On July 12, the New York Times carried an article about a feud between two French Islamologues:
PARIS — What propels Islamist terrorism and attacks against France is more than an academic debate: The answer shapes policy toward blunting the threat.
So it is no inconsequential matter in a culture under attack, and one that so cherishes its intellectual debates, that France’s two leading scholars of radical Islam — former friends — have turned bitter rivals over their differing views.
“Madman,” “thug,” “illiterate,” “paranoid,” “ass,” “not a thinker” — these are just some of the choicer insults the two men have hurled at each other in a peculiarly personal quarrel with far larger stakes that has reverberated through the French news media and society for months.
The two distinguished academics, Olivier Roy and Gilles Kepel, have long lists of books to their name, and years of field work in the Middle East, Central Asia and the troubled French suburbs. They are both eagerly consulted by the French news media and government officials.
But with France on edge and the continued target of terrorist attacks, their clashing analyses of the origins, development and future of jihadism have broken out of academic circles to present an important question for France and for all of Europe: Which man holds the key to understanding the phenomenon?
Mr. Kepel, 61, a professor at Sciences Po, the prestigious political science institute, finds much of the answer inside France — in its suburbs and their dysfunctional sociology — and in the role of Islam, angering many on the left.
Mr. Roy, 66, who as a bearded young man roamed Afghanistan with the mujahedeen in the 1980s and now teaches at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy, places greater emphasis on individual behavior and psychology in a jihadism he considers strictly marginal to Islam.
Mr. Kepel sees individuals as cogs in a system — part of a classically French, structuralist tradition that minimizes the role of individual human agency.
Mr. Roy, on the other hand, sees mostly troubled people in the jihadist ranks who act out their fantasies of violence and cruelty.
The terrorists who have carried out recent attacks were mostly marginalized young men and petty criminals, he says, adding that they have used Islam as a cover to pursue extreme violence.
“They haven’t had a militant past,” Mr. Roy said of many of these terrorists, in a telephone interview. The problem they represent, he says, is the “Islamicization of radicalism.”
It is a signature phrase that enrages Mr. Kepel, who leans toward its opposite: the radicalization of Islam.”
Could it be that both of these French Islamologues are wrong, but not in the same way, or to the same degree? Let’s take a closer look.
Olivier Roy doesn’t think that Islam has anything to do with what impels some Muslim men to become terrorists. For him, they are “marginalized young men and petty criminals” who simply “use Islam as a cover” for their violent acts. Is this true? Even if they made a living as “petty criminals” because they had no marketable skills, or disliked working, couldn’t they also be true Believers in Islam? And couldn’t the invocation of Islamic teachings to justify certain behaviors toward Infidels – e.g., robbery as a way of helping oneself to the Jizyah in the absence of an Islamic state that could exact it – be genuine justification, rather than mere “cover” for such acts? Why does Olivier Roy think that Muslims would not consider robbery or, for that matter, the vast array of benefits (free housing, free health care and education, family allowances) supplied by the Infidel state, to be legitimate Jizyah (just as some mainstream Muslims have claimed), rather than mere loot?
And why shouldn’t we believe that Muslim terror attacks are prompted by the Qur’anic call to “terrorize the Unbelievers” in so many places in the Qur’an (start with 9:29 and 9:5), with its 109 “jihad verses” that preach violence? Why does Olivier Roy think we should dismiss all those Qur’anic quotes as if they counted for nothing, invoked by the would-be Al-Baghdadis of France merely as a way to pretend they had some higher goal, when all along they were merely people who liked “violence and cruelty”? What would these “jihadists” have to do, what would it take, for Olivier Roy to admit that their behavior might have been motivated by Islam? What about that Tunisian truck driver, Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel, mowing down as many Infidels (a handful of unintended Muslim victims is a fact that changes nothing), on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice on Bastille Day, shouting “Allahu akbar” (the Muslim war cry of “Our God Is Greater”) just before being killed? Would Olivier Roy deny the role of Islam in this act of terrorism?
Roy calls the behavior by Muslim criminals, invoking Islam in order to justify their criminal activity, “the Islamization of radicalism.” But the word “radicalism” is singularly unfitting here. It is a term currently used in the West to describe what we think of as an unusual level of Muslim belief and commitment; the word “radicalized” is applied to Muslims if they take Islam’s most violent and anti-Infidel verses to heart. (Few dare to suggest that this is simply mainstream, and not “radical,” Islam.) But for Olivier Roy to use such a term now associated so closely with discussions of Islam, while in the same breath he insists that Islam has nothing to do with “jihadist” behavior, is jarring. Muslims who support the Islamic State may claim that they are engaged in stabbing, shooting, running over, and bombing Infidels, raping and enslaving Infidel women, because Islam encourages or even commands it, but Olivier Roy knows better. He knows they are stabbing, shooting, running over, bombing and raping just because they want to, and not because of anything to do with what’s in the Qur’an or Hadith. He keeps saying that Islam is merely an excuse for “troubled people” to “act out their fantasies of violence and cruelty,” and he considers “jihadism strictly marginal to Islam.” It’s an extraordinary remark, and alarming, too, because Olivier Roy is regarded in France as one of its foremost experts on Islam.
Of course, what he means by the “Islamization of radicalism” is really the “Islamization of criminality.” Those Muslim criminals, in Olivier Roy’s view, falsely attribute to Islam the justification for their behavior – “they use Islam as a cover.” These are “jihadists” who have nothing to do with “jihad.”
Does any of this make sense?
Why does Olivier Roy insist that we ignore what Muslim terrorists keep claiming as their reasons for doing what they do? Where does the extraordinary violence and cruelty in many of these attacks on Infidels – see, e.g., Paris, Amsterdam, New York, London, Orlando, Moscow, Dhaka, Sinjar, and now Nice — come from, if not from the Qur’an itself? Where does the command to “strike terror” in the hearts of the Infidels come from, if not from the Qur’an itself? These are not the attacks of criminals bent on gain, but murderers following Qur’anic injunctions to “strike terror” in the hearts of Infidels.
On what basis does Olivier Roy claim to “see [in France] a Muslim population that is relatively well integrated” and, since it is only the un-integrated Muslims who constitute a threat, all the French government need do is improve the lot of those (few) Muslims who feel marginalized? The problem according to Roy is not with Muslims, but with the Infidels among whom they live, who must try harder to make Muslims happy so as to achieve their “integration.” But if the problem of non-integration were a result of French policy, what explains the success of all the other, non-Muslim, immigrants to integrate into French society? And if it is French policy that is at fault, what explains the failure of Muslims not just in France, but throughout Europe, even in countries famously liberal and accommodating (e.g., Denmark, Sweden, Netherlands) to “integrate” successfully?
How true is Roy’s claim that Muslims in his country are “relatively well-integrated”? Is he aware of how many Muslims in France have tried to join the Islamic State? Or that 42% of young Muslims in France declare that suicide bombing is always justified? Is he aware of how many Muslims in France are in prison? Or of how many French Muslims have aggressively challenged the laic state’s rules, appropriating public spaces for prayer, blocking sidewalks and streets in many cities? Or aware that Muslim students have refused to follow the prescribed curriculum, especially when it comes to such topics as the Crusades, the Enlightenment, the Holocaust, and evolution? Is that just a question of “criminality? What does Olivier Roy make of the demands made by French Muslims just a few months ago for a doubling of the number of mosques? Or the demands for changes in the cuisine of prisons and schools, to eliminate pork products? Or the constant challenging of the hijab ban in schools and workplaces? None of this suggests a Muslim population that is “relatively well integrated.”
It’s hard to fathom Olivier Roy’s refusal to believe that when Muslims say they are following Islam, when they quote chapter and verse to justify exactly what they are doing, when they commit crimes that could not possibly have any motive other than an Islamic one, that they mean what they say. Now of course it is true that some crimes by Muslims may have nothing to do with Islam. A Muslim bank robber may have been prompted solely by a desire for money, or the robbery may have been undertaken to raise money to buy guns for a future attack on Infidels. But Olivier Roy seems to think whatever the perpetrators claim, these attacks are always of the first, not the second kind, that is never really about Islam. In this respect, he is echoing many family members of terrorists, and such organizations as CAIR, that are quick to assure us after every Muslim terrorist attack that it had “nothing to do with Islam.”
But some attacks clearly must have been motivated by Islam. The attack on Charlie Hebdo had only one goal, an Islamic one – to punish those who blasphemed the Muslim prophet Muhammad. That was the same reason why Muslims wanted to kill Lars Vilks in Sweden, and Robert Spencer and Pamela Geller in Garland, Texas. And the murders of Jews in Toulouse and at the kosher market in Paris were not done for gain, but were prompted by Islam, and the belief expressed in the Qur’an that Jews are the most determined enemies of Islam. Similarly, the murders of the policeman and his wife in Mantes-la-Jolie were attacks prompted by Islam, where the targets represented the Infidel state’s authority, and were not examples of “petty criminality.”
Gilles Kepel, once Olivier Roy’s close friend and now his intellectual enemy, is the other most celebrated Islamologue in France, who now dismisses Roy as an “ignoramus” and worse (see the third paragraph of the Times article above). Kepel thinks that “the murderous jihadism that struck France in 2015 [Charlie Hebdo, the kosher market] is the expression of a slow-burning Islamist radicalization that took shape over decades because of a failure of integration.”
What strikes us at once is that Kepel is at least willing to think that Islam has something to do with these attacks of “murderous jihadism.” This distinguishes his analysis from that of Olivier Roy. But he still finds a way to blame the Infidels for the problem of Muslim terrorism. Instead of focusing on individuals, as does Roy, Kepel thinks of Muslims as “cogs in a system” who began to undergo a slow “Islamist radicalization” decades ago because of the “failure of integration.” That “failure of integration” is blamed, of course, not on Muslims, who refuse to accept French laws and customs, and who deliberately create their own Muslim neighborhoods, well aware that they are not, according to the Qur’an, to take “Jews and Christians as friends” or yield to the authority of the Infidel state. No, the problem as Kepel sees it is with the French, who for some unaccountable reason refused to yield to Muslim demands, and have failed to modify their laws or changed their customs as they might have; it is they who prevent the “integration” of Muslims who would be only too happy to be “integrated” if only the non-Muslims would give a little. To implicitly blame the French for the situation is a monstrous mischaracterization, the very reverse of the true situation. If it were a problem to be blamed on the French state, then what explains the failure of Muslims everywhere else in Europe to successfully “integrate”? And why is it that everywhere in Europe, all the non-Muslim immigrants seem to be able to integrate? Kepel doesn’t address either question, for it would spoil his analysis.
But in one important respect, Kepel’s analysis is superior to that of Olivier Roy. For Kepel believes that, over decades, as a reaction to a “failure of integration,” a “slow-burning Islamist radicalization” took place in France. So even if he blames the French for this, he at least recognizes that the result is a greater readiness among young Muslims, suffering from that lack of integration, to adopt a stricter form of Islam, and it is this brand of Islam (“Salafism”), this “Islamist radicalization,” that he claims explains Muslim terrorism. Islam is, for Kepel, not just a “cover for criminality, but he insists it is only an “extremist” version of it – “Salafism” — that explain Muslim terrorism.
And Kepel also seems to believe that Muslim terrorism required a long gestation, decades during which Muslims in France slowly became dissatisfied with their lot in life. Kepel even offers what he identifies as a key year, 2005, with the rioting of Muslims in the Paris suburbs, when Muslim youths felt a “need to dissociate from France, and leave it” (that is, they no longer tried to integrate, but became internal exiles living in the lands of the Infidel enemy). Kepel makes much of a 1,600-page tract, Al-Suri’s “Appeal to Global Islamic Resistance,” that appeared in that year, and which he claims offered a blueprint for the Islamic State. But what is in that tract that is not already to be found in the Qur’an, the Hadith, the Sira? Perhaps the packaging is more attractive, the language and historical references more up-t0-date, but are the essential contents any different from the canonical texts of Islam? Kepel does not say.
For neither Kepel nor Roy is willing to offer the simplest, and truest explanation for why Muslims become terrorists. They become terrorists because, for any number of conceivable reasons, they take seriously what they read in the Qur’an, which tells them all about “striking terror,” and is full of passages promoting the use of violence against non-Muslims and apostates. And they find in the Hadith exemplary examples of such violent, behavior among the earliest Muslims, including that of Muhammad, the Perfect Man (al-insan al-kamil) and Model of Conduct (uswa hasana). They learn from the Qur’an and Hadith why they should not take Infidels as friends, why they should demand the Jizyah from them or, in the alternative, if the infidels refuse to convert, to kill them, how they should treat women, what they should make of “innovation” (bida), and when they should, as good Muslims, obey the ruler and when disobey. In short, the Qur’an and Hadith and Sira offer a Total Explanation of the Universe and a Complete Regulation of Life. That is all that these Muslim terrorists need; Al-Suti’s gargantuan handbook is not the source of their “radicalism.”
Kepel appears to be in the camp of those who argue that Muslim terrorists are born out of hardship and resentment of that hardship. This is what might be called the Robert-Pape School of Underprivileged Terrorists. But study after study has shown that Muslim terrorists are both better off, and better educated than the average Muslim. What distinguishes them is their readiness to act on their beliefs, their level of commitment. Think of the multi-millionaire Osama bin Laden, or the American army doctor Nidal Hasan, or the German-trained architect Mohamed Atta, or “Mike” Hawash, who was living the ideal American life with an American wife and children in suburbia, and earning $360,000 a year as an Intel engineer. These were not people of deprived backgrounds, nor petty criminals, but Muslims who decided to take to heart the teachings not of “radical” or “extremist,” but mainstream Islam.
Of course, some Muslim terrorists do have backgrounds as petty criminals, but for them, the best way to make amends for such behavior (including such terrible things as eating pork and drinking alcohol) is by engaging in Jihad against the Infidels, winning a place in the Islamic heaven. This appears to be what happened with the allahu-akbaring driver of that truck in Nice, mowing down as many of the enemy as he could. It is still Islam – from dormancy to delirium – that explains his behavior.
The cause of Islamic terrorism is Islam. There is nothing Infidels can do to win over Muslims who take their Islam seriously. And they owe it to themselves not to become confused about causes as, I’m afraid, in their different ways, the two leading French “experts” on Islam have allowed themselves to become. Olivier Roy dismisses Islam as merely a cover for criminal behavior of all kinds. He finds it impossible to imagine that Muslims would take their texts so seriously, nor that even were it true that many terrorists have “criminal backgrounds,” the best way for them to make up for those backgrounds is to do something heroic for the cause of Islam, which is to kill as many Infidels as possible. Gilles Kepel believes that a certain kind of Islam, a “radicalized” Islam, can under certain conditions, develop slowly in the minds of Muslims (replacing the “peaceful” regular Islam), until it boils over into violence. But he can’t see beyond that word “radicalized” to recognize that there is nothing contained in the “radicalization” of Muslims that is not already to be found in Qur’an, Hadith, and Sira. It’s merely a question of emphasis.
Kepel and Roy deserve each other. But the people of France, reeling from the latest mass attack, at this point deserve neither. They need to realize that they are not to blame if Muslims claim to feel “alienated” or “marginalized” because the French haven’t changed their laws or customs to suit Muslim demands – demands that have no logical end until the Shari’a is fully imposed. And they need to understand that the “radicalization of Islam” means, in truth, nothing more than a recognition and acceptance, by many Muslims, of what Islam teaches, and a willingness to act upon it. It is not some strange mutation of the faith. It is the faith; it is mainstream Islam.
Let the great “experts” Roy and Kepel continue to fight in their tweedledee-tweedledum fashion. We who are not official experts should ignore their noisy confusions, so as to be able to understand better the menace and meaning of Islam, an understanding achievable as long as we hold on tightly to that most precious intellectual commodity, one no higher degree or prestigious post can confer – which is to say, common sense.