Olivier Roy talks to Josie Appleton about why radical Islam has become a global youth protest movement.
Olivier Roy is a professor at the European University Institute in Florence, and has been a leading commentator on political Islam for several decades. His books – including Globalised Islam and Holy Ignorance – have dissected contemporary radical Islam, showing how it owes little to traditional religious forms and more to the forces of deterritorialisation and estrangement at work in modern societies. He emphasises the difference between contemporary radical Islam and the nationalist political Islamism of the 1970s and 1980s. He argues that today’s young jihadis are ‘not particularly religious’, and that their Islamisation is a means of expressing a ‘generational revolt’, a break with their parents’ generation and their rejection of society more broadly. He spoke to Josie Appleton in Paris last month.
Josie Appleton: You make the point that the trends playing out in radical Islam are similar to those playing out in other protest ideologies, such as anti-globalisation or new-age religions. But radical Islam seems to have a frission that these things don’t: it is able to present itself as being genuinely outside the system. Why is this?
Olivier Roy: Radical Islam is a protest movement – it’s a youth movement, and the data say that jihadis are getting younger and younger. I would say it’s a youth protest, largely based on youth culture, street culture – a modern Western youth culture that has Islamised itself. In terms of why these young people are turning to Islam, there are different reasons. They may have a Muslim background, or it could be a choice, like the converts who chose Islam because it’s the ideology of contestation today in the world. What is specific is that radical Islamism is the only supranational universal militant ideology on the market. If you protest in another framework, what do you have? You have the individual nihilist revolt: suicide, Colombine, overdose. ‘No future’, but there is no need to mobilise. Or you have Podemos in Spain or the Arab Spring. What is interesting about protest movements like Podemos, is that they are all national movements. Thirty years ago, these kinds of movements, these contestatory youth protest movements, would have been global – like the extreme right or the ecologists at the time. The interesting thing is that the non-Islamic protest movements are in fact anti-globalist movements, even if they are globalised.
Appleton: Indeed, there isn’t much communication between Podemos and the French movement Nuit Debout (a protest movement sparked by planned labour reforms), for example, even though they are similar phenomena…
Roy: Exactly. You can invite a Podemos representative to Nuit Debout in Paris, but they are two different movements, which is normal because these movements are anti-globalisation from an economic point of view, and they are usually anti-European. And even if they are not explicitly sovereignist, their frame of action is national society. So if you don’t feel national, and you really want to be a supranational, then you have Daesh [the Islamic State]. That’s all. Of course, Daesh has more impact among people of Muslim culture than among others, but still there are converts. People cannot explain why they have this number of converts. There are differences between countries – there are few converts in Belgium, but out of the Daesh recruits from Germany, 20 per cent are converts; from France, 25 per cent; from the US, 25 per cent. In every militant cell you have converts.
Appleton: But isn’t jihadi internationalism very different to previous forms of internationalism or cosmopolitanism? Isn’t this a sort of brotherhood as an abstraction, rather than a universalism?
Roy: The Caliphate is a global abstraction. Daesh doesn’t claim to be trying to re-instate the Ottoman Caliphate, or another specific state. The guy who comes from Spain is called ‘el-Espanoli’, the Belgian is called ‘el-Belgiqui’, and the thing all the jihadis say is, ‘it’s a true brotherhood, you even have Chinese’. They say, ‘my race doesn’t matter’. You have many black people, especially among the converts, and they all say ‘I’m not black when I am with Daesh’. It is cosmopolitan. They use the English language – indeed, they have no problem with speaking Western languages. Daesh understood from the beginning that it doesn’t need to Arabise people – Daesh is not providing courses in Arabic, its members write in English and in French. It is cosmopolitan. Jihad has replaced the idea of revolution, and the ummah [the global community of Muslims] has replaced the proletariat.
Appleton: But those things – revolution, the proletariat – were based on existing social forces. As you’ve shown in your work on Islamism, in the 1970s and 1980s the Islamists translated Marxist concepts such as party and state into pseudo-Islamic terms, referring to particular constituencies or bodies. But Daesh isn’t representing particular social forces; it’s a set of rules or a mystical idea…
Roy: But the proletariat in the 1960s and 1970s was an abstraction. The Red Army Faction had no contact with the German workers, but they fought for the international proletariat. There are a lot of similarities between Daesh and the Chinese cultural revolution. Daesh members kill culture, destroy mosques, destroy Palmyra – they are iconoclastic. The Islamists were not iconoclastic. They didn’t destroy monuments, because for them this would have been a crime and a sin. What Daesh is explicitly doing is trying to create a new purely homo Islamicus; they encourage people to come with their wife, to have children there. They have programmes for the indoctrination of children.
Appleton: You describe Salafism (a transnational and originalist brand of Islam) as being against local Islams, against nationalism, against Islamic traditions and theology – in a way it is set against every past and present element of Muslim life and society. Is Salafism largely negative in definition? Is it a purification through destruction rather than something with a positive content?
Roy: Yes, the common point for the Salafi and the jihadi is that they both believe you can recreate a good Muslim from scratch. The difference is that, for the Salafi, life does matter. Rites do matter. You have to pray five times a day, you have to eat halal. The jihadis have their own rites, but they are not the orthodox rites. They listen to nasheed music, for example. The Salafis don’t forbid nasheed, but, for them, they say that you don’t need it. For Daesh, nasheed is very important.
Appleton: How would you locate Daesh in terms of the trajectory of political Islam? Does it have any sort of discernible political institutions, or a coherent theology, or is it a pick’n’mix affair?
Roy: It doesn’t. It hasn’t really created a state – it has a military administration. It’s a military occupation. Daesh has technocrats, of course, but it doesn’t concentrate on the education of the population; it just distributes new books to the teachers. But it concentrates its education on the vanguard. What it is trying to do is to create an international vanguard, it’s not to establish a real local Islamic society.
Appleton: You have said that, in previous Islamic conflicts, the international volunteers were coloured by the national conflict and situation. They didn’t determine the course of events. Is it the reverse now? Is an international version of Islam being imposed on a national situation?
Roy: Yes. Daesh isn’t interested in borders or territory. It is only interested in territory as a moving territory – the caliphate is not a nation state. The Islamists, the Muslim Brotherhood, for example, do accept the concept of a nation state, although they perhaps thought that after the nation state you would have a federation, something like that. The Islamists, never said that borders don’t matter. The Islamists have always and everywhere been Islamo-nationalist, which is, of course, not the case with Daesh.
Appleton: How important is it that today’s jihadis always break with their families? What is the role of that generational break, that turning against your parents, that turning against the accepted way things are done?
Roy: Jihadis consider their parents to be losers – losers, or bad Muslims, or both. Obviously there is a crisis of parental image. There is a high number of jihadis from dysfunctional families, but this is not a decisive factor. What is very important figure is the high proportion of brothers involved. In all the cell networks, you have at least a couple of brothers. In Paris, there were three pairs of brothers. You would never find that in any other radical organisation, but it is absolutely typical of Daesh. It wasn’t typical of the Red Brigades – although, on the extreme left, members would perhaps marry the sister of their brother in arms…
Appleton: So it’s about the bond among the new generation – school friends, brothers – one generation allied against the rest.
Roy: Yes, neighbourhood friends and so on. You have a few cases of parents joining, too, but very few. Only with the Italian recruits are whole families going – because they are Italians! In other places, there is a generational break. Apparently, in Germany, 23 per cent of calls to the police warning about radicalisation are made by the parents. Jihadis don’t hate their parents, but they reverse their relationship with their parents. The boy says to his mother, ‘I have the truth, and you don’t have the truth. I am your teacher.’ And, ‘I will die before you, to save you’. So it’s a reversal of the generational link.
Appleton: What do you think the role of the self is in new forms of Islam? Does it involve any reflection, descent into the self? You say it is an individualised religion, but is there any role for the inner life of the individual? You talk about the new religion as a ‘marker’, with a focus on ostentatious forms of dress and so on. Is the new Islam more external than internal?
Roy: Yes, it’s looking for a brother, looking for a group, looking for an equal and a warm relation. It’s not really about the individual search for truth. Jihadis never speak about meditation, for instance. They never say, ‘I spent all night thinking’, and so on. They won’t work like that. Nasheed is always a call, and you don’t sing alone. One sings, then the others take over.
Appleton: You say that the main concepts involved in radical Islam are jihad and the ummah. What is the relation between these two: is the ummah derived from the jihad. That is, if you are fighting you must be fighting for something?
Roy: You fight to protect the ummah. The ummah is under attack, and I am the hero fighter who will save the ummah. They all say the same thing: I will die but I will go to paradise.
Appleton: What about Allah, do they talk about him? Other religions might be more concerned about what is the nature of God, what is my relation to him…
Roy: No, the important relation is not with Allah, but with the prophet. They fight to save the ummah and avenge the prophet, as with the Charlie Hebdo attack, to avenge the prophet because he has been mocked by the cartoons. It’s more about the relationship with Muhammad than it is about Allah.
Appleton: When you talk about neo-fundamentalist Islam being Westernised, isn’t that more a question of market relations and technology than Western culture?
Roy: It’s more than technology. It’s individualisation, it’s the valorisation of youth as a category in itself. You have a youth culture, dress culture, street culture, music – jihadis speak about that. They don’t dress like a Salafi, they have their own dress. They have their own slang, and slang is not just a language, it also bears a culture. In German, French and English, jihadis use youth slang. There was a French journalist who was held by Daesch for one year. He was in a house and his guards were French Muslims, and he said that they were totally French. They complain about everything – the discipline, the food, the climate. But yes, jihadi culture is of course detached from classical Western culture, ethics, philosophy and so on. They are representatives of the Western youth culture, based on a global consumerist market.
Appleton: What do you think is the role of suicide bombing, which is used as an end rather than as a means? Is it a matter of proving your faith to yourself, because you are willing to die – or is it exhibitionism?
Roy: It’s exhibitionism, but it’s also ‘no future’. There is no future for jihadis; their only future is to go to paradise. They don’t believe in life. They are not utopians. They don’t care about an Islamic Syrian society. They don’t care about Syrians or Iraqis becoming good Muslims. They don’t care; they go to fight. In a sense, they don’t care about the end. They have an apocalyptic vision, but they think we are close to the end of times anyway. There is no future, even an Islamic future.
Appleton: What about the transcendent element attached to suicide bombings in all the jihadi videos, with the martyr shown floating in the air and so on?
Roy: We have to make a distinction between those who go for jihad not thinking about the suicide mission, and those who go for the suicide mission. For the terrorists, they go for a suicide mission, because they know that even if they don’t explode themselves, they know they will be killed. Death is very important. Since 1995, all the guys who perpetrated terrorist missions, perpetrated suicide terrorist missions, they could have done a lot of things without committing suicide. The London bombers could have just put down their bombs, and left: but they didn’t leave. It’s my view that death is the goal, it’s not just that they are terrorists, who happen to kill themselves. No, they go to kill themselves. This is exceptional.
Palestinian terrorists have not historically been suicide bombers. They killed a lot of people, but they would put the bomb down and then leave. Hezbollah used suicide missions against US barracks, because it was only with a suicide mission that you could explode the barracks. From a military point of view, it was a rational decision. But the London bombings were not rational. They could have had the same impact by staying alive, and coming back to do the same again two weeks later. It is not rational to spend your best militants, one by one. The Molenbeek story is finished now: no one from Molenbeek will go on to do anything. The guys who blew themselves up in Brussels did so because all their friends had died – so they killed themselves in Brussels because they were in Brussels.
Appleton: So it’s not about an inner test of faith?
Roy: They are convinced that they will go to paradise, so there is a religious dimension in that sense. But they want to go as soon as possible because life is not worth living.
Olivier Roy is a French professor at the European University Institute in Florence, and the author of several books, including Holy Ignorance: When Religion and Culture Part Ways (2010) and Globalised Islam: The Search for a New Ummah (2004).
Josie Appleton is convenor of the Manifesto Club, which campaigns against the hyperregulation of everyday life. Visit the Manifesto Club website.
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