IN HIS WORK of interwar malaise, Civilization and Its Discontents, Sigmund Freud hypothesized that alongside an instinctual eros that binds human beings together resides an aggressive and destructive instinct that must be suppressed, redirected, or set loose against others. No mention of Freud’s “death drive” appears in Olivier Roy’s recently published book Jihad and Death, but it does seem to lurk in the corners. Roy’s central argument is that contemporary jihad is a nihilistic phenomenon in which death (of others, but also importantly, of the self) has become the central objective. As he writes, “The terrorist’s death is not just a possibility or an unfortunate consequence of his action; it is a central part of his plan.” This feature distinguishes today’s jihadi militants from an earlier generation whose violence came equipped with escape hatches. As Roy indicates, it also represents a novelty within Sunni Islam, which “does not prize those who strike out in pursuit of death, because it interferes with God’s will.”
In the book’s introduction, we find Roy asking all the right questions: “Why, for the past twenty years, have these actors regularly chosen death? What does it say about contemporary Islamic radicalism? And what does it say about our societies today?” Unfortunately, Roy leaves these questions mostly unanswered, even as he provides ample hints that might point readers in the right direction. In my own reading, this lacuna brought me back to Freud, or more specifically, to his critics. Just as an earlier generation of readers argued that the psyche Freud described was the product of a particular stage of capitalist development rather than an essential feature of human nature, the nihilism in Roy’s account comes from somewhere. The enduring frustration of Jihad and Death is that — perhaps due to his desire to shore up what is left of the liberal tradition — Roy seems unwilling to follow the trail of bloody crumbs back home.
In a crowded market of books about Islam and violence, there are a number of features that set Jihad and Death apart. Clocking in at 99 pages, it is a short, highly accessible, yet still analytically rigorous work written by a leading scholar in his field. Here is an author only showcasing the tip of the iceberg of what he knows about the subject, and indeed, one gets the sense that Roy could elaborate at length about each paragraph if time (and editorial standards) permitted.
Perhaps most refreshingly, Jihad and Death resists the urge to present a “vertical” approach to the subject — which would narrate a genealogy of jihad with predictable textual pit stops at Qur’an 9:5, Ibn Taymiyya, Sayyid Qutb, et al. — and instead chooses to situate jihad “alongside other forms of violence and radicalism that are very similar to it,” ranging from mass shootings and generational revolt to doomsday cults. As he argues, it “is too often forgotten that suicide terrorism and phenomena such as al-Qaeda and ISIS are new in the history of the Muslim world, and cannot be explained simply by the rise of fundamentalism.” In lieu of yet another attempt to unravel what the Qur’an “really” says, Roy offers the reader a sociological analysis that zeroes in on the centrality (and novelty) of death within the new jihad. “What fascinates,” he argues, “is pure revolt, not the construction of a utopia. Violence is not a means. It is an end in itself.”
Roy is most original when discussing these links between jihadism and other forms of youth culture and revolt, linking the self-performance element evident among many militants to video game heroes and a broader aestheticization of violence. And in a welcome addition to literature on Islamic violence, he draws explicit parallels between “our” violence and “theirs,” noting that the “boundaries between a suicidal psychopath and a militant for the caliphate” have grown increasingly hazy. Particularly in the wake of mass shootings in the United States whose perpetrators have claimed allegiance to ISIS — such as those in San Bernardino or at the Pulse nightclub — the distinction between “jihadis” and run-of-the-mill homegrown terrorists has become harder to sustain.
The conclusions Roy advances in Jihad and Death are based on a database of approximately 140 individuals “involved in terrorism in mainland France and/or having left France to take part in a ‘global’ jihad between 1994 and 2016.” While there is no singular terrorist biography, there are recurrent characteristics: second-generation immigrants or converts with backgrounds featuring petty crime and prison stays, and often seemingly well integrated into secular culture. Crucially, among the group he analyzed, radicalization almost never occurs in the framework of a religious organization. This finding leads to one of the more compelling aspects of Roy’s text, namely his attention to sites of radicalization that sit outside of the usual circuits of mosque and social media. In fact, he argues that “combat-sports clubs are more important than mosques in jihadi socialization,” drawing on examples like that of a group of Portuguese converts who joined ISIS and whose bond was solidified in a Thai boxing club.
Roy’s claims have been corroborated recently by those working to combat radicalization in European contexts, such as Usman Raja, who runs a mixed martial arts (MMA) gym geared toward reintegrating former militants. “The biggest thing these extremists get from it is community,” he stated in a recent New York Times profile, which notes that Raja’s approach has been statistically more successful than typical programs focused around religious reeducation. Convincing militants that the Qur’an “really” says something other than what they have heard in ISIS recruiting videos is largely irrelevant if, as Roy claims, they are not all that interested in Qur’anic exegesis.
The policy implications of such a finding are important, suggesting that the vast resources currently being devoted toward reeducating militants in “moderate Islam” might prove ineffective or simply inconsequential. The much called for “reformation” of Islam, Roy argues (glossing Tareq Oubrou, the imam of Bordeaux) “would leave the space for radicalization intact, because the radicals are not youths who have misread the scriptures, but rebels who choose radicalism and then fit it into an Islamic paradigm”:
[J]ihadis do not descend into violence after poring over the sacred texts. They do not have the necessary religious culture — and, above all, care little about having one. They do not become radicals because they have misread the texts or because they have been manipulated. They are radicals because they choose to be, because only radicalism appeals to them.
Roy may very well be correct that religious texts are not the driving forces in radicalization. For anyone who has had to suffer through watching Bill Maher read quotations from the Qur’an, this is a refreshing counterpoint. Yet even if sacred texts actually serve as an ex-post facto justification for violent behavior rather than as their inspiration — a possibility I think well worth entertaining — we are still left with the unsatisfactory explanation that young Muslims become radicals because they like radicalism.
This leads us to my major critique of Jihad and Death. Roy’s laudatory desire to situate jihad alongside other forms of youth violence comes with a less compelling by-product: namely, the flattening of radicalism to include almost anything that runs afoul of the liberal tradition. Though he never defines the term, Roy invokes radicalism to characterize 21st-century jihad, 19th-century anarchism, Maoists, anticolonial revolutionaries like the FLN and PLO, and the Comintern, among others.
In trying to sustain the argument, Jihad and Death oscillates between affirming the newness of nihilism within jihad and attempting to ground this impulse in a longer tradition. For instance, Roy argues that the Egyptian thinker, Sayyid Qutb, was instrumental in reformulating the classical notion of jihad during the 20th century, which is fairly uncontestable. But he then goes on to impute to Qutb’s writings a nihilism that is more reminiscent of Christian premillennialism than the vanguard Qutb imagined would reinvigorate Muslim societies. “If the end was near, it was important to think of one’s own personal salvation rather than spend one’s efforts creating a better society. And this salvation can be achieved through death, for it is the shortest and safest route.” This abdication of political or social struggle is quite far afield from Qutb’s revolutionary thought, which was focused on mobilizing a new generation of true believers to fight against those corrupt leaders who — by restricting human freedom — had wrongly seized God’s rightful sovereignty.
Given the centrality of nihilism to his argument, Roy devotes surprisingly little time discussing the concept as either a philosophical or political phenomenon. It is perhaps this lack of engagement with the question of ends that leads to the unsatisfactory sense that “radicalism” is an ahistoric phenomenon that exists in a consistent form across time and space. Islam, in this interpretation, is merely the most recent inflection point around which radical politics are organizing. As he writes:
The two forms of protest (extreme leftism and radical Islamism) have a similar structure […] From the Cultural Revolution to the Baadar-Meinhof Gang and up to ISIS, elders are accused of having “betrayed” the revolution, democracy, or Islam and of not handing down the truth. It then becomes a matter of wholesale revolt against the world order, and not a national liberation movement. This global ideal was first THE revolution (permanent and worldwide, by creating “three or four Vietnams” and multiplying hotbeds of insurgency according to Che Guevara’s foco concept). Now it is THE jihad, with the multiplication of local emirates, new foco, and the same determination to draw Western troops into a quagmire.
As evidenced by ISIS’s embrace of insurgency tactics associated with communist leaders, interesting points of overlap do exist between an earlier generation of revolutionaries and today’s jihadi militants. Yet the assertion that contemporary jihad is the heir to leftist politics runs afoul of Roy’s own assertion that today’s militants are not interested in the construction of an alternative political and social order, only the nihilistic destruction of our current one. Whatever one might think of the leftists of old, the fact that they were deeply committed to imagining and creating alternatives to capitalism can hardly be disputed. Should this not complicate Roy’s genealogy?
Indeed, there is at least one point where Roy hints at an alternative — and in my eyes, more convincing — interpretation. The far left in the West, he argues, has sunk into terrorist sectarianism and lost sight of any universal project. The result is that “[t]he only thing available on the market for the new rebels in search of a cause” is al-Qaeda or ISIS. Might we not continue this thread to argue that contemporary jihad is not the heir to leftist politics, but the result of their absence? Such an explanation would also help make better sense of the nihilism Roy diagnoses, but ultimately leaves unaccounted for. How, and why, does an individual or group of persons become part of the “‘no-future’ generation,” for whom “[n]ihilism (the futility of life, emphasized by all of them) is part of their mysticism (going to be with God)”? If we are truly living — in Dame Thatcher’s immortal words — in a world to which there is no alternative, nihilism is exactly the form of anti-politics one would expect to find in this age of civic exhaustion.
In sum, Jihad and Death suggests the scaffolding of a much larger argument about the nature of political agency in the neoliberal era, but Roy ultimately does not pursue these tantalizing avenues. Moreover, there is just enough ambiguity surrounding his central argument that I can imagine the book causing excitement among two very different groups of readers. There are no doubt many conservatives who will be thrilled to find a reputable scholar linking contemporary jihad to leftist causes — ergo, Islamism is the next Red Menace. Conversely, if the rise of radical Islamism can in part be explained by the lack of progressive alternatives, we might also expect calls to revive the left so that would-be malcontents might redirect their ire toward Jeff Bezos’s market-based solutions to human existence.
Even with these reservations, Jihad and Death is a remarkable work of analysis that is spilling over with insights and well worth engaging. That Roy raises more questions than he answers is a tribute to his depth of understanding. And there is no reason why the reader (this one included) can’t follow a slightly different path through the woods.
Suzanne Schneider, a historian of the modern Middle East, is deputy director and core faculty at the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research. She is the author of Mandatory Separation: Religion, Education, and Mass Politics in Palestine.
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