By Dr Rachel Bloul
Western societies seem to have discovered with a revulsion mixed with (feigned?) surprise the fact that some of its Muslim youth are not only attracted to, but participating in, Daesh [also known as ISIS] terrorism, willing to commit suicide bombing and to kill ‘innocent civilians’.
Explanations usually borrow from two theories both of which, I suggest, privilege unduly some supposed difference of Muslims and/or Islam.
One theory blames Islam for its supposedly violent jihad ideology, conveniently forgetting the vast majority of ordinary Muslims aspiring to a peaceful life.
The other, noticing the particular fascination of young people, including Western converts, for jihad, blame alienation and the social exclusion created by racism, Islamophobia and the various acts of victimisation of Muslims by the West.
While the marginalisation of Muslim youth in the West might play a role in the radicalisation of would-be jihadists, one should not forget the diverse social origins of the latter. They are far from being all social misfits, but they might well be all in search of ‘a cause’ wrote Olivier Roy, a political scientist specialist of the Middle East, in Le Monde.
They were already political radicals, before ‘using Islam’
Roy’s theory is that rather than Islam becoming radicalised, it is political radicalisation which has become Islamicised. He reminds us of the Western history of radical youth, including terrorists as exemplified in the 1970s-80s by the Baader-Meinhof gang in Germany and the Red Brigades in Italy. He points to the many similarities with Western Jihadists today, Muslims or converts.
Among those is an abstract idealism, revolted by the social injustices of an iniquitous system, in search of a redemptive ideology. Earlier Western terrorists gave allegiance to some version of Radical Marxism. The West does not offer such revolutionary political creeds anymore and as often has been the case, religious ideologies step in the breach offering not only visions of a ‘better world’ but personal redemption through martyrdom in the bargain.
Abstract idealism, however motivated by visions of justice, unfortunately often neglects the human costs of ‘revolution’. It also has all the allure of those ‘single idea explanations’ which people tend to privilege. Whether a generation weaned on violent videogames is more susceptible to such appeal is anyone’s guess.
Moreover, for a generation brought up within an ideology of rights, among which the right to a fulfilling life, well, jihadist ideologies may offer something more: a way to satisfy a desire for adventure, a way to test oneself, to even overcome the paltry conventions of everyday life, in other words, warrior romanticism and its glorification of heroic qualities. Again, this has happened before in recent Western history.
Memories of fascism
The rhetoric unfortunately brings back memories of Fascism as glorified by Marinetti in his Manisfesto. Such rhetoric, whether from the Extreme Right or the Extreme Left is rather indifferent to the price paid by ordinary people as Europeans in particular should easily remember.
Radical revolutionary philosophies and the activisms they engender have endemic appeal in the West. Islamism could well be its latest manifestation and it certainly makes sense of its appeal among converts.
You might object that the gory spectacles of beheadings and the like would surely put a damper on such youthful idealism. All the evidence however seems to point to the recruiting campaign managing quite well, beheadings and all notwithstanding.
Possibly people misunderstand ‘youthful idealism’ (where is it written it has an aversion to ‘bloody’? Marinetti wrote, and more recently Nazi youth showed, the truth of that), or recruitment strategies are more complex than imagined.
Difficult to say without a reliable analysis of Daesh’s ‘up-close’ recruitment tactics. Many jihadists, including women, are said to have been motivated by humanitarian concerns, to discover once in Syria the real nature of their supposed ‘humanitarian work’.
Again this would need empirical verification, something which might be difficult to obtain within present circumstances of demonization of the returnees, not to mention the high attrition rate.
So, what of Roy’s theory of the Islamisation of radicalism?
I propose that it explains quite well the appeal of jihad for Western recruits, and I like that it stresses the Western element: most Muslim youth from the non-West are not that interested in joining Daesh (the exception would be Tunisia with its close links to France).
Of course one should not see in this ‘the’ -the one, the only, see above on single idea explanation- key to understanding Western jihadist youth. But it is an important element one should not neglect: there is something very Western in revolutionary radicalism and its glorification of individual heroism sacrificing on the altar of a Noble Cause.
Dr Rachel Bloul is a sociologist and genocide scholar, formerly at The Australian National University. Her specialisations are in Islam in the West, genocide, political fundamentalism and identity politics. She’s enjoying her retirement but she also likes to write every now and then.