They love death as we love life: jihad and the roots of terror

French extremism researcher Olivier Roy talks to Eren Guvercin about the Catch 22 situation of European Muslims expected to speak for Islam, the irrelevance of 'liberal' reforms, the false premise of current de-radicalisation programmes and the nature of modern terrorism

By Eren Güvercin

Professor Roy, every time there is a terrorist attack, the dominant tenor of the discourse in Germany is that Muslims in Europe have to dissociate themselves more from terrorism. How do you view such reactions? Are they helpful?

Olivier Roy: A tremendous amount of declarations, fatwas, communiques and tweets exist, written by Muslims, which condemn terrorism, which far outweigh the very few items that support it. Yet this has little impact on public opinion. People expect "Islam" as a whole to condemn terrorism; they expect a Muslim Pope or a Church or a World Council of Muslims to make a declaration, yet no such authority exists. Islam is more akin to Protestantism or Judaism: you have local congregations, rather than a unified church. The paradox is that, at the same time, European public opinion fears the expansion of a united Islamic community in the world and blames Muslims for not behaving as members of a united Islamic community. They blame Islam for the way they themselves see Islam. They donʹt realise that although there may be a Muslim population, there is no Muslim community. This puts Muslims in a Catch 22 situation: "distance yourself from Islam, but speak for Islam". Germany, in particular, fails to address one very important question: while the bulk of the Muslim population in Germany is of Turkish origin, why is it that there are more German converts among the jihadists than Turks?

Following the London attacks, liberal Muslims became outspoken in their demands that Muslims have to reform their religion, laying the blame for this extremism on mainstream Islamic theology. Would a reformation be the solution?

Roy: Radicals are not "mainstream" Muslims who went astray after studying the Koran and Islamic theology. You donʹt become a terrorist because you listen to a Salafist preacher (data shows that except the Sharia4Uk guys, who are not Salafists by the way, radicalisation occurs less in mosques than in jail). They donʹt choose radicalism (either religious or political) because of their theological studies: they want radicalism. Even if other people succeed in reforming Islam, it wonʹt change the mind of the radicals.

Cover of Roy's "Ihr liebt das Leben, wir lieben den Tod: Der Dschihad und die Wurzeln des Terrors" - You Love Life, We Love Death: Jihad and the Roots of Terror (published in German by Random House)
Published in German, the latest book by French extremism researcher Olivier Roy – "Ihr liebt das Leben, wir lieben den Tod: Der Dschihad und die Wurzeln des Terrors" (You Love Life, We Love Death: Jihad and the Roots of Terror) – investigates the link between terrorists' profiles and their fascination with death

Secondly, no revealed religion is moderate: all religions state that, as Pope Benedict said, there is a non-negotiable truth. And the idea that any reform is "liberal" is nonsense: Luther and Calvin were not liberal (indeed, the former showed anti-Semitic tendencies). Of course Protestantism provided the theological basis for political reform, but also for racism (apartheid is strongly entrenched in Calvinist theology). Secularists tend to consider that a moderate believer is somebody who believes moderately: but that is not the definition of moderation for believers; moderation for them is not about beliefs, but about accepting life in a secular society, even if they stick to conservative values. That is exactly what Muslims are learning to do.

Finally, who would be responsible for such theological reform? Liberal Muslim intellectuals? Most of them are just non-believers. Our secular states? They are forbidden by the constitution to meddle with theology. Authoritarian Muslim states? They will never encourage free theological debate, because that would mean free debate in general – in other words, democracy.

Young Muslims, born and bred in Europe, often become frustrated with these endless debates. If they dissociate themselves from terror, there will always be a critic of Islam who refuses to believe them, accusing them of ʹtakiyyaʹ – merely a tactical move. What kind of impact does this have on young Muslims in the long term?

Roy: Accusations of takiyya or doublespeak simply means that whatever a Muslim says, nobody will listen to him: this nips any dialogue in the bud from the start. Islam seems to be regarded as some kind of permanent software implanted in the Muslim brain, governing all attitudes and behaviour. Asking Muslims to criticise their own religion presupposes that an arena for debate exists in which both sides accept the principle of good faith. Mutual respect is the precondition for dialogue. The rejection of honest intellectual dialogue, a refusal to listen to arguments – even if badly expressed – will simply compound social exclusion with intellectual exclusion.Most Muslim organisations currently seem rather overwhelmed by the situation. Yet how can Muslims and their organisations act in such a situation to send the right signals to the society in Europe where they live?

Roy: There is a clear problem of leadership and representation in the Muslim population – and not just in Europe. On the one hand, this crisis has social roots: the bulk of Muslims living in Europe came as unskilled workers, without their elites. Of course some of the second generation have succeeded at school, but few of them want a career as a religious cleric: the job is neither well paid, nor respected. Interestingly, Muslims in Europe have the same problem as the Catholic Church: a lack of those who feel called to become an imam and the recruitment of "migrant" clerics from the south. The main difference is that the Catholic parish priests coming from Africa have been well trained in seminaries by the Church, while most religious schools in Muslim countries are either Salafist in persuasion, or allow little room for the study of Western cultures and religions.

There are certainly "Muslim" intellectuals in the West: but, as we have seen, most of them are in fact totally secular, if not atheist, and they by definition have little influence on believers: they find their audience among the non-Muslims.

You are an expert on terror organisations like al-Qaida and IS. Are the attacks by IS in Europe a new strategy? How does IS differ from the jihadist groups of the 1980s?

Roy: Al-Qaida and IS have always sought to perpetrate attacks in the West. You canʹt just blame such incidents on specific Western military operations in the Middle East: 9/11 took place before the U.S. operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, not after. It took some time for IS to replace al-Qaida as the operator of terrorist actions in the West, because IS first needed to wait for the western-based volunteers to shift their loyalties from al-Qaida to IS; it worked because IS has been much better at constructing a narrative that attracts young people. The main difference between now and the 1980s is that the terrorists in the eighties always had a plan to escape after putting a bomb somewhere. They were not suicide attacks, whatever the ideological motivations (extreme left, extreme right, pro-Palestinian or Islamist). Since 1995, terrorism has acquired two new aspects: the sociology of the perpetrators (young second generation of born-again Muslims, plus converts) and the centrality of death (either they die in action, or they are killed by the police). There is never a plan B. From this I conclude that there is a link between the profile of the terrorists and their fascination for death.

European governments are currently investing heavily in de-radicalisation projects. Do such projects really reach those young people in Europe who are keen to join IS?

Roy: Hardly. So far, all these initiatives are based on the premise that the radicals donʹt know what they are doing, supposedly because they are under influence (especially young female white converts), or because they have psychological or mental problems, or because they misread the Koran. Hence the idea that therapeutic and religious teaching will help bring them back to the straight and narrow. Yet this is nonsense. They are not crazy (even if they all demonstrate narcissism and a sense of having been wronged), nor did they study Islam first, to decide in favour of radicalism as a result of their religious training. They go for radicalism, because theyʹre attracted to radicalism. Nobody thought to send professors of liberal economics to the jailed Baader Meinhof group in order to explain to them that they had misread Das Kapital! Why do that for Muslims? The only historical precedence of "healing" deviant people is the Catholic Inquisition and the Chinese Communist revolution. Hardly good role models for Western democracies.

In classical Islamic law, jihad is strictly regulated. Only an authority could declare jihad and had rules. But today we have a ʹprivateʹ jihad without any rules. Is modern ʹjihadʹ a result of the crisis of traditional Islam?

Roy: Yes of course. The traditional authorities no longer have any authority; under strict authoritarian state control, they have been emasculated, becoming "state clerics". There is no theological debate, because the states, even when they are supposed to be "secular", cannot accept open discussion. On the other hand, the born-again and the converts construct their own makeshift religion by selecting slogans and ideas on the Internet or from the mouth of self-proclaimed imams. The new contemporary concept of jihad was born during the Soviet-Afghan war and was then conceptualised as being individual, global and permanent by Abdullah Azzam, in opposition to the classical definition (collective, local and limited to a specific time period). The suicide dimension was subsequently added by Osama Bin Laden.

IS in Syria and Iraq is under pressure. They have lost the main regions. Is IS defeated? And what path will the jihadists take after IS?

Roy: Although the defeat of IS is certain, it will not solve the political crisis in the Syria/Iraq region, on the contrary. The grievances of the Sunni Arabs (excluded from the political establishment in both countries) have yet to be answered and they may well find another flag to express it. In all likelihood this will be Tahrir al Sham, the local branch of al-Qaida under the name of al-Nusra and is fighting against the regime in the west of Syria. Once IS is defeated, the Kurds, deprived of U.S. support, will confront both the Turks and the Syrians. Iran will play the role of the regional referee, leading to new tensions between Israel and Hezbollah. So the defeat of IS will lead to a different kind of local war. In the longer term, we will probably see less terrorism in the West, because the local actors will once more have a local agenda.

The issue for the West is what will happen inside the reservoir of radicals in the west – once again, not only Muslims but also converts – after a probably apocalyptic end to the Caliphate. The root causes of this kind of nihilistic revolt are still there; even if experts disagree on where radicalisation comes from, radicalisation still exists. So the real issue is how rebels without a cause could connect with a new global jihadist organisation. A lot depends on how the jihadist groups – primarily Tahrir al Sham – will rethink their strategy to globalise the jihad, because clearly, the idea that global terrorism would bring the West to its knees and leave the field wide open for jihad in the Middle East has failed. But even if Tahrir al Sham rejects global terrorism, there are dozens of local jihadist groups in the world, from Nigeria to Pakistan and Philippines, that could reclaim the legacy of IS and attract volunteers for death. Nor is al-Qaida dead!

Interview conducted by Erin Guvercin

© 2018