Terror in France

The Rise of Jihad in the West

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Gilles Kepel
  • Princeton, NJ: 
    Princeton University Press
    , May
     240 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In Gilles Kepel’s latest book, Terror in France: The Rise of Jihad in the West, readers will expand their understandings of the sociopolitical economy of terror in France and the emergence of French forms of indignation over those attacks. Through a genealogical method, Kepel moves into the world of jihadis—their perceived motivations and social location—and the aftermath of their violent actions. Bringing together contemporary French social politics, French colonial history, Muslim positionality in France, and intergenerational dialectics, Kepel aims to provide a more complete picture of the 2015 acts of terror. For Kepel, the events at Charlie Hebdo and the attack on the kosher supermarket in Porte de Vincennes in 2015 were turning points in French jihadism and raise broader questions about Islam, secularity, and national identity in France (xiii). To understand this puzzle, Kepel draws on historical materials of Muslim immigration and sociological studies of the French banlieues. Then he offers a broad overview of jihadi primary sources in Arabic and French.

This book is divided into two parts. Part 1, “The Incubation Period,” speaks to the rise of French jihadism. For Kepel, the attacks in Paris in 2015, first at the office of the satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo, and then at a Jewish market signified the death architecture of “total Islam” in France (xiv). This part of the book is critical to Kepel’s overall argument, as it demonstrates the sociocultural context from which a specifically French form of jihad emerged (8). The first chapter revisits the autumn riots of 2005, in which young Muslims, mainly from immigrant backgrounds, demonstrated their political positions in the streets of France and took control of their neighborhoods (11). This “pivotal year” showed a new generation of Muslim political actors or that Muslims of this new generation were key political actors. At the same time, Kepel also provides an overview of the rise of “third-generation of jihad,” captured in The Global Islamic Resistance Call (2004) by Abu Musab al-Suri, a suspected member of the transnational network of Al-Qa`ida (23). Chapter 2, on Muslim voting, outlines how Muslims, especially those living in immigrant communities, shifted their voting patterns and how the idea of a “Muslim vote” emerged in France (41). The third chapter puts the Mohamed Merah affair into a wider context (64). Kepel provides us with a life history narrative and an analysis of the political economy, elucidating how Merah was radicalized through the deployment of Islamist narratives (83).

Part 2, “The Eruption,” deals with the actions of 2015 and its implications for French society. Kepel notes this section demonstrates the wider shift in French Muslim politics, from Muslims’ support of the left in 2012, which contributed to the election of François Hollande, to the rise of right wing ethnonationalism in France (94). Chapter 4 explores the transnational links between violent jihad in Syria and its local manifestations in France, through an analysis of jihadi networks and contacts (99). Chapter 5 focuses on the reversal of French Muslim support for the left and its alliance with conservative Christian groups. Here, Kepel offers a classic political economy argument (such as unemployment) to explain this shift (136). Furthermore, he emphasizes the legalization of same-sex marriage in France in 2013 as a major turning point in French Muslim politics (144). Chapter 6 deals with the politics of the Charlie Hebdo attack and the forms of political action adopted by French Muslims (153).

In the final part of this review, I will present two brief comments highlighting some limitations in Kepel’s book. First, Kepel is a sophisticated theorist of violence. However, when he employs certain key terms, such as “domestic peace” (28) or “secularism” (48) he does so in an unreconstructed manner. A more nuanced reading of these complicated concepts would indicate how neoliberal discourses have co-opted ideas such as a “peace” and “secularism” to justify a type of expansionism, one that opens a hegemony and discloses other sociopolitical orientations. For example, a reading of peace that goes beyond direct physical violence could open up the question of structural violence and how the indirect or silent forms of violence have led to the eruption, which we witness today.

Second, while Kepel is careful about how he deals with the subject of Muslim terror in France, his work could come across as furthering anti-Muslim sentiments, especially in the contemporary moment when Islamo-racist discourses are engrained in European modernity. For example, in his analysis of the “reversal of the Muslim vote” (144), Kepel argues that the legalization of same-sex marriage in May 2013 overturned the overall coalition of marginal communities used to secure electoral success. However, as Kepel notes, the fault line of same-sex marriage, was the key turning-point of the “Muslim vote” against the leftists (139). While Kepel makes an interesting argument with regard to this “reversal of the Muslim vote,” he further emphasizes and strengthens the construction of the “Muslim homophobe” in the Global North (see Fatima El-Tayeb, “‘Gays Who Cannot Properly Be Gay. . .’” [European Journal of Women’s Studies, 2012] and Momin Rahman, Sexual Diffusions and Conceptual Confusion: Muslim Homophobia and Muslim Homosexualities in the context of modernity (Palgrave MacMillian, 2015). In this way, Kepel reinforces the idea that Muslims are particularly predisposed to homophobia. This move ignores the deeply textual, ethnographic, community-organizing, theologizing, and moralizing work that is occurring across the world to give a voice to queer Muslims.

Despite these limitations, Terror in France is well suited for courses that focus on terrorism in Europe, French coloniality, immigration in Europe, Islam in Europe, religion and media, and studies on transnational religion. This text provides a cogent and easily accessible argument on the emergence and rise of violent terror in Europe, and France in particular. This will be a helpful introductory text for undergraduate students as they begin to grapple with this deeply complicated topic.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Mujahid Osman is a PhD student in the West and South Asian religions track of the Graduate Division of Religion at Emory University.

Date of Review: 
March 24, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Gilles Kepel is professor of political science at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris. His books include Beyond Terror and Martyrdom: The Future of the Middle EastThe War for Muslim Minds: Islam and the West, and Jihad: The Trail of Political Islam.



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