Jihad and Death: The Global Appeal of Islamic State

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By: Olivier Roy

Translated By: Cynthia Schoch

Oxford, UK and New York: Oxford University Press. 136pp. $19.95, ISBN 9780190843632

Volume: 5 Issue: 12

December 2017

Review by:

Christopher Anzalone, ABD

McGill University & Belfer Center, Harvard Kennedy School

Cambridge, MA

In his latest book, the noted French scholar of religion and Islam Olivier Roy turns his attention to the phenomenon of jihadism and the appeal of militant Islamist organizations such as Islamic State.  Expanding upon his earlier work in studies of secularism and fundamentalism, Islam, and modern and globalized religion, he argues, as he has in the past, that the specifically “Islamic” elements of the appeal of jihadi groups is much less than often assumed and that many disaffected, marginalized youth attracted to them bear much in common with the target audiences attracted to other subaltern and fringe movements.  Roy previously published pioneering fieldwork-based studies of Afghan mujahideen rebel groups in 1970s and 1980s Afghanistan as well as influential, if also contested, theoretical interventions positing the “failure of political Islam” and its devolution into “neo-fundamentalism” rather than a sophisticated political movement.  A vocal opponent of fellow French scholar of Islamism Gilles Kepel, with whom he has an often public and vitriolic rivalry, Roy calls into question the heavy cultural explanations favored by other scholars and analysts including Kepel, who in turn has dismissed Roy’s work out of hand.  The book, which is written in the form of a lengthy essay or short monograph, provides an interesting counter to the culture and Islam-heavy analysis of jihadism and jihadi movements.

The book’s central argument is that events such as the Paris attacks in November 2015 planned and carried out by an Islamic State cell mark not a radicalization of Islam but rather the “Islamization” of radicalism and nihilism, that is, the attempt to justify nihilism and an obsession with death by attaching it to a “higher” power or purpose.  Basing his argument on the biographies of homegrown European jihadis, Roy argues that the majority of them are not deeply religious nor particularly well, or even minimally, educated with regard to the intricacies of Islam as a complex, multifaceted, and lived religious tradition.  Instead, the majority of homegrown militants come from previous lives of crime and debauchery and attempt to continue on a similar path within jihadism, which represents a fringe current within Islam more broadly and political Islam more specifically.

One of the shifts with newer generations of domestic jihadis, Roy argues, is the growing attraction of death as an end goal in itself rather than the use of violence and terror to achieve political ends while, ideally, living to fight on.  In the 1970s and 1980s, militants tended to plan attacks in a way that included an escape after the deed was done instead of seeking “martyrdom” as the majority of contemporary jihadis do.  Today’s jihadis are also overwhelming young, making up what is essentially a youth movement that draws upon aspects of mainstream rebellious youth culture and which attempts to forge an identity independent of older generations.  These young radicals attempt to start from scratch, to erase past real or perceived humiliations and defeats through violent assertiveness that includes not only acts of political violence and terrorism but also religious and ideological iconoclasm.  The latter is where the iconoclasm of Salafism is particularly attractive.

Revolution, which was seen by past political activists as the means to an end, is seen by today’s jihadis, Roy argues, as being an end in itself, a desire for “pure revolt” against the status quo.  Driven by utopian and unrealistic fantasies, which he terms the “jihadi imaginary” (41), today’s jihadis see violence not as a strategic tool but rather as the underlying point.  Violence, death, and self-sacrifice are the goals rather than the belief that these are only a means to achieve a political end such as the overthrow of an existing government or fundamental changes in the state.  This current stage is only the latest in the evolution both of jihadism and terrorism; it is temporary rather than permanent and is linked intimately to the current situation in the Middle East where Islamic State emerged as a powerhouse.  Roy downplays significantly the role of indoctrination and socialization by charismatic figures and in small groups, focusing primarily on individual and “self” radicalization, which is contested by studies on the importance of social networks in the radicalization process.

Roy’s latest book presents a useful counterpoint to other studies, such as the work of his rival Gilles Kepel and much of the terrorism studies literature, which focuses much more on cultural (“Islamic”) explanations for the phenomenon of jihadism.  The book is well written and an engaging read, though it is light on end notes and presents primarily a theoretical argument rather than an empirics-heavy study.  It will be of interest to readers, both general and more specialized, following political Islam, jihadism, the modern Middle East, and religion and modernity.

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