The Social Roots of Islamist Militancy in the West

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The 21th Valdai paper is devoted to considering of the social roots of Islamist militancy in the West.
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     Valdai Papers #21 | July 2015 The Social Roots of Islamist Militancy in the West Emmanuel Karagiannis   The Social Roots of Islamist Militancy in the West   2 #21, July 2015  Introduction The phenomenon of Islamist militancy in the West has preoccupied the public, media and governments. The September 11 events aggravated the already strained relations between the West and the Muslim world. The fact that the perpetrators of the terrorist attacks were Muslims, who had travelled to the United States from European cities, brought the Old Continent’s Islamic communities to the spotlight. The homegrown Madrid and London bombings on March 11, 2004 and July 7, 2005, respectively, only confirmed in the eyes of some people the untrustworthiness of European Muslims. In the United States, there have also been some high-profile cases of jihadi attacks or plots in the post-9/11 period (e.g. the 2003 Brooklyn Bridge plot, 2009 Fort Hood shooting). While these attacks and plots were different from each other, they can be classified as cases of Islamist militancy. For the purpose of this study, Islamist militancy will be defined as the aggressive and often violent pursuit of a cause associated with Islam.  Although it is very difficult to know precisely the number of Western Muslims who have been recruited by jihadi groups, a survey conducted by the Nixon Center revealed that there were 212 suspected and convicted terrorists implicated in North American and Western Europe between 1993 and 2003. 1   In addition, Edwin Bakker’s study identified 242 individual cases of jihadi terrorists in Europe during 2001-2006. 2  Most recently, there has been a resurgence of Islamist violence in Europe, Australia, Canada and the United States. The Boston marathon bombing in April 2013; the attack against the Jewish Museum of Brussels in May 2014; the October 2014 shooting at Parliament Hill at Ottawa; the December 2014 Sydney Hostage Crisis; and the January 2015 attack against the French satirical weekly newspaper Charlie Hebdo have all something in common: the perpetrators  were Muslims living in the West. To make matters worse, several thousand of European, Australian and North American Muslims have moved to Syria to join jihadi groups fighting against the Assad regime. However, while many analysts have argued that Western countries are currently under substantial threat, Western Muslims were first recruited by jihadi networks in the 1990s. 3  Some well-known cases include Lionel Dumont, who converted to Islam after serving with the French army in Somalia and then fought in Bosnia in defence of local Muslims, as did Christophe Caze who headed the infamous Roubaix Gang on his return to France; British convert David Sinclair, a 29-year-old computer specialist who travelled to Bosnia to fight with foreign Mujahedeen and was killed in a  battle by Bosnian Croat forces in 1993; German Stephen Smyrek who was arrested in Israel in November 1997 because he had allegedly been trained by Hizballah to carry out a suicide attack in Tel-Aviv. The first generation of Islamist militants did not initially attract much attention from 1   Rober S Leiken, “Bearers of Global Jihad? Immigration and National Security After 9/11”, Nixon Center, Washington DC, p. 6, http://www.nixoncenter.org/publications/monographs/Leiken_Bearers_of_Global_Jihad.pdf 2  Edwin Bakker, Jihadi Terrorists in Europe - Their Characteristics and the Circumstances in Which They Joined the Jihad: An Exploratory Study (Clingendael: Netherlands Institute of International Relations, 2006). 3  Gilles Kepel, Jihad: The Trail of Political Islam (London: I.B. Tauris, 2006); Marc Sageman, Leaderless Jihad: Terror Networks in the Twenty- First Century (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008); Lorenzo Vidino, “Homegrown Jihadist Terrorism in the United States: A New and Occasio nal Phenomenon?”, Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, Vol. 32, No. 1 (2009), pp. 1- 17; Tali K. Walters, Rachel Monaghan, & J. Martín Ramirez, Radicalization, Terrorism, and Conflict (Cambridge: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2013).     The Social Roots of Islamist Militancy in the West   3 #21, July 2015  Western security services for two reasons. First, their number was so small that they were not thought of as a serious threat. Second, they targeted unpopular foreign regimes rather than their own governments. Yet, some of them did participate in terrorist attacks on European soil; for instance, David Vallat and Joseph Raime, two Frenchmen who converted to Islam while in prison, gave logistical support to Algeria’s Armed Islamic Group for its 1995 bombing campaign in Paris. 4  In any case, the rise of Islamist militancy in the West have raised some important issues that still remain answered. The main question is why some Western Muslims have decided to take arms and fight against their perceived opponents? What are the social roots of Islamist militancy in the West? This paper will focus on the impact of Islamophobia and racism as a factor that can explain Islamist militancy in the West. Then, it will discuss the particular case of European Muslims travelling to Syria to join jihadi groups. Finally, the conclusion will summarize the main findings and sketch the prospects for the future.  Islamophobia and racism The targeting of Western civilians by Islamist militants has provoked a media hysteria against Islam. There are so many examples of statements and writings that have attacked unjustifiably Muslims that is almost impossible to compile a relevant anthology. However, a few of them attracted much attention due to the celebrated personality of the commentator or the outrageousness of the statement. In October 2006, Joan Smith of The Independent declared that “I can’t think of a more dramatic visual symbol of oppression, the inescapable fact being that the vast majority of the women  who cover their hair, faces and bodies do so because they have no choice”. 5  In December 2014, a famous TV commentator, Eric Zemmour argued that “this situation of a people inside a pe ople, of Muslims inside French people, will lead us to civil war…millions of people live here in France and refuse to live in the French manner”; therefore, he did not exclude the possibility of deporting five million Muslims from the country. 6  One month later, Steven Emerson, a terrorist commentator for The Fox News described Birmingham as “a Muslim - only city” and claimed that “Muslim religious police beat anyone who doesn’t dress according to religious Muslim attire”. 7  To make matters worse, there are a growing number of far-right and populist political parties that have openly endorsed racist and xenophobic views against Muslims. France’s National Front (Front National), the National Democratic Party of Germany (Nationaldemokratische Partei Deutschlands), Greece’s Golden Dawn (Chrysi Avgi), and Italy’s League of the North (Lega Nord) have constantly scapegoated Muslims. In this way, they have contributed to what Jocelyne Cesari called the 4   Hayder Mili, “Al - Qaeda’s Caucasian Foot Soldiers.” Jamestown Foundation Terrorism Monitor, 4, 2 November 2006, http://www.jamestown.org/programs/gta/single/?tx_ttnews[tt_news]=948&tx_ttnews[backPid]=181&no_cache=1 5   Joan Smith, “The Veil is a Feminist Issue”, The Independent, Oc tober 8, 2006, http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/commentators/joan-smith/joan-smith-the-veil-is-a-feminist-issue-419119.html 6   Dan Bloom, “France Embroiled in Free Speech Row after Islamophobic TV Presenter is Sacked for Saying Muslims Should be Deported to Prevent Civil War”, MailOnLine, December 22, 2014, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article -2883275/France-embroiled-free-speech-row-Islamophobic-TV-presenter-sacked-saying-Muslims-deported-prevent-civil-war.html 7   “Apology for ‘Muslim Birmingham’ Fox News Claim”, BBC News, January 12, 2015, http://www.bbc.com/news/uk  -england-30773297     The Social Roots of Islamist Militancy in the West   4 #21, July 2015 “securitisation of Islam in Europe” by influencing the policy mak  ing process on relevant issues (e.g. immigration laws, anti-terror policies). 8  Media bias and political xenophobia have stirred up a climate of Islamophobia that has alarmed Muslim communities. The term Islamophobia was defined by the Council of Europe a s “the fear of or prejudiced viewpoint towards Islam, Muslims and matters pertaining to them. Whether it takes the shape of daily forms of racism and discrimination or more violent forms, Islamophobia is a violation of human rights and a threat to social c ohesion”. 9   In 2005, a European survey claimed that “many Muslims have experienced verbal assaults in public transportation means and other public places. Muslim women who wear the headscarf and Muslim men who travel with women dressed this way are particu larly frequent targets of offensive comments”. 10  Likewise, the European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia has reported a rapid increase in the number of verbal and violent attacks against Muslims in many European countries. 11  According to a 2006 survey of Pew Research Center, 51 percent of Germany’s Muslims, 42 percent of Great Britain’s Muslims, 39 percent of France’s Muslims and 31 percent of Spain’s Muslims believe that native Europeans are hostile to Muslims, while 19 percent of German Muslims, 28 percent of British Muslims, 37 percent of French Muslims and 25 percent of Spanish Muslims had a bad personal experience. 12  There is a long list of individuals coming from ethnic minorities who were radicalized because they  were victimized or believed they were victimized by majority groups and/or authorities. Discrimination and abuse can give rise to anger that could be transformed into rage, hatred and a desire to take revenge. In the post-Cold War era, Islam has come to be seen as a religion of rebels. Olivier Roy has drawn attention to the phenomenon of ‘protest conversion’ which can be divided into four categories: the politicized rebels who admire the anti-imperialistic rhetoric of political Islam, the religious nomads who convert to Islam after experimenting with other religions, individuals with criminal record who find refuge in Islam, and members of minority groups (e.g. blacks, Latinos and people of mixed race) who are attracted to Islam because of its cross-racial appeal. 13  The last subgroup has been particularly vulnerable to Islamophobia and racism due to its visibility. It is hardly a surprise that an increased number of Western jihadi fighters are members of black and minority ethnic communities. While there are many examples of such individuals who have been radicalized and joined jihadi groups, this study will focus on two cases: Richard Reid who is known as the shoe  bomber for his 2001 attempt to detonate explosives hidden in his shoes during a transatlantic flight and Denis Mamadou Cuspert who started his career as a musician but he ended up as a jihadi fighter. Richard Reid, a British convert of Jamaican-English descent, is a typical example of this category. Reid had a troubled youth and served sentences for various crimes. He converted at the age of 25  while in prison. Reid reportedly blamed racism for his troubles with the law. According to his father, 8   Jocelyne Cesari, “The Securitisation of Islam in Europe”, CEPS Challenge Programme, Research Paper no. 15, April 2009.   9  Ingrid Ramberg, Islamophobia and its Consequences on Young People (Budapest: Council of Europe, 2004), p. 6. 10  Ann-Sofie Nyman, Intolerance and Discrimination against Muslims in the EU: Developments Since September 11 (Vienna: International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights, 2005), p. 30. 11 The Europ ean Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia, “Muslims in the European Union: Discrimination and Islamophobia” (Brussels: EUMC, 2006). 12   Pew Research Center, “Muslims in Europe: Economic Worries Top Concerns About Religious and Cultural Identity”, 2006, http://www.pewglobal.org/2006/07/06/muslims-in-europe-economic-worries-top-concerns-about-religious-and-cultural-identity/ 13  Olivier Roy, Globalized Islam: The Search for New Ummah (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004), p. 317.
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