Along with so many others, I have been thinking about what the consequences will be as thousands upon thousands of people, desperate to reach the West and mostly from impoverished Muslim countries, reshape the societies that my children and grandchildren will inherit. There continues to be speculation and wide variations of opinion in the Western press about the long-term effects on European societies of allowing almost unfettered immigration. It is well understood that incomers who are mostly from Muslim countries and whose members historically have difficulty integrating, often form ghettos in European cities, rapidly morphing into ‘no-go’ areas. Enclaves where the bars are empty and the cafés full of men only while their wives huddle indoors, venturing out only if covered with an abbaya and a hijab represent a threat to many of the indigenous population, particularly if so-called ‘religious police’ are out on to the streets to enforce Shari’a concerning alcohol or female dress.
Yet, it is not these, disturbing as they are, perhaps, who will swell the ranks of the next incarnation of terror. After Al-Qaeda, which preached a more cerebral Salafism, came the Islamic thugs who in the cultural post-Saddam abyss that was Iraq identified with the nihilism, glory and martyrdom of ISIS. As we witness the slow but inevitable strangulation of the self-styled caliphate we see that it too will pass, at great cost, but another head will grow on the hydra – Boko Haram conflates politics of deprivation and extremism, Hamas majors on antisemitism – every new flowering of terror has at its heart rage and rebellion. The attack on Charlie Hebdo was not perpetrated by Yemeni gunmen flown in expressly for the purpose; instead, Al-Qaeda drew on a reservoir of already disaffected French youth, already freshly radicalised, in search of a label, a cause with a grand narrative to which they could add their own bloody signature. The departure of so many young, impressionable wannabe fighters from the backstreets of Europe to go and fight in a war that has so little to do with them politically provides a fingerprint from which we can deduce why they went and how their radicalisation came about. As an example, looking at French jihadists, two narratives are dominant at present, which are shaping media debate.
First, the cultural explanation suggests a recurrent “war of civilisations” theory: the revolt of young Muslims demonstrates the extent to which Islam cannot be integrated into the West, at least not so long as theological reform has not struck the call of jihad from the Qu’ran. The second interpretation – a Third World scenario – evokes post-colonial suffering, the identification of these youth with, for example, the Palestinian cause, their rejection of Western intervention in the Middle East, and their exclusion from a French society that is racist and Islamophobic. In short, they are singing a very old song: as long as we haven’t resolved the Israel-Palestine conflict, there will be a revolt. This may be truer in the streets of East Jerusalem than in Paris but the principle is transferable across a range of post-colonial scenarios.
But the two explanations run up against the same problem: If the causes of radicalisation are structural, then why do they affect only a tiny fraction who call themselves Muslims? It has been said that jihadism is, if you will, a ‘second generation’ problem Its adherents have grown up without any particularly strong affiliation to a mosque, have chased girls, drunk beer and smoked weed. And yet it is these – “such a nice boy… seemed to get a bit religious, grew a beard and started carrying around a copy of the Qu’ran” – who have become the standard-bearers for the prideful nihilism that is the hallmark of the jihadist. The common ground between the second generation and the converts is primarily a generational revolt: both have ruptured with their parents or, more precisely, with what their parents represent in terms of culture and religion. They have literally, as well as metaphorically thrown the baby out with the bathwater. They want nothing to do with the culture of their parents and by extension the Western culture which has become a symbol of their own self-hatred. It’s interesting to note that jihadists are often blood relatives, as if the blood tie recreated for them an identity which their parents had debased. Death or glory videos simply reinforce the culture of belonging that the super-gang called ISIS insists upon and the threat of death is simply an adrenalin spike added to the toxic mix which began with a charismatic preacher on the Internet. Young converts, similarly, adhere to a “pure” form of religion; cultural compromise is of no interest to them; their allegiance is to an “Islam of rupture” — generational rupture, cultural rupture, and, finally, political rupture. It serves no purpose to offer them a “moderate Islam”; it is the radicalism that attracts them in the first place and they celebrate it actively on social media. Therefore, jihadism is primarily an attack on the family – just as in the Hebrew scriptures, ‘rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft’.