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Terror in Europe

Here's A Radical Idea: Social Injustice Is To Blame For Jihad

Why do we refuse to admit that discrimination and poverty help the spread of Islamic fanaticism? Understanding is not justifying, explaining is not forgiving.

In Calais, France
In Calais, France
Jacob Rogozinski

PARIS — What leads young Europeans to kill other young Europeans in the name of jihad?

To explain something we don't understand, we invoke the term "radicalization" to denounce jihadist Islamism and desperately search for ways to "de-radicalize" those who have been caught into its net. It's fair to say that "radicalization" and "radical" have become synonymous with extremism and violence. But since this choice of words is not true to its meaning, it might be time to understand its provenance.

"To be radical," Karl Marx said, "is to grasp things by the root." To be radical is to revolt and attack the roots of social suffering, unemployment, racism, and the like. Such rebellion doesn't necessarily call for violence.

We need a new radicalism that can offer deep changes in society: the end of discrimination, exclusion, and inequality. This is not wishful thinking. In city neighborhoods and suburbs, there are new homes of radicalism emerging that rest outside the Islamist movement as embodied in a march for dignity and against racism that took place on October 31, 2015, in Paris. If such efforts grow, they could come to represent an alternative to the deadly spread of jihadism.

Why do we refuse to admit that discrimination may promote the spread of Islamic fanaticism? The answer lies in our fear of exonerating the killers. Explaining jihadism, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls says, is already looking for an excuse. And yet, understanding is not justifying, explaining is not forgiving. In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks, wasn't he the one who spoke about the "territorial, social, and ethnic apartheid" which "are added to daily discrimination because he or she has the wrong family name, or the wrong skin color?" Who would deny that this can ignite a sense of injustice and spark a revolt like the one that engulfed the poor city outskirts and suburbs a decade ago? It can also lead some young people to court terror networks.

Hijacking and hatred

What is wrongly referred to as a process of "radicalization" is the hijacking of a legitimate revolt by groups whose sole purpose is to terrorize and kill. How does this move from righteous anger to deadly hatred occur?

This is difficult to answer because it depends on the individual and what is personal to them. One feeling in particular appears to play a decisive role: vengeance. This is the desire to avenge a wrong, real or imagined, to take revenge on behalf of friends and fallen brothers. The Charlie Hebdo and the Bataclan attackers have explicitly stated that as a motive. But this alone doesn't fully accountt for jihadist terror. The predominant feeling behind such attacks is not vengeance but hate.

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French authorities search for suspects after the November 13 attacks — Photo: Chris93

Hatred thus requires the construction of some monstrous figure of an absolute enemy that deserves death, and this target is bound to widen ceaselessly. The logic of hatred leads the perpetrator to get carried away, moving from a terror with limited objectives to a limitless terror.

But how is it that the people capturing and intensifying this hatred can claim a religious belief? How does the religious terrorist incorporate violent Islam into his belief system? How does jihadism manage to present itself to so many desperate young people as their only hope, as the only possible outcome for their rebellion and thirst for righteousness?

We know that Marx considered religion as both an "expression of misery" — alienation — and as a protest against the misery. It is this protest that hides behind the fanaticism of the raging jihadist, the scream of a rebellion that has been left untended and has become disfigured by hatred. This phenomenon is nothing new: it characterized Stalinism, Communism and Fascism.

This may appear obvious in the case of Stalinism, but we would be wrong to underestimate the rebellious dimension of fascism, its ability to exploit the feelings of indignation and anger of the masses in order to put them at the service of a terror strategy. Jihadism is, in this sense, the heir of the totalitarian movements of the 20th century by replicating their mission of conquest and extermination.

Only an intellectual and moral reform of Islam could stop the developments we are witnessing today. But this reform, as necessary as it is, is by no means sufficient. Since jihadist terror is rooted in a protest against social suffering and injustice, it is essential to work towards creating a radical alternative that makes it possible to resist the attractions of terror.

This implies fighting uncompromisingly and relentlessly against that which can empower terror. It means the discerning support of new centers of radicalism that are based not on deadly fanaticism but on goals for social emancipation.

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