France, according to its prime minister, Manuel Valls, is “at war” with Islamism. And not just France. “Europe is under siege,” say American media. The Chairman of the Senate’s Intelligence Committee, Richard Burr, broadened the geography still further, talking of “a war on Western civilization”.
It’s natural, in the aftermath of an atrocity, to cast around for proportionately strong language. Still, it’s worth thinking about what effect all this talk of war and siege and civilizational struggle might have on the next generation of losers looking to make a splash.
Because it’s losers we’re dealing with. Don’t romanticise the gunmen by taking them at their own estimation. Don’t accept their claim to be acting according to some higher principle. Look at them, for Heaven’s sake: young, angry, vain, self-obsessed. We should no more accept their self-justification at face value than we did the narcissistic ramblings of Seung-Hui Cho or Anders Breivik.
When journalists describe Islamist terrorists as “mediaeval” they have things 180 degrees the wrong way around. Mediaeval Islam was, by the standards of its day, tolerant and enlightened. It was also, as Guy Sorman has argued on CapX, relatively liberal and capitalist. The doctrine embraced by the jihadis, by contrast, is modernist. Like communism, fascism and every other -ism that promises a new dawn, it makes no concessions, either to past tradition or to human nature. It holds out a vision of something so pure that it can, in practice, never be achieved. This purity is precisely what appeals to a certain type of youngster.
To argue that the Paris murders were unrelated to Islam would be silly. The terrorists shouted “God is great” on their way in to the Charlie Hebdo offices, and “The Prophet is avenged” on their way out. Amedy Coulibaly , who murdered the hostages in the kosher deli, was praying when the police made their move. Like other Western-born extremists, the Paris gunmen believed they had found something in Islam that justified their pathological tendencies – something that other religions don’t seem to offer to the same degree. You don’t find many Anglicans, say, making their way to Nigeria to take up arms alongside their beleaguered co-religionists.
Still, it’s essential to understand the precise nature of the relationship. The diagnosis has to be right before we move to the prescription. Scriptural exegesis takes us only so far. Some Quranic verses seem to justify violence, others seem to extol peace. Like other revealed religions, Islam can be understood in more than one way – necessarily, since it seeks to express transcendent truths in earthly language.
But textual analysis is the wrong tool when exploring the motives of youths with limited religious knowledge. Two jihadi wannabes from Birmingham, Yusuf Sarwar and Mohammed Ahmed, recently pleaded guilty to terrorism after being detained on their way to Syria. At their trial, it emerged that the last books they had ordered from Amazon for the journey were “Islam for Dummies” and “The Koran for Dummies”.
“The experience of many ages proves that men may be ready to fight to the death, and to persecute without pity, for a religion whose creed they do not understand, and whose precepts they habitually disobey,” wrote Macaulay in 1840 and, as usual, he was spot on. The profiles of Saïd and Chérif Kouachi hardly suggest religious devotion. Theirs, rather, was the standard terrorist background: young, male, vain, angry, a history of petty crime and drug abuse, a yearning to be part of something bigger. It was similar to the background of, say, Michael Adebolajo, who carried out the sickening murder of Lee Rigby outside Woolwich Barracks, or Mohammed Bouyeri, the Moroccan-Dutch boy who sliced open film-maker Theo Van Gogh with a machete – before pedalling away on a bicycle, adding a grisly Dutch motif to his crime.
Islamist gunmen, in terms of character, are not so very different from, say, Red Brigaders or Baader-Meinhof gangsters. We see the same traits again and again: narcissism, alienation, violent proclivities, a belief that you can see things more clearly than anyone else.
“They want to find something meaningful for their life,” says Professor John Horgan, who has studied the psychology of Western-born jihadis. “Some are thrill seeking.”
If so, then the more we use the language of existential struggle and civilizational war, the more thrilling we make jihadism seem.
Religious labels don’t always correlate with religious observance, let alone pious behaviour. Think of, say, Northern Ireland during the Troubles, when denominational identity was, for many, a tribal signifier rather than a theological statement. The two things can overlap, of course, but we’re still left with the remarkably irreligious lifestyle that characterises many self-declared Islamic fighters.
In 2008, a briefing note by MI5 was leaked to the Guardian. It concluded that “far from being religious zealots, a large number of those involved in terrorism do not practise their faith regularly. Many lack religious literacy and could be regarded as religious novices.”
Most academics agree with the security experts. In his testimony to a US Senate hearing in 2010, anthropologist Scott Atran explained: “What inspires the most lethal terrorists in the world today is not so much the Quran or religious teachings as a thrilling cause and call to action that promises glory and esteem in the eyes of friends.”
Recall to the self-regarding Jafaican cant of Jihadi John, his me-me-me narcissism (“Ah’m back, Obama…”). Can you doubt that the experts are on to something?
What are the implications for public policy? If we’re dealing with what a former MI6 director calls “pathetic figures” rather than religious zealots, how should we respond? Repudiation by the wider Muslim community is of limited importance: extremists regard mainstream Muslims as traitors; indeed, in numerical terms, Muslims are by far their most common victims. Nor is theological refutation of much use when dealing with men whose religious identity is at the level of “Islam for Dummies”.
So what should we do? Well, for a start, we can stop taking these saddoes at their own estimation. Let’s treat them, not as soldiers, but as common criminals. Instead of making documentaries about powerful, shadowy terrorist networks, let’s laugh at the numpties who end up in our courts. Let’s mock their underpants bombs and shoe bombs and pitiable street slang and attempts to set fire to glass and steel airports by driving into them. Let’s enjoy their tendency to blow themselves up in error. Let’s scour away any sense that they represent a threat to the state – the illicit thrill of which is what attracts alienated young men trawling the web from their bedrooms. And when we’ve finished laughing, let’s remind them that we offer something better.