Members of the Muslim community in Belgium take part in a ceremony to commemorate the victims of last month's attacks on the city's Zaventem airport and the Maelbeek metro station, outside the station in Brussels, Belgium, April 9, 2016.
Yves Herman / Reuters

In a recent article, William McCants and Christopher Meserole, both from the Brookings Institution, argue that “the best predictor” of foreign fighter radicalization is whether their country of origin is Francophone. Rather than incriminating the French language as such, the authors see a connection between radicalization and what they call “French political culture.” They lay special emphasis on the “strident” and “aggressive” French approach to secularism. Radicalization in Belgium and France, in their view, fit into a pattern that they say holds true with other Francophone countries, in particular the most economically developed.

McCants and Meserole’s indictment of “French political culture” negates the diversity of the Francophone world; think of an “English political culture” that would encompass, say, the United States, the Palau Islands, and Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe. Sentences such as “If anything, it’s a story of what happens when French economic and political development has most deeply taken root” also carry unsavory undertones. For comparison, replace “French” with “Arab,” “Latino,” or any other group.  

If anything, the McCants-Meserole thesis illustrates the pitfalls of data-based analysis in the study of terrorism. Although the two scholars initially aimed at ‘’explaining the Sunni militancy around the world,” they ended up focusing on a couple of European countries that together make up slightly more than one percent of the world’s population. The authors then narrow their focus from Francophone countries in general to wealthy Francophone countries in particular and, finally, to wealthy Francophone countries with an “aggressive” approach to secularism. Out of 29 states that have French as an official language, the piece fails to name any others besides Belgium and France.

Federal prosecutor spokesperson Eric Van Der Sypt addresses a news conference on a suspect in the attack which took place at the Brussels international airport of Zaventem, as CCTV images of the man can be seen on a screen in Brussels, Belgium April 7, 20
Federal prosecutor spokesperson Eric Van Der Sypt addresses a news conference on a suspect in the attack which took place at the Brussels international airport of Zaventem, as CCTV images of the man can be seen on a screen in Brussels, Belgium April 7, 2016.
Yves Herman / Reuters

McCants’ remarkable work on the Islamic State (ISIS) in its Middle Eastern heartland drew on his knowledge of the region and, indeed, its languages. However, this recent study displays a surprisingly shallow understanding of the French-speaking world. To start with, Francophones are actually a minority in Belgium, where Flemish speakers make up nearly 60 percent of the country’s overall population. And Flanders accounts for more Belgian jihadi foreign fighters than French-speaking Wallonia. Besides, regardless of their whereabouts and linguistic affiliation, Belgian citizens of Turkish descent seem less likely than Belgians of Moroccan origin to embrace violent radicalism. French political culture cannot explain both things.

The assumption that Belgium and France share the same “French political culture” does not hold either. France is a unitary although increasingly decentralized republic, whereas Belgium is a federal kingdom with a high degree of devolution on linguistic and regional lines. The two countries also diverge markedly in their approach to religion. The French Constitution declares that “The Republic neither recognizes, nor salaries, nor subsidizes any religion.” On the other hand, the Belgian state officially recognizes several religions, including Islam, pays the wages of ministers, and offers religious education in public schools. Besides, Sweden, considered by many a model of multiculturalism in Europe, has fewer foreign fighters per capita than Belgium, but more than secular France. 

Even McCants and Meserole’s assertion that France and Belgium enforce a “ban of the full veil in their public schools” is inaccurate. Both countries do ban the full-face veil in public spaces. But whereas conspicuous religious symbols of all faiths (including Jewish yarmulkes, Sikh turbans, or large crosses) are banned in all French public schools, in Belgium, rules are defined at the local level. And in both Belgium and France, the decision to ban full-face veils in 2011 came as a response to the expansion of the Salafist interpretation of Islam, which was hardly a French export. 

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  • OLIVIER DECOTTIGNIES, a French career diplomat, is a Diplomat in Residence at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy. The opinions expressed are his alone.
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