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A response to Olivier Roy's 'Islamisation of radicalism' Open in fullscreen

Francois Burgat

A response to Olivier Roy's 'Islamisation of radicalism'

The attacks in Paris prompted sympathy and outrage around the world [Getty]

Date of publication: 15 December, 2015

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Comment: Francois Burgat discusses what remains' unspoken in the newly popular "Islamisation of radicalism" thesis.
Academic contributions are multiplying - and rightfully so - in the quest to hone in on the causes of, and responsibility for the tragedy that France has lived through since November 13.

Olivier Roy has offered up one perspective hailed as novel, and which that has drawn wide support.

This is perhaps because it concisely states that the dominant culturalist approach - as exemplified by the Marianna cover story "It's all the fault of Islam... from the Umayyads to ISIS" - is inane. 

But it has largely appealed because, against the impasse of the "radicalisation of Islam", he suggests considering an alternative: the "Islamisation of radicalism".

All those desperately searching for an antidote to the bellicose and liberticidal stances generated by the dominant culturalist discourse paradoxically rush to subscribe to it.

But however praiseworthy Roy's intentions, the analytical - and so the strategic - cost of such an approach nonetheless strikes me as high. In fact, I see in it an umpteenth expression of the disease that has, for decades, eroded our ability to construct a rational perception of this Islam that some, in the same breath, call "political" Islam - while also leaving no pretext unturned to "depoliticise" the alleged motivations of its actors - exactly like the culturalist approach.

The "Islamisation of radicalism" thesis is seductive. But its diagnosing of social or mental pathologies to explain the origins of the radicalness of "our" jihadis, just like the tired and opaque charge of "nihilism", creates far more problems than it solves.

Why? The key target of this thesis is not the culturalist approach. Rather, it rejects, disdainfully, as "Third-Worldist" and an "old, broken record", an approach which many of us consider to be quite the opposite: the beginning and end of any scientific approach to the jihadi phenomenon.

Discrediting "Third-Worldism" here consists in nothing less than in refusing to correlate - not even in the slightest measure - emergent radical behaviours, in France or elsewhere, with "postcolonial suffering, youth identification with the Palestinian cause, their rejection of Western interventions in the Middle East and their exclusion from a racist and Islamophobic France".

Given the profiles of those who set them off, the bombs that exploded in Paris have, according to this hypothesis, very little to do with the Republic's failures to integrate, its colonial past or its politicians' ways in the Muslim world.

In Roy, this approach is inscribed in a trajectory that has led him, for nigh on 20 years now, to expel from the field of political dynamics a significant part of the symptoms of the "Islamist" resurgence.

With no desire to be polemical, then, it seems necessary to outline the limitations of this not-so-new new approach. In fact, it shares with its culturalist competitor an especially lethal slant: that of exonerating us of any responsibility.

Read between its lines with a little care: "Bomb as much as you like. Their bombs have nothing to do with ours."
     Read between its lines with a little care: 'Bomb as much as you like. Their bombs have nothing to do with ours'

Young dregs in French society, whether Muslim by inheritance or converts, would merely be seizing this as a pretext - as they might seize any other, to escape the drabness of their social failure.

"They didn't experience colonialism"? In this idea of the Islamisation of radicalism - noble intentions aside - several arguments are fleetingly seductive. But does the fact that "our" jihadis should be no more than a "tiny number" to rebel allow us to deny with such confidence that a similar malaise may be felt by all those who don't - even when they denounce the methods used?

"They didn't experience colonialism"? Would one dare to apply this reasoning to the qualms and struggles of the descendants of Jews or Armenians who didn't experience their ancestors' martyrdom?

"The generational gap separating them from their parents is proof they are cut off from Muslim societies." But what lets us assert with such certainty that this generational gap is the absolute rule? Does this take the time to consider, say, that the sample of departure-for–jihad-in-Syria life-narratives like those collected, for instance, by Dounia Bouzar's Centre for the Prevention of Sectarian Trends Linked to Islam, can account only for those families that spontaneously asked for its help?

That, of the rest, one knows nothing? Nothing, of course - except that no position but absolute condemnation of the radicalised son is politically enunciable.

For my part, I had to look no further than my own base in Aix-en-Provence to find the case of a father who had followed his son to Syria, where he had been killed, and himself being gravely injured there.

As for the "broken record… of depoliticising the other", the seeds of this denigration of the reactive (but also the identitarian) variable of political Islam's actors were not sown during the Paris attacks of January 2015.

They feature throughout Roy's long-term analytical trajectory, which has, to my mind, cost him several obviously underachieving predictions.

As early as 1992 (in his The Failure of Political Islam) Roy had thought he could diagnose that Islamist literalists (ie: "of the ISIS kind") had been irreversibly overtaken.

The era of "post-Islamism" had begun. In tandem with Gilles Kepel - who had also predicted, shortly after Roy, the Islamists' inexorable decline - Roy had in February 2011 argued: "When everything is religious… nothing is religious."

The electoral doom - irrevocable, this time - of this entire "post-Islamist" generation, was too quickly deemed alien to the "Arab Spring" protests.

"Why should [these electorates] vote for people who were not there during the revolution?" - people he had assessed as "not in the process of contestation at all".

As we know, the Egyptian and Tunisian elections tore to shreds this rash - but swiftly forgotten - prediction of a second rout of the old Islamist scarecrow.

Where, today, does the analytical shoe pinch? It is not only the latest wave of French jihadi recruits that, to Roy, are no "expression of Muslim anger at Western aggressions". It is in fact, and no matter what their nationality, all the actors of the al-Qaeda generation.

In the Muslim world's exasperation towards the West, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict itself becomes a perfect irrelevance.

What kind of analysis allows these curious certainties? To Roy, who here wields rather unwieldy categories, the latest Iraqi avatar of Islamism emerged only on the "margins of the Muslim world".

In In Search of the Lost Orient (Seuil, 2014), he writes: "While right and left alike have sought to construct the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as the very core of Muslim mobilisation, radicalism's targets, its battlefields, its aims, its recruitment zones show that this had nothing to do with it."
     He had to proclaim [ISIS] mere 'nutcases', whose downfall he predicted in under a year

Within the ranks of ISIS, then, after having twice announced their disappearance, consistency prevented Roy from seeing in them Islamists - or even political actors.

He had to proclaim them mere "nutcases", whose downfall he predicted in under a year.

Today I, for one, have great trouble in finding space for the Kouachi brothers - quite elaborate in articulating their motives - in the filing cabinet of depoliticised drop-outs.

And likewise with trying to recognise in Coulibaly - the perpetrator of the attack on the Paris kosher supermarket in January 2015 -  a type, inter alia, "uninterested in the concrete struggles of the Muslim world [such as Palestine]".

While such a hypothesis allows Roy to hold the line of his fragile past conclusions, in fact it merely adds a new brick - that of social or even mental pathology - to an edifice that reproduces the same flaw as the culturalist approach that it hopes to replace. 

In dangerously voluntarist fashion, it disconnects the European and Middle Eastern political theatres. The thesis that exonerates our foreign policies, then, has everything required to seduce: who wouldn't want to hear it?

This debate, of course, goes beyond the derisory setting of "quarrels between specialists". Let me conclude on a more consensual note, on a shared analysis: like Olivier Roy, I too, consider that the worst enemy of ISIS is none other than ISIS itself.

And that the best way to weaken it is to stop granting it the prestige of World Enemy Number 1.

But the debate over the matrix of how "the Muslim Other" is radicalised, whether at home or abroad, remains at the heart of the ability that we will or will not give ourselves - according to whether or not we adjust it, and in answer to the "Third-Worldist broken record" - to reconstruct our national fabric to ready it for the dangerous challenges that it will have to overcome.

Francois Burgat is a political scientist and senior researcher at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique. A former director of the French institute for the Near East, he is the head of the European Research Council (ERC) programme When Authoritarianism Fails in the Arab World.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.

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