MARSEILLE, France — Young men from the northern districts of this most Muslim city in France are expected be among the first to be called up when the government in Paris kicks off its Orwellian new plan to fight the so-called Islamic State.
The idea is to herd suspected extremists into mysterious “deradicalization centers” all over the country. There are an estimated 9,000 radicalized—or “potentially radicalized”—jihadis believed to be in France, officials say. Another 2,000 French nationals are thought to have gone to Syria or Iraq to fight for the Islamic State.
Prime Minister Manuel Valls said last week that France will establish as many as 13 centers all over the country—picture an odd mix of halfway house, prison, and sleepover camp—where Islamist radicals or those who show signs of wanting to join the jihad in Syria and Iraq will be housed and “re-educated.” Oh, and they’ll be monitored “day and night” for 10 months while wearing special uniforms, Valls said.
But will Valls’s centers help stem the rising tide of radicalism in France or will they become, as one Muslim leader in southern France put it, a “French Guantanamo”?
Some say it would be better to help French Muslim religious leaders police their own. Several are quietly teaching their adherents how best to fight ISIS. But since some of them adhere to fundamentalist Salafi doctrine, they often are labeled as Islamist political extremists.
The core, critical difference is that followers of ISIS are takfiris intent on waging their murderous version of jihad against those who do not share their beliefs down to the letter, including fellow Muslims.
Most Muslims, even the very devout and conservative, do not agree. Indeed, they see the takfiris as deeply dangerous and divisive for the global community of believers. But these are hard distinctions for an aggressively secular French government to make.
“My combat against Daesh [ISIS] is very well known but it doesn’t make the papers,” Sheikh Abdel Hadi, the Algerian-born imam at the Es-Sunnah mosque in a gritty area of Marseille, told The Daily Beast. “We know our people better than the politicians in France do.”
Abdel Hadi, 54, has been giving courses to young people all over France, Italy, and Spain about how best to explain to Muslims and non-Muslims that ISIS’s ideology has nothing to do with Islam, and he has shown them how to prevent ISIS from recruiting.
In contrast, Valls’s plan calls for specially trained psychological counselors and teachers who will administer a treatment program for men and women between the ages of 18 and 30 who haven’t been convicted of committing actual crimes but whom judges deem a threat to the republic.
“Each era has its challenges,” Valls said at a Paris press conference last Monday. “The fight against jihad is undoubtedly the big challenge of our generation. Radicalization and terrorism are linked. We are faced with a stubborn phenomenon that has widely spread through society and which threatens it because it could expand massively.”
Asiem el Difraoui, a political scientist known for his studies on jihadists, told Le Parisien newspaper that he was against what he called “these jihadist academies” because the group setting might foster radicalism much the way the French prison system does, not discourage it.
“Some radicals are masters are dissimulation,” he said. “All you need is one leader in there to take over the group.”
Valls did not explain how officials will maneuver or force young people into the re-education centers, where they will be mostly semi-confined but also allowed out for local work “internships,” evening strolls, or family visits.
There’s already an uproar surrounding the first planned center, scheduled to open next month in bucolic Beaumont-en-Véron in the Loire Valley southwest of Paris, where residents are aghast at the idea of 30 young Islamists wandering their neighborhood while being “re-educated.” The locals have organized several petitions calling for the plan to be scrapped, at least in their backyard.
Only in France would the first such center not only be established in the royal valley of the Loire castles but on the grounds of a majestic estate built by the noble family of Marie Alphonse Gréban de Pontourny, known for centuries for their Christian works, as Le Figaro reported.
Valls’s plan is part of a broader $45 million initiative to fight terrorism that builds on the 30 measures France adopted in April 2014 and after the Charlie Hebdo attacks last year.
“The idea is absurd from beginning to end,” says Salim Mahmoud, 26, who lives in one of Marseille’s tougher neighborhoods and belongs to the Es-Sunnah mosque. “Manuel Valls doesn’t know how to recognize the symptoms that lead to terrorism or how to deradicalize those symptoms. This is all purely politically motivated on his part, and the people who will end up being penalized are innocent Muslims.”
Ali Bouzar, 24, of Nice, who traveled recently to Bergamo, Italy, to attend one of Abdel Hadi’s seminars, said he thinks Valls is using his plan for the deradicalization centers to advance his political agenda because he hopes to run for president.
“What this is going to do is encourage French people to turn on Muslims and turn them in,” Bouzar said. “This is Valls’s way of making it seem as if Orthodox Islam and ISIS are one and the same. These centers are going to be unfairly filled up with young people who are very conservative Muslims but who aren’t terrorists. It’s going to make them very bitter and it could backfire badly.”
M’hammed Henniche, a Muslim association leader in Seine-Saint-Denis just north of Paris, said he did not oppose Valls’s plan in principle because “France has become so vulnerable to terrorism. We need to take steps.”
But Henniche also said that the proposed re-education centers “won’t solve the problem at it roots” and could prove very dangerous unless France makes sure the only people it puts in the centers are those trying to go to Syria and Iraq, or those returning from there.
“Otherwise we’ll be faced with the problem of someone’s neighbor turning him in because he has a beard and prays five times a day,” Henniche said.
Two other Muslim leaders in Paris declined to speak publicly on the topic.
“We’re damned if we say something and damned if we don’t,” explained one.
But Moustapha Dalí, 59, the outspoken rector at the main mosque in Cannes, compared Valls’s plan to Guantanamo.
“And how did that succeed?” Dalí said. “Not too well. This is a politician exploiting French fears and trying to make himself look good at the expense of 5 million [Muslim] people. This is going to turn out to be a self-fulfilling prophecy.”