Christopher de Bellaigue*
Are the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad responsible for modern jihadism, or does the terrorists’ ignorance of their religion show that Islam is cover for inner disquiets that make more sense to the psychologist than the imam? Last July’s lorry massacre on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice was committed by an unstable libertine who had only recently discovered jihadism. What, if anything, did his actions have in common with the riots that followed the death in police custody of Adama Traoré, a young man from a Malian Muslim family, in a depressed Parisian suburb, also last summer? Do they testify to the inexorable advance of radical Islamist ideology, or the seductive power of any false cause for modernity’s losers?
A sign of the importance of these questions is that they have been translated to the higher climes of French intellectual enmity. Voltaire and Rousseau snarled over the nature of man. Nowadays disagreements about the place of Muslims in society pit Gilles Kepel, a distinguished professor of Islamic studies who recently joined the “Republican Spring”, a leftwing group militating for a strict application of laïcité, France’s version of secularism, against Olivier Roy, an ex-Maoist philosopher who spent much of the 1980s ducking from cave to cave in Afghanistan with the mujahideen and now teaches at the European University Institute in Florence. “Ignoramus” and “Rastignac” (from the social climber in Balzac’s novels) are among the epithets that these titans have used against each other.
Roy’s latest salvo, Jihad and Death, develops themes that he broached in the press following the Paris attacks of November 2015, notably his argument that they didn’t demonstrate the radicalisation of Islam so much as nihilism in search of an alibi. The new book is in many ways a bravura outing, pithy, prosecutorial, and informed by the author’s global approach to knowledge and thought. (Roy’s first book was on the influence of Confucianism). It is also appealingly French – a quality retained in Cynthia Schoch’s sensitive translation. Where else have Isis’s beastly publicity videos been described as a “Sadean … discourse on itself”?
The “Islamisation of radicalism” theory developed in Jihad and Death argues that European jihadism is a malaise formed of fantasy and rebellion. “Fundamentalism alone does not produce violence,” Roy writes, adducing Hasidism and Benedictine Catholicism as examples. The usual genealogy of violent Islam starts with the medieval puritan Ibn Taymiyyah, goes on to Hasan al-Banna, founder of the Islamic Brotherhood in the 1920s, and thence to Bin Laden. Rather than rehearse this, Roy prefers a “cross-cutting approach” that stresses the jihadis’ affinity to youth culture, their rejection of their parents and their pursuit less of utopia in this life than bliss (including lots of sex) in the next.
Roy writes with verve in support of his theory. The narcissism of the mass killers, pouting on social media as they go about their grisly business, is pure modern anthropolatry. Meanwhile, in its (now contracting) Mesopotamian playground, Isis “opened up a new ‘gaming space’ in the literal sense: the vast desert that one can ride through in four-wheel drive vehicles, hair and flags blowing in the wind, guns raised … young losers from destitute suburbs become handsome, and plenty of young girls on Facebook go into raptures”.
What fascinates the jihadis, he writes, is “pure revolt”, and this includes kicking against their parents’ tightly bound geographical and linguistic communities. The European jihadis who go to Syria and Iraq speak French or English peppered with badly pronounced Qur’anic Arabic and are surprisingly indifferent to the old colonial struggles and injustices meted out to the Palestinians that animated their parents’ generation. When it suits them they reject the mores of conservative Muslim society; the Isis online magazine Dabiq has insisted that Muslim women in the west undertake the journey to Mesopotamia regardless of the objections of their families, and even if they are not accompanied by a close male relative.
From scrutinising the records of some 140 terrorists active in the west, Roy draws a picture of a way of life that shares much with the society it purports to reject. Antiracism is a common value of Isis and its liberal opponents, and globalisation an accepted reality. “The aim,” he writes, is “a new sort of Muslim, one who is completely detached from ethnic, national, tribal, and family bonds: a global Muslim.” (Roy clearly enjoys the irony of a group of Portuguese converts, mostly of Angolan origin, leaving to fight in Syria after being radicalised in a Thai martial arts club in London. It is tantalising to wonder what might have happened had they been offered jobs at Google or Morgan Stanley.) Whether they know it or not, these jihadi “nomads” oppose the theory of asabiyya, or clan solidarity, that the Tunisian sage Ibn Khaldun put forward in the 14th century; if the nation is the modern clan, Isis and its fellow travellers are its nemesis.
Roy’s rejection of the idea that jihadism has much to do with history, racism and economics gets him into trouble. His insistence that the malcontents adhere to the jihadi ideology only after self-radicalisation and his scepticism of the role played by brainwashing is belied by much evidence – particularly in French jails, where the authorities are desperate to prevent the indoctrination of timid loners. The Islam espoused by the jihadis has indeed been stretched; it has shed the usual restraints on violent jihad, embraces suicide, and permits lapses from conservative practice. But it is still a form of the religion revealed to Muhammad and cannot be dismissed only as the product of a maladjusted mind.
Here, at the crux of Roy’s argument, we find ourselves dodging more mud pies. So much of what he writes seems designed to contradict his foe Kepel, and so keen is he to answer those who have “misrepresented” his views, that an opportunity for necessary compromise is lost.
Unlike Roy, Kepel is an Arabist, and he sets the roots of Islamic terrorism in the experience of Muslims in France. His most recent book, Terreur dans L’Hexagone (Terror in France), shows how local and international causes célèbres, fertilised in the dung of economic and social failure, have contributed scores of jihadi recruits. Kepel is as meticulous as Roy is magisterial; there should be no contradiction between saying that jihadis are the tailings of modernity while also examining the events that made them first unhappy, then angry, and finally susceptible to the Isis worldview.
In his book Kepel devotes much attention to the southern French commune of Lunel, which by virtue of its substantial contribution to Isis ranks was for a time the capital of French jihad. Declining viticulture, mass immigration from the former colonies, 40% unemployment among young Muslims, glass ceilings (the local civil service is almost entirely white), and symbolic flashpoints such as the building of a large mosque have greatly facilitated radicalisation. Hovering over all this is a cloud of “Islamophobia”. This is real. And yet it is also a cop out, excusing Islam from the important internal function of “critical reflection … and exonerating any action carried out in its name”.
Kepel’s membership of Republican Spring aligns him to a cause that would strengthen secular nostrums, while Roy suggests that this same laïcité, being the “most ideological … form of secularisation”, may help explain France’s overrepresentation among the jihadis. For Roy, talk of the external factors set out by Kepel is so much buck-passing. And here this former Maoist reveals his roots in the Catholicism of sin and confession. “A militant can repent,” he concludes, “but he must first take responsibility for what he has done, or sometimes what he has merely thought.”
Christopher de Bellaigue’s latest book, The Islamic Enlightenment: The Modern Struggle Between Faith and Reason, is published by Bodley Head.