How religion drives someone to murder their fellow citizens
Terrorists have adopted Salafism, a form of conservative Islam that rejects liberal French values and seeks to justify jihadism, writes Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens
Published 16/07/2016 | 02:30
As the scale of the devastation in Nice becomes clearer, the reasons why remain as disputed as ever.
Many are also asking how, given France’s heightened state of security, such an attack could still be carried out. The answer to this question is much more straightforward.
Isil, and al-Qa’ida before it, has long called for supporters in the West to carry out attacks against their own populations using any means at their disposal. Indeed, in 2010, the English-language al-Qa’ida online propaganda magazine suggested that readers use their cars to “mow down” crowds.
While an increased police presence in France can certainly help to reduce the threat, it is an impossible task to guarantee against a committed terrorist who is both ready to die and willing to kill anyone.
But to understand why a minority of French Muslims have joined and acted on behalf of the global jihad movement, you need to look at a recent feud between the nation’s two most recognised experts on Islam in the West: Gilles Kepel and Olivier Roy.
While they both agree that the problem is linked to a large population of socio-economically deprived second-generation French Muslims, they diverge significantly on the question of why members of this group have adopted jihadism.
Roy has provided a rather cleverly worded explanation, blaming this on the “Islamisation of radicalism”. For him, young French Muslims with few life opportunities are drawn to the movement due to their sense of nihilistic rebellion.
This explanation downplays the role of failed integration and Roy argues that France’s jihadists are “Westernised; they speak French better than their parents do. They have all adopted the youth culture of their generation; they drink alcohol, smoke hash and pick up girls in nightclubs.”
Kepel, however, presents the problem as the result of a French society which has failed to properly integrate its Muslim youth, many of whom live in the ghettos surrounding Paris and Marseilles.
As a result of this, Salafism, a form of conservative Islam which rejects liberal French values and provides the theological underpinnings of global jihadism, has taken root.
As is often the case with clashes of ego like this, in a sense they both right and are offering useful ways of understanding the problem.
Roy’s description of the followers as nihilistic further confuses the matter and does not accurately describe their motivations.
If they were true nihilists, it is unclear why they would express this through a form of Islam which offers a vision of a new society that must be achieved through a violent jihadist revolution.
The movement is, however, millenarian; its followers believe that they are helping bring about the change of a corrupt society, transforming it from evil to good.
Once they accept this as their mission, almost any act which is perceived as helping to further the project, no matter how horrific, becomes acceptable and legitimate.
When analysing the debate in France, what is most noticeable is that, unlike in other Western nations, the central controversy is not about the role of religion, or specifically Islam.
Both Roy and Kepel agree that these terrorists are acting out of an adherence to a violent strand of Islam known as Salafi-jihadism, albeit they have adopted it for what they believe are different reasons.
Outside of the French debate, we are often asked to ignore the role of religion and instead focus solely upon the political motivations of jihadists. This position is perhaps best represented by Al-Jazeera presenter Mehdi Hasan, who has worked tirelessly to deny the central role of religion.
Drawing from his discussion with terrorism analyst Marc Sageman, he argues that jihadists are “using religion to advance a political vision, rather than using politics to advance a religious vision”. Religion, meanwhile, is nothing more than a “vehicle for outrage”.
And thus, as Hasan and many others see it, religion is entirely taken out of the picture, allowing us to focus on the real problem.
This, of course, misses the most obvious point which one is even able to draw from Hasan’s own conclusions: that the answer is both religion and politics.
Today, Isil is fighting to realise a political goal, namely the establishment of God’s rule on earth, represented by a form of government which draws its laws from the primary texts of Islam.
The political message is that Islam, as a religion, is under attack and must be defended and then spread across the globe as the sole form of governance.
When Muslims are killed by jihadists, it is often presented as yet more evidence of this view. How could “true” Muslims kill their co-religionists?
The answer is fairly straightforward. In extremist movements, and religious ones in particular, it is the supposed “traitors” who represent the biggest threat and killing them is often the top priority.
We are also often told that radicalised Western Muslims lived lives of debauchery before their attacks, drinking, taking drugs and gallivanting with women. This too is a misunderstanding and ignores the redemptive nature and appeal of religion as a possible motivation.
It is understandably difficult for believers of any religion to accept that the very same religious instincts with drive people to do good and help the world are also those which can also can eventually justify the most heinous acts.
The person who drove that lorry believed he was part of an altruistic and utopianist global project intended to save humanity, not destroy it.
In this sense, notions of right and wrong or good and evil become highly subjective. For most, the interpretation of Islam which supports this approach is, quite simply, “wrong” because it goes against their conventional notions of morality.
We must accept, however, that those who adhere to global jihadism have developed an entirely different moral code and it is one in which most of us do not fare too well in.
It is important to understand that what we are facing here is an interpretation of Islam, which, while it could be argued that it is based upon a flawed reading of the religion, nonetheless has its own rich scholarly tradition, having been developed by formally trained and knowledgeable Sunni Sheikhs.
If this is of great concern, it is also worth remembering that this is an interpretation which, thankfully, is and always be only followed by a small minority of the world’s Muslim population.