The Islamization of radicalism


Olivier Roy writes: France is at war! Perhaps. But against whom or what?

Last November, when the Islamic State staged the shootings that killed 130 in Paris, it did not send Syrians. A year ago, when al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula purportedly ordered the deadly attack on the office of Charlie Hebdo, it did not send gunmen from Yemen. Rather, both groups drew from a reservoir of radicalized French youth who, no matter what happens in the Middle East, are already disaffected and are seeking a cause, a label, a grand narrative to which they can add the bloody signature of their personal revolt.

The rallying cry of these youth is opportunistic: Today it is the Islamic State; yesterday, they were with al Qaeda; before that, in 1995, they were subcontractors for the Algerian Armed Islamic Group, or they practiced the nomadism of personal jihad, from Bosnia to Afghanistan, by way of Chechnya. Tomorrow they will fight under another banner, so long as combat death, age, or disillusion do not empty their ranks.

There is no third, fourth, or nth generation of jihadis. Since 1996, we have been confronted with a very stable phenomenon: the radicalization of two categories of French youth — second-generation Muslims and native converts. The essential problem for France, therefore, is not the caliphate in the Syrian desert, which will disappear sooner or later, like an old mirage that has become a nightmare. The problem is the revolt of these youth. And the real challenge is to understand what these youth represent: whether they are the vanguard of an approaching war or, on the contrary, are just a rumbling of history.

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Two readings of the situation dominate at the moment and are shaping the debates on television and in the opinion pages of newspapers: These are, basically, the cultural explanation and the Third World explanation.

The first puts forth that recurring and nagging “war of civilizations” theory: The revolt of young Muslims demonstrates the extent to which Islam cannot be integrated into the West, at least not so long as theological reform has not struck the call of jihad from the Quran. The second interpretation evokes post-colonial suffering, the identification of these youth with the Palestinian cause, their rejection of Western intervention in the Middle East, and their exclusion from a French society that is racist and Islamophobic. In short, the old song: So long as we haven’t resolved the Israel-Palestine conflict, there will be a revolt.

But the two explanations run up against the same problem: If the causes of radicalization are structural, then why do they affect only a tiny fraction of those in France who call themselves Muslims? Only a few thousand, among several million.

But these young radicals have been identified! All the terrorists who have actually taken action were, notoriously, in the “S File” — that is, on the government’s watch list. I don’t wish to get into a discussion here of prevention — I simply note that the information about them is there, and it is accessible. So let us look at who they are and try to draw some conclusions.

Nearly all the French jihadis belong to two very precise categories: They are either “second-generation” French — that is, born or raised from a very young age in France — or they are “native” French converts (whose numbers have increased with time, but who already constituted 25 percent of radicals at the end of the 1990s). This means that, among the radicals, there are practically no “first-generation” jihadis (including recent arrivals), but especially no “third-generation” jihadis.

The third-generation category in France is growing: The Moroccan immigrants of the 1970s are now grandparents. But one does not find their grandchildren among the terrorists. And why do converts, who never suffered from racism, wish to brutally avenge the humiliation experienced by Muslims? Especially since many of these converts — like Maxime Hauchard, the Normandy-born man who appeared in the Islamic State’s beheading videos — come from rural France and have little reason to identify with a Muslim community that for them exists only in theory. In short, this is not a “revolt of Islam” or one of Muslims, but a specific problem concerning two categories of youth, the majority of whom are of immigrant origin. This is not, then, the radicalization of Islam, but the Islamization of radicalism.

What is the common ground between the second generation and the converts? It is, first of all, a question of a generational revolt: Both have ruptured with their parents or, more precisely, with what their parents represent in terms of culture and religion. [Continue reading…]

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