President Nicolas Sarkozy announced March 30 that French police have arrested 19 persons suspected of belonging to violent Muslim networks. “These arrests are linked to the world of a certain sort of radical Islamism,” Sarkozy told Europe 1 Radio, and added that automatic weapons were found in the homes of some of those arrested in the raids in and around Paris and several other French cities.
It is striking that Sarkozy added matter-of-factly that the arrests were not related to Mohamed Merah, the Muslim terrorist killed by police last week after he murdered seven people in the Toulouse area. This raises some troubling questions.
If the arrests were not related to Merah, it stands to reason that the authorities were in possession of information warranting today’s action well in advance of his murderous spree. That the raids were not carried out earlier indicates either a culture of permissive negligence in the French security apparatus—the one that allowed Merah to operate freely, in spite of his long history of terrorist connections—or else a political ploy by Sarkozy, calculated to improve his rating in advance of a two-round presidential election scheduled for April 22 and May 6. Most likely both elements were present: the police had not considered those 19 potential jihadists worthy of a commando-style raid until prompted by the Élysée Palace to deliver a high-profile action now.
In his bid for a second five-year term, Sarkozy has been trailing his main adversary, Francois Hollande of the Socialist Party, and he sees his chance for victory in attracting votes from the supporters of Marine Le Pen. Over the years, the National Front leader has rightly criticized Sarkozy for being soft on immigration, and in the aftermath of Merah’s murders she declared that the “Islamic fundamentalist threat has been underestimated” in France, allowing political-religious groups to flourish due to the “laxism” of the authorities.
Le Pen’s recent warning that “security is a theme that has just signed up to the presidential campaign” seems to be confirmed by Sarkozy’s other gestures. After Toulouse, he declared that he would propose several new anti-terrorism laws for swift enactment, including a provision that would make visits to extremist “Islamist” Web sites a crime. Since then, however, Sarkozy’s own aides have noted that the National Assembly has adjourned for the duration of the presidential campaign, which makes it certain that the proposals will not be debated—let alone adopted—for weeks after the campaign is over.
Furthermore, as French legal experts of different political hues have pointed out, the apparent unconstitutionality of such a law makes its eventual passage unlikely. Sarkozy knew all that when he made his announcement, of course, but grabbing headline news for a day with a “tough” statement took precedence over its legal substance. Sarkozy’s agenda is also apparent in his latest claim that the Toulouse shooting was “a bit like the trauma that followed in the U.S. and New York after 9⁄11.” It was nothing of the kind, but the French head of state is not making a diagnosis—he is suggesting a narrative that would serve his political ends.
Sarkozy’s reference to “a certain form of radical Islamism” (une forme d’islamisme radical) that would no longer be tolerated in France raises further questions about his understanding of the threat. It contains indirect admission that this particular “form,” epitomized by hidden handguns and Kalashnikovs, has been effectively put up with until now—just as Miss Le Pen had warned for years.
On closer scrutiny Sarkozy appears guilty of not one or two, but three logical errors:
1. To start with, he routinely uses the term “Islamism”—a widely-spread misnomer that artificially distinguishes hard-core, relentlessly activist Islam from the purported mainstream model of the Religion-of-Peace-and-Tolerance.
2. Sarkozy’s language further suggests that there is an “Islamism” which is not “radical.” Even those who advocate the distinction between Islam and Islamism (notably Daniel Pipes) readily concede that the latter is inherently radical in its mindset, goals, and methods. Sarkozy’s use of the adjective “radical” is therefore redundant, or else it postulates the existence of non-radical Islamism, which is contradictio in adjecto.
3. The French head of state then goes a step further and suggests that, even within the nonsensically constructed realm of “radical Islamism,” there are some initiates who are no longer to be tolerated and there are others whose continued presence in France is acceptable. In other words, there are some “forms of radical Islamism” that are deemed acceptable now and would continue to be tolerated in the future.
For a former student of the Institut d’Études Politiques de Paris (“Sciences Po”) and a lawyer presumably acquainted with of the logical strictures of Descartes and the finer points of Napoleonic jurisprudence, it is indeed remarkable to display this level of intellectual and moral confusion. For his nation’s journalists, academics and public figures not to take Nicolas Sarkozy to task for these particular errors—detrimental to that nation’s very survival—is a sad testimony to France’s current condition.
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