Global Extremes

Jihadi paranoia: why we (still) need to rethink the debate on terrorism and political violence

Managing Jihadi paranoia represents one of the main challenges faced by our political and academic systems.

Edoardo Baldaro Silvia D’Amato
30 November 2020, 7.05am
French military forces from the Operation Sentinelle foreign Legion men patrol next to the Saint-Sulpice church area holding a assault rifle in Paris, 30 October 2020
Lafargue Raphael/ABACA/ABACA/PA Images. All rights reserved
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The violent attacks which took place in Paris, Nice and Vienna this month have put the “Jihadi threat” back to the forefront of the debate across Europe. The rapid escalation of events seems to confirm that there is now an urgent need to think and approach the dimension of violence with a much needed emotional distance, always difficult to find during such terrible acts. To us, hard repressive and more invasive measures – already implemented by the concerned governments but also proposed at the EU level – not only increase the polarization of the debate but might fuel frustrations, sense of exclusion and resentment from parts of our societies and eventually generate counter-productive effects. In particular, the dominant discussion in France and elsewhere as encouraged by many politicians, media but also part of the academic circle transmits a dangerous, we could call it, jihadi paranoia.

This piece does not argue that religion has absolutely nothing to do with violence, although caution here is highly recommended. Nor do we intend to justify or underestimate the threat of use of this type of violence, especially against civilians. Yet, there is nonetheless a critical point to be made about an established and quite common mis-use of the ‘Jihadism narrative’ as a response to many violent events in and beyond Europe. We believe that this piece could raise and clarify some focal points about this matter.

In particular, in our opinion, the debate is hampered by three main problems.

Oversimplifying ‘Jihad’

Oversimplification of the concept of ‘Jihad’ and the presumably connected terms such as “radical Islam” or “violent Islamism”. The focus on the global nature of Jihad ignores the essential fragmentation and contestation within the same apparently unified Jihadi front and identity.

As Mark Sedgwick shows, among many others, there are instead a variety of ‘local jihads’ which relate to critically different local issues, geographical realities and senses of identity and that can rarely be understood with the same lens (the “everything-is-Jihad” problem). A recent episode exemplifying this is the liberation on 9 October 2020 of Sophie Pétronin, a French NGO worker who had been detained for four years by the local branch of al-Qa’ida in central Sahel, in Mali. A few days after her liberation, Ms. Pétronin discussed her captivity with different media, underlining that those who captured her are local insurgents who are fighting a war of liberation against a presumably repressive government. She additionally contested the use of the term ‘Jihad’ as a nonsense that prevents understanding the effective political issues at stake in Mali and the Sahel.

These declarations have engendered the bitter reaction of the French Chief of Staff, General Lecointre, who rejected this interpretation of the facts and insisted on the unique, incomparable and extremely dangerous nature of the Jihadist insurgencies. As the debate on the “Jihadi-driven” insurgencies is showing, the Jihadi front is monolithic neither at the practical nor at the ideological level, but rather shaped by power moves and violent competition. Moreover, in many cases the global reach of local insurgencies is dictated more by the unifying action of the international counterterrorism initiatives, than by a presumed common strategy of the different violent groups.

Culturalizing the debate

Culturalization of the debate is the identification of a presumed line of conflict and contention as firstly and foremost based on cultural and value-driven variables. Such a perspective crystallizes the differences of contending parties along simplified cultural lines, denying a true agency to the ‘perpetrators’ as much as to the ‘victims’ of violent contention (the ‘clash-of-civilization’ problem).

The global reach of local insurgencies is dictated more by the unifying action of the international counterterrorism initiatives, than by a presumed common strategy of the different violent groups

The main problem of a cultural narrative grounded on apparently non-negotiable cultural differences is that it transmits an immediate and accessible conceptualization to which people can easily relate to, with potential socially disruptive consequences. One of these is racism and specifically islamophobia. Just few days after the murder of Samuel Paty, a stone's throw to the Tour Eiffel, two Muslim women have been attacked, stabbed, and allegedly asked to go ‘back to their country’. A piece of news that has attracted a minimum national and international attention but subscribes to a general increasing trend of anti-Muslim hate crimes. According to the data provided by the French Ministry of Interior to OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) in 2019, there have been 1236 attacks of racism and xenophobia as well as 204 attacks targeting Muslim individuals.

A reductionist causality

Reductionism of causality, in particular when this debate insists on revolving around the ‘religious matrix’ as the main cause or as the primary element affected by the processes of violent radicalization. In this sense, the debate around the radicalization of Islam or the Islamization of radicalism both exemplifies the creation of this analytical and discursive field where ‘Islam’ and ‘radicalism’ are discussed as two crucial variables while other material, symbolic, and normative potential explanations for violence only as complementary or subsequent (the ‘cause-and-effect’ problem).

Managing Jihadi paranoia

The persistence of these problems within deep-rooted narratives, cognitive schemes, and power structures negatively affects the analysis, the understanding, and the governmentality of the terrorist phenomenon. Other than a conceptual shortcoming, we believe, such a persistence amplifies problems and issues of our security and counterterrorism apparatuses in at least two ways.

First, there is a question of effectiveness. By identifying an apparently unitary omni-present ‘Jihadi enemy’ our communicative and practical efforts risk to target the wrong aspects of the Jihadi struggles and forms of violence, at a domestic as much as at an international level. Second, but not less important, there is a question of rights. As Law Professor Mireille Delmas-Marty has recently underlined in an interview with FranceCulture, we cannot put our values, practices of democracy and rule of law at risk. A societé securitaire is not only dangerous in light of the social effects it might generate but it could also easily reinforce an effet cliquet, a progressive and irreversible submission of rights in favour of the idea of absolute security by the executive.

Overall, managing the jihadi paranoia represents one of the main challenges faced by our political and academic systems. Acknowledging the existence of deep cognitive and normative biases and analytical problems affecting our responses to the ‘Jihadist phenomenon’ is a necessary step for elaborating sound strategies able to tackle these episodes of violent contention. Complexity and multi-causality are defining features of political violence of all times and only by reinserting religion within a wider analytical and policy scheme, it would be possible to start rethinking our approach to the ‘Jihadist violence’ within and beyond our societies.

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