Wednesday 27 July 2016

Islam calling: Sacred and profane


Reading the news these days is like getting a personal email from the Islamic State. Another day, another horror, driving home the intended message “You are not safe and your government cannot protect you”.

A Catholic priest near Rouen made to kneel at his own altar to have his throat cut, with nuns and parishioners held as hostages. The desecration of a holy place, by common European consent a refuge from the hurly-burly of life’s troubles, converted for a bloody morning into a studio for an Islamic slaughter video. This act drives home the message that Islam is more determined than Christianity, or at the very least has adherents determined to kill Christians.

This is hardly a surprise, given the large number of Christians driven from the Middle East, after centuries of apparent co-existence. It is a common pattern, now coming to a church near you, or that is the propaganda message.

Then the usual cavalcade of important politicians giving serious press conferences, with assurances of toughness in the prosecution of a war, but no specific explanations as to what is intended.

I don’t do policy, but I can give the authorities a little lecture on base rates. If you want to find a needle in a haystack, first find a hay bale in which people have been hiding needles.

Start by considering the base rates. France regards everybody as a citizen regardless of origins or number of generations of residency, so estimates of the Muslim population vary somewhat. Let us take the lower band of estimates used by Pew Research and say 4.7 million. (Others say 6.13 million). Most of these are not terrorists, so any screening system will throw up a smokescreen of false positives.

Young men are the most likely to be involved in crime and violence, so let us guesstimate that 2.35 million men are Muslims. In 2010, the median age of Muslims throughout Europe was 32, eight years younger than the median for all Europeans (40). Perhaps 1 million of them are young men. Most are not terrorists, so not worth screening, because of too many false positives.

It depends on how they are asked about the issue, but some of these young Muslim men will have some “understanding” and sympathy for Jihadist actions. Pew Research estimates that young men are those Muslims most likely to understand (tacitly condone) suicide bombing. A figure of 42% has been claimed for 2006. Regarding British Muslims, on April 11 2016 The Times reported that “Only one in three British Muslims would tip off the police if they believed that somebody close to them had become involved with terrorist sympathisers, a poll has revealed.” I do not have the original questions, so cannot validate the estimate that 66%  of UK Muslims would keep quiet about Islamic terrorism. For the purposes of argument I will take the very low estimate of 25% turning a blind eye in France. That would give us 250,000 potential sympathisers. Too many to screen.

Criminals do criminal acts, and criminality is mostly a behaviour of young men. Being sent to prison is a double indicator: it indicates criminality, and a higher chance of being converted to Jihadist Islam while in prison.  Of the 67,500 people currently behind bars in France, it is estimated that 70 per cent are Muslim – when they comprise only 8 per cent of the French public. That gives us 47,250 prisoners to screen. This might be manageable, but given the rarity of jihadist perpetrators, it is probably too many.

Roughly 900 French Muslims have gone abroad to join Islamic State. Finally, this is a manageable number. These are the true believers. This is the hay bale in which the needles are hidden. These  volunteers cannot be watched full time, nor followed other than very occasionally, but some indicators could help narrow down the prime suspects: sudden changes of clothing towards more religious dress, or vice versa; more visits to Jihadist websites, purchases of weapons and other materiel, and other indicators like not using credit cards on Fridays.

(I digress, but my few contacts in the UK Prevent program regard returning Jihadis as an asset, because they generally come back very disillusioned with the Islamic cause, and do not like the reality of Islamic warrior life. The authorities would prefer to use them as counter-propagandists, rather than put them in jail. However, some come back disillusioned but even more dangerous and resentful.)

Adel Kermiche, 19, who murdered the priest, was twice arrested last year trying to reach Syria. He had been to jail, and was released with an electronic tag which, in a very French way, left him free to roam in the morning, but kept him under supposed surveillance in the afternoon and evening. I presume they thought he would sleep in till lunchtime.

This young man was a clear “person of interest”. Yes, there are 900 others to watch, so something has to be done to make the task manageable. Perhaps the task could be made easier by helping these wannabe Jihadis to move to a real Islamic state, and not stay in a France which is clearly not to their liking. Perhaps that is too obvious a suggestion, and it is much better to keep them in France.  It does not seem too big a step to say to a person who favours Islamic State over France: live in an Islamic State.

I do not make policy recommendations, but I hope someone in the French government considers making some.










(In England and Wales, Muslims account for 14 per cent of the prison population, and 5 per cent of the population nationwide.)



  1. You wrote:
    That would give us 250,000 potential sympathisers. Too many to screen.

    There is a problem if screening is for intent rather than anything concrete.

    The French screened much larger numbers in the Algerian war. Camps were filled with large numbers of suspects. Or think about how the US screened their citizens of Japanaese origin. Again camps were quickly filled.

    It seems the problem is mostly to decide what to do with a false or probably false positive. Essentially the decision is whether to treat terror as a crime or as war.

    Recently, European governments have been treating terror as a mental health problem to be addressed by social workers, now they are beginning to move to treating it as a criminal problem to be addressed by the police.


  2. As a french man, I would be very interested in the source of your claim that 70% of prison population is muslim. Not that I doubt it (I have lived near the famous Prison de la Santé in Paris), but I'd like to find evidence. Could you help me ?

    1. Good question. Washington Post and The Telegraph throw up the same estimate, but in trying to trace the source it seems it is a claim of Muslim leaders in France, and not an official figure. The relevant French prison website confirms roughly the same number of prisoners, but says nothing about religion. It does say that 21.7% are foreigners.The New York Times is a bit better and claims on the basis of prison visits 2000-2003 and 2011-2013 that it is "about half"
      Would like to be more precise, but can only reply that the estimates come from some prison visits and claims by Muslim leaders.