A historical sociology of the jihadist phenomenon

This article was published in Oasis 28. Read the table of contents

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Jihad u akbar.jpgReview of Felice Dassetto, Jihad u Akbar. Essai de sociologie historique du jihadisme terroriste dans le Sunnisme contemporain (1970-2018), Presses Universitaires de Louvain, Louvain-la-Neuve 2018.


The title chosen by Felice Dassetto for his latest book, Jihad u Akbar, could make experts in Arabic grammar turn up their noses: the calque from the formula Allah u Akbar is not, in fact, quite right since the correct form would be al-Jihadu Akbar i.e. with the article. It is certainly evocative, however. Indeed, it conveys the idea that God’s greatness—continually evoked by Muslims but now transformed into the jihadists’ appalling battle-cry—has been replaced with a cult of violence by those same jihadists, who are, on a last analysis, actually honouring themselves. At the same time, however, to state that jihad is great means taking notice not only of the phenomenon’s considerable hold over both space and time but also of the depth of its meaning and rootedness. As stated on the book’s cover, the aim of the work is, in fact, to explain the mechanisms that, over the last fifty years, have permitted jihadist-terrorist radicalism to “impose its agenda and its logic of violent action.”


Dassetto’s itinerary begins with a history of the concept of jihad as a consolidated tradition right from the very first centuries of Islam and it continues up to our modern and contemporary eras. During the decolonization process, the nationalist movements that were fighting for their own countries’ independence were already saying that they were waging jihad against the European invaders. But—and this is the book’s main thesis—it is from the 1970s onwards that jihadism sets itself up as a sub-system of Sunnism, thereby acquiring functional autonomy. The Soviet-Afghan war (1979–1988) constituted a fundamental juncture in this simultaneously ideological and practical construction. Indeed, ‘Abdallah ‘Azzam’s famous call to converge in the Asian country and defend Islam’s territories marks the internationalization of jihadism, while al-Qaeda (born in this context) becomes a symbolic point of reference and a model. In this way, jihadist thought takes on the structure of a hierarchized organization, becomes a global network and equips itself with an ethic and an eschatological theology. September 11, on the other hand, will generate an unprecedented spiral of violence: the decade of widespread jihad and chaos strategy opens. This is what Dassetto calls the third generation of jihadists: a generation that has become professional, adopts different strategies according to the territories in which it is operating and, at the ideological level, is fuelled by its Salafi roots. The last big phase of jihadist-terrorist radicalism (the post “Arab Spring” phase) began in 2010–2011 and has not yet ended. With the advent of Islamic State, jihad becomes territorialized, once more calling into question the borders inherited from colonialism, whilst the “holy warriors” become increasingly globalized and influenced by the Internet.


Some possible future scenarios are outlined at the end of the book. These range from the least likely (jihadism’s defeat by external forces) to the most likely (its prolongation over time). Amongst the possible solutions, Dassetto insists on the need for Sunnism to submit to self-criticism as part of a process that he calls “internal self-regulation” (p. 234).


In the acknowledgements section, the book’s sociological analysis is interwoven with the author’s personal experience. Revealing that he had to fight cancer precisely while he was writing the book, Dassetto compares jihadist-terrorist radicalism to this terrible illness that still does not have a cure and that will require many more years of study and research. In the same way, “the road to reaching an understanding of humankind’s violence and to extricating ourselves from it is still a long one” (p. 243).


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

To cite this article

Printed version:
Sofia Volpi, “If Jihad Takes God’s Place”, Oasis, year XIV, n. 28, December 2018, pp. 138-139.

Online version:
Sofia Volpi, “If Jihad Takes God’s Place”, Oasis [online], published on 27th March 2019, URL: https://www.oasiscenter.eu/en/if-jihad-takes-gods-place.