In 2004 Gilles Kepel, the noted French scholar of the modern Middle East and Muslims in Europe, wrote:
The bombings in Madrid on March 11, 2004, established Europe as the new frontline for terrorist attacks. Before 9/11 Europe had provided a sanctuary where Al-Qaeda’s planners could complete preparations for the world-shattering operation they had conceived in the mountains of Afghanistan. But with the events in Madrid in spring 2004, Europe emerged as the primary battlefield on which the future of global Islam will be decided.
Do the recent attacks in Paris and Brussels confirm Kepel’s assessment? Beyond these lethal onslaughts, according to French and German internal-security officials, are dozens of near-misses that luck and good police work prevented. Is Europe really the primary laboratory of “global Islam,” a highly Westernized, militant version of the faith that lends itself easily to jihad? Or is globalized Islam similar to the radical leftist movements in Europe of yesteryear, which though often independent of the Soviet Union used the same air as the USSR. Once the Soviet state started to wither, these radical leftist movements evanesced.
If the Soviet parallel applies, then globalized Islam is primarily fed by radical Islamists in the Middle East and, more perplexingly, Saudi Arabia, the mothership of Wahhabism and Salafism, both religious reform movements searching for authenticity and legitimacy only in the practices of the Prophet Muhammad and his companions. Although most jihadists have not been fundamentalists, most Sunni jihadists have given a nod to the Wahhabi–Salafi world view. Their personal war inevitably gets elevated into a universal struggle between “pure Islam” and the living jâhiliyya, the realm of disbelief.
Or is contemporary Muslim militancy a dynamic combination of both the radicalization of Islam and the Islamization of Western radicalism? This question—where one puts the emphasis on the component parts fueling this anti-Western terrorism—is a raging battle among European scholars and intellectuals, pitting the views of France’s two most famous students of Islamic militancy, Kepel and Olivier Roy, against each other.
The radicalization of Islam (Kepel) and the Islamization of Western radicalism (Roy) have practical ramifications. Stressing the former gives Westerners the hope that if the cancer within Islam can be isolated and cut out or shrunk by some kind of intellectual and social chemotherapy, the appeal of violence will diminish. Imperfect but useful historical parallels in Islamic history might offer some idea of how to extinguish today’s fervor.
Islam has often seen violent reform movements erupt. Sociologically, these rebellions undoubtedly were complex, propelled by what modern Western sociologists would call non-religious reasons. But they inevitably expressed the religious complaint that rulership or society was ethically misguided and in need of divinely-guided rejuvenation. Some movements succeeded spectacularly: the semi-Shiite Abbasid rising against the Umayyad caliphs in the 8th century, the Ismaili Shiite Fatamid caliphate (909-1171) in North Africa and Syria, the Almohad caliphate (1121-1269) in North Africa and Spain, the Safavid Sufi holy warriors who converted Persia to Shi’ism in the 16th century, and Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s Islamic revolution in 1979. Most of the militant irruptions, however, failed. Most were beaten back by military force. The most deadly and most millenarian to fail recently were the Mahdist revolt in Sudan in the late 19th century and the attack on Mecca’s Grand Mosque in 1979. The former was routed by General Horatio Herbert Kitchener; the latter was put down by Saudi soldiers with French advisors.
Applying the past to the present could lead one to believe that “global Islam” today might be checked with rigorous police work in Europe and American military action in the Middle East. For the “radicalization of Islam” school, Saudi Arabia and, to a much lesser extent, Qatar, both conservative monarchies that propagate a militant fundamentalism abroad, remain conundrums. There really is no good historical parallel to such wealthy, ultra-conservative Sunni states, let alone one of them controlling the holiest sites of Islam, funding tumultuous missionary activity. Really good European internal security and steadfast and successful American military campaigns could still confront a situation where the intellectual high ground for faithful Sunni Muslims in Europe and the Middle East, post “victory,” is dominated by the Saudis, who can’t stop supporting Islamic militants no matter the blowback. The “radicalization of Islam” offers the probability of a protracted conflict in Europe against Islamic militants and pretty intrusive police surveillance against ordinary Muslims; it implies that American military action in the Middle East, at least against the Islamic State, is indispensable to Europe security.
The “Islamization of radicalism” school is perhaps even more depressing. Inherent in this outlook is that Europe has a massive assimilation problem with its Muslims, and that unless Europeans solve this, they will be plagued with recurring bouts of radical Islamic terrorism regardless of what happens in the Greater Middle East. Conversely, if Europe figures out how to successfully integrate Muslims into its old, profoundly secular societies, it can, more or less, escape the savagery that is shredding Arab lands. Good police work would still be required, but the police work needs to be patient and socially conscious, acutely attentive to the ultimate need to better assimilate European Muslims. This line of thought, needless to say, appeals to many on the European Left, who are more comfortable blaming the dark side of Westernization, the rigidities of European culture, and the undeniable anti-Muslim bigotry within European societies than they are highlighting the troubles within Islam and Muslim cultures.
Emphasizing the Islamization of Western radicalism also throws into doubt the importance of American military action in the Middle East or French military action in Africa. If in Europe the primary battle is within, then wars against Muslim radicals abroad could do more harm than good. How Europe, in the throes of a continent-wide identity crisis and laden with poor economies with massive debt, is supposed to discover new and more effective methods of integrating large numbers of Muslims—and if the violence continues in Syria and North Africa, ever more immigrants—into its societies, isn’t at all clear. Even the most progressive Europeans often have trouble describing exactly how a more open, absorptive Europe is going to be built, especially soon enough to make a difference for Muslims who are attacking in the name of the Islamic State and Al-Qa’ida.
No matter how one analyzes the European–Muslim predicament, one thing is unavoidable: European internal-security services are going to grow and integrate. Where once the French security services, easily the finest in Europe, always seemed a step ahead of violent Islamic militants, now they seem behind. Whether there is a bureaucratic explanation for this state (fewer Arabic-speaking officers inside the internal-security service, less talented magistrates running the investigations) that can be fixed, it doesn’t change the fact that if the French are having trouble, then less-accomplished services—the Dutch, Belgian, German, Spanish, and Italian—are surely in similar difficulty. Americans can only wish them well. Europe is part of our frontline against foreign jihadists. However pleasing bombing Brussels and Paris may be to the holy-warrior set, striking New York and Washington is still probably much better.