Book Review: Jihad and Death-The Global Appeal of the Islamic State by Olivier Roy

I first read this book in the summer of 2017. I was quite impressed with it then but I was busy with other things at the time and I never got around to writing up a review. Almost two years later, Olivier Roy‘s work holds up and I’d like to draw people’s attention to it.

At a slim 100 pages, Roy’s English work is very readable and is not too heavy on theory. Its slim profile should not be taken to mean it does not contain some good analysis and new ideas, for it most certainly does. Rather than covering the group in its worldwide dimensions, Roy’s work is a sociology of Francophone jihadis, based on some 100 individuals known to have carried out terrorism or to have traveled to engage in international jihad. Roy limits his dataset to jihadis from France and Belgium, and it is here in his wheelhouse that his work is at is best. When Roy strays from this base, the work goes down in quality.

If one thesis sums up Roy’s sociological argument, it is his exploration of “the Islamization of radicalism” instead of the “radicalization of Islam” (p.6). Put another way, as Roy does on p.8, violent radicalization is not the product of religious radicalization.  Inverting the description here fundamentally changes the place of Islam in his analysis. We’re not talking about or trying to understand a shift in religious belief, at least for these Francophone jihadis. Roy finds they have lived lives full of sin, drinking, gambling, and engaging in petty crime. Their embrace of Islam happens most often after a stint in prison or right before they act on their desire to be involved in jihad. Roy calls most of these jihadis “born-agains.”  Similarly, there is a relatively high percentage of converts, more so in France than in Belgium (p.20).

Roy finds “generational revolt” and “youth culture” to be keys in understanding why these young jihadis radicalize.  He finds that a core social group, either brothers or friends from school, or maybe from prison most often forms the center of those who radicalize together. There is, at least according to Roy, an over-representation of sets of siblings (brothers) among these jihadis, something not characteristic of other “radicalisms” alongside which Roy places these Francophone jihadis. When their age is taken into account, Roy ties this to his broader argument about “youth culture” being a key part of understanding this phenomenon of radicalization.

In the first two chapters, Roy is really running on all cylinders. His description of the European environments should be wrestled with by policymakers and fellow scholars alike. Among his notable claims and observations:

  • Terrorism is not a result of unsuccessful integration into society (p.34)
  • Radicalization precedes recruitment (p.38)
  • Britain and Denmark stand out from the others as there is a network of extremist mosques in those countries seemingly acting as hotbeds of radicalization (p.31)
  • Throughout Europe, “Maghrebans” (Tunisians, Algerians, Moroccans) are over-represented in jihadi ranks while Turks are underrepresented (p.21)
  • The first and third generations in the diaspora are underrepresented, while the second generation is over-represented (p.20).
  • Working class suburbs are over-represented because of the concentrations of second generation youth (p.33)
  • Almost no jihadis return to their parents’ countries of origin to wage jihad, a point Roy uses to argue their present is far more important to their radicalization than anger/ resentment over colonialism (p.46).
  • There are no documented cases where jihadis were politically active in Palestine solidarity or anti-Islamophobia campaigns before joining Daesh. (p.67) Indeed, Roy argues they are not protesting against Islamophobia because they also believe that Islam and the West are incompatible.

Readers can see where Roy’s argument is going, questioning much of our received wisdom about why jihadis do what they do. There is a political argument of sorts that Roy is at pains to rebut. It roughly goes that young men in the diaspora radicalize in response to repression, failed integration, and the crimes of colonialism committed against their countries of origin. Politically, one can agree that all those phenomena are horrible and need to be addressed with reparations and still accept Roy’s argument that Francophone jihadis are not pushed by these issues to radicalize. By this logic, as Roy points out, the parts of the world that have experienced some of the worst such violence (Gaza, Iraq, Afghanistan) would be at least proportionally if not over-represented among the ranks of European jihadis joining Daesh. This is not the case. Roy hammers this point home on p.67:

“Those who view radicalization, whether religious or political, as a consequence of colonialism or racism do not realize that the divide does not lie between “those of Muslim origin” and “ethnic French.” The  divergence is about opinions and not origins.”

Roy instead places the lion’s share of the blame with French laicite (secularism coming from the French revolution), as that which best explains the over-representation of Francophone jihadis in Daesh. Laicite “decultures” the religious sphere the most, without filling the void. An over-simplified jihadi fundamentalism can find space in this void, appealing to youth in search of a cause.  Roy skates on increasingly thin ice when he discusses the transition of Leftist figures to Islamism, strangely arguing that “the Islamo-Leftist synthesis produced Hezbollah” without developing the argument. The party’s origin is certainly an interesting  topic but it can hardly be captured in such an argument. Certainly, any attempt to address this question would have to address Hezbollah as a Shi’i party, as Shi’ism is arguably farm more compatible with Leftist ideas than Sunni Islam is. Yet Roy does not address the fact that he’s been writing exclusively about Sunni jihadis and throws in a point about a Shi’i political party.

In Chapter Four, Roy covers ISIS in the Levant and Iraq and appears farthest from his strengths to this reviewer. The section comes off quite average, largely echoing other writers as Roy has few if any insights to add here. At the end of the chapter, he returns to what he does much better, and his discussion of the place of imams in French society and French Muslim communities is once again nuanced and interesting.

To this reviewer, one noticeable missing piece is a development of the overwhelming masculinity of the jihadis in question. Roy covers it briefly, all too briefly, and then moves on (p.51). It should really be the third central piece alongside youth culture and generational revolt; instead, he subsumes it under a fascination with violence. Moreover, much of Roy’s work finds parallels with other “radicalisms” but he barely touches the question of parallels to the far right. Instead, most of his other examples of radicalism are leftists, which is interesting in its novelty but under-developed (to be generous). Instead, I argue there are very strong parallels between jihadis and neo-nazis, evidenced in prison radicalization and toxic masculinity being central facets of both. Roy mentions prison radicalization but says that another author has already covered it extensively. This is unfortunate, for it seems a strong facet of what he’s describing. Arguably Chapter Four should have fallen under this category of “things someone else has written about extensively that I won’t touch.”

The volume as a whole is easily engaged with by non-experts, a testament to Roy’s solid writing. Anyone convinced that Islam is the problem or even at the center of the problem should read Jihad and Death to imbibe Roy’s insights and important argument. With the rising wave of right populism and nationalist extremism targeting European Muslims in their communities, rebutting the oversimplified ideas that these people won’t integrate and they are fundamentally radical is of the utmost importance. If Roy is correct, the Islamization of radicalism stems from generational revolt and youth culture and is thus not “religious radicalization,” pointing to a political/social solution to address that which has placed them in such different milieux than their parents. As I argued above, toxic masculinity and prison radicalization are both part of this picture as well, and must be addressed in any CVE policy. In this vein, we need comparable studies of the different countries producing large jihadi populations to systematically think about how their reasons for radicalization do or do not parallel Francophone jihadis and what that means for Daesh’s overall composition.

If it were up to me, I would rename the book to better represent what the strengths of the work. Jihad and Death can stay, but it should be followed by A Sociology of Francophone Jihadis instead of The Global Appeal of the Islamic State as Roy does not cover Russia, Turkey, Indonesia, Egypt, etc etc. Even with the other issues critiqued here, the work is well-worth reading, especially for non-experts who want to know more than what the news is telling them.

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