Jihad Made in Europe
By Reuel Marc Gerecht
The July suicide bombings in London — some or all of whose perpetrators were Muslims born and reared in Britain — are likely to produce in the United Kingdom the same intellectual reflection on Muslim identity in Europe that is already underway in nearby countries. The French began this reflection in earnest ten years ago, after bomb-happy, lycée-educated, French-born Islamic holy warriors terrorised France. The Spanish began it after their own train bombings in March 2004, and the Dutch after the brutal slaying of the film director Theo van Gogh by a Muslim militant in November 2004. Quite likely the British will reach the same conclusion the French already have, to wit: Islamic terrorism on European soil has its roots in the Middle East. “British Islam” — the behaviour and spiritual practice of Muslims in the United Kingdom — it will be said, is by and large a progressive force standing against pernicious and retrograde ideas emanating from the Middle East. There are big problems of acculturation at home in mother England, all will confess, but the holy-warrior mentality is imported.
This view, however, may turn out to be dead wrong. What was once unquestionably an import has gone native, mutated, and grown. Some of what the Europeans are now confronting — and for the United States this is very bad news — is probably a locally generated Islamic militancy that is as retrograde and virulent as anything encountered in the Middle East. “European Islam” appears to be an increasingly radicalising force intellectually and in practice. The much-anticipated Muslim moderates of Europe — the folks French scholar Gilles Kepel believes will produce “extraordinary progress in civilisation,” a new “Andalusia” (the classical Arabic word for Moorish Spain) that will save us from Osama bin Laden’s jihad — have so far not developed with the same gusto as the Muslim activists who have dominated too many mosques in “Londonistan” and elsewhere in Europe. Moderates surely represent the overwhelming majority of Muslims in Europe, but like their post-Christian European counterparts, they usually express their moderation in detachment from religious affairs.
Though Europeans often fail to see it, the secularisation of the Muslims living in their midst has been, by and large, a great success. It explains why Muslim activists gain so much attention, be they arch-conservatives, like the devotees of the Tabligh movement in Britain and on the continent who espouse segregation in Europe, or “progressives,” like the Switzerland-based intellectual Tariq Ramadan, who refuses forthrightly to declare the Muslim Holy Law null and void as a political testament for Muslims in a European democracy. The moderates have abandoned the field. They have become European. The militants, who perhaps should be seen as deviants from a largely successful process of secularisation, are the only ones left ardently praying.
For organisations like al-Qaeda, this may mean that the future will be decisively European. From its earliest days, al-Qaeda viewed Europe as an important launching platform for attacks against the United States and its interests. Now, Western counter-terrorist forces, which have traditionally tried to track Middle Eastern missionaries in Europe, would be well advised to start searching for radical European Muslim missionaries in the Middle East and elsewhere. Some Europeans — and they are mostly French — have seen the future. Always ahead of his time, the French scholar Olivier Roy has written:
When we consider the [Islamic] movements that embrace violence, we can see that they are not expressions of an outburst in the West of the [Israeli-Palestinian] conflict in the Middle East. Most of the young Muslims radicalise in the West: They are “born-again Muslims.” It’s here that they are Islamicised. Almost all separate from their families and many have marriages with non-Muslims. Their dispute with the world isn’t imported from the Middle East: It is truly modern, aimed against American imperialism, capitalism, etc. In other words, they occupy the same space that the proletarian left had thirty years ago, that Action Directe had twenty years ago. . . . They exist in a militant reality abandoned by the extreme left, where the young live only to destroy the system. . . . [This radicalisation] isn’t at all the consequence of a “clash of civilisations,” that is to say, the importation of intellectual frameworks coming from the Middle East. This militant evolution is happening, in situ, on our territory. It partakes henceforth of the internal history of the West.
Roy may overstate the autonomy of Islamic radicalism in Europe from the militancy in the Middle East; he surely diminishes too much the religious ingredient in the emerging radical Muslim European identity. But my own visits to numerous radical mosques in Western Europe since 9/11 suggest that he is more right than wrong about the Europeanisation of Islamic militancy. The Saudis may pay for the mosques and the visiting Saudi and Jordanian imams, but the believers are often having very European conversations in European languages. In France, Belgium, or Holland, sitting with young male believers can feel like a time-warp, a return to the European left of the 1970s and early 1980s. Europe’s radical-mosque practitioners can appear, mutatis mutandis, like a Muslim version of the hard-core intellectuals and labourers behind the aggrieved but proud Scottish National Party in its salad days. These young men are often Sunni versions of the Iranian radicals who gathered around the jumbled, deeply contradictory, religious left-wing ideas of Ali Shariati, one of the intellectual fathers of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s “red-mullah” revolution of 1979, and the French-educated ex-Communist Jalal Al-e Ahmad, who became in the 1960s perhaps the most famous theoretician of Muslim alienation in the Western world.
The Shi’ite parallel is also pertinent since it elucidates the motives of Sunni believers who see murder as a martyr’s expression of devotion to God. The thousands of Iranians who gleefully went to their deaths in suicidal missions against the Iraqis in the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war did so in part, as the Franco-Iranian scholar Farhad Khosrakhavar has written, because the “liberty to die as a martyr served to maintain the phantasm of revolutionary possibilities.” Death is both the ultimate expression of a very Western idea of individual freedom and self-creation and a very Islamic conception of self-abnegation before God’s will. Talk to young radical Muslims in Europe — young men who in all probability have no desire whatsoever to kill themselves or others for any cause — and you can often nevertheless find an appreciation of the idea of martyrdom almost identical to the Iranian death-wish of yesteryear. In the last three centuries, Europe has given birth and nourishment to most of mankind’s most radical causes. It shouldn’t be that surprising to imagine that Europe could nurture Islamic militancy on its own soil.
In Europe as elsewhere, Westernisation is the key to the growth and virulence of hard-core Islamic radicalism. The most frightening, certainly the most effective, adherents of bin Ladenism are those who are culturally and intellectually most like us. The process of Westernisation liberates a Muslim from the customary sanctions and loyalties that normally corralled the dark side of the human soul. Respect for one’s father, an appreciation for the human need to have fun, a toleration of eccentricity and naughty personal behaviour, the love of art and folk music — all are characteristics of traditional mainstream Muslim society wiped away by the arrival of modernity and the simultaneous spread of sterile, aesthetically empty, angry, Saudi-financed Wahhabi thought. In this sense, bin Ladenism is the Muslim equivalent of Western totalitarianism. This cleaning of the slate, this break with the past, is probably more profound in the Muslim enclaves in Europe — what Gilles Kepel called les banlieues de l’Islam — than it is in the urban sprawl of Cairo, where traditional mores, though under siege and badly battered by modernity, nevertheless retain considerable force. Cairo gave us Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qaeda’s great intellectual; it’s not unreasonable to fear that London or Paris or Berlin will give us his successor.
This view understandably receives a poor reception in Europe. Most intellectuals and politicians would prefer to see Islamic terrorism in Europe as a by-product of accumulated foreign grievances. There are the aftershocks of the second Algerian civil war — the guerre à l’outrance that started in 1991 between the Islamists and the election-aborting military regime — and especially the Israeli-Palestinian confrontation, which most in the European intelligentsia have viewed as the spur to Islamic radicalism and the cause of the bad blood between the Arabs and the West. The American war against Saddam Hussein in 1990-91 exacerbated the division between Islamic militants in Europe, who for the most part opposed an infidel “invasion” of Iraq, and European governments, which (often tepidly) backed the American-led ejection of Saddam from Kuwait. This view reappeared in Western Europe with the Second Gulf war against Saddam in 2003. European domestic peace was thus increasingly held hostage by American foreign policy, especially America’s wars and its unwillingness to force Israel to make concessions to the Palestinians. Talk to European counter-terrorist officials and they go apoplectic enumerating the ways America, notably the Bush administration, has made their work more difficult.
Although some of the reasons put forth by Europeans to explain their Muslim problems are undoubtedly valid, a wise US counter-terrorist policy would downplay the external causes of Islamic activism in Europe. We should prepare for the worst-case scenario and assume that European society itself will continue to generate the most lethal holy warriors. In doing so, American officials should be sceptical of their own ability to identify through profiling which Muslim Europeans might engage in terrorism against the United States. Stamps in passports indicating travel to Middle Eastern countries can’t tell you much, since holy-warrior pilgrimages are not required to fortify jihadist spirits and networks. Living in London, Leeds, or Manchester can be more than enough.
There is good news from Europe, however. By now, Great Britain and the United States should have been struck repeatedly by cells of Europeanised Muslims. The training and education required for such attacks is minimal. It is difficult not to conclude that we have avoided this calamity because al-Qaeda and its allied extremist groups have so far been somewhat lame in recruiting militants in Europe, even though the pool of possible recruits, given the enormous social and economic problems within its Muslim communities, ought to be fairly large. One catastrophic hit (the London attacks don’t qualify) is certainly enough to skewer our entire perspective on what constitutes successful recruitment operations. Nevertheless it is astonishing how poorly al-Qaeda and its friends have done in Europe. We have the war in Iraq, which according to just about every European expert on Islam has been a boon to jihadist recruitment worldwide. We also have the supposed boon to the Islamists from our ignominy at Abu Ghraib, plus the very evident friendship between President Bush and the villain of all villains, Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon. And yet the attack on London’s transportation system is the best that the holy warriors can do to punish the Anglo-American infidels for their sins in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere?
And what isn’t happening in Europe isn’t happening either in Iraq. If the Bush administration weren’t so rhetorically maladroit, it might point out that the Islamist holy war against us in Iraq is going rather poorly. Jihadist suicide bombers have inflicted significant losses upon us and especially upon the Iraqi people, but again what is striking about the Iraq campaign, as about jihadist recruitment efforts in Western Europe, is how few holy warriors have come calling. Historically, Afghanistan was a sideshow, while Mesopotamia is at the centre of both Arab and Muslim history. In the fundamentalist imagination, the former Soviet Union was a distinctly smaller devil than insidious America, which has been central to Islamist ideology since the collapse of Britain as a world power. Diehard “Arab Afghans” in the Soviet-Afghan war could regularly complain about how weak support was for the mujahadeen in Muslim, and especially Arab, lands.
Yet if one compares the number of Muslim volunteers who went to fight the Soviets (and let us assume that no more than 10,000 went, most of them after 1984, even though many analysts think the number of “Arab Afghans” was much higher) with the highest figures one hears for foreign holy warriors in Iraq (one to two hundred entering Iraq each month), the result is astonishing, and for would-be jihadists, depressing. Travelling to Iraq from anywhere in the Arab world is easy. Language isn’t a problem. Iraqi Sunni Arab fundamentalist groups are much better plugged into the larger Arab Sunni world than were their Afghan Islamist counterparts in the 1980s. The Syrian government, and probably others in the region, would love to help all comers. We should have seen by now thousands of holy warriors coming to Iraq. Suicide bombers have clouded our accounting by magnifying the individual commitment of each jihadist and the damage he can do.
We can only guess why Iraq has been so much less of a draw than Afghanistan. A reasonable guess, however, is that the Muslim, and especially Arab, world doesn’t have its heart in this fight. Although Sunni Arabs rarely rose to denounce Saddam Hussein’s slaughtering of Arab Shi’ites and Kurds, they knew full well the horrors of his rule. Although many are loath to say so publicly, they know the American invasion of Iraq and George W. Bush’s rhetoric in favour of democracy have shaken the established order in the Arab world, and they are content to see it so. This is probably as true for Arab Sunni fundamentalists as it is for Arab liberals. Both, in their own ways, want to overturn the status quo. Emotions about Iraq, and the rise of democracy within its borders and beyond, are too complicated and conflicted to produce any broadly popular and effective global jihad against the Americans.
There is no satisfying, expeditious answer to Europe’s Muslim problems. If Olivier Roy is right — European Islam, for better and for worse, is now independent of the Middle East — then democracy could come to Muslims’ ancestral homelands even as a virulent form of Islamic militancy persisted for years in Western Europe. But the intellectual and family ties with the Middle East are probably still sufficient to ensure that if the Middle East changes for the better, the ripples will quickly reach Europe. The democratic discussion in the Middle East, which is often broadcast through media headquartered in Europe, is becoming ever more vibrant and powerful. If Hosni Mubarak’s regime in Egypt begins to give way to democracy, it’s a very good bet that the discussion in every single mosque in Western Europe will be about the popular triumph and the democratic experiment beginning in the Arab world’s most important country.
Amid all the ensuing political and religious debates and arguments, in the expectant hope that other dictators would fall, al-Qaeda and its allied groups might find it even harder to attract recruits who would incinerate themselves for a revolutionary ideal increasingly at odds with reality. If the Bush administration wants to help Europe, it should back as forcefully as possible the rapid expansion of democracy in the Middle East. It would be a delightful irony if the more progressive political and religious debates among the Middle East’s Muslims saved their brethren in the intellectually backward lands of the European Union.
Reuel Marc Gerecht, a former intelligence officer specialising in the Middle East, is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. © The Weekly Standard, all rights reserved, reprinted by permission.