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Books

“God has Chosen You:” Plumbing the Jihadists’ Hearts

Dounia Bouzar, Comment sortir de l’emprise «djihadiste» ?, Les Editions de l’Atelier, Ivry-sur-Seine, 2015

After Désamorcer l’Islam radical and Ils cherchent le paradis, ils ont trouvé l’enfer, Dounia Bouzar in this essay tells of the experience she has developed in the field through working at the Centre de Prévention contre les Dérives Sectaires liées à l’Islam (CPDSI – Centre for the Prevention of Sectarian Drift related to Islam), which she directs. It is a work that has allowed her to come into contact with 400 parents of boys and girls who have fallen victim to jihadist recruiting. In the first part of the book, she goes through the stages in the recruitment process whilst, in the second, she tells of how she and her staff have been able to “bring home” some of the young people who had become fighters “on God’s path.”

 

 

Everything starts with the recruiters’ ability to worm their way into the most intimate recesses of young people aged between 15 and 25 and discover their Achilles heel. They use the sense of malaise common to many adolescents as a picklock to get past every defence and create a gulf separating the young person from his network of affections, friendships and ties.

 

 

The seducers know how to transform the feeling of marginalization that many of these young boys and girls have into proof of their “being chosen.” Bouzar writes, “The radicals transform a feeling of humiliation and inferiority into proof of omnipotence: ‘If you feel uncomfortable with the others (your friends, your parents, your teachers….), it’s because God has chosen you to be a superior being who possesses the Truth… You are different from the others, you have greater discernment’” (p. 12). You are not the problem; the others are the problem: this is the refrain that is instilled in young minds by criminals such as the highly shrewd emir, Omar Omsen, one of the most skilful recruiters of minors and of young girls, in particular. Thus begins the descent into hell. Hollywood-style videos are very powerful tools in the recruitment process. These insist on the theory of conspiracies against Islam, on the wickedness of the West, on the imminence of the last battle and the end of this world… At a certain stage of the brainwashing, “paranoia takes hold. Thus it becomes necessary to fight pagan beliefs and the Christian faith […]” (p. 47). Indeed, only the pure have a chance of salvation after the end of the world. In order to belong to this élite, the young person abandons all their old pagan habits (including the eating ones) and drastically breaks with family members and friends. This is the shift towards the total depersonalization of boys and girls. But all is not lost. Going into their houses, talking to their mothers, fathers and siblings, Bouzar weaves back together the threads of every individual story and tries to lead the jihadists back to the reality with which they had lost contact. She does not do it by encouraging them to “reason” or by convincing them with theological arguments but, rather, by working on their memories and their deepest emotions. Nevertheless, Bouzar also clears the field of possible misunderstandings by demonstrating the inadequacy of a purely psychological or sociological approach to the foreign fighters phenomenon and arguing for an interdisciplinary method that manages to reckon with the religious factor as well, a factor that she interprets in an anthropological sense.

 

 

One point, made by Bouzar herself, deserves to be noted: the media and many French intellectuals have not spared her heavy criticism over the innovative way in which she tackles the issue, demolishing well-consolidated stereotypes in the process. Indeed, her work and her books document the fact that the jihadists are not just recruited from amongst Muslims in the poor suburbs but also from amongst young atheists and comfortable middle-class families (40% of the families that turned to the centre declared themselves to be atheist, 40% Catholic, 19% Muslim and 1% Jewish). The criticisms have not made her retreat, however, and she and her work continue to shake a country that was comfortably settled in its secular pride. As, for example, when she writes that for these young people, “the commitment and the fight give their existence a meaning;” perhaps because, elsewhere, it is not so easy to find a cause for which one would give one’s life.

 

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