Friday, May 20, 2016

Olivier Roy on "The Strategic Limits of ISIS"

by Salman Hameed

Olivier Roy is one of the more sophisticated thinkers regarding political Islam. If you have time, here is a recent lecture by him at NYU-Florence. He starts talking about the origins of Al Qaeda - tracing it from the 80s. If you know that history well, you can skip the first 30 minutes. But his most
interesting stuff is about why young Europeans are joining ISIS. One of the striking things is that they are all young - and there are almost no first or third generation migrants! And often, their parents report their own kids - as they don't agree with the actions of their own children. And no, these ISIS volunteers are not affiliated with mosques either.

Here is the talk:

Here is an excerpt from Olivier Roy's lecture at Pandaemonium (you can download a pdf of the full lecture here):
The relationship between European jihadis and Islam is, Roy observes, complex: 
The revolt is expressed in religious terms for two reasons: 
– Most of the radicals have a Muslim background, which makes them open to a process of re-islamisation (almost none of them being pious before entering the process of radicalisation). 
– Jihad is the only cause on the global market. If you kill in silence, it will be reported by the local newspaper; if you kill yelling ‘Allahuakbar’, you are sure to make the national headlines. The ultra- left or radical ecology is too ‘bourgeois’ and intellectual for them.
When they join jihad, they adopt the Salafi version of Islam, because Salafism is both simple to understand (don’ts and do’s), and rigid, providing a personal psychological structuring effect. Moreover, Salafism is the negation of cultural Islam, that is the Islam of their parents and of their roots. Instead of providing them with roots, Salafism glorifies their own deculturation and makes them feel better ‘Muslims’ than their parents. Salafism is the religion by definition of a disenfranchised youngster… 
Incidentally, we should make a distinction between religious radicalisation and jihadist radicalisation. There is of course an overlap, but the bulk of the Salafists are not jihadist, and many jihadists don’t give a dam about theology. None of the radicals has a past of piety. 
Most of them either broke with the Islam of their parents, or had no religious transmission from their parents (it may be because they are converts, or orphans, like the Kouachi brothers, or had non practicing parents). 
Almost none followed a real process of religious education. Their religious knowledge is low (some brought with them ‘Islam for Dummies’). When they said that they were going to learn Islam in Pakistan or Yemen, it is just to appease their parents: in fact they go for jihad. 
The relationship of European jihadis to Muslim communities is also not straightforward: 
Radicals have a loose or no connection with Muslim communities in Europe… Investigators and journalists who immediately meet the family and the entourage of the attacker are told the same story: he was a quiet, nice boy (variation: he was just a petty delinquent), and he was not pious, drank alcohol, had girls etc, except that, recently his attitude has drastically changed… 
Few of them were regular ‘parishers’ in a local mosque. None of them was active in religious activities (proselytism): when they preach Islam it is to recruit other radicals, not to spread the good news. 
This explains why 1) the close monitoring of mosques brings little information 2) Imams have little or no influence on the process of radicalisation; 3) ‘reforming Islam’ does not make sense: they just don’t care about ‘what Islam really means’. 
What they are not:
– There is no theological dimension. Their knowledge of Islam is minimum (‘Islam for the Dummies’) and they don’t care, although the religious myth plays an emotional role. We tend too much to identify religion with theology (what does Islam say about jihad?); while there is certainly an important religious dimension in the way they experience their struggle, it is not an ideological rationalisation of Islamic theology. ‘Religiosity’ not theology is the key. 
– They are not the vanguard of a European (or Middle Eastern) Muslim community that would tend to see them as heroes. On the contrary they have little connection with this community, they broke with their family (the fact that they desperately try to ‘convert’ their family shows their degree of estrangement, not of proximity), and they did not arouse fascination except of course among their peers. They don’t even reconnect with a real Muslim local society in Syria or Yemen.

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