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Born again to kill

Olivier Roy explains why Islamic terrorism is born in Europe.

The attacks on London point to a development that has been documented for a number of years. Islamic radicalism is on the rise, above all, in the second generation of young Muslims living in Europe. A certain form of Islamic radicalism, which one could call "Jihadism" is in fact a pathological outcome of the Westernisation of Islam; it is not the result of exporting to Europe the conflicts of the Middle East (there is not a single Palestinian, Afghani or Iraqi among terrorists acting at the international level). This violence is part of a more general transformation of Islam resulting from immigration, the fact of being a minority, and the introduction into Muslim societies of profoundly Western patterns of economic, political and religious consumption.

The radicalisation of Islam is often perceived as the cultural reaction to Westernisation by traditional Muslim societies. Thus, fundamentalism is identified as a Muslim culture that refuses to Westernise itself, hence the expressions "the clash of civilisations" or "the clash of cultures". But in fact religious renewal, whether expressed in fundamentalism or spiritualism, is doubtless more an expression of the growing separation between religion and culture. Put another way, it results from the redefining of what is held to be religious beyond traditional culture. This means, in effect, the weakening of such "traditional" cultures by the forces of globalisation. The fundamentalism of today, whether Christian or Islamic, expresses a crisis of culture attributable to globalisation and not a desire to restore original cultures.

This fundamentalism expresses itself in modern forms of religiosity that are also found in Christianity. The "born again" phenomenon is central. There is a pattern of individuals returning to their personal faith while breaking with the traditional religion of their families or social circles. Faith is lived individually. Society is seen as too secular, tending toward the corrupt, while there is a distrust of the established church and all traditional forms of religious authority. The "born again" lives a faith that is usually both emotional and anti-intellectual. Speculative theology does not interest the "born again", who is very rigid when it comes to values and rules of behaviour. The community with which the "born again" identifies is a voluntary one, made up of people who share the same relationship to faith; they often appear more like members of a sect than of a genuine Church. The new forms of religiosity, in Islam as in Christianity, are anything but liberal. Even if they are not necessarily violent, they are at least very conservative-minded.

This gap between culture and religion is nevertheless wider among the Muslims of Europe. Immigration has brought with it the loss of a social framework for religion. Fasting during Ramadan in Afghanistan, Pakistan or Egypt is very easy, even if one is not very religious, because social pressures push one in that direction. But Muslims living in Europe are forced to make choices: they have to decide whether the prescriptions of religion are at the centre of their lives, which ones are essential and how to carry them out in practice. They may reconfigure their lives around these constraints at risk of complicating their social and professional lives. Or they may ignore the prescriptions of religion or fulfil them in a way that is entirely symbolic. In a word, they must decide for themselves what religion should be.

Such believers have no recourse to Ulemas (religious scholars) and are obliged to seek out criteria for religious observance which no longer have any connection to a given culture. Whatever solution they choose, believers must reconstruct and "objectify" their faith, divorcing it from mere social conformity and from traditions which no longer make any sense to them. The religion of their parents is linked to a culture that is no longer theirs. The titles of books published recently in the West reflect this questioning. They include "Qu'est-ce que l'islam?" (What is Islam?) "Que signifie etre musulman?" (What does it mean to be a Muslim), and "Comment faire l'experience de l'islam?" (How to experience Islam?) .

In any examination of the relationships between Islam and the West, what is important is not the theological content of Islam - since that is currently the subject of debate among Muslims. Paramount are the religious practices of Muslims, which, even in their fundamentalist forms, are far more "Westernised" than they appear. The forms of religiosity in current Islam are barely to be found, if at all, in Catholicism, Protestantism or even in Judaism. The believers of today place ever more of an accent on personal faith and the individual spiritual experience. These "born again" believers reconstruct their identity in rediscovering religion.

But the crisis of traditional Muslim cultures is more than a consequence of Westernised patterns of consumption and the increasing adoption of Western values and products. This crisis is also the result of an across-the-board attack from Islamic fundamentalism. When the Taliban took over power in Afghanistan in 1996, they initially maintained excellent relations with the Americans. From 1996 to 1998, Westerners were able to travel freely in the country. The Taliban did not attack Western culture, but turned on traditional Afghan culture in all its forms (art, games, music and sport). Why ban people from owning singing birds? Why ban kites? The Taliban argument was simple. If your bird starts singing while you are praying, you will be distracted and your prayer will be without value. If you are a good Muslim, you will start again; but as we cannot be sure that you are a good Muslim, it is easier to ban the ownership of singing birds that could put your salvation at risk. Likewise, a kite could become entangled in a tree and if you climb a tree to recover it, you risk seeing a woman without a veil and would thus commit a sin. Why risk roasting in hell for a kite? So, ban kites as well.

The same type of argument is found in all forms of fundamentalism: this world exists only to prepare believers for their salvation. The function of the state is not to ensure social justice and respect for the law, but to create a situation – even through coercion – that ensures that believers will find their salvation.

Everywhere, those referred to as Wahhabi or Salafi – even the "Tablighi" – condemn traditional forms of popular religions, Sufism, music, poetry and literature. Novelists and poets from Egypt to Bangladesh are hard pressed to exercise creative freedom; Salman Rushdie is a further case in point. And too often, regimes that are supposedly secular but are actually very authoritarian, from Egypt to Algeria, associate themselves with this cultural attack.

Fundamentalism is thus not a reaction of traditional cultures that feel threatened; rather it reflects their disappearance. It is a serious mistake to associate modern forms of fundamentalism with a clash of civilisations. The young do not become fundamentalist because Western civilisation ignores their parents' cultures, but because they have lost that cultural tradition, which at the same time they tend to despise. The religiosity of the fundamentalists is individual and generational; this is a rebellion against the religion of their own parents. Many young Muslim girls of the second generation in Europe wear the veil not at the insistence of their parents, but rather to affirm their individuality: furthermore, they are not shy of taking up feminist slogans ("my body is my business").

Fundamentalism is at once a consequence of and a factor in globalisation. The distinction of religious "markers" such as "Halal" - the Islamic regulations concerning the proper preparation of food - from the cuisine of the underlying culture, whether Moroccan or Turkish, gives rise to culinary combinations such as "Halal fast-food", "Islamic" hamburgers. The recent invention in France of "Mecca Cola" is a further sign of the redefining of the "religious" in a Westernised cultural context without respect to the culture of origin. Another example is "Islamic rap", which can be as violent as its American equivalent.

Thus tensions that arise in Europe when Islam is invoked do not express a conflict between "European" and "Oriental" values. They stem from an internal debate within Europe about its own values: sexuality, marriage, filial duty... In Holland, when Pim Fortuyn (obituary) decided to launch a campaign against the influence of Muslims, his aim was to defend recently acquired sexual freedom (in particular the rights of homosexuals) and not traditional Christian values. Conversely, Mr. Buttiglione was censured (BBC report) by the European Parliament for rejecting the values of sexual liberation and feminism precisely in the name of Christian tradition. As one might expect, fundamentalists of different faiths often defend positions that are very similar. On this subject as on others (such as the family and abortion), strict Muslims and Christian traditionalists often take the same position. If many Christians reject this alliance with Muslims, it is not in the name of the values that divide them. Rather, it is because these Christians are defending a vision of Christian identity which dates back to the Crusades or the Spanish Reconquista, but which is at complete variance with contemporary forms of religiousness.

However, these common traits do not explain political and radical Islam. Why are Islamic fundamentalists more implicated in political violence than Christians? The explanation is not to be sought in the Koran. Islamic radicalism is most commonly found in sites of social exclusion and political tension. Today, radical groups recruit where the extreme Left once drew its support; rebellion against the established order takes place in the name of Islam. There are a number of reasons for this: the extreme Left's adoption of middle class values, the presence of Muslim populations in previously working class areas and the fact that "anti-imperialism" is focused on Muslim areas of the world.

The revolt against the established order is done in the name of Islam. Many young men connected to the radical movement, like Mohammad Atta, Zacharias Moussaoui and Kamel Daoudi were "born again" in Hamburg, Marseilles, London and Montreal, not in Egypt or Morocco (and they all broke off ties to their families). Young radicals went to fight in Bosnia, Chechnya, Afghanistan or Kashmir rather than their countries of origin, because they do not view the Middle East as the heart of a Muslim civilisation under siege by the Crusaders. They live in a global village and do not draw their identities from their geographic origins. The fact that Islamic radicalism has replaced that of the extreme Left explains the growing number of converts in the radical networks that have recently been uncovered. One of the London terrorists was a Jamaican convert. About one third of the members of the Beghal network in France were converts. During the investigation of the attack on the Djerba synagogue in Tunisia, the French police arrested a German with a Polish name. Richard Reid, the terrorist who tried to blow up a British plane, Jose Padilla, accused of making a dirty bomb in the United States, and John Walker Lindh, the American Taliban, were all converts to Islam.

The radical and violent Left has abandoned these areas of social exclusion. A closer look at the "judgements" and executions of hostages in Iraq, as practised by Al Zakarwi's group, makes it clear that their bloody staging does not derive from any Islamic tradition. The model for these staged events is to be found in the mise-en-scene invented by the Italian Red Brigades at the time of the kidnapping and murder of the former Prime Minister Aldo Moro. Barbarity has become an international phenomenon.

Their quest for liberation movements that are mythical, messianic and transnational remains unchanged. So too is their enemy, which is all-powerful American imperialism. These movements are rooted neither in the History of the Western World nor in the History of the Middle East. Rather they are the product of a merging of all Histories and of globalisation. Such movements are at home in a world that has lost its orientation.


This article originally appeared in Die Zeit in German on July 21, 2005.

Olivier Roy is director of research at the CNRS. He teaches at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales (EHESS) and at the Institut d'Etudes Politiques de Paris. He is the author of "L'Islam mondialisé" (Le Seuil).

Translation: Peter Bild.

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