of the French economic pyramid. Their rural origins would pretty much guarantee that the quality of their French is poor, a serious impediment to gainful employment. They would be among the most disadvantaged in a society with a chronic 10% unemployment rate.

So, it makes sense, it’s expected, that Muslims would be over-represented among criminals, especially among work-alone, unorganized, opportunistic petty criminals. There is easy money to be made in small-time drug trafficking in France as in any western country. If you are young and fairly enterprising and you can’t find a job, small-time drug selling is a natural vocation. I note in passing that it’s a sin in Islam to use drugs, but perhaps, not much of a sin; I am not sure.

The job almost requires ownership of a gun to fend off rivals and to defend against bold customers. But, one thing leads to another and, on a hard day, the gun may be put to work to rob a passerby, especially one who is an easy target. This seems to be a common pattern. There is a remarkable little book of memoirs by an Algerian who tried for years to live in France illegally and entirely by his wits. (Chetouane, Jaffar. 2011. Donkey Heart, Monkey Mind). He says that he avoided any area with many north African looking men because the petty crime niche there was probably already taken.

So, in this explanation, Muslims are not criminal because they are Muslims but the poor, in general, supply the ranks of petty criminals and many Muslims living in France are poor. This does not, of course, explain the jump to terrorism, the mass murder of civilians, of perfect strangers, that is, in France, the exclusive province of Muslims. This overlap in categories between poor and Muslim also does not explain the rage to commit suicide by cop. Almost all people with a Muslim names die in the act of massacre or shortly afterwards. (That’s true although the perpetrators of the Bataclan nightclub massacre famously escaped, at first.)

This strong pattern of bursting out of obscurity – so to speak – is surprising. Rational criminals live in the shadows; they don’t draw attention to themselves; they develop habits of discretion; and a life of committing petty crimes assigned low police priority approximates rationality. When petty criminals turn into active terrorists, it’s as if a switch had been turned on suddenly. I look for causes in the lives the terrorists lead before they turn to terrorism.

Being a small time drug dealer is very stressful. You have to worry about customers stealing the merchandise, safe in the knowledge that you won’t go to the police. Rivals for your sales location will assault you routinely or turn you in, or both, to supplant you. Your own suppliers will turn on you brutally if you are even slightly late in your payments. Other petty criminals know that you must carry at least some cash, making you an attractive target. Ironically, the drug addicts among them, the desperate drug addicts present a special danger to your safety.

As with all high-stress occupation, you would expect small dealers frequently to blow a fuse -which looks a lot like turning on a switch but in reverse. Here, I expect bifurcations. People react to overwhelming stress in a variety of ways that are partly culturally predetermined. In general, we don’t know how, in what manner most dealers react to losing control, to blowing a fuse. Mostly, it’s probably in individual private acts, including retiring from the business, running away to places where one is not known, even allowing oneself to be caught and sentenced to jail for a rest. Most responses to the extreme stress of the occupation probably don’t conform to any particular pattern, they are enacted privately, they probably do not attract much attention; we know little about them.

Now, for a minority of drug dealers, a minority of a minority, it turns out that there exists a way out with multiple benefits. Islam is not very explicit about how to gain one’s seat in Paradise although, paradoxically, it describes wonderfully its irresistible attractions. The good Muslim, the observant Muslim knows well what his moral obligations are and the spirit in which they must be enacted. He is assured repeatedly that God is merciful. It seems to me – and I am attentive but not an expert- that it’s not clear how merciful the Merciful actually is. The genuinely good Muslim never knows thus how close he is to the head of the heavenly line. There is one, and only one licit shortcut though. To die a martyr is to see the Gates open wide to let you in. That much is unambiguous.

Mohamed, the law giver and the prophet was also a very successful war leader. Here is a painful story about him. You decide whether it’s relevant to my query.

Mohamed and his followers, the first Muslims, were chased from his native Mecca. They fled to the town of Medina which they gradually took over, by various means including expelling into the desert two of the resident tribes. The Muslims had to complete their domination of Medina while fighting off the Meccans. After a famous victory against the Meccans right outside Medina, the Battle of the Trench, the Prophet used the battle readiness of his army to attack the last powerful tribe of Medina. Once they had surrendered, he executed all the men by decapitation. The women and children just became war booty.

This story is told in one of the hadith (the Acts of the Prophet) narrated by Aicha, 4-52-208.

Two questions present themselves. First, do ordinary Muslims recognize this story of cruelty as true? Second, how likely is a rank-and-file Muslim of little formal education to be familiar with the story?

The answers to these questions matter. They have to do with the probability that some Muslims find in the history of their faith themes of violence absent, or less prominent, in other religious traditions. If the story is true and many Muslims know it, it would help explain why among petty criminals who blow a fuse, a small number of Muslims deal with it by turning spectacularly to terrorism. It’s permitted; it’s more than permitted since the Prophet did it; and it may be a shortcut to Heaven. (“May” be because waging war on women and children is supposed to be forbidden.)

Don’t misunderstand me. There is plenty of violence historically associated with Christianity, to be sure, included and not limited to the Wars of Religion, and the Crusades, of course. The First Crusade slaughtered the whole population of Jerusalem. In the Fourth Crusade, the western Christians murdered much of the population of Constantinople, their eastern Christian brethren and their allies. My point is that none of those violent episodes had religious sanction. None was ever cited approvingly afterwards. One French chronicler even notes that the Crusaders went to confession after the Jerusalem bloodbath to gain forgiveness for that sin, specifically.

The Old Testament, supposedly common to Jews and Christians, is fairly rife with massacres, especially within the context of ethnic cleansing. I may be naive but I doubt that this aspect of the Old Testament has much traction on Christians. I suspect that few Christians know anything of the Old Testament beyond Genesis and the Book of Moses. (I may just be here parading my Catholic parochialism. There may be breeds of Protestants who live by it.) I don’t know about the Old Testament’s continued influence on the Jews. As far as I can tell exemplary violence occurs neither in Buddhism, nor in Hinduism. Although the later depicts plenty of legendary battles, those are treated abstractly, in an almost choreographed manner that does not lend itself to be taken as exemplary.

Let me recapitulate here. In France only members of the Muslim minority broadly defined engage in acts of terrorism. Many French terrorists have a background in petty crime. Individuals at the bottom rungs of society are more likely to become petty criminals than others. Muslims are over-represented at the lower rungs of French society. A life of petty crime is stressful. Breaking down under the stress leads to a variety of outcomes, most of them unknown. Some Muslim petty criminals, a minority of a minority, find in their religion an ethical justification of sorts as well as practical inspiration to transform themselves into terrorists.

Here is another story I think relevant. Please, don’t look too hard for consistency. I am just trying to piece together disparate elements, here.

About five years ago, I watched a longish interview on French television. It was of a man who had been a ISIS hostage for nine months. (He had no doubt been bought back by the French government although the latter denied it, of course.) He was a journalist and evidently a man of culture. Before being kidnapped by ISIS, he had lived in the Middle East for ten years, as a correspondent for major newspapers. He said he knew Arabic. I can’t tell you how or why but I thought he was not one of the many people who claim knowledge of a language because they can ask for directions to the restroom. Please, trust me on this, his Arabic was probably good I am guessing although I don’t know Arabic.

Anyway, the man was generally credible, I thought. Amid concrete descriptions of his sufferings as a guest of the violent jihadists, he made a startling statement. He declared that -contrary to the custom in all Muslim countries – you never heard invocations to God, formal or otherwise among caliphate soldiers. The fairly mechanical “Inch’Allah” pronounced several times a day by pious, and even by not so pious Muslims, in particular, were lacking, he asserted. He also described vividly the caliphate soldiers’ lively interested in spoils whenever spoils were to be had. That man, who had a professional interest in being a good observer, did not think the violent jihadists who had taken him were pious Muslims. He evidently thought of them as mostly hoodlums.

I don’t know where we go from there. I am sure though that we cannot either think that Muslims are terrorists or that there is no earthly connection between current terrorism and Islam. I mean Islam the real thing, the practice. We shouldn’t have to be theologians to learn to protect ourselves. (“Ourselves” includes Muslims, of course; world-wide, violent jihadist massacre mostly Muslims.)

Please keep it civil

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