Patricide and jihad

by Olivier Roy

Une Grande Nation (Issue IV/2017)

Does the Islamic State have France in its sights, more than other nations? The terror organisation doesn’t send fighters from Syria to Europe, to target any one particular country as part of some particularly elaborate plan – even if their short term goal is to convince Europeans to leave the international coalition that is fighting the group in Syria and Iraq.

France has the most victims of the group, but in early 2017 Great Britain was targeted three times by attackers and the IS group has no strategic reason to strike in Catalonia, Spain. The IS group tends to attack primarily in places where there is a supply of militant, radical supporters.

The attack in Manchester was carried out by a resident of the city. The attack in Barcelona was undertaken by young men who had lived in Catalonia since they were children. And the attacks in Paris, Nice, Brussels, Magnanville in central France and Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray in northern France were perpetrated by youths who lived in those places, or who had previously lived there. The attack on a Berlin Christmas market is the exception and that could well be because it is more difficult to recruit terrorists in Germany.

You don’t need a grand geostrategic or ideological analysis to understand this. You only need to look at the terrorists’ profiles. Obviously there are differences between the European countries (and in particular, the role that mosques play in each one). But the notable characteristics of the French attackers are also present in those other countries too, albeit to differing degrees.

The vast majority of the terrorists were second-generation members of immigrant families. Yet there still isn’t really a third generation of attackers, more than 20 years after the beginning of Islamic terrorism (Khaled Kelkal carried out what is considered the first such attack in Lyon in 1995). These are young people who were born in Europe or went to school here. Additionally there are a not insignificant number of converts in this group. Around a quarter of the radicals who choose to go to Syria in order to take part in a holy mission – or jihad – were converts to Islam.

Most of them had no real religious education. Around half of them had small-time criminal activity in their backgrounds. None of them were previously known to be militant activists, whether in religious circles (for example, as a priest) or in politics (for example, demonstrating about Palestine).

In every one of the groups, there were a surprising number of siblings: Brothers who partook of Western youth culture and who spoke a European language, never Arabic or Urdu. And almost all of them chose death, even when it neither helped achieve their mission or brought the IS group more well trained and experienced fighters.

There’s a further phenomenon to take note of: Most of the radicals are from the Maghreb area, and in particular from Morocco. If terrorism was the result of the radicalisation of young people with an immigration background, then most of the terrorists should by rights be coming from the Turkish community in Germany. But in Germany, there are more converts among the terrorists than there are Turkish.

What is even more apparent is the generational difference. The young radicals break away from the religion of their elders when they pledge allegiance to the IS group. That is obvious with the converts but it is also something that happens to the second-generation immigrant families. The younger generation backs away from the cultural Islam of their parents and positions itself as “the better Muslims”. That is how they can kill without prejudice. In Nice, two thirds of the victims were Muslims - but the terrorists considered them bad Muslims.

This disregard for the Muslim population is another sign of the nihilist attitudes of these youth: They’re not looking for utopia, they don’t care about “the day after”, they wish most of all to find salvation in death. Truth be told, they are massively selfish.

From this we can conclude that jihad, in the way that Al Qaeda and the IS group portray it (because it is a portrayal, a theatre piece complete with all-important videos and music), won’t appeal to every young person who feels conflicted. This inner turmoil manifests itself in religion, in Islam in this case. Their actions are taken in the service of the single global movement that is really radically questioning contemporary society today: the IS group.

The extreme left wing is often local, even provincial (in that one fights against a new airport or about who controls certain areas in a city). Going beyond that nihilism - this can also be found in other young people (for example, in the so-called Columbine syndrome, where we see alienation and violence among school students) – there is also a very clear connection between religious radicalisation and what we could call the de-culturisation of religion. That is, the cultural tradition, in which one’s religion is rooted, is rejected or ignored.

That is why youth with a Maghreb background are often the most radicalised. They don’t speak, or no longer speak, their parent’s language, be it Arabic or Berber, and the culture and traditions have not been passed on. Not speaking your family’s language strengthens this de-culturisation and alongside this, the potential for radicalisation. That is different with the Turkish, who pass on their language and their religious traditions from generation to generation. And that is also the same reason why the third generation of immigrants from the Maghreb are not as well represented among the radicals – they speak French, the same language as their parents. (With this I am referring to the radicals from the West, not those who come directly from the Maghreb; they are on a different page altogether.)

On the other hand, the ongoing secularisation of French culture means there is a hostile attitude to all religions, not just Islam.  Indirectly banning religion from public view separates belief systems from society and the dominant culture, which can lead to de-culturisation, and in turn can result in a stronger religious revival than in other European countries.

It’s no coincidence that France was the only European country where Christians engaged in mass protests against gay marriage. Even conservative Catholics feel rejected and are far more pugnacious in France than in nations like Spain, Austria or Ireland.

Besides important questions about immigration and the Middle East, we must also pay special attention to the position religion holds in France. The new president appears to have put aside the divisive and polarising rhetoric of the former prime minister, Manuel Valls, when it comes to laicism.  He also seems to have less enthusiasm for the idea of punitive laicism (for example, the burkini ban on French beaches and the rule against veil-wearing mothers going on school trips). However he still seems reluctant to practice a laicism that is more liberal and also open to religion. 

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