The Islamization of Radicalism

Olivier Roy on the misunderstood connection between terror and religion.

A participant holds up a placard reading "Muslims-Mantes United" as people take part on June 19, 2016 in Mantes-la-Jolie in a silent march in memory of the French police officer and his partner stabbed to death on June 13 by a convicted extremist who had pledged allegiance to the Islamic State group.
A participant holds a placard reading “Muslims-Mantes United” in a silent march on Sunday in Mantes-la-Jolie, France, in memory of the June 13 slaying of two police officers.

Eliot Blondet/Getty Images

Over the past several years, Olivier Roy, a professor at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy, has come to be regarded as one of the world’s leading experts on political Islam.* Roy has offered up a theory, generally applied to Europe, on the “Islamization of radicalism.” It essentially holds that young followers of Islam have broken with their parents (a “generational revolt”). Roy believes that these young people “find in Islam the best way to express, experience, and to live their rejection of society.” This theory has proved controversial among other scholars, who tend to stress the opposite: the radicalization of Islam through the spread of Salafist ideas.

I spoke by phone with Roy, who is also the author of Holy Ignorance: When Religion and Culture Part Ways. In our conversation, which has been edited and condensed, we discussed Donald Trump’s strange brand of Islamophobia, how Muslims are assimilating in Europe, and what the Orlando shooter tells us about radicalism.

Isaac Chotiner: How does Omar Mateen fit into your thinking about radicalization?

Olivier Roy: The first point is that the guy is second-generation, which is the most common pattern for terrorists. The second point is that, to the extent we know—and every day we learn something new about him—he was not very religious: He was an angry man without a precise cause. One thing that is interesting is that his family was Afghan, and his father has made political statements. But he never mentioned Afghanistan during the killing. He could have said he was attacking the American people in revenge for Mullah Mansour, the Taliban leader killed by an American drone. He could have justified his anti-American stance by referring to events in Afghanistan. He didn’t.

This is a very common pattern among terrorists. Terrorists almost never refer to their own country or the country of origin of their parents. They usually refer to global jihad, not to concrete situations. You can be angry at the United States government for good reasons, or at least real reasons: drones, the invasion of Iraq, and so on. But these guys always refer to virtual, global jihad.

What does that signify to you?

They are not reacting to a real situation. They are not reacting to a real conflict. They are in a virtual war. The key thing about Daesh is that it has evolved to promote a narrative of global or virtual jihad: Daesh almost never mentions real conflicts. It attracts these types of guys who are what I call de-culturated and who never adjust to any society, whether it is American society or any society. It is not the revenge of the Afghans against the Americans. It is not connected to real struggles. They live in an imaginary world.

It sounds like you think this guy was on a path to some sort of radicalization or violence, whether or not it was through Islam.

I think that these guys do not become radicalized because they become more and more religious. It is not religious radicalization that leads to political radicalization. When they became radical, they are religious. They frame their wrath in a religious narrative. They think they will go to paradise. It is Islamization of radicalization. I think Islam is the framework of the radicalization; it is not the primary cause. What I am saying, which there is a lot of misunderstanding about: It is not because they pray more and more, or go more and more to a mosque, that they become radicals. When they became radicals, they choose the religious narrative and believe in it.

These guys are not Salafi. The idea that this is the Salafization of Islam does not make sense because their approach to salvation is not the Salafi approach. The Salafis do not believe in suicide. They think that suicide is a sin against God, like the Jews and the Christians. If you kill yourself or put yourself in a position where you will necessarily be killed, you preempt the will of God. But in the mind of the suicide bombers, the idea is that you don’t need to be a good Muslim, you don’t need to pray five times a day, you don’t need to go for hajj. If you make a supreme sacrifice, you will go directly to paradise and there is no need to be strict believer.

If what you are saying is true, how do we stop these attacks? We often hear that the solution is to “moderate” Islam, but that wouldn’t seem to be the solution in the narrative you just laid out.

These guys are attracted by the narrative of Daesh. And Daesh today is the only international anti-society, anti–world order group. There is no more global international extreme left. If you take [left-wing parties] Podemos in Spain or Syriza in Greece, these movements are now anti-globalization. The only global movement now is radical Islam, which explains the number of converts—which is extraordinary. The number of converts who have joined the jihad is between 20 percent and 30 percent.

The issue now is to debunk the narrative of Daesh. We should penalize Daesh by not depicting it as the biggest threat to Western civilization—that condones their propaganda. The second point is that we should not allow radical Islam to have a monopoly on Islam. For that, we should let rise a normal Islam, not a moderate Islam. The concept of moderate Islam is totally misleading: You do not have moderate religion. Calvinism is not moderate. Calvin and Luther were not moderates. They were radicals. But you can have moderate believers who are not necessarily moderately believing. We should let normal Islam emerge as a religion in the public sphere. In the United States, this is easier because religion is accepted. But in Europe it is a problem. The trend in Europe is to consider any religion as a potential problem.

Is this why you think countries like France tend to have a bigger problem with radicalization than the United States?

Yes. Because the answer to radicalism in France is to marginalize religion more and more. It is to expel religion from the public space. And if you expel religion from the public space, then you give religion to the extremes and the radicals.

 I am guessing you don’t like Donald Trump’s approach to Islam.

It is interesting because Trump is not a religious guy. His Islamophobia is linked with some sort of contempt of religion. That’s the ambiguity of it. It isn’t a Christian Islamophobia. Trump does not pay lip service to religion when he attacks Islam. He doesn’t say you can be a nice believer or anything like that. He rejects Islam as a rule and he never speaks about good religion, even Christianity.

We just had far-right forces in Austria get near a majority, and we have the Brexit vote this week—which has been driven in part by xenophobia. And there is always France. How optimistic are you about integration of Islam into European society and the politics around it?

I think there is a discontinuity between the realities in Europe and the perception. The crisis now is terrorism and refugees, and it is linked, according to public opinion, with Muslims. But if you look at Europe, you see in fact that integration works more than is believed. You have Sadiq Khan winning the election in London. In Germany, you have 16 members of Parliament of Turkish descent, and they all voted for recognition of the Armenian genocide. We have, in France, two female ministers who are from Muslim backgrounds. In every place in Western Europe, you have a new Muslim elite. Everybody is focusing on the losers, the disenfranchised second-generation youth who are making trouble. But the kind of trouble they make is more related to disenfranchisement and petty delinquency than to Islam.

You must have read more pessimistic accounts, from Michel Houllebelq and others, about the future of Europe, particularly France and its supposedly coming Islamization. Despite your concerns about radicalization, you don’t seem to buy that pessimism.

I don’t buy it. We do not have an Islamization of society. In polls, only 20 percent of Muslims in France are really practicing Islam. In fact, we have a secularization of Muslims. But the more secularization you have, the more religion is visible because religion is not integrated into the dominant secular culture. Religion now in Europe seems weird to people.

*Correction, June 22, 2016: Due to a production error, an earlier version of this article misstated that the city of Florence was in Spain, not Italy. (Return.)