Photo: VP-Brothers, Shutterstock

Olivier Roy: Terrorists are attracted to the “grand narrative”

The political scientist Olivier Roy was born into a Protestant family in La Rochelle in 1949. In the 1980s and 1990s, he worked, among other things, as a diplomat for the UN in Afghanistan and for the OSCE in Tajikistan. He is research director at the National Research Centre in Paris, teaches as a professor at the European University Institute in Florence and has published numerous books on Islam and ideologically motivated terrorism. The interview with him was conducted by Konstantin Sakkas in French.

Photo: VP-Brothers, Shutterstock

Islamic Newspaper: Monsieur Roy, Samuel Paty, Nice, then Vienna – is Islamist terrorism “back” in Europe?

Olivier Roy: Europe was gripped by Islamist terrorism 25 years ago, starting with France. There are regular “waves” (several attacks in a few months or weeks followed by quieter periods), but the phenomenon has become permanently inscribed.

Islamic Newspaper: So, will we have to live with the terrorist threat permanently?

Olivier Roy: No more and no less than with the terrorism of the extreme left in the seventies. Because the waves of terrorism are emerging in several dimensions: there is a generational dimension (most terrorists are second-generation immigrants, joined by young converts).

Then there is a geostrategic dimension, with the main phenomenon of local “jihads” (from Afghanistan to Syria via Bosnia and Chechnya) that have been “globalised” by supranational jihadist organisations (Al Qaeda from 1997 to 2015, then ISIS). And finally, on a smaller scale, there is the “blasphemy” dimension, with calls to murder “blasphemers” who insult the Prophet (Salman Rushdie, Jyllands Posten, Charlie Hebdo).

The generational dimension is just fading. The local jihads are taking place more and more on the periphery of the Muslim world (Sahel) and no longer mobilise young people in the West. As for the issue of “blasphemy,” it mobilises young people in search of a cause to sacrifice themselves for, but no longer the mass of Muslims in the West.

Islamic Newspaper: Is the “clash of civilisations” that Samuel Huntington predicted in 1996 just becoming a reality?

Olivier Roy: Well: nowhere does a fault line appear that would pit the “Islamic world” against the “Western world.” The local jihads harm first and foremost the local Muslim populations (even if they certainly include the non-Muslim minorities, such as the Christians and the Yazidis in Syria). In Europe, there are a few thousand Islamist terrorists compared to a Muslim population of more than ten million. Turks in Europe have never joined terrorism. A good quarter of the terrorists are converts.

And the geostrategic lines of conflict are never religious: Israel, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, with American support, stand together against Iran. Russia allies with Turkey to support Azerbaijan. The European Union has defended Bosnia and Kosovo against Serbia. In Syria, the rupture is within Islam itself. And finally, all the movements of the Arab Spring (most recently the Algerian Hirak Rif movement and the democratic movement in Sudan) do not relate to Islam, but to democracy.

Islamic Newspaper: In your opinion, what are the main motives of the terrorists?

Olivier Roy: The “globalised” terrorists are attracted by the big narrative that Al Qaeda and Daesh (ISIS; ed.) have put into the world: Young people in transition (second generation immigrants and converts), poorly integrated into local Muslim communities, who see themselves as losers, often petty criminals, create for themselves in one fell swoop a new image as a “hero” who will avenge an abstract Muslim community (abstract because they never care about the Muslims who live on the same street as them, only those they see on the internet) and who, by sacrificing themselves, will go to paradise.

At the centre of most terrorist acts committed in Europe is death: the terrorist is not trying to escape to start over later but is waiting for the police to kill him. This death-wish dimension is also a reason for the relative decline of terrorist actions (from the commando armed with automatic weapons to the “lone wolf” armed with a kitchen knife).

Islamic Newspaper: Is neoliberalism to blame for the radicalisation of terrorists?

Olivier Roy: Certainly not directly. But they are inscribing themselves in a fairly “neoliberal” narrative: Globalisation, cultural alienation (their Islam is never that of their parents), self-dramatisation via social media and an individualism in search of self-realisation. This self-realisation happens via death, not via social advancement. In this they are the negative heroes of neoliberalism. But this negative hero is very popular in a certain “youth culture” (see the perpetrators of the Columbine massacre, those two young Americans who invented the pre-announced and filmed mass murder in 1999).

Islamic Newspaper: The deterioration of living conditions does not only affect immigrants in the banlieues, but also native workers and petty bourgeois. Will we see a split in society between Islamists and nationalists because of the inequality? Here the jihadist milieus, there the Front National or, with us in Germany, the AfD?

Olivier Roy: There is no direct correlation between radicalisation and socio-economic status. On the contrary, there is a deep sense of declassification in radicalisation, which is not necessarily related to income, but to a sense of loss of status. For me, cultural alienation and loss of social reference points are weightier than poverty. And this exists just as much among small “white” middle-class people as among second-generation immigrants. Common to both is declassification and the search for a “grand narrative” (religious or nationalist) that gives meaning, that gives the individual back a place, a status.

Islamic Newspaper: Have we not underestimated the social risks of immigration?

Olivier Roy: For me, cultural alienation and the loss of social reference points are more important than poverty. And this exists just as much with small “white” middle-class people as with second-generation immigrants. Common to both is declassification and the search for a “grand narrative” (religious or nationalist) that gives meaning, that gives the individual back a place, a status. Now, different things are subsumed under immigration.

Radicalisation has particularly affected the second generation of immigrants, the children of that massive labour migration that came to Europe with work visas and at the request of the big companies in the sixties. Apart from the Turks, by the way. These migrants were poor, often uneducated and had no goal of integration in Europe. This immigration was meant to be temporary, and it was treated as if they were homogeneous communities preserving their culture, when in fact the real problems come from the massive cultural alienation these communities have suffered (crisis of parental authority, loss of mother tongue, failure to pass on traditional Islam, etc.).

The problem is the handling of the second generation of these immigrants, and this was not anticipated. The current immigration, on the other hand, is far more individual, it is a decision consciously made by the migrants, and it concerns strata who are more educated and who are also determined to reshape their lives in the West. It is enough to look at Germany to see how quickly Syrians are integrating.

Islamic Newspaper: What answer to the social question regarding jihadism do you propose?

Olivier Roy: Apart from the normal security and police measures, we need a counter-model of integration and a religious counter-discourse, starting from the Muslim strata in Europe. In short, instead of hunting down the strict believers (which leads to opening the door to the radicals) we need to legitimise an integrated Islam. We must also favour the social advancement of young, immigrant Muslims. But the key to this lies not so much in policies as in the ability of European Muslims to take their destiny into their own hands. The key issue lies in the emergence of immigrant-derived elites.

Islamic Newspaper: Is it impossible to accept Western values without participating in its prosperity?

Olivier Roy: First, you don’t really know what Western values are. Are they the liberal values of the 1960s or the Christian, more conservative values as represented by the Catholic Church? Then the problem is not so much income as social recognition, and that can only come from the rehabilitation of an ethic of common sense (and not just social advancement). The growing particularisation of our society, the widening gap between income and the social significance of a job (a “bullshit job” pays ten times as much as the job of a governess) make it difficult to follow values that are officially proclaimed but seem to be permanently ridiculed in European societies.

Islamic Newspaper: Living conditions in the West are still far more pleasant than in most oriental countries. Don’t the jihadist nihilists want to see that?

Olivier Roy: They don’t care, and definitely. The great nihilists are never “the damned of the earth.” Those who seek death don’t care about living conditions.

Islamic Newspaper: Do the official representatives of Islam, whether in France or in Austria, speak loudly enough when they condemn jihadist strikes?

Olivier Roy: Well, they are in an impossible position. You only listen to them when they say what you want to hear them say. For their voice to carry more weight, they would have to speak out in the first place about things that concern them concretely, and they would have to be listened to. Only then would their voice be heard among Muslims.

Islamic Newspaper: Is it a mistake to blame “Islam” for “Islamist” attacks?

Olivier Roy: “Islam” does not exist, at least any more than “Christianity” (both Trump and Pope Francis both refer to the Gospels). What there is, are Muslims. And they have very different ideas of what Islam is. The question “what does the Qur’an say?” is uninteresting because there is no answer to it (there are as many answers as there are experts). The real question is: “what do Muslims say about what the Qur’an says?”

Islamic Newspaper: the Vienna attack was the first large-scale Islamist attack in Austria. Compared to that, France is used to jihadist attacks, so to speak. Why is France the preferred target of such attacks?

Olivier Roy: First, because France is by far the largest gathering place of young, “alienated” Muslims: especially Maghrebians who have even lost the language of their grandparents. Secondly, because French secularism tends to criminalise the religious in general when it is expressed in the public space (and not only Islam, as can be seen in the example of the repression of Catholics demonstrating for the reopening of churches during the Corona crisis). French secularism exacerbates religious tensions, as can be seen in the example of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons. But at the same time, one cannot ignore the “aleatoric” side of the terrorist attacks: There is no special reason for it to hit Austria, but it is enough that a terrorist finds himself there to commit the deed.

Islamische Zeitung: Europe’s colonial past has been discussed with much acrimony in the feuilletons this year. One cannot accuse intellectuals and politicians in Europe of not caring about our moral responsibility. But the “preachers of hate” do not hear us. Is the West’s self-criticism in vain in the end?

Olivier Roy: I am very sceptical about the “postcolonial” argument. None of the terrorists refer to colonial history, none of them went back to their home country to fight. They all prefer the “exotic” jihad (Afghanistan, Syria, Bosnia). How is it that the war waged by the French army in the Sahel does not provoke acts of terrorism? Why has it not driven any young person of Sahel origin to act in France? And why is it that countries without a colonial past, such as Denmark, Germany, Austria (meaning colonies in the area where Islam spreads, editor’s note), become victims of terrorism, while colonial powers such as Italy do not?

Islamic Newspaper: One of the most powerful political slogans of this year was Black lives matter (BLM). Unlike the German-speaking countries, France has a very large Black minority. Are there relevant ideological points of contact between this minority and the jihadist milieu?

Olivier Roy: Not at all. The French counterpart to BLM, for example the Traoré Committee, counts many Muslims because they occupy in principle the same social sphere as African Americans in the USA. None of them have been associated with jihad or terrorism. None of the youth involved in this movement have joined ISIS in Syria. The 2005 riots, which started from clashes between youth in the banlieue and the police, never used “Islamist” slogans or “Islamist” methods. The religious factor does not play a role in the mobilisation of young Black people in France. They can be Muslims, “Christians,” “Black Identitarians” or simply young banlieue French.

Islamic Newspaper: Does the education system have to change? In the Federal Republic, teachers have little power, especially when confronted with pupils from certain milieus. What is the situation in France?

Olivier Roy: The school system is in a bad way, and in difficult neighbourhoods the situation is even worse: classes that are too big, absenteeism of teachers, rebellion of young people. Young, inexperienced teachers are sent to the banlieue first, there is no supervision outside of class, etc. In addition, the compulsory laicism lessons seem very hypocritical: how are you supposed to make young people from the banlieue understand that freedom, equality, and fraternity lie in laicism!

Islamic Newspaper: Shouldn’t the new authoritarianisms be countered with secular authority? The jihadist as well as the right-wing?

Olivier Roy: For that, an authoritarian discourse would have to be credible. And we are far from that.

Islamic Newspaper: Are terrorism, radicalisation, and social segregation simply part of pluralism?

Olivier Roy: Not necessarily. Authoritarian states also knew these problems (Russia before the revolution) and still know them (Egypt). The problem of democratic states is: how to fight radicalism while remaining democratic?

Islamic Newspaper: Is a future without Islamist (and also racist) attacks a utopia?

Olivier Roy: The problem is: if one day we should be rid of jihadism (and perhaps also racism): who will take their place?

Islamic Newspaper: Professor Roy, thank you for this interview.

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