Jihadism as Nihilist Revolt
The destruction of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq will change nothing about the uninterrupted radicalization of the French youth since the 1990s. Whether these youth were already Muslim or recent converts, this radicalism has exploded their familial environment. Apart from cultural or third-worldist explanations, it is time for French society to grasp this phenomenon in its entirety.
France is at war! Perhaps. But at war with whom or against what? Daesh (ISIS) does not send Syrians to commit attacks in France in order to dissuade the French government from making air strikes. Daesh draws from a reservoir of young radicalized French youth who, whether or not they come from the Middle East, are already dissident and looking for a cause, a label, a master narrative to which they can add the bloody signature of their personal rebellion. The destruction of Daesh will not change anything about this rebellion.
The youth’s attraction to Daesh is opportunist: yesterday they were with Al-Qaeda, before that (1995), they formed the substrates of the Algerian GIA or practiced, from Bosnia to Afghanistan by way of Chechnya, their petty nomadism of individual jihad (like the Roubaix Gang). And tomorrow they will fight under another banner, unless death in action, age, or disillusion do not weaken their ranks as was the case with the extreme left in the 1970s.
There are no third, fourth, or umpteenth generations of jihadists. Since 1996, we have been confronted with a very stable phenomenon. The radicalization of two categories of the French youth, namely “second-generation” Muslims and converts who are “homegrown” French. The essential problem for France is thus not the “caliphate” of the Syrian Desert, which will evaporate sooner or later like an old mirage turned nightmare. The problem is the revolt of the youth. And the true question is understanding what these youths represent, whether they are the avant-garde of a war to come or, on the contrary, the noise of history’s engine backfiring.
Today two interpretations dominate the scene and structure the televised debates and opinions of journals. Put simply, these are the culturalist and third-worldist explanations. The first puts forward the recurrent and painful war of civilizations: the revolt of the Muslim youth shows the limits of Muslim integration, at least as long as a theological reform has not removed the call to jihad from the Quran. The second constantly evokes postcolonial suffering, the identification of the youth with the Palestinian cause, their rejection of western interventions into the Middle East, and their exclusion from a racist and islamophobic French society. In short, this is the old refrain: so long as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not resolved, revolt will continue.
But these two explanations run into the same problem: if the causes of radicalization were structural, then why do they only affect a small and circumscribed fringe of those who consider themselves Muslims in France—some thousands out of millions? After all, these young radicals have been identified! All of the terrorists who have taken to action have earned their famous “S” designation. I do not address here the question of prevention. I simply note that this information is accessible. Let’s then examine who they are and try to draw some conclusions.
Islamization of Radicalism
Nearly all of the French jihadists fall into two very precise categories: they are either of the “second generation,” born or immigrated to France as infants, or converts (a group whose number increases over time, but who at the end of the 1990s already constituted 25% of radicals). This means that, among radicals, there are hardly any from a “first generation” (even of recent immigrés), but above all none of a “third generation.” Yet, this last category exists and is growing: Moroccans who immigrated in the 1970s are grandparents, and one does not find their grandchildren among the terrorists.
And why would converts who have never suffered from racism want to brusquely avenge humiliation suffered by Muslims? Especially because many converts come from the French countryside, such as Maxime Hauchard, and have few reasons to identify with a Muslim community that only virtually exists for them. In short, it is not the “revolt of Islam” or that of “Muslims,” but a precise problem concerning two categories of the youth, mostly those coming from immigrant backgrounds, but also “homegrown” French. It is not a matter of the radicalization of Islam, but of the Islamification of radicalism.
What do the “second generation” and the converts hold in common? There is first of all a generational revolt: both rebel against their parents, or more precisely with what their parents represent in terms of culture and religion. The “second generation” never adheres to the Islam of their parents, they never represent a tradition that revolts against westernization. They are westernized, they speak better French than their parents. All have imbibed the “youth” culture of their generation, they have drunk alcohol, smoked some shit, hit on girls at the night club. A large part among them has spent time in prison. And then one fine morning, they have (re)converted, choosing Salafist Islam, which is to say an Islam that rejects the concept of culture, an Islam that allows them to completely refashion themselves. For they want nothing to do with either the culture of their parents or “western” culture, which have become symbols of their self-hatred.
The key to the revolt is from the beginning the absence of the transmission of a culturally-integrated religion. It is a problem that concerns neither the “first generation,” bearers of the cultural Islam of their countries of origin, but which has not managed to be passed on, nor the “third generation,” which speaks French with their parents and thanks to their parents have a familiarity with the modes of Muslim expression within French society: even if this may be conflictual, it is “speakable.” If one finds far fewer Turks than North Africans in radical movements, it is without a doubt because, for the Turks, the transition had been assured, because the Turkish state—which had seen its society modernize—took control of the transmission by sending primary school teachers and imams to France (who pose other problems, but allow one to avoid adhesion to Salafism and violence).
As far as they are concerned, the youth converts by definition adhere to the “pure” religion. Cultural compromise does not interest them. They have nothing to do with previous generations who converted to Sufism. They find here the second generation in the adhesion to an “Islam of rupture”—generational, cultural, and finally political rupture. In short, there is nothing to be gained from offering them a “moderate Islam.” It is by definition the radicalism that attracts them. Salafism is not only a question of preaching financed by Saudi Arabia, it is the product that suits troubled youths.
As a result, and this is the biggest difference with the case of young Palestinians who commit to the diverse forms of intifada. The Muslim parents of French radicals do not understand the revolt of their progeny. More and more, as with the parents of converts, the parents try to prevent the radicalization of their children. They call the police, they go to Turkey to try to put their children back on track, they fear, with good reason, that the older radicals lead the younger ones astray. In short, far from being the symbol of a radicalization of the Muslim populations, the jihadists explode the generational divide, or, put more simply, the family.
By breaking with their family, the jihadists are also at the margins of Muslim communities: on the contrary, they almost never come from a pious past of religious practice. Journalists’ articles are shockingly similar. After each attack, one pokes around those close to the murderer, and everywhere it’s “a sense of surprise”: “We don’t understand, they were a kind boy (or the variant: ‘A common petty criminal’), he did not practice religion, he drank, he smoked joints, he hung out with girls… Oh, yeah, it is true, for a couple of months now, he went through a bizarre change, he let his beard grow out and began to absorb religion.” For the feminine version, see the plethora of articles concerning Hasna Aït Boulahcen, “Miss Party Girl Jihad.” It is useless here to evoke taqiyya or dissimulation, because once born again, these youths do not hide and they display their newfound conviction on Facebook. They thus exhibit their new all-powerful self, their will to get revenge on a pent-up frustration, their pleasure from their new omnipotence that provides them with their will to kill and their fascination with their own death. The violence to which they adhere is a modern violence. They kill in the same manner as the mass killers in America or Anders Breivik in Norway, coldly and tranquilly. Nihilism and pride are here profoundly connected.
The extremist’s individualism is reflected in their isolation with regard to Muslim communities. Few among them frequent mosques. Their eventual imams are often self-proclaimed. Their radicalization forms around a fantasy world of heroes, violence, and death, not sharia law or utopia. In Syria, they only make war: none of them integrate or hold an interest in civil society. And if they claim sexual slaves or recruit young women on the internet to become the wives of future martyrs, it is because they have no place in the Muslim societies that they claim to defend. They are more nihilist than utopian.
If some of them have come through the Tablighi Jamaat (society for the spread of Mulism fundamentalism), none have frequented the Muslim Brotherhood (the Union of Islamic Organizations in France), none have participated in a political movement, starting with the pro-Palestinian movements. None has taken part in “communitarian” practices: providing meals at the end of Ramadan, preaching in the mosques or going door-to-door in the streets. None has undertaken serious religious studies. None are interested in theology, nor even in the nature of jihad or the Islamic State. They radicalize around a small group of “friends” who meet in a particular place (neighborhood, prison, sports club); they recreate a “family,” a fraternity. There is an important dynamic that no one has yet studied: the fraternity is often biological. Frequently one finds a pair of “little brothers” who radicalize together (the Kouachi brothers and Abdeslam, Abdelhamid Abaaoud who “kidnapped” his little brother, the Clain brothers who converted together, without speaking of the Tsarnaev brothers, authors of the April 2013 attack in Boston). It is as if radicalizing siblings (sisters included) was a means of underlining the generational dimension and the break with the parents. The cell tries hard to create affective bonds between its members: often one marries the sister of his brother in arms. Jihadist cells do not resemble those of marxist or nationalist-inspired radical movements (the Algerian FLN, IRA, or ETA). Founded on personal bonds, they are more impermeable to infiltration.
The terrorists are thus not the expression of a radicalization of the Muslim population, but reflect a generational revolt that affects a precise category of the youth.
Why Islam? For the second generation, it is clear: they refashion for themselves an identity that their parents have, in their eyes, mishandled. They are “more Muslim than the Muslims” and in particular, more so than their parents. The energy they expend to (in vain) reconvert their parents is telling but shows just how far off in out space they are (all of the parents have a story of one of these interactions). As for the converts, they choose Islam because it is the only thing on the radical revolt market (to join the extreme left, they would have to read, which does not suit these youths). Joining Daesh grants the certainty of terrorizing.
Notes: Translator’s Note: Daesh is the Arabic rendering of the acronym for the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, often referred to in English as ISIL or ISIS. Many French speakers prefer to use this name to refer to the group, in part because the group itself hates the term. All notes are from the Translator.  Translator’s Note: The Algerian GIA is the Groupe islamique armé, active in the 1990s during the Algerian Civil War. The Roubaix Gang was a short-lived criminal group with ties to al-Qaeda, active in France in 1996.  Translator’s Note: The classification used by the French state to identify persons over the age of fourteen who might pose a threat to the “safety of the French state.”  Translator’s Note: The principle, most notably in Shi’a Islam, where one is allowed to hide or denounce their religious devotion for fear of persecution.
This article first appeared in Le Monde, on 24 November 2015 and was translated from the French by Timothy Scott Johnson. from logosjournal