This is a transcript of my talk entitled ‘The Making of European Jihadis’ that I gave to the International Institute at the University of Michigan this week. (I have not had time to put in the links and references; I will do so soon.)
Ifthekar Jaman was born in Portsmouth, on the south coast of England, one of four children. His parents, Enu Miah and Hena Choudhury, were first generation immigrants from Bangladesh, who had come to Portsmouth in 1981, opened a takeaway selling kebabs, biryani, tandoori and spicy chips, called St Mary’s Kebab & Masalla.
Ifthekar didn’t grow up particularly religious; he was drawn as much to Harry Potter as to the Qur’an. His lack of religious sentiment led his parents to send to a private school for Islamic tuition. Ifthekar came eventually to fuse his Harry Potter-like fantasies with his Utopian ideas drawn from the Qur’an. As one journalist wrote about him, ‘Islam had become the foundation for a powerful new adventure fantasy. Online, he began to sketch out a new narrative for himself as a Muslim warrior-hero facing off against the biggest monster of them all: Satan.’
Ifthekar had a close group of friends, who appeared inseparable, and these fantasies became a means of binding them together. Islamic State provided a physical expression of those fantasies.
‘I swear – you know what? – I love you brothers’, Ifthekar wrote on Facebook. ‘I just want you to know. I love you brothers so much. It’s something I’ve never seen before. I wish us lot, us brothers, we could, like, we could get some land and stuff and do Khilafah, all of us.’ Eventually that fantasy led to Ifthekar and six of his friends travelling to Syria via Turkey. All were dead within months. ‘If these were terrorists’, wrote an American journalist in Time magazine, ‘then they were among the least capable, least experienced and altogether least scary the world had ever seen.’
Sahra Ali Mehenni comes from Lezignan-Corbieres, a well-to-do, ancient town in the Languedoc-Roussillon south of France. Her father, Kamal, born in France, of Algerian descent, is an industrial chemist. Her mother, Séverine, is of French descent. Neither are religious. Kamal calls himself ‘Muslim’ but never attends mosque. Séverine describes herself as an ‘atheist’. ‘We raised our children without any religion’, says Kamal. ‘Togetherness was important to us, not faith.’
Last March, her father drove Sahra to the local station, as he did every weekday, to catch a train to her school in nearby Carcassonne. Instead of catching the school train, Sahra caught one to Marseilles and from there a flight to Istanbul. Three days later she phoned home to tell them she was in Syria. ‘I’ve married Farid, a fighter’, she said. ‘He’s 25 and comes from Tunisia.’
Sahra had gone through a troubled period as a teenager, dropping out of school for a few months, before discovering Islam. She had asked to wear the veil at one point, which her parents refused. But ‘I never heard her talk about Syria, jihad’, says Séverine. Indeed, ‘Before she left, I didn’t even know what was happening in Syria. It was a faraway country for me’. So when Sahra turned up in Syria, married to an IS fighter, ‘It was as though the sky fell on us.’
In December 2014, a 20-year-old German, Kreshnik Berisha, was sentenced to three years and nine months in prison on Friday for joining Islamic State, in the first trial in Germany of a home-grown jihadi accused of membership of the group.
Berisha was born near Frankfurt to Kosovan parents. Neither he nor his family were religious. As a teenager he played for Makkabi Frankfurt, a Jewish football club, and one of Germany’s leading amateur teams. ‘When the journalist told me [about Berisha’s arrest], I didn’t believe it’, said Alon Meyer, coach of Makkabi Frankfurt. ‘This was a guy who used to play with Jewish players every week. He was comfortable there and he seemed so happy. We are a Jewish club with a Jewish heart – and everybody who has been involved with us knows that.’
After school, Berisha went to study engineering. It was at college that he first encountered radical Islam, though the details remain murky. In July 2013, he and six other students travelled by bus to Istanbul and then to Syria. He spent six months with IS, receiving firearms training. He was put on guard duty and apparently also worked as a paramedic. But the struggle was neither as glamorous nor as noble as he imagined. Disillusioned, Berisha returned to Germany where he was arrested at Frankfurt airport.
Three European nations, three wannabe jihadis, three different stories. There are dozens, indeed hundreds, of such stories. A whole industry has developed in recent month of reportage on those leaving Europe to join Islamic State. There now thought to be 30,000 foreign fighters with IS. More than 4000 of these have come from Europe, a figure that has doubled over the past year. Given the size of Muslim populations in Europe, the level of European recruitment is astonishing.
What is it that draws thousands of young Europeans them to an organization like Islamic State? And what is it that links the stories of people such as Ifthekar Jaman, Sahra Ali Mehenni and Kreshnik Berisha? The conventional answer is to see the common link in the process of ‘radicalization’. It is an idea that has caught the imagination of politicians and policy makers. Much of domestic counter-terror policy in Europe is rooted in notions of radicalization and de-radicalization.
But what is meant by radicalization? And is it a useful concept?
The idea of radicalization has come into use only over the past decade. In the 1990s few academic or policy discussions about terrorism mentioned the concept. After 9/11, however, there was a recognition of the need for a new language. As Peter Neumann, director of the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation at Kings College, London put it:
Following the attacks against the United States on 11 September 2001, however, it suddenly became very difficult to talk about the ‘roots of terrorism’, which some commentators claimed was an effort to excuse and justify the killing of innocent civilians… So experts and officials started referring to the idea of ‘radicalisation’ whenever they wanted to talk about ‘what goes on before the bomb goes off’.
Radicalization, in other words, is code for ‘that which cannot be spoken about’. And that which cannot be spoken about gets spoken about only by rendering reality into an acceptable form, and by reducing complexity into a simple narrative.
That narrative consists broadly of four elements: First, the claim that people become terrorists because they acquire certain, usually religiously informed, extremist ideas. Second, that these ideas are acquired in a different way to the way people acquire other extremist or oppositional ideas, such as , say, Marxism or anarchism, or mainstream ideas such as conservatism or liberalism Third, that there is a ‘conveyor belt’ that leads from grievance or personal crisis to religiosity to the adoption of radical beliefs to terrorism And, fourth, the insistence that what makes people vulnerable to acquiring such ideas is that they are poorly integrated into society.
There is, however, little evidence in support of any of these four elements of radicalization, and considerable evidence to suggest that all are untrue. Many studies show, for instance, perhaps surprisingly and counter-intuitively, that those who are drawn to jihadi groups are not necessarily attracted by fundamentalist religious ideas. According to a British MI5 ‘Briefing Note’ entitled ‘Understanding radicalisation and extremism in the UK’, and leaked to the Guardian newspaper,
Far from being religious zealots, a large number of those involved in terrorism do not practise their faith regularly. Very few have been brought up in strongly religious households, and there is a higher than average proportion of converts.
Marc Sageman, a former CIA operation officer with the Afghan mujahidin in the late 1980s, and now an academic and counter-terrorism consultant to the US and other governments, similarly finds that ‘a lack of religious literacy and education appears to be a common feature among those that are drawn to [terrorist] groups.’ ‘At the time they joined jihad’, Sageman observes, ‘terrorists were not very religious. They only became religious once they joined the jihad.’
John Horgan, director of the International Center for the Study of Terrorism at Pennsylvania State University, notes the host of non-ideological ‘littler reasons’ for the attraction of jihadi groups such as ‘personal fantasy, seeking adventure, camaraderie, purpose, identity.’ ‘These lures’, he argues, ‘can be very powerful, especially when you don’t necessarily have a lot else going on in your life, but terrorists rarely talk about them.’ Similarly, the anthropologist Scott Atran, testifying at a US Senate hearing on ‘Emerging Threats’, observed the importance to jihadists of ‘seeking out companionship, esteem, and meaning, but also the thrill of action, sense of empowerment, and glory in fighting the world’s most powerful nation and army.’
There is also little evidence that jihadists acquire their ideas differently from the way people may acquire other kinds of ideas. According Jamie Bartlett, head of the ‘Violence and Extremism program’ at the British think tank Demos, ‘al-Qaeda inspired terrorism in the West shares much in common with other counter-cultural, subversive groups of predominantly angry young men’. Similarly, the French sociologist of religion Olivier Roy suggests that the ‘leap into terrorism’ is not religiously inspired but better seen as sharing ‘many factors with other forms of dissent, either political… or behavioural.’ To understand radical Islam, Roy argues, we need a ‘transverse understanding’; understanding it, that is, not just in terms of the Islamic tradition, but also in comparison to other forms of contemporary faith, of identity movements and of political radicalization.
Nor is there any evidence of a conveyer belt leading people from radical ideas to jihadist violence. Even most studies funded by government agencies or the security services disavow such an idea. One US Department of Homeland Security-sponsored academic study, concludes that
There is no one path… to political radicalization. Rather there are many different paths… . Some of these paths do not include radical ideas or activism on the way to radical action, so the radicalization progression cannot be understood as an invariable set of steps or “stages” from sympathy to radicalism.
A 2010 British government report similarly concluded,
We do not believe that it is accurate to regard radicalization in this country as a linear “conveyor belt” moving from grievance, through radicalization, to violence … This thesis seems to both misread the radicalization process and to give undue weight to ideological factors.
And finally, there is much evidence that those who join jihadi groups are anything but poorly integrated, at least in the conventional sense of looking at integration. A survey of British jihadis by researchers at Queen Mary College in London found that support for jihadism is unrelated to ‘social inequalities or poor education’; rather, those drawn to jihadist groups were 18- to 20-year-olds from wealthy families who spoke English at home and were educated to a high, often university, level. Or, as the study out it, ‘Youth, wealth, and being in education… were risk factors’. Insofar as they are alienated, it is not because wannabe jihadis are poorly integrated, in the conventional way we think of integration, or because they because they are poor or lack resources.
Analysing jihadists of a decade ago, Marc Sageman similarly challenged the idea that ‘terrorism comes from poverty, broken families, ignorance, immaturity, lack of family or occupational responsibilities, weak minds susceptible to brainwashing – the sociopath, the criminals, the religious fanatic.’ His database suggested, to the contrary, that terrorists are among the ‘best and brightest’ from ‘caring, middle class families’ who ‘can speak, four, five, six languages’, and ‘three-quarters of whom were ‘professionals or semi-professionals’, ‘engineers, architects… scientists.’
What is striking in much of this discussion is that even though the idea of radicalization has become central to domestic anti-terror policies, the evidence of government and security agencies itself reveals what is wrong with it. There is a gap between the reality of jihadism, as recognized by even official agencies, and the political desire for the simple narrative that the radicalization thesis provides.
But if the conventional radicalization thesis is without foundation, much of the criticism of it is also flawed. Many of the critics argue that is not religion but politics that drives wannabe jihadis to terror. Western intervention in the Middle East and in Muslim-majority countries elsewhere, they suggest, from the war in Iraq to the support for Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, has radicalized many Muslims and pushed them into the hands of the jihadists.
This, however, is merely a different form of the radicalization thesis. Where the conventional thesis focuses on the ‘pull’ factor of fundamentalist Islam, such critics stress the ‘push’ factor of Western foreign policy. Many of the criticisms of the conventional radicalization thesis – of the belief in the importance of ideology to jihadists, for instance, or the implausibility of the idea of a conveyor belt from radical ideas to terrorist action – can also be directed towards the ‘radicalized by politics’ argument.
What both forms of the radicalization thesis miss is the specific historical context of the contemporary attraction of jihadism. Muslims have been in Europe in large numbers for more than half a century. It is only in the past 20 years, though, that radical Islam has gained a foothold.
Similarly Western governments were intervening in Muslim-majority countries long before Osama bin Laden took to a cave in Afghanistan, let alone the Islamic State began its brutal rule in swathes of Iraq and Syria. From Winston Churchill ordering the use of mustard gas against Iraqi rebels in the 1920s, to the CIA engineering a coup against the democratically elected government of Mohammed Mossadeq in Iran in 1953, to the brutal attempt by the French to suppress the Algerian independence movement in late 1950s, to Western backing for Saddam Hussein in his war against Iran in the 1980s – there is a long history of such intervention. There has always been resistance to Western intervention, and often violent resistance, but specifically Islamic opposition is relatively new, and nihilistic terrorism newer still.
One form of the radicalization thesis does little to explain the changing character of Muslim communities, and their evolving beliefs; the other ignores the changing character of anti-Western sentiment and of anti-imperialist resistance. What the radicalization thesis of either form fails to explain is why it is at this historical moment, and only at this historical moment, that the savage form of jihadism that we associate with Islamic State has arisen, or that some Muslims in West are drawn to nihilistic terror.
The answers to these questions are, of course, highly complex, ranging from the failures of secular regimes to the impact of Western intervention, from the role of Saudi Arabia to the demise of traditional anti-imperialist movements. Most of this is beyond the scope of this talk. I want here to try to address a small part of the answer: what it is about this historical moment that turns some Muslims in the West into wannabe jihadis?
Those drawn to groups such as Islamic State are certainly both politically enraged about Western imperialism and have a very particular view of Islam. Religion and politics both form indispensible threads to their stories. And, yet, the ‘radicalization’ argument, whether stressing push or pull factors, whether prioritising religion or politics, looks upon the jihadists’ journey back to front. It begins with the jihadists as they are at the end of their journey – enraged about the West, with a back and white view of Islam, and a distorted moral vision – and assumes that those are the reasons that they have come to be as they are. But if we look at the stories of wannabe jihadis, the first steps on their journeys to Syria are rarely taken for political or religious reasons.
What drew the likes of Ifthekar Jaman, Sahra Ali Mehenni and Kreshnik Berisha to Syria was, to begin with at least, neither politics nor religion. Rather it was a search for something a lot less definable: for identity, for meaning, for belongingness, for respect. Insofar as they are alienated, theirs is a much more existential form of alienation.
There is, of course, nothing new in expressions of alienation and angst. The youthful search for identity and meaning is almost a cliché. What is different today is the social context in which such alienation and such a search occurs. We live in a far more atomized society than in the past; in an age in which there is a growing sense of social disintegration and in which many people feel peculiarly disengaged from mainstream social institutions; and, in which, for many, moral lines seem blurred, identities distended, and conventional culture, ideas and norms detached from their experiences.
The real starting point for the making of a homegrown jihadi is not ‘radicalization’ but social disengagement, a sense of estrangement from, resentment of, Western society. It is because they have already rejected mainstream culture, ideas and norms that some Muslims search for an alternative vision of the world. It is not surprising that many wannabe jihadis are either converts to Islam, or Muslims who discovered their faith only relatively late. In both cases, disenchantment with what else is on offer has led them to the black and white moral code that is Islamism. It is not, in other words, a question of being ‘groomed’ or ‘indoctrinated’ but of losing faith in mainstream moral frameworks and searching for an alternative.
Disengagement is, of course, not simply a Muslim issue. There is today widespread disenchantment with the political process, a sense of being politically voiceless, a despair that neither mainstream political parties nor social institutions such as the church or trade unions seem to comprehend their concerns and needs. All this has inevitably shaped how young people, and not just of Muslim backgrounds, experience their alienation, and how they are able to act upon it.
In the past, such disaffection with the mainstream may have led people, certainly in Europe, to join movements for political change, from far-left groups to labour movement organizations to anti-racist campaigns. Such organizations helped both give idealism and social grievance a political form, and a mechanism for turning disaffection into the fuel of social change. Today, such campaigns and organizations often seem as out of touch as mainstream institutions. What gives shape to contemporary disaffection is not progressive politics, as it may have in the past, but the politics of identity. Identity politics has, over the past three decades, encouraged people to define themselves in increasingly narrow ethnic or cultural terms.
The broad ideological divides that had characterized politics for much of the past two hundred years have been all but erased. The old distinction between ‘left’ and ‘right’ has become less meaningful. The working class has lost much of its economic and political power. The weakening of labour organizations, the decline of collectivist ideologies, the expansion of the market into many nooks and crannies of social life, the fading of institutions, from trade unions to the Church, that traditionally helped socialize individuals – all have helped create a more socially, fragmented society.
Partly as a result of such social atomization, people have begun to view themselves and their social affiliations in a different way. Social solidarity has become defined increasingly not in political terms, but rather in terms of ethnicity, culture or faith. The question people ask themselves is not so much ‘In what kind of society do I want to live?’ as ‘Who are we?’.
The two questions are, of course, intimately related, and any sense of social identity must embed an answer to both. But as the political sphere has narrowed, and as mechanisms for political change have eroded, so the answer to the question ‘In what kind of society do I want to live?’ has become shaped less by the kinds of values or institutions people want to struggle to establish, than by the kind of people that they imagine they are; and the answer to ‘Who are we?’ has become defined less by the kind of society they want to create than by the history and heritage to which supposedly they belong. The politics of ideology has, in other words, given way to the politics of identity.
At the same time, and partly because of these changes the notion of what it is to be Muslim has also changed. Today there is much talk of the ‘Muslim community’, of its views, its needs, its aspirations. But the ‘Muslim community’ is a recently-forged concept. Until the late 1980s, few Muslim immigrants to Britain – indeed to anywhere in Western Europe – thought of themselves as belonging to any such thing as a ‘Muslim community’.
The first generation of North Africans to France were broadly non-religious, as were the first generation of Turkish migrants to Germany. The first generation of postwar Muslim immigrants to Britain, who came almost entirely from the Indian subcontinent in the 1950s and 1960s, were certainly religious. Yet, faith was not a means through which they specifically defined themselves, or sought as a public identity. They may have thought of themselves as Punjabis or Bengalis or Sylhettis but rarely as ‘Muslims’.
This first generation was pious in its faith, but wore it lightly. Many men drank alcohol. Few women wore a hijab, let alone a burqa or niqab. Most visited the mosque only occasionally, when the ‘Friday feeling’ took them. Islam was not, in their eyes, an all-encompassing philosophy. Their faith expressed for them a relationship with God, not a sacrosanct public identity.
The second generation of Britons with a Muslim background – my generation – was primarily secular. I was of a generation that was even less likely than the first to think of itself as ‘Muslim’. Nor did those of Hindu or Sikh background think of themselves primarily as ‘Hindu’ or ‘Sikh’. Religious organizations were barely visible within minority communities. The organizations that bound together migrant communities were primarily secular, often political; the Asian Youth Movements, for instance, or the Indian Workers Association.
It is only with the generation that has come of age since the late 1980s, that the question of cultural differences has come to be seen as important. A generation that, ironically, is far more integrated and ‘Westernised’ than the first generation, is also the generation that is most insistent on maintaining its ‘difference’.
The reasons for this shift are complex. Partly they lie in the tangled set of social, political and economic changes over the past half century to which I have already alluded – changes that include the retreat of the left, the demise of class politics, the rise of identity politics, the narrowing of the political sphere, the erosion of more universalist visions of social change. Partly they lie in international developments, from the Iranian revolution of 1979 to the Bosnian war of the early 1990s, that played an important role in fostering a more heightened sense of Muslim identity in Europe.
And partly they lie also in the development of public policies, both of multicultural policies, in a country like Britain, and assimilationist policies in France. The issue of multiculturalism and assimilationism, and the relationship between them, is a highly complex one, and I don’t have time to delve too deeply into it.
But briefly, let me say this: As forms of public policy, French assimilationism and British multiculturalism are generally regarded as polar opposites. Yet, from very different starting points, both kinds of policy have come to foster a more fragmented society and narrower visions of social identity. Both have tended to ignore the diversity of minority communities, treating them instead as if each was a distinct, homogenous whole, each composed of people all speaking with a single voice, each defined by a singular view of culture and faith. Both multiculturalist and assimilationist policy makers often accept the most conservative, often religious, figures as the authentic voices of minority groups. The consequence has been for public policy, whether multiculturalist or assimilationist, both to entrench identity politics and to exacerbate the problems created by identity politics.
‘What, in today’s France’, asks the filmmaker and novelist Karim Miské, ‘unites the pious Algerian retired worker, the atheist French-Mauritanian director that I am, the Fulani Sufi bank employee from Mantes-la-Jolie, the social worker from Burgundy who has converted to Islam, and the agnostic male nurse who has never set foot in his grandparents’ home in Oujda? What brings us together if not the fact that we live within a society which thinks of us as Muslims?’
Of the five million or so French citizens of North African origin, just 40 per cent think of themselves as observant Muslims, and only one in four attend Friday prayers. Yet all are looked upon by French politicians, policy makers, intellectuals and journalists as ‘Muslims’. Government ministers often talk of France’s ‘five million Muslims’. Islam has in recent years become increasingly regarded as a threat to French republican tradition. Faced, as are politicians in many European nations, with a distrustful and disengaged public, French politicians have attempted to reassert the notion of a common French identity. But unable to define clearly the ideas and values that characterize the nation, they have done so primarily by turning Islam into the ‘Other’ against which French identity is defined.
French citizens of North African origin who do not think of themselves as ‘Muslim’, can, writes Miské, ‘feign indifference’ and ‘appear to be French, secularist and republican, devoted lovers of our land and our territories’. But, he asks ‘how long can we seriously hold on to this voluntary position when we are constantly sent back to our ‘Muslim’ identity?’ In other words, the identity ‘Muslim’ is both created by the wider society, and appropriated by those defined as ‘Muslim’ as a means of asserting their own agency, ‘to regain possession of our diminished existences’, as Miské puts it.
Much the same has happened in Britain. Multicultural policies do not, as in France, seek to define national identity against the Other, but rather portray the nation as ‘a community of communities’, as the influential Parekh report on multiculturalism put it. The authorities have attempted to manage diversity by putting people into particular ethnic and cultural boxes, defining individual needs and rights by virtue of the boxes into which people were put, and using those boxes to shape public policy.
Instead of engaging directly with Muslim communities, the authorities have effectively subcontracted out their responsibilities to so-called community leaders. Rather than appealing to Muslims as British citizens like all others, the ‘community of communities’ approach encourages politicians to see them as people whose primarily loyalty is to their faith and who can be politically engaged only by other Muslims. The consequence within Muslim communities, has, as in France, been to create a more parochial sense of identity and a more tribal vision of Islam.
In the past, most Muslims, in Britain or in France, would have regarded their faith as simply one strand in a complex tapestry of self-identity. Many, perhaps most, Muslims still do. But there is a growing number that see themselves as Muslims in an almost tribal sense, for whom the richness of the tapestry of self has given way to an all-encompassing monochrome cloak of faith.
All these developments have shaped not just Muslim self-perception but that of most social groups and communities. Many within white working communities are often as disengaged as their Muslim peers, and similarly often see their problems not in political terms but rather through the lens of cultural and ethnic identity.
Social, political and economic change over the past few decades – from the decline of manufacturing industry to the implementation of austerity policies, from the neutering of trade unions to the atomization of society – have helped sweep away old working class ways, disrupted working class communities and undercut their economic and political power. But, as culture has become the medium through which social issues are refracted, so many within these communities have turned to the language of identity to express their discontent, viewing their marginalization more as a cultural loss.
Once class identity comes to be seen as a cultural attribute, then those regarded as culturally different are often viewed as threats. Hence the growing hostility to immigration and diversity, the rise of anti-immigrant populism, and, for a few, the seeming attraction of far right groups. Racist populism and Islamism are both in their different ways expressions of social disengagement in an era of identity politics.
While the social and political changes of which I have spoken – the fragmentation of society, the erosion of trust in mainstream institutions, the breakdown of old social mechanisms, the retreat of the left, the rise of identity politics, and so on – have shaped the ways in which many social groups look upon themselves , there is, at the same time, something highly distinctive about the identity in which Islamist cloak themselves.
For a start, Islam is a global religion. It allows Islamist identity to be both intensely parochial and seemingly universal, linking Muslims to struggles across the world, from Afghanistan to Chechnya to Palestine, and providing the illusion of being part of a global movement. Islamism provides also the illusion of a struggle for a better world. In an age in which traditional anti-imperialist movements have faded, and belief in an alternative to capitalism dissolved, Islamism seems to provide the possibility of both an alternative to capitalist society and of a struggle against an immoral system.
And yet, most homegrown wannabe jihadis possess a peculiar relationship with Islam. They are, in many ways, as estranged from Muslim communities as they are from wider Western society. Most detest the mores and traditions of their parents, have little time for mainstream forms of Islam, and cut themselves off from traditional community institutions.
Mohammed Siddique Khan, the leader of the 7/7 London bombers, is a classic case in point. He had rejected his parents’ subcontinental traditions and refused an arranged marriage. Instead he married Hasina Patel, a woman he had met at university. So disgusted was Khan’s family with his love-match that it all but disowned him. They even moved to a different town, hoping their errant son would follow them. He didn’t. Instead cut off from his family, the community in which grew up, the institutions of faith that had nurtured, he found instead a new kind of faith, through talking to his friends, and over the Internet.
Or take the Kouachi brothers, the two French Muslims responsible for slaughter of 12 people at the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris in January. They were raised in Gennevilliers, a northern suburb of Paris, home to around 10,000 people of North African origin. Cherif Kouachi, who appeared to mastermind the operation, only rarely attended mosque, and appeared not to be particularly religious, but was driven by a sense of social estrangement. He was, according to Mohammed Benali, president of the local mosque, of a ‘generation that felt excluded, discriminated against, and most of all, humiliated. They spoke and felt French, but were regarded as Arabic; they were culturally confused.’ According to Benali, Kouachi was most affronted by the imam’s insistence on the importance of political engagement. ‘When the imam told everyone to enrol on the register of electors so they could take part in elections, and play their part in society, he refused. He said he wasn’t a French citizen and wanted nothing to do with the democratic process. He then walked out of the mosque.’
Cherif Kouachi and Mohammed Sidique Khan are both of a milieu that has been caught not between two cultures, as is often suggested, but between no cultures. Wider society labels them ‘Muslim’, yet they have little affinity with the Islam of their parents, of tradition. As a consequence, some of them have turned to Islamism, and a few have expressed their inchoate rage through jihadi-style violence. Common to all the stories wannabe jihadis is their distance from conventional Muslim traditions and institutions, either because they have rejected them or because they came to Islam later in their life. Disengaged from both Western societies and Muslim communities, some reach out to Islamism.
What Islamism provides to the likes of Ifthekar Jaman and Sahra Ali Mehenni and Kreshnik Berisha is not religion in any old-fashioned sense, but identity, recognition and meaning. Detached from traditional religious institutions and cultures, many adopt a literal reading of the Qur’an and a strict observance of supposedly authentic religious norms to mark themselves out as distinct and provide a collective identity. Disembedded from social norms, finding their identity within a small group, shaped by black and white ideas and values, driven by a sense that they must act on behalf of all Muslims and in opposition to all enemies of Islam, it becomes easier to commit acts of horror and to view such acts as part of an existential struggle between Islam and the West.
What I have tried to show in this talk is a way of thinking about jihadism, and what might attract some to it, that cuts against the grain of much conventional thinking about the issue. You don’t have to agree with my perspective –in fact, I hope some of you don’t, because it is only through debate and disagreement that arguments develop. But two things I hope you will accept, because they are central to the development of any argument about these issues.
First, that if we try to explain away complexity, if we try to reduce it to a simple narrative, we explain away the explanation. And if we try to craft public policy from such a simplistic narrative, the results are often disastrous. So it is with the radicalization thesis. Many of the policies that have emerged from that thesis – banning ‘extremist’ organizations, censoring speech, imposing broadcast bans, maintaining surveillance on Muslim communities – undermine liberties without addressing the issues that has made Islamism attractive to some in the first place.
The second key point is the need for a historical consciousness. One of the problems with much social analysis is a lack of historical perspective, a tendency to take a snapshot of an issue or problem, and to assume that such a snapshot tells us something profound across time. But profundity only emerges by locating issues within context, by placing it within a wider frame. At the same time, the framing of an issue necessarily changes over time.
Consider, for instance, the concept of the ‘radical’, central to the ‘radicalization’ thesis. I was, and indeed still am, a ‘radical’. But when I was growing up, ‘radical’ in a Muslim context meant being secular, ‘Westernized’, leftwing. Today, it means almost the opposite; it describes someone who is a religious fundamentalist, anti-Western, hostile to secularism and to traditional leftwing politics. In the shift in the meaning of that single word is encompassed the remaking of a whole social universe. And without understanding the remaking of that social universe, we will never grasp the reasons for which some European Muslims find jihadism attractive.
The paintings are, from top down, Ebru Uygun, Untitled; Imran Ashaf, ‘Allah Red’; Chaouki Chamoun, ‘The Apocalypse”; Shafaq Ahmad, Al Mussawwar; Khalid Shahin, Untitled; Ahmed Maualla, Untitled; Ali Omar Ermes. ‘Waw’; Vaseem Mohammed, ‘The Favour’; Vaseem Mohammed, Untitled; Mohammed Ehsai, Untitled; Koorosh Shoshegaran, Untiled.