Jihadism raises the issue of meaning and the lack of ideals in a Europe in which the classical ideologies have lost their ability to mobilize people

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Last update: 2022-04-22 08:59:28

Jihadism is being subjected to numerous forms of analysis and criticism. The multiple theories about it range from denunciations of Islam pure and simple (Allah’s religion would, by its very nature, be jihadist and therefore terrorist) – advanced by neo-conservative American intellectuals, journalists such as the deceased Oriana Fallaci or advocates of the European Extreme Right such as Geert Wilders, amongst others – to more nuanced analyses that bring into play Islam-related historical, anthropological and sociological considerations, in addition to analysing radical Islam’s political and geostrategic dimension. Opposing visions compete with each other for pride of place, wondering whether jihadism should be interpreted as the radicalization of Islam or the Islamization of radicalism[1] or, again, whether it needs to be considered a “leaderless” phenomenon (without any unified management from above) or one that is well structured.[2]

Research shows, however, that the reality resists these dichotomous visions; they ought to be connected in one, articulated whole rather than set one against the other. The same goes for the theories that exclusively consider the jihadists’ “depressive” nature[3] or their problematic sexuality[4] or, again, the fact that jihadism proceeds from a sectarian mentality and is born of the indoctrination of young people[5] or the existence of a “revolutionary” demand within the young who would seek to take this road.[6]

This article opts for a phenomenological approach that consists in analysing the actors’ intentionality by contextualizing it in an imaginary face-to-face encounter between young people and ISIS through the mediation of the web or contact with recruiters and radicalized Islamists. The European jihadist scene is marked by a situation of “crisis of utopia”: the founding myths and the great nineteenth-century narratives (particularly those of class struggle and republicanism) are dead. This crisis goes hand in hand with the crisis of the middle classes, whose children are no longer convinced that they belong to the socially upwardly mobile sectors but, rather, are filled with a sense of social demotion and decline. Thus, to the young people living in the peripheries (and the excluded members of European societies) – who have no hope in the future – are added those of the middle classes, who are marked by a lack of faith in a future that becomes threatening through the lack of prospects of social promotion and noble ideals.


Types of Radicalization

European jihadism is characterized by a combination of features that are common to almost all the countries involved. The profile is that of a man (and, increasingly frequently, a woman) or even an adolescent who is of Muslim origin or has converted. Various identikits could be constructed.

First of all, there is the jihadist from the deprived neighbourhoods or ghettoes, i.e. the suburbs in France or the impoverished inner cities in Britain. This type of jihadist finds its embodiment in young people with the following distinguishing features: a delinquent past, a period in prison, socialization with other young people undergoing radicalization, often a journey of initiation to a country where civil war is raging and where Islamist extremists have conquered a space for themselves or have founded a state (Syria is the model, but Mali, Yemen and Libya are other examples) and the creation of ties with ISIS through Internet or a recruiter or sometimes both.

To this portrait must be added that of young people from the middle classes who have been leaving for Syria since 2013. Their numbers increased significantly in 2014 and 2015. The Europeans who have left their country to go and fight alongside ISIS (and, to a lesser extent, Jabhat al-Nusra, a branch of al-Qaeda) number approximately 5,000. Of these, 500 are women. The girls and women often belong to the middle classes and have a higher level of education than the average level of the boys who leave.

There is, in addition, an ever increasing number of young converts; boys and girls alike. The adolescents convert in a very short space of time; usually within a few weeks or months. The affective dimension is more important than belonging to an ideology. The conversion expresses the search for a new, faith-based community. Indeed, the religion of their original cultural affiliation appears cold, if not inexistent, to these young people, particularly to those who live in secular families. In this latter case, the “non-religion” seems to be growing increasingly distressing for them, given that, unlike in the past, secularity and republicanism no longer transmit a sense of something sacred promising hope: republican fraternity itself used to carry the promise of uniting liberty and social justice (equality) in an organic whole at the heart of a triumphant humankind marching towards social and political progress. The pursuit of Islam between 2013 and 2015 must be viewed in a double perspective: first of all, that of the triumphalism shown by ISIS, which managed to spread rapidly in Iraq and Syria and rout an Iraqi army in crisis and a Syrian army that had disintegrated. Taking this success as a proof of veracity, many young people saw Islamic State’s fleeting triumph in 2014 as evidence of God’s support and the authentically Islamic nature of this supernaturally strong state. On the other hand, the ISIS propaganda aimed at young Europeans does not insist on the religious dimension but, rather, on guilt-creation (Islam is in danger and one must act and commit oneself totally) and the appeal of a heroic life marked by the break with a boring daily life lacking in any great emotions.

The young people of Christian origin come from families that are, for the most part, not really practising or that have a very weak religious culture. Many of the young who converted in prison have revealed that they had no Christian culture. They have explained that Islam was the first religion having a combination of codes and norms that tell them what is allowed and what is forbidden in God’s name. That these young people are disoriented by Christianity is because of the complex nature of the doctrine of the Incarnation, which makes Jesus a human being and a divine one at the same time: something that makes the feeling of being a “creature” difficult. Yet that is what these young people are aspiring to in their search for a “superhuman” god who can dictate a clear set of ethics to them.

In actual fact, these young people are often searching for norms, unlike those of May 1968 who rejected the norms in force and sought spontaneity and subjectivity both in free love (“make love, not war”) and exaggerated partying (those parties where people played music, took drugs and lived emotional anarchy to the full). Nowadays, the more repressive the norms are, the more sense they make: the need to rigorously draw the boundary line between the licit (halāl or religiously permitted) and the illicit (haram or religiously forbidden) reflects a part of their psyche that is searching for meaning. In European societies where there is no credible utopia on the horizon any more, it is ISIS’s “dystopia” – its regressive and repressive utopia – that gains the consensus of these young people “in search of lost meaning.” A meaning that they find in the sacred repressiveness of a violent version of Islam that breaks with their everyday experience of tranquil living in this pacified part of Europe that has not experienced war for seven decades.

And it is precisely the intoxication of war sanctified by radical Islamism in the form of jihad that inspires many young people: young people who would seek to realise their dream of an eventful and heroic life but find no space to live it concretely in their country of origin. ISIS’s success resides in its ability to strike the sensitive chords of exoticism, romanticism, guilt-creation and heroism in middle class young people fearing social demotion and young people from the peripheries or lower social classes who feel forced to live insignificant and mediocre lives. Amongst adolescents, aspiration to the sacred and to immortality is accompanied by the desire to ‘be someone’. ISIS offers the opportunity to carry out a rite of passage that allows them to access adulthood quickly, unlike a Europe where (because of the inability to acquire economic independence, in particular) one can remain dependent on one’s parents into one’s twenties, thereby living a condition of prolonged adolescence. The Islamic State, on the other hand, allows young people to cut the umbilical cord with their families and become men and women, achieving that desire to be adults that finds no fulfilment in their everyday life. Leaving for Syria often gives them the right to accommodation, employment as soldiers and the possibility of marrying and founding a family: a dream that cannot be realized in Europe where economic dependence on parents is a great obstacle to this will to be ‘adult’, i.e. to fly with one’s own wings. A particularly decisive factor is the feeling of omnipotence enjoyed by young people who take part in the war, kill or get themselves killed whilst feeling indifference to their own and other people’s deaths. So, too, is their participation in the jubilant exuberance of war, which acts as a catharsis for their adolescent and post-adolescent malaise.

The conversion of young people is often dictated by an inadequate sense of the sacred within a Christianity that has been eroded by a radical secularization. Subjugated by the immanence of a public space that has completely eliminated what is religiously sacred, religious feeling becomes particularly fragile in the face of the repressive transcendence of a jihadist imago mundi that praises excess in war and happiness in the act of “martyrdom” or the killing of unbelievers, and in which violence finds its justification in the desire to defend Islam and extend its sway. Faith’s knight becomes God’s armed right hand in order to eradicate Satan’s followers. Hence, incidentally, the numerous references to Shaytān, the devil.


Adolescent Girls and Women

Girls are particularly inspired by the desire to live a different, romantic and exotic life under the protective wing of faith’s knights, whose importance they simultaneously relativize when they accept their death as martyrs. Indifference towards or rejection of a feminism the history of which escapes them also plays an essential part in their quest for femininity, fuelling their desire to be ‘woman’ and exclusively woman, as distinct from man, in a mythicized form. In this way, they express their will to change in the face of a man/woman role distribution that seems to them to be less and less gratifying and that eliminates their specifically feminine nature in the ‘unisex’ identity’s disturbing lack of distinction. To be woman, and nothing but woman, with their reproductive function placed at the service of a mythicized tradition: this is what some of the girls embarking on the ISIS adventure dream of.

Another sub-group prefers to support radical Islamism’s cause directly and actively. Its members join the al-Khansa brigade, where they learn to handle weapons and make explosives. In this case in particular, their identification with the Islamic order is tested by a harsh reality right from the first months of their stay in Syria. Indeed, in their capacity as women, female militants are denied any autonomy in their movements and are confined to a house reserved to unmarried women (magharr): they have to marry before they are allowed out, in the company of their husband. They can, moreover, be given duties such as supervising the Islamic ‘morality’ of the autochthonous population, thereby making themselves hated by a civil society in crisis that sees them as the followers of an imperialist order that once again is imposing westerners on the Arab world; this time in the name of Islam.

Finally, there are some who accept the job of running brothels where Yazidi slaves[7] serve as guinea pigs for satisfying the fighters’ sexual desires. The girls and young women in this sub-group seek self-realization through direct violence, distinguishing themselves both from Western feminism and from the traditional image of the Muslim woman. Thus violence becomes a catalyst for their new identity that no longer differs from that of the men in any way,[8] whereas violence has, until now, been a distinctively masculine trait (only 4 per cent of prison detainees are women in France, and 6 per cent in Britain, as against 96 per cent and 94 per cent, respectively, who are men). For this female subset who participate in violence as a means of self-affirmation, the act of giving birth to “lion-cubs” at the Islamic State’s service – lion-cubs ready to fight the “unbelievers” right from a very early age and to practise symbolic or actual violence – is a basic feature of their over-masculine identity.[9] These women become enthusiastic about the beheadings of “Islam’s enemies” and are thrilled by the football games between the men and boys where the victim’s head is used as a football.

After the telephone helpline service monitoring radicalization was set up and collaboration began with Turkey (which has limited Western jihadists’ access to Syria), the young women and adolescents who have been prevented from leaving for Syria have sometimes turned their hatred against their own society. The case of the three girls who tried to explode a car bomb in Paris at the beginning of September 2016 is symptomatic: two of them had been prevented from leaving for Syria. Emulating the by now limitless masculine violence, one knifed a policeman, thereby destroying the difference between man and woman.

A third sub-group subscribe to ISIS in order to re-find their vigour, overcoming their ‘depression’ and participating in the intensity of the martial jubilation as a cure for the identity malaise existing in European societies where the non-violence deadens the desire to exist in a way that exalts exuberance. Thus violence becomes a way of giving vent to the malaise, a way of dissolving it in the ferment of war (it is well known that wars bring down the suicide rate). On the whole, the violence of war therefore fascinates not only men but also young women. In this ‘exceptional’ circumstance, life acquires a meaning and an intensity that are capable of making them forget – for a while – the inferiority of women under ISIS; an inferiority that is disguised by the notion of “complementarity”.

At a more general level, one category, above all, has been particularly involved in the jihadist adventure in Europe: the adolescents and post-adolescents (up to their late twenties), male and female alike. The transition from adolescence to adulthood often proves to be problematic, particularly in the recomposed families (middle classes) or the single-parent ones (the Maghrebi families in the peripheries). In these situations, the notion of authority has been significantly undermined for reasons that vary from case to case. In the suburban single-parent families, one can witness the abdication of the father (absent or reduced to insignificance and silence) and the violence inflicted by an older brother who seeks to take his father’s place without having the moral authority to do so. The case of Mohammed Merah’s family is significant in this respect. Merah was behind the attack on a Jewish school in Toulouse in 2012 and his older brother inflicted physical violence on his siblings.

The egalitarian culture of recomposed families and the more or less equal roles of their fathers and mothers are not to be found in the Maghrebi single-parent families. These retain a patriarchal mentality. When the tyrannical father fails or/and disappears, he leaves a vacuum that is not filled by the egalitarianism typical of the recomposed family. Such fact gives free rein to violence between brothers and the violence that they inflict on their sisters, wanting to control their sexuality and chastity. And yet the same brothers themselves indulge in extra-marital relations, often associating with the sister of another young person from the suburb and violating her ‘chastity’ whilst hiding such fact. Or they go out with a “French girl” whom they consider good enough to satisfy their sexual desires but not ‘chaste’ enough to marry. The daughters in Maghrebi families can contest this role either by leaving the family and working outside it in order to meet their own needs or by associating with boys outside their neighbourhoods (where they would risk being recognised) or, again, by definitively renouncing marriage. Sometimes the girls respond to their older brother’s violence with physical aggression, killing him or seriously wounding him (we have observed a few cases in prison). The opposite is more common, however, i.e. the brother is violent with his sister, wounding her or killing her in order to preserve the family’s ‘honour’. Sometimes the plan to leave for Syria offers these girls the opportunity to break with this family structure in which they feel inferior and uncomfortable. This choice is rather rare, however, for reasons connected with the cult of the family (the single mother, the younger brothers and sisters who need protecting…)

By way of an apparent paradox and with the exception of a few cases that have been blown out of proportion by the media, only a minority of female vocations to jihadism occur amongst the girls from the suburbs. The exceptions include the case of Hayat Boumeddienne, the wife of Amédy Coulibaly, who left for Syria before the January 2015 attacks, and a few rare cases of girls who shuttle between the world of the peripheries and that of the middle classes, such as Asna Aït Boulahcen, cousin of Abdelhamid Abaaoud who instigated the Paris attacks on 13 November 2015. Unlike the boys (who, in France, live for the most part in the suburbs and have a lower level of education than the girls), the overwhelming majority of female jihadists (whether Muslim or converts to Islam) come from the middle classes.

The young women who have left for Syria have subsequently worked as “recruiters”: they send e-mails and run blogs offering an idealised image of the condition of wife to the mujāhidīn (jihad’s fighters) in Syria. Once they arrive out there, the muhājirāt (immigrants) often marry Europeans who have joined the ranks of the jihadist fighters in Syria. One such case is that of Khadijah Dare, a girl from London who married a Swedish fighter from Islamic State, known by the fighting name of Abu Bakr.


A Repressive Utopia in a Europe that Utopia has Deserted

So, with the advent of ISIS in Syria and Iraq, new jihadist actors have made their appearance in Europe: young women and girls (in the past their numbers were insignificant but they now constitute more than 10 per cent of the departures for Syria); adolescent and post-adolescent girls and boys alike (formerly inexistent amongst the European jihadists); members of the middle classes (negligible before, they now constitute a high percentage, representing up to 40 per cent of the departures) and converts (20 per cent of the departures, whereas in the past their numbers were low). ISIS’s attraction is linked to external factors (manipulation via Internet, but also greater financial opportunities when compared with Al-Qaeda) and internal ones (young people’s malaise, the fear of social demotion, the feeling of a vacuum in the absence of utopias, the appeal of war and heroism and the ingenuous romanticism of young adolescents and post-adolescents). In the long run, jihadism raises the issue of meaning and the lack of idealities in a Europe that is transitioning towards a new form of society in which the classical ideologies of communism and nationalism (like that of democracy, for that matter) have lost their ability to mobilize people.

The repressive version of Islam spread by the jihadist movements has found favour in Europe only because of the immense weariness experienced by its societies. At peace since the end of the Second World War, these are societies in which the quest for exuberance and the will to live intensely are not being realised in an ideality that would give meaning to collective existence. ISIS’s utopia fills a symbolic vacuum: its appeal is linked both to the manipulation of young people through propaganda on the Internet and their request for a rescuing relocation and a warring enthusiasm in the face of a dismal everyday life in which hope finds no opportunities since there is no promise of social promotion. The absence of “noble” ideals opens the door to repressive utopias that promise the new generations heaven and earth in a society that has been reinvigorated by a mythicized faith.


 The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Oasis International Foundation

[1] This conflict of interpretation can be found in Gilles Kepel and Olivier Roy. Even if Roy is right to indicate “hatred” of society as the source of radicalisation, there is also a need to recognise that, subsequently, the trajectory of radicalised young people is to be traced according to a radical version of Islam that is developed, above all, in prison. See Farhad Khosrokhavar, Prisons de France (Robert Laffont, Paris, 2016) and Id., Radicalisation (Éditions de la Maison des sciences de l’homme, Paris, 2014).

[2] This is the debate between Marc Sageman and Bruce Hoffman. See Marc Sageman, Leaderless Jihad Terror. Networks in the Twenty-First Century (University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, 2008); and Bruce Hoffman, “The Myth of Grass-Roots Terrorism,” Foreign Affairs 87 (2008), no. 3, pp. 133-138.

[3] Sarah Knepton, “British jihadis are depressed, lonely and need help, says Prof,” The Telegraph, 15 October 2014, bit.ly/1rISjIT

[4] This is the theory of the writer, Tahar Ben Jelloun, according to whom the Islamists have “an unresolved problem about sexuality”: “Pour l'écrivain Tahar Ben Jelloun, les islamistes ont ‘un problème de sexualité non résolu,’” L’Obs, 29 August 2016, bit.ly/2e3oBQz

[5] This is a simplified version of the theory held by Dounia Bouzar and some psychoanalysts.

[6] Scott Atran, “L’Etat islamique est une révolution,” L’Obs, 2 February 2016, bit.ly/1P75Adb

[7] This is what has happened to Yazidi women. ISIS has declared their faith to be idolatrous. The women and children are reduced to slavery, whilst the men are put to death. “UK female jihadists run ISIS sex-slave brothels,” al-Arabiya News, 12 September 2014, bit.ly/1wnLhki

[8] Carolyn Hoyle, Alexandra Bradford and Ross Frenett, “Becoming Mulan? Female Western Migrants to ISIS,” Institute for Strategic Dialogue, 2015, bit.ly/2bFtCNj

[9] See Shiv Malik, “Lured by Isis: how the young girls who revel in brutality are offered cause,” The Guardian, 21 February 2015, bit.ly/2dmmHfW

To cite this article

Printed version:
Farhad Khosrokhavar, “The European Jihadist’s Identikit”, Oasis, year XII, n. 24, December 2016, pp. 73-82.

Online version:
Farhad Khosrokhavar, “The European Jihadist’s Identikit”, Oasis [online], published on 16th March 2017, URL: https://www.oasiscenter.eu/en/european-jihadists-identikit.