*This is the second part of a two-part article series examining how Western media attributes Radicalism to Islamic politics ignoring the Nihilist element, in France in particular. The first part explored the historical wounds of the Crusades and the West’s persistence in reopening it.
More than any other European country, France has been a frequent target of Middle Eastern (both Islamic and secular) terrorism. Indeed, the colonial legacy and the Crusades have played a significant role. But France’s more recent foreign policy, including that of the 1970s, has been characterized by offering a haven to terrorists of various affiliations and then siding with factions and guerrillas in respective conflicts.
In the 1970s and 80s, France offered exile to “freedom fighters” from all over the world, including the Italian Red Brigades, the Palestinian Abu Nidal, the infamous Venezuelan Carlos the Jackal, the Secret Armenian Liberation Army, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), and the Turkish “extremist” Grey Wolves. In the same period, Lebanon’s Hezbollah retaliated against France’s military interventions in Lebanon – and its military support for Iraq in its war against Iran – with a wave of attacks in 1985-1986.
In those decades, terrorism had a practical goal, which usually came down to securing the release of political prisoners. In the mid-1990s, the Algerian Armed Islamic Group (GIA) claimed responsibility for a series of bombings in Lyon and Paris to protest France’s support for the Algerian government during the civil war that ravaged the North African country for a decade.
In all these cases, the terrorists acted in the context of a retaliatory violence for perceived grievances, which gave their violence a predictable logic. The terrorists had a specific cause and they radicalized around it. Those entrusted with ensuring France’s security, from politicians to special military units and police officers, understood the ideological context or the reasoning behind the violence.
However, much of the terrorism, labeled as Islamic, Middle Eastern, or let alone “Jihadist,” that has hit France in the past few years (attributed to ISIS since 2015) – and the past few months in particular, has lacked any clear ideological or political logic.
In the conception of the wider security apparatus and even some academics, the recent terrorism – lazily labeled solitary “jihad” – involves self-activating cells. Namely, these cells involve single individuals, who transform themselves through self-radicalization into a weapon to unleash against the West, to punish its libertine lifestyles, its lack of faith, and its policies in the Islamic world, or Dar al-Islam.
Some observers have argued that ISIS, and al-Qaida before it, have operated through “franchising,” such that individuals, or groups, adopt its labels and emblems, even as they act entirely autonomously. Given that it’s not yet clear what ISIS truly represents, it’s difficult to follow this line of inquiry. ISIS franchising or not, the recent attacks in Paris were perpetrated by “mavericks” or “lone wolves” bent on making a noisy gesture. The terror comes from the unpredictability.
The latest episodes of such attacks include the beheading of a schoolteacher carried out by a teenager of Chechen origins near Paris; and in a separate incident, the killing of two people in a Church in Nice. In both cases the attackers shouted “Allah-u Akbar!” (Arabic for God is Great!) and were also killed, which is sufficient evidence for the media and the authorities to describe the attacks as having been inspired by Islamic radical ideology – often confused with political Islam. But do such attackers – or lone wolves as they have been labeled – necessarily follow an ideology, much less an Islamic one, when they kill in this manner?
What difference is there between the murderous actions of the killers in Paris and Nice to those of the many shooters in the United States, who target unsuspecting and unarmed people in schools or offices? The technical difference is that in the latter case, the shooters did not yell “Allah-u Akbar.” But is this enough for such violence to be examined through an Islamic lens, or would it be more appropriate to consider them acts of nihilism?
Surely, terrorism in the past was a direct response to French foreign policy, which provoked reactions and reprisals within the Arab-Muslim communities of France. But there is a tendency to exaggerate the role that Islamic faith plays in the radicalization process. Indeed, even in the case of the deadlier and more organized attacks, the perpetrators do not fit any model of religious piety.
The more recent form of terrorism attributed to Islamists seems to be a case of terrorism without a cause.
Unlike the terrorism of the 1970s, 80s, and even the 90s, the more recent form of terrorism attributed to Islamists seems to be a case of terrorism without a cause. The second or third generation Muslims responsible for killing 130 people at the Bataclan night club in Paris in 2015 were not known to attend the mosque and knew little about the Qur’an, the Hadith, or any of the tenets of the faith. There is no question that these French youth were radicalized against their society and angry. But radicalized into what?
A truck launched into a crowd to kill as many innocent people as possible is not just a challenge to public safety. It is an act that lacks reason. Thus, it is not an act that can simply be explained as rooted in resentment and hostility. Such violence defies nature itself. Yet such episodes are not exclusive to a particular ethnicity, culture, or religion. It is the type of violence that has informed a new kind of terrorism.
Anarchist terrorism in the 19th and 20th centuries targeted sovereigns, princes, presidents, ministers, or other dignitaries who symbolized authority and the “establishment,” perceived as being responsible for a specific evil. Indeed, until World War II, armies fought on the battlefield and civilian populations were by and large excluded from the direct violence.
Yet, 21st century terrorism seems to target innocent civilians, which makes it even harder to find a logic behind certain actions, whether it’s bombing the Bataclan bar or decapitating a schoolteacher for showing the infamous Charlie Hebdo caricatures of Prophet Muhammad in a classroom during a lesson on freedom of speech.
Political Islam is Not Islamic Radicalism
The Charlie Hebdo shooting, Bataclan massacre, and more recent episodes attributed to Islamic inspired violence in France have tended to confuse the alleged extremism or radicalism with Islamic politics. The two are entirely different phenomena. Indeed, popular and uncritical narratives confuse political Islam with so-called Islamic fundamentalism or radicalism exemplified by the Islamic State (ISIS) or al-Qaeda. The two must be distinguished before even attempting to analyze the recent episodes of terrorism in France.
French scholar François Burgat published a book entitled “L’Islamisme au Maghreb et la voix du Sud” (Islamism in the Maghreb and the Voice of the South) in 1988. Burgat correctly explained the emergence of political Islam in North Africa as an indigenous quest for identity and response to the socio-economic contradictions of modernity and, more than anything else, to the legacy of (largely French) colonization. According to Burgat, Muslims found Islam to offer a path toward freedom from the yoke of Western cultural, economic, and ideological subordination. Islam also offered a different language through which Maghrebis could make sense of the world and express their political aspirations. Political Islam, therefore, represented a rejection of colonialism.
Political Islam represented a rejection of colonialism.
It was also a rejection of the post-colonialist experience and the experiment that Gamal Abdel Nasser launched in Egypt (itself a version of the secular project that Kamal Ataturk pursued in Turkey), which radiated throughout the Arab world from 1950 to 1970. It spread a secular and nationalist conception – spearheaded by military elites – of the state and society after the First World War. It mattered little whether the military elites acted in the name of pan-Arabism, socialism, or Nasserism; labels aside, their constructions of the state were inherently secular and authoritarian. They rejected and marginalized, or even repressed, any indigenous Islamic discourse from their state-building exercise.
The 1967 and 1973 Arab defeats which allowed Israel to occupy East Jerusalem, the West Bank, the Sinai (then relinquished as part of the 1979 Camp David Accords), and the Golan Heights in the respective wars played a significant role in fueling political Islam. The Arabs’ defeats seemed to persuade the masses and some intellectuals alike that secular ideologies imported from the West – and in many cases (Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, Syria, and Lebanon) directly from France itself – had failed and that the region’s politics should reform along Islamic principles.
The post-1950s persecution of Islamic political movements, especially in Egypt, ensured that a more radical and revolutionary form of politics would be embraced. The fact that such a revolution succeeded in Iran in 1979 served to solidify the idea that Islam offered the path to the overthrow of Western backed corrupt regimes, which had ignored the faith. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, meanwhile, inspired a hatred for the “atheist” communists. This had broad effects.
The post-1950s persecution of Islamic political movements ensured that a more radical and revolutionary form of politics would be embraced.
One of the most important was the crushing of secular (socialist or communist) opposition groups in the Middle East. And such opposition had existed in various parts of the MENA region, especially in Lebanon, Iraq, Palestine, and Egypt. Another effect was to prompt Washington to believe it could exploit and steer the Islamic politics wave in the Middle East to achieve its own geopolitical goals. And in the 1980s those goals were concentrated around taking down the Soviet Union.
The United States (leading the West as the new superpower) played Dr. Frankenstein and manipulated the rising Islamic political movement, allowing some factions to develop apocalyptic ideas and practices through the adoption of a Salafi, or literal reading of the religious texts, and giving them the tools (such as the Stinger missile) to convert them into concrete military victories. For context, imagine what sort of “politics” a literal reading of the Bible might inspire.
After the defeat of the USSR, Washington’s “creation” turned against the whole West, in the form of al-Qaida. Apparently unsatisfied, Washington and its allies repeated this “experiment.” First by invading Iraq, and isolating all ranks, not just the generals and colonels, of the largely Sunni Muslim dominated Ba’ath military leadership in the country – instead of giving it a role in the occupation, prompting it to go into hiding and regroup, and establishing the roots of what is now known as ISIS, the Islamic State, or Daesh.
The West also contributed to the political disintegration of Iraq and Syria, creating the vacuum that then attracted all kinds of armed groups. Some of these doubtlessly enjoyed the backing of foreign powers – or “external actors” – interested in destabilizing the region as part of a larger project.
Excluding Hamas or Hezbollah, which are paramilitary movements with articulated political agendas, it would be inaccurate to suggest that organizations such as ISIS or al-Qaida have much to do with Islam. Though the groups claim to act in the name of Jihad or Shari’a, these religious concepts have far more nuanced and complex meanings than followers of those organizations have attributed to them. And, while these aspects of Islam were intended to benefit the individual and the community, in the practice of ISIS, for example, they serve no purpose other than to aggrandize terror. Presenting ISIS as an Islamic phenomenon gives it legitimacy and benefits only ISIS itself, even as it is too often forgotten that mostly Muslims have been targets of the organization.
Why France Has Stood Out
France’s frequent and current military interventions in Syria, the Maghreb, and the Sahel – as a leading player in the coalition to fight ISIS and its alliances, along with Egypt and the United Arab Emirates (which have banned the Muslim Brotherhood) – have left it exposed to potential retaliation. France has a deep-rooted presence in the Islamic world and hosts a conspicuous Arab and Muslim community. Although a much smaller geopolitical power than it was even 60 years ago, France has kept a heavy presence – political and economic in the form of the CFA Franc – in the areas of Africa it once controlled. And these happen to be areas where Islamic militant groups have been spreading fastest.
The North Africans’ experience with France’s secular conception of society has contributed to its disruptive cultural force in the region.
Many Arabs – especially North Africans – perceive France as the main Western target, even if its military presence may sometimes be overestimated. The North Africans’ experience with France’s secular conception of society has contributed to its disruptive cultural force in the region. And there is the sense that France itself has never quite understood how its secularism might challenge the societies that it subjugated, and then imported through migration. Starting in the 1960s, when France lost its last major colony, Algeria, and started to absorb hundreds of thousands of citizens.
While these immigrants were able to speak French, many would never become fully integrated into the French culture and social fabric, remaining largely alien. After colonization and, in some cases, bitter wars, France’s former Muslim subjects developed a sense of inferiority, rooted in the subconscious memory of the Crusades and infused with the desire for redemption. Therefore, while France may contribute to the fight against militant Islamic groups, whether al-Qaida in the Maghreb or ISIS throughout the MENA region and domestically, it will not succeed in eliminating the threat of retaliations in the form of terror attacks.
Tools to Prevent Radical Violence: Psychology vs. Spying
Scholars such as Olivier Roy suggests most of the terror attacks are perpetrated by people who are already marginalized and radicalized into violence, adopting Islamic symbols (too often described as jihadist) as a kind of justification. Other scholars, typified by Gilles Kepel, hold that aspects of the Islamic faith itself inspire the violence. The two positions are diametrically at odds with one another, motivating different ways to confront the violence.
Followers of Kepel would urge France to maintain its rigidly secular attitudes while taking a deeper interest in the religious practices of its Muslim population. The aim would be to focus on preventing radicalization, or de-radicalization, believing that it is the Islamic faith itself that holds the seeds of the violence performed in its name. This would require an extension of the intelligence apparatus, optimized to infiltrate mosques and religious organizations in the expectation of identifying those responsible for radicalizing the youth and the so-called “lone wolves.” But, despite his empirical research, Kepel – whose socio-economic explanations for the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt have been highly useful – has failed to answer the question of how the ideological radicalization occurs.
Olivier Roy fills that gap with the only logical explanation. He suggests that social and psychological factors are far more to blame for “radicalization” than ideological ones. Roy suggests the Islamic “ideology” acts merely as a source of meaning through which to “ennoble” and direct the nihilism behind the violence. Roy, therefore, would agree with Kepel that a form of Islam – a highly idiosyncratic one – might play a role in the terrorism that has afflicted France, but only insofar as a rough guide. The terrorists may or may not have subscribed to the goals of that ideology.
Kepel has even identified the main sources of inspiration for the violence, citing such works as Abu Mousab al-Souri’s 1,600-page manual explaining the path that would-be “jihadists” should embark on to fight the “infidels.” In contrast, Roy, while not denying that radical forms of Islam exist and that they are spreading in Europe and the Islamic World, refutes the idea that Salafist texts alone can radicalize youth into committing highly violent acts. In particular, Roy rejects the idea that Salafi texts, and the like, serve as the catalyst for terrorism. Rather, he suggests that the terrorists have a drive or passion for destruction, which precedes any understanding of so-called Islamic ideology.
The violence of those who commit terrorism in the name of Islam was not inspired by Islamic texts.
The violence of those who commit terrorism in the name of Islam was not inspired by Islamic texts. Roy describes this phenomenon as the “Islamization of radicalism.” Islam acts as a facade that masks something else, a deeper nihilism against their condition and society. The especially French character of this nihilism might be blamed on the frustration and identity crisis of the third-generation North African migrants of the banlieu, who cannot find acceptable forms of redemption.
These young men have Muslim parents, but often speak no Arabic and have little or no understanding of Islam. And they are born in France, but they neither feel French, nor feel welcome to adopt French ways. They burst with anger and look for avenues to vent it. And France keeps humiliating the lands of their origins, which is why the phenomenon has become a distinctly French one. In a different era, perhaps the 70s, these youth might just as easily have chosen communism or fascism to channel and give meaning to their violence. But these currents perhaps lack the immediate understanding that the tenets of a faith might have – not to mention the fact that fascism and communism are traditionally European protest movements.
In many ways, this lack of a foundational – as oppose to an adopted one for convenience – ideology makes them even more dangerous. In that sense, they have much in common with the nihilist lone-shooters who have left so many victims in the United States. Like the latter, the French lone-wolf “radicals” act randomly. But the French have a better chance of defeating them. There’s sufficient evidence to suggest that going after the Mosques will only serve to fuel anger. Making an effort to alter foreign policy and target the sociological and psychological factors responsible for the nihilist anger (which has nothing to do with Islam or any other ideology) might help stem the impulse to violence.