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By Tunji Olalere

One of the great conundrums of modern life, particularly that of this millennium, is how ‘men and women who live apparently integrated lives in Western countries come to conceive of themselves as united with distant co-religionists in a battle against their neighbours’. It is a question that has exercised the brightest of minds across a broad range of human intellection.
Frazer Egerton in his book, Jihad in the West: The Rise of Militant Salafism, reviews the literature devoted to this phenomenon, and adds his own theoretical framework which he explains the factors that have helped birth and nourish the scourge of Islamic terrorism in the world, especially that perpetuated in Europe and the United States. He widely references works dating from antiquity to the most contemporary of conflict theories.

Egerton, in building his hypothesis for explaining the making of the Militant Salafist (whom he defines as ‘someone who considers their identity as a Muslim as paramount and holds that Muslims face hostility and aggression to which they have a duty to respond with violence’) rather than focus on the root causes, which he considers unhelpful, deploys his energy to factors that enables and facilitates the peculiar mental construct that make Militant Salafism thrive.

Salafism, derived from the Arabic word for ancestor, is a puritanical adoption of the Qur’an and hadiths with no room for human interpretation or contextualization. In its ambit, the adherent has no sympathies for other modes of worship. Thus, the plight of the Shi’a, Kosovo Muslims, and Kurds do not concern the Salafist, who considers them as equivalents of, if not worse than, the unbelievers.
In arriving at his model, the author critiques the mainstream theories on the rise of Jihad in the West. For many years, it was thought that the propensity to terrorism was due to psychiatric disorders. Psychological assessments of Nazi generals during their trial had concluded that these men suffered from different mental illnesses. Egerton however cites landmark work by eminent observers such as Silke and Rasch which showed these individuals had psychological profiles not significantly different from the average American.

 

 

The politics of nostalgia feeds off the belief in the presence of an existential battle between the Muslim world, Dar al-Islam, and the non-Muslim world, Dar al-Harb…….Political grievances are mined and amplified by the ubiquity of hypermedia

 

Another popular theory is that the religion of Islam itself is responsible for the rise of violent extremism. This belief has grabbed the attention of scholars and commentators alike, suggesting that Islam sanctions the use of violence to achieve its ends. While it is true that there are explicit ayat authorizing the use of violence against idolaters and non-Muslims, there are also other injunctions urging Muslims to live in peace with their neighbours. While it would seem that the scripture equivocates, some Islamic scholars like Sheikh Sayed Tantwai believe such verses have to be viewed in their historical context. The author counters that historically, ‘good muslims’ have been living in close social, political, and economic harmony with their neighbours. For example, the Ottoman Turks welcomed the Sephardi Jews who were expelled from Spain in 1492. Therefore, what then informs the decision of the jihadist to selectively seize on one narrative strand?

The answer, it would seem, lies in the concept of alienation.
A nebulous paradigm, alienation has been made to answer for much of the blame for the rise of violent Islamism. Considered on the individual front, Hans Enzensberger in his 2005 essay, The Radical Loser, states that terrorism ‘is an act of destructive revenge on the part of society’s failures’. The image emerges of a young man who turns to Jihad as a form of redemption from a life of social transgression, petty crime, educational underachievement, aimless drifting’ and/or trauma. The radical loser aims to get even with the State or her agents (whom he names as the Jews, capitalist, the Ruling Class, etc). There is a conflation of the villains of economic oppression with the enemies of Islam.

On a structural level, many thinkers have pointed to a generational alienation, perhaps from the observation that many of the actors in Western Jihad were immigrants from North Africa and the Middle East, second-generation young males, or social outcasts who converted to Islam. Adrift between cultures, these young men suffered from ethnic exclusion and turned to Militant Salafism for an identity they deeply sought. However, the fact that many Jihadists, such as the London bombers, Mohammed Siddique Khan and Shehzad Tanweer, were well integrated into their society, provides an empirical refutation of this theory. It has also been argued that alienation is too loosely defined to ensure inter-observer identity of recognition. Thus, the theory may be a significant thread, but it doesn’t suffice.

IT IS TO BENEDICT ANDERSON THAT Egerton turns in his quest for a framework that combines a robust intellectual foundation with empirical evidence. In his 1991 seminal work, Imagined Communities, Anderson describes how the ‘convergence of capitalism and print technology made it increasingly feasible, and therefore common, for people highly unlikely to have ever met, to imagine themselves as part of the same community’. This isn’t new thinking. Karl Marx had predicted the ‘annihilation of space by time’ as ‘capital by its nature drives beyond every spatial barrier’. A ‘space of flows’ thus replaces that of ‘place’. This is the ethos of globalisation.

Militant Salafism is thus regarded as an accidental consequence of globalization where young men and women gravitate towards a violent, abstract worldwide cause based on virtual ties to a virtual community, the imagined ‘Ummah’. This political imaginary is construed in the narrow sense of ultra-religious believers who subscribe to the same brand of Islam as the Salafists. Hence, a kindred ethno- nationalism is fostered trans-nationally with a consequent destruction of space. Location ceases to be the sole basis of identity, and is replaced by the unity of ideas. The author then focuses on the agents of globalization which aid the formation and sustenance of radical theology: Media and Movement.

Media, especially the electronically-based, image-dominated, decentralized and interactive kind, has played a cardinal role in the erasure of space by time. In a culture that is image-centred, little room is left to intellectually engage a video clip showing the massacre of Bosnian Muslims or American aggression in Iraq. Pictures, as opposed to words, can easily be manipulated to stoke animosity in the naive. This is then easily spread online and debated in virtual chat rooms where the impressionable are radicalized. In fact, raids on the homes of many terrorists have yielded audio-visuals which show the plight of Muslims supposedly being killed for their faith in far-flung geographies from Palestine to the Philippines. Jihadist propaganda served in sermons by well-respected Islamic preachers are copied, duplicated, shared and debated, in places thousands of miles removed from the origins of these materials almost instantaneously. This increases the probability that these incendiary messages will find a fertile mind to germinate and grow into armed aggression.

It is clear from collected data that immigrants constitute the substantial majority of those who progress to militancy in the West. A study by Edward Bakker shows that, ‘only 17 of the European Salafists in his sample of 242 originated from European families’. This suggests a strong role played by displacement in the psychological receptiveness of an individual to violent Islamism. It has been posited that these persons, mostly of North- African extraction, have no real rootedness to any physical place, but instead seek affinities on the basis of ideology. They are more wont to wreck atrocities on their neighbourhood because they feel no strong attachment to place. This concept of ‘deterritorialisation’ engenders nostalgia, not for a concrete past, but for a political imaginary of the persecuted Ummah who require protection. This has been demonstrated amongst the Sikhs who, though dispersed across the face of the earth, ache for and support the creation of a pure location within India, Khalistan, to which they are financially and emotionally allegiant.

 

The Ottoman Turks welcomed the Sephardi Jews who were expelled from Spain in 1492. Therefore, what then informs the decision of the jihadist to selectively seize on one narrative strand?

There is therefore a re-imagining of a world that does not exist beyond the collective imagination. The politics of nostalgia feeds off the belief in the presence of an existential battle between the Muslim world, Dar al-Islam, and the non-Muslim world, Dar al-Harb. This is essentially the worldview of the Militant Salafist, where political grievances are mined and amplified by the ubiquity of hypermedia to suffuse a deterritorialised consciousness. Here is the path to radicalization.

Egerton further argues that Militant Salafism taps into an already prevalent animosity (backed by surveys) in the Muslim community towards the Western foreign policy of interventionism. Thus, a significant minority of those who hold this grievance could become ready tools in the hands of bitter radical preachers, such as Abu Hamza al-Masri, who ran the Finsbury Park Mosque that became the power house for the London bombings of 2005. Coupled with a religious culture that elevates martyrdom to the pinnacle of piety, many of these Jihadists, having become uprooted in space, aspired to a death in the service of the greater cause: the preservation of the Ummah.

Egerton however does not anticipate the rise of the Islamic State, which seeks to carve a physical Caliphate where Islam is both religion and law, and where the political imaginary is housed in the ragged borders of a map. Eventually, no matter how ambitious a theory appears, it still must answer to reality.
Jihad in the West: The Rise of Militant Salafism, published by Cambridge University Press in 2011, was discussed at the Lagos Book and Art Festival in November 2016. This review was initially published in the brochure of that Festival.
The reviewer, Tunji Olalere, describes himself on his twitter handle @tunji_olalere, as ‘Physician, Seeker, Scribbler’.

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