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A modern phenomenon

Al Qaeda's fundamentalism is more related to militant European radicalism than Islamism, says Olivier Roy.


[terror] – There are no problems associated with the word Islam, which is the name of the religion itself. But there is a big difference between what is known as Islamism and the new fundamentalism that underlies Al Qaeda.

Olivier Roy is head of research at the French Research Center Center National de la Recherche Scientifique. He is one of the Western world's leading Islamic experts, not least in the field of global Islam. Roy has published a number of books on Islam and the Muslim world. In 2004 came the book Globalized Islam: The Search For A New Ummah. Ny Tid met him in Oslo.

Islamism is modern

- Many people struggle with the concepts in the debate about Islam and the terror that takes place in its name. In what way would you draw the distinction between Islam, Islamism and Islamic fundamentalism?

- If you start with the Islamists, then they sprang from the ideology of religious new interpreters such as Pakistani Sayyid Abul al Maududi and Iranian Ruhollah Khomeini. Islamism is a fundamental modern phenomenon of the twentieth century, and has nothing to do with tradition or archaic structures. In fact, it is absurd to talk about Islamism in the nineteenth century. It did not exist, as we define the term today.

- The first thing to keep in mind is that Islamism is modern. This puts at the forefront a delusion we have that modernity and liberalism automatically belong together. But the two concepts – and the ideas they reflect – have nothing to do with each other. Benedict 16 is a modern pope, but not a liberal. Nazism was a modern ideology, but was definitely not liberal. Islamism is therefore modern, but can also be said to be totalitarian.

- The second thing to keep in mind is that Islamism has a lot in common with Marxism. Islamism also emphasizes a restructuring of society based on ideological consensus. Where the Marxists set up a socialist utopia, the Islamists set up a utopian sharia state.

In many ways, Islamists have much in common with anti-Western leaders such as Hugo Chavez and Fidel Castro. The old European radicalism and the new Islamism are basically the same thing.

- The Islamists seem to be on the offensive in many Muslim countries. Is Islamism an ideological and political success?

- No. Islamism is not a success. With the exception of Iran, they have not been able to build on what is the goal: an Islamic state based on sharia. They have therefore been challenged by a completely different movement which in many ways is the exact opposite of Islamism. I call it neo-fundamentalism in my book, and the special thing about these neo-fundamentalists is that they have no allies, no Chavez or Castro they can be said to be ideologically connected to. They simply do not believe in any national revolution.

- The neo-fundamentalists have an individual relationship to their religion, and are in many ways Islam's answer to the so-called "born-again Christians". They want to return to the original religion, to the pure and undefiled variant of the Prophet's own time. They go by the name "Salafists" or "jihadists", but are also found in the so-called tabliq movement. They attract people who have broken away from traditional cultures, or who have not found a foothold there. Neo-fundamentalism does not defend traditional cultures, but is supported because these cultures are in crisis.

Solidarity with the girls

The West often misunderstands the content and motivation behind neo-fundamentalist movements, Roy believes.

Take honor killings as an example. It arises in the defense of a traditional culture, and is committed against girls who have somehow left this culture. But the neo-fundamentalists do not take sides with the fathers in these matters. They show solidarity with the girls. I use this example to show that there is no connection between Al Qaeda and traditional religion, but that it is, on the contrary, a breach. Al Qaeda recruits from these modern, neo-fundamentalist milieus.

- If you look at who are members of Al Qaeda, you see that these are not young people with a traditional relationship to Islam. None of them have married traditionally, and as many as twenty percent of them are black or white converts. They have their friends among urban, non-Muslim Europeans, and they come to a very small extent from environments that practice a traditional Islam. In short, they are modern.

Reminiscent of window regions

According to Roy, neo-fundamentalism is closer to tradition after left-wing extremist terrorist movements in the 1970s.

- If Islamism can be compared to the European radical left, Al Qaeda is in many ways an extension of the German terrorist group Baader-Meinhof, or PLO in the 1970s. This applies to both organizational structure and operational method. But first and foremost, it is in the mindset that there are no innocents. That is the old anarchist credo: the civilians are the real culprits, and they can therefore be eliminated.

- Does it make sense to talk about Islamic fascism, as President George W. Bush does?

- The concept of fascism serves the American president's political goal, which is to consolidate the fear of terror in American society. The president uses the word fascism in a way that puts Hamas and Hezbollah on a par with Al Qaeda. But there is no clear link between Islamist movements and Al Qaeda's terrorist network, and none of them fall under a classical definition of fascism. Using the word fascist about Al Qaeda is also a solid gift package for the terrorists. In this way, Bush sets up bin Laden as the only alternative to the United States in a world where the battle is between evil and good.

- You have said before that Ayman al-Zawahiri, the Egyptian deputy leader of Al Qaeda, is the only exception to a pattern where bin Laden recruits in completely different environments than the Islamists.

- Yes, he is the clear exception. Al-Zawahiri was the leader of Egyptian al-Jihad, which later merged with Al Qaeda. It gives bin Laden a kind of legitimacy in relation to religious movements with support in history and tradition. But al-Zawahiri is the only man in bin Laden's group to have a background in Islamism.

Unlike Hamas and Hezbollah, Al Qaeda has not made any demands.

- Both Hamas and Hezbollah use suicide bombers, and must thus be classified as terrorist groups. But if you look at the specific goals they have, it becomes clear that these can be the subject of negotiations. Hamas wants a Palestinian state. It can be negotiated. And Hezbollah? For Hassan Nasrallah, it is about Lebanon's territorial integrity, about the distribution of power and about political prisoners in Israel. It can also be negotiated. With Al Qaeda, you can not negotiate anything. They have no territorial or political requirements.

- One of the paradoxes of global terrorism is the gap between people's fears and the actual threat. The truth is that bin Laden is recruiting surprisingly few terrorists, and that large groups of Muslims – such as Turks, Kurds and Palestinians – are completely absent in Al Qaeda.

Bin Laden gives blanks

- You have said that bin Laden is away from all major conflicts. What do you really put into it?

Al Qaeda is, or was, physically present in Iraq. But that was solely because the Americans were there. Bin Laden has nothing to report in this conflict, and has no relationship with the people or the country. The same goes for the Israel-Palestine conflict. Bin Laden really gives blanks in both of these contentious issues, beyond the fact that he can use them as ideological filler. The only nation bin Laden has a relationship with is the virtual Muslim ummah community. His followers are people without homelands who simply hate the established order – that is, the West.

- You have said that Al Qaeda is a generational phenomenon. Does that mean the terror will disappear after a generation?

- Like all tremors throughout history, this one will also end in a new equilibrium. This applied to left-wing terrorism in the 1900th century, and it will apply to global terrorism as well.

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