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The New Jihadi: A Portrait

S Prasannarajan is the Editor of Open magazine
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A French scholar says it is not the radicalisation of Islam but the Islamisation of radicalism. Is it so?


Jihad and Death: The Global Appeal of Islamic State | Olivier Roy | Hurst & Company | £15.99 | 120 pages

IT ALL BOILS DOWN to the adjective. When ‘terror’ is ‘Islamic’, the liberal refrain is that terror has no religion. Then comes a videotaped reminder from elsewhere in the sandy remoteness of the Middle East that the sword’s legitimacy is the Book, or there pops up a man in a balaclava wielding his Kalashnikov and invoking God to glorify the massacre he has just committed. It is sociology, not theology, that fuels the killer’s instincts, argue the apologists who absolve the scripture; it is all written there, and an Islamic variation of the Lutheran reformation alone can humanise the religion, for the future of freedom and tolerance depends on the repudiation of the Book itself, say the heretics. The only certainty in a world where any dispassionate critic of our times’ most pervasive bloodlust risks the ignominy of an Islamophobe is that out there someone, a normal someone, is preparing to kill and get killed. Death is the destination he seeks; it is both rejection and redemption. This world, Godforsaken and wretched, is a battlefield; death opens the world that God has written to perfection for him.

Is he then the familiar child of revolution? In another time, another Book too promised heaven, and the radical raging against the ‘headquarters’ rejected the order of the entrenched elders, but still there was a difference: it was heaven on earth. For Islam’s revolutionaries, the other world is the ideal, and the Caliphate they kill and get killed to build is a fantasy. It is the mind of this new radical that Olivier Roy, one of the world’s most prolific scholars of political Islam, explores in his new book, Jihad and Death: The Global Appeal of Islamic State (Hurst & Company). The French writer, with his emphasis on the twisted individual rather than on the religious and social world he inhabits, has already been accused by the Right for being soft on Islamic fundamentalism, a phrase he thinks is problematic. What sets contemporary jihadism apart, he argues, is the systematic pursuit of death: ‘What fascinates is pure revolt, not the construction of a utopia. Violence is not a means. It is an end in itself. It is violence devoid of a future.’ (Read excerpts).

It is a generational revolt for which organisations like ISIS and al-Qaeda are merely location managers. It is not religious radicalisation, for there is nothing such as a moderate religion. For Roy, the problem is not Salafism, seen by most jihad-watchers as the root cause, either. It is all in the mind of the new radical who is easily identifiable. He is most likely second generation and a convert, a born-again Muslim who suddenly gets closer to God. He is a networker: he develops a relationship with someone who has ‘organisational’ experience. He is a family man—newly married or a new father. And he is a part of the youth culture; he loves nightclubs, rap music, and picks up girls. What matters most is the imaginary that pervades his mind. ‘They do not become radicals because they have misread the texts or because they have been manipulated. They are radicals because they choose to be, because only radicalism appeals to them,’ writes Roy. At work is the heroism of the martyr.

It is the brotherhood of nihilism and narcissism, and death is its aesthetics. The killer is a lone avenger even if he works in a group. In his own death, mythicised in what Roy calls hagiographical eulogies, he rises above everyman. Individualisation of the martyr is the normalisation of the radical. The aesthetics of nihilism also draws from technology and pop cultural stereotypes. In the video game of ISIS, the guy in an SUV racing through the desert, his gun facing the sky and ‘his flag and hair blowing in the wind’, is Islam’s equivalent of the ninja warrior. He achieves nothing but apocalypse, which, as Roy says, points to an inherent paradox in the ISIS struggle for a caliphate. How can there be one as there cannot be another Prophet? How can apocalypse and empire coexist? Those who are condemned to jahilliah, ignorance, have no redeemers except the ninja in a balaclava. YouTube is his caliphate. ‘This is not utopia but nihilism. Only in death can one get to heaven. They are on the lookout for signs instead of seeking to build a just Islamic society. They kill because the apocalypse will wipe out everything man has created anyway.’

It is the brotherhood of nihilism and narcissism, and death is its aesthetics. The killer is a lone avenger even if he works in a group. In his death, he rises above everyman. Individualisation of the martyr is the normalisation of the radical

What drives nihilism is hatred. The new radicals, unlike the Salafis, reject not just Western societies, but their own too. ‘They kill themselves along with the world they reject.’ So what is it that makes an Islamic radical different from a psychopath? Roy says it is hazy and it doesn’t really matter much. The ISIS or al-Qaeda provides the script for the action hero in search of a cause. As Roy says, the Nice killer was originally portrayed as a psychopath, and then identified as an ISIS killer. And in London, there is still not a final profile of the Westminster attacker Khalid Masood, a convert, whom the police now call a lone wolf. To name the madness, if you follow Roy, one has to return not to the Book but to the interface between the personal and the politically fantastical. ‘The engagement in violent action thus has to do with making the connection between a personal revolt, rooted in a feeling of humiliation due to one’s attachment to a virtual community of believers, and a metanarrative of returning to the golden age of Islam, a narrative theatricalized according to the codes of a contemporary aesthetics of violence that turns the youth into a hero and master of terror.’ It just happens that it is no longer the ‘jihadi nomadism’ of al-Qaeda—remember Osama bin Laden spewing his commandments from Mount Jihad somewhere in Afghanistan—but the extraterritorial ambition of ISIS that provides political legitimacy to the madness.

Madness manifests in the unreal. The ISIS propaganda of reconquering the infidel West is a huge fantasy, and in this respect, they are not different from communists or fascists. The difference is, as Roy says, the Islamists do not have a mass base. They do not mobilise people. Islamism is not an ideology of revolt, but the radical in action needs the narrative comfort Islam offers. Face him, make an effort to see the man behind the balaclava. To Roy’s disappointment, we are not interested in looking at his face; let the evil remain behind the mask forever. We may even listen to a serial killer in a courtroom, but not to the new jihadi. We seek no access to the recesses of his mind.

Roy’s book is an invitation. To realise the sweep of the Islamisation of radicalism, we need this psycho profile of the radical. Is his individualisation of terror an exoneration of political Islam? Liberals are on his side, but at home, Europe’s most battered part of Holy Terror, an old friend and fellow scholar like Gilles Kepel called him an ‘ignoramus’. For Kepel, both sociology and theology contribute to the making of the radical; what matters more for Roy are the individual traits of the ‘wolf’. Then there is someone like Ayaan Hirsi Ali who believes that the problem is the Book itself and only a reformation movement from within can save Islam. In a report called The Challenge of Dawa: Political Islam as Ideology and Movement and How to Counter It, published by Hoover Institution, she reiterates what she has been saying all along: ‘the ideology (of political Islam) is fundamentally incompatible with our freedoms.’ Ali argues that Dawa, the organisational infrastructure that Islamists use for indoctrination, is to political Islam what Gleichschaltung (synchronisation) was to the Nazis. New reports from the battlefield may say that, in spite of all this, the Caliphate is falling apart, as any fantasy ought to in the end. And the news from the homeland of Roy is not yet close to what its greatest living novelist, Michel Houellebecq, has imagined in Submission: an elected Muslim president of France. What is not a fantasy but as real as fear is the man driving a lorry towards you, or the one waiting for you in the café. Is he a radical who’s been Islamised or is it that Islam is the name of his rage? Every terror earns its adjective, and the current one is here to stay as long as the Book remains the certainty by which the man in that balaclava swears.

Also Read: What’s wrong with Islam?

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