Can Europe Make It?

The attractions of jihadism, and a generational nihilism stretching far beyond the Muslim sphere

French Muslims are protesting against the conflation of Islam with jihadism, and about France's engagement in the coalition. If the French government really wants to steer young people away from terrorism, here's what it should be doing instead. Interview with specialist on Islam, Olivier Roy.

Olivier Roy Nicholas Truong
8 October 2014

Nicholas Truong (NT): Was the assassination of Hervé Gourdel (the French captive in Algeria) a declaration of war against France by the “Islamic State” (IS)?

Olivier Roy (OR): War was declared with the heavily mediatised bombardment of IS positions by French Mirages a fortnight ago. From then on we have effectively been at war. But the flaw in the communication has been to accord IS the same status as a state, the French state, giving it an importance that it does not have. This is to fall for the propaganda of IS lock, stock and barrel, which is the same as Al-Qaida's: to present themselves as a global alternative to 'the West'. Quite simply, no lesson has been drawn from thirteen years' struggle against Al-Qaida.

NT: Why did they choose beheading?


Highlander poster. 20th Century Fox/Wikimedia. Fair use.OR: Because they need to create a visual terror effect which will circulate on the internet. There is nothing Islamic about this spectacle: it recalls to mind the “trial” of Aldo Moro put on by the Italian Red Brigade in 1978. Beheading is also a cliché that belongs to the film world – or the Highlander action fantasy. Something that strikes the imagination forcibly.

NT: How does IS compare with Al-Qaida?

OR: At the beginning, the so-called “Islamic State” was a clone of Al-Qaida, but drew its own conclusions from the failure of Ben Laden's organisation. His genius had been the setting up of a non-localised organisation that was truly global in action, communication and recruitment. He was thus able to survive all the territorial campaigns (Afghanistan, Iraq) launched by the Americans. Obama has made some headway by ‘deterritorializing’ the American response (drones, commando operations), above all realizing that he should not fall into the trap of sending troops.

The Al-Qaida formula petered out because it failed to renew itself and perform something to "outshine" 9/11. IS concluded that it needed to ‘re-territorialize’ the fight, at the same time as maintaining its international dimension: by creating the “Islamic Caliphate”. That allows them to take on more volunteers than the Al-Qaida system, whose small cells devoted years to preparing an atrocity.

NT: Does IS have the capacity to establish itself in Iraq and Syria over the long term?

OR: The problem is that all ‘territory’ is inhabited. So the fight has to be articulated to fit the local population. The destruction of the Iraqi Sunnite state by the Americans in 2003 automatically opened up new spaces. The ‘Sunni Arab triangle’ of northern Iraq which extends into Syria, provides an ideal base for IS, because the local population is at war with the non-Sunnis (Baghdad Shiites, Damascus Alawites) and the Kurds, or the Turks who are not Arabs. Frustrated, excluded, attacked, they see IS as an avenger. In no time at all, the enemies of IS become the local communities of Shiites, Kurds, Christians, Yézidis, and to a less extent Turks. In addition, they are the majority. So IS victories are fragile. Local Sunni dignitaries will sooner or later be in conflict with the IS. Imagine a Falluja tribal head giving his daughter away in marriage to a young man who comes from Vénissieux (a suburb of Lyon) to fight in Iraq. Territorialisation of the conflict becomes a trap.

NT: Has the west done the right thing in attacking jihadist positions?

OR: Yes, but it was and is necessary to stay behind the lines. For this time, unlike in 2001, regional actors in the front line are only asking to be helped to fight, because they have no other choice: the IS terror campaign has convinced them that to survive they must fight.

That will take time, but it is the only way to show up the ‘Islamic State’ for what it is: an internationalised pack of radicals acting against local communities, above all Muslim communities. Now, bizarrely, even before IS took any action outside its territory, the French government has ‘internationalised’ the conflict: very clumsily legitimising the ‘Islamic State’ and pushing France, without any good reason, straight into the front line.

NT: But what impact can IS have on the Muslim community in France?

OR: For over twenty years we have been watching the same phenomenon: the radicalisation of a fringe of the youth, whether of Muslim origin, or of converts who are looking for a cause. These young people are not integrated into the Muslim community, in France or anywhere else; they are not the product of Salafist preaching in the mosques; rather they became radicalised on the Internet. The very large proportion of converts leaving Europe as volunteers – about 25%, who have no links with other Islamist groups – strongly suggests that the radicalisation mechanism is not to be sought in traditional Islam. 

NT: What do you think of the appeals being launched for the Muslim population to take a firm position against IS?

OR: But that has been going on for a long time! All the representative organisations have taken a clear position. When speaking of IS jihadists, not one French Muslim says, “one must understand them”. On the contrary, what dominates is the inability to understand what is going on. Unlike Gaza, IS combat does not resonate with the Muslims of France. A very important, and new development is the number of appeals coming into the police over the past year from Muslim parents who are beside themselves with worry, begging them to prevent their children setting out for Syria just as other parents demand that the authorities combat drugs. This amply illustrates both the generational dimension of the conflict and the Muslim rejection of IS. One worries about their loyalty, forgetting that 15% of French soldiers are of the Muslim faith: and they are in Afghanistan, Mali, take part in 'Vigipirate' operations, and there is neither sabotage nor desertion; (Mohamed Merah killed a Muslim). 

NT: Have Muslim families any idea of the extent of the terrorist temptation affecting some of their children?

OR: Yes. Today we are still caught up in the clichés of twenty years ago: the suburban adolescent becomes a Salafist because he has identity problems and despises his father. But the radicalisation is no longer just a problem of deprived city areas – it touches various milieux – and we are looking at the rise of a new generation of parents – often themselves second generation – who are trying to take responsibility for their childrens' destiny. So it is by liaising with the family that one combats radicalisation. And don't forget: it is far from true that all young people are choosing terrorism. Only a year ago, those who left home to topple Bashar al-Assad were perfectly on message with the French Government's position.

Besides, many of the volunteers who left to join IS now feel betrayed by the jihadists. We saw this in the “affair” of the three “terrorists” who returned quietly to France without being intercepted; it was they who went knocking on the door of the police station. So, in order to combat a small and still very isolated group of terrorists, one needs to back the majority of Muslims and the major trends of today (amongst them the emergence of a Muslim middle class). And stop boasting about fighting the 'Islamic state': a stage spectacle that keeps passing from the tragic to the ridiculous.

NT: The barbarity of the acts committed makes one wonder whether one is dealing with a new outbreak of contemporary nihilism?

OR: Yes, there is a generational nihilism affecting the young who have lost out as a result of globalisation, and who are fascinated by death. It is a form of nihilism observable in plenty of other places; one saw it in the Columbine massacre, where high school students killed their classmates after setting themselves up on video. This phenomenon, which curiously seems to affect Protestant countries, North America and Scandinavia, is put down to individual acts of madness (like Behring Breivik in Norway), whereas Al-Qaida terrorism is pinned on Islam. But what one has to look for is the common genealogy behind this suicidal nihilism.

The phenomenon goes well beyond the Muslim sphere. However, what Al-Qaida and the 'Islamic State' are able to offer these youth is a real terrain for their heroics, and a guaranteed “no. 1” spot in the media.

NT: How do you break out of such nihilism?

OR: Certainly not by way of the unhealthy type of pessimism that seems to have taken hold amongst French intellectuals, nor through our leaders manning the pumps in war paint. One must undermine the legitimacy of AQ and IS by destroying the associated images of heroism and adventure, by returning them to their true stature, what they really amount to: not Muslim community heroes, but at best losers, like the three who gave themselves up to the police, and at worst bandits, ‘yobbos’, fascinated by Brian De Palma's Scarface. The only way is to ‘deflate’ the attractive image of jihad. Which is the opposite of what one is doing: leading a charge under the flag to the sound of the trumpet! The 1914 war commemorations must have gone to our leaders' heads!

Thanks go to Andrew Packard for the English translation of Nicolas Truong’s interview with Olivier Roy, first published in Le Monde on September 26, 2014.

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