The following book review is the fourth in a series originally published in the Journal of the Oasis Foundation. The six books selected highlight aspects of aspects of Christianity and Islamic history and culture in the Middle East and their bearing on the situation in the region today.
Oasis was founded in 2004 in Venice to encourage mutual understanding and opportunities for encounter between the Western world and the Muslim majority world. According to Oasis, “interreligious dialogue involves intercultural dialogue because religious experience is always lived and expressed through the medium of culture: not merely at the theological and spiritual level, but also at the political, economic, and social ones.”
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Le jihadisme. Le comprendre pour mieux le combattre [“Jihadism: Understanding it better to combat it better”] is a book intended for the general public written by three authors who attempt to provide Europeans with an understanding of the phenomenon of jihadism, which they examine from three perspectives: historical, sociological and legal. Philippe Migaux, an international security expert, provides an overview of the historical origins of jihadist ideology (which he defines as the last totalitarianism of the twentieth century) and of the new type of terrorism that it has engendered.
A point he is keen to make from the very first pages of the book is that jihadism is quite different from revolutionary terrorism, which aims at the radical transformation of the state (as was the intention of the Red Brigades of Italy in the 1970s), different from liberationist terrorism, which asserts the independence of a part of the territory from the state (as espoused by the National Liberation Front of Corsica), and different from state-sponsored terrorism, which supports government diplomacy through illegal means (as practised by the Syrian, Iraqi and Libyan authorities before the outbreak of war).
Migaux gives a brief historical run-down of the development of jihadist thought, from the birth of Salafism under Ibn Taymiyya (d. 1328) to the emergence of Wahhabism as articulated by Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhāb (d. 1792) and, finally, the appearance of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt in 1928, whose development of the concept of a global system based on religion would have quietly helped shape the dangerous ideology of the Islamic State. “God is our objective, the Messenger of God is our guide, the Qur’an is our constitution, and jihad is our way […],” declared Hassan al-Banna, the founder of the Brotherhood.
Hassan al-Banna’s political ideas, which still did not envisage armed struggle, were later radicalized by Sayyid Qutb, who revived the notion of the jāhiliyya, or ignorance of pre-Islamic societies, and extended its scope of application to include non-Islamic societies or societies under impious rule against which it was deemed permissible to fight and even shed blood, so that though the practice of jihad, Islam might become the guiding force for all humanity. The brief historical survey is followed by a useful overview of the evolution of the jihadist strategy.
After considering the historical perspective, the book examines the sociological, anthropological and psychological forces at work in jihadism, with the contribution of Farhad Khosrokhavar, a Franco-Iranian expert on Shi‘ite and European Islam. His analysis focuses on the attractiveness of jihad for young Muslims in Europe, which has led to the emergence of two different types of activist: the socially excluded young people of the French banlieues and the poor districts of English cities, and the ever-increasing number of adolescent converts from the middle class. For Khosrokhavar, young European jihadists are attracted not so much by Islam itself as by what it represents. It has become the “religion of the oppressed, and so attracts young immigrants of the second, third or fourth generation […] as well as young middle-class converts, who find in radical Islam the anti-imperialist impulse that in the 1970s used to be embodied in leftist movements” (p. 269).
The book closes with a brief contribution from David Bénichou, a lawyer and vice-president of the anti-terrorist department of the court of Paris, who deals with the legal ramifications of jihadism and looks at the 23 measures adopted in France in 2014 to fight the Syrian groups – which were to prove inadequate in the light of the attacks of 2015 – and at several other issues, including cyber-terrorism and hostage-taking.
While much of the discourse in the book is highly technical and well-documented, some controversial and provocative claims are allowed to slip through. They add nothing to the content and only reinforce negative attitudes. One such claim is that the French laïcité, a hard-won achievement that came after a long struggle to free citizens from the Church, is in danger of being squandered to placate “the most extremist and minority current of the latest monotheistic religion” (p. 330).
Generally speaking, however, the book is useful and valuable for non-specialist readers interested in finding out more about a phenomenon that concerns them ever more directly.
* Le jihadisme. Le comprendre pour mieux le combattre, by David Bénichou, Farhad Khosrokhavar and Philippe Migaux. (Plon, Paris, 2015)
Chiara Pellegrino is a member of the Oasis International Foundation’s editorial staff. This article is reproduced from Oasis with permission.