The Magazine

Jihad Made In Europe

From the July 25, 2005 issue: There may be more to fear from a mosque in Leeds than a madrassa in the Middle East.

Jul 25, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 42 • By REUEL MARC GERECHT
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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 Europeanization 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 laborers 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 Shiite 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, Westernization 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 Westernization 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 behavior, 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, esthetically 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.