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The Appeal of the Islamic State – An Interview with François Burgat

François Burgat.

November 01, 2015

François Burgat is a political sociologist and senior researcher at the French Centre national de la recherche scientifique (CNRS), who has devoted his career to the analysis of political systems and civil societies in the Arab world. He is one of those rare scholars capable of understanding the Islamic movements without romanticizing or vilifying them, courageously confronting mainstream interpretations. Currently principal investigator of the European Research Council’s project “When Authoritarianism Fails in the Arab World,” his most recent publication is Pas de printemps pour la Syrie : Les clés pour comprendre les acteurs et les défis de la crise, 2011-2013 [No Spring for Syria: The keys to understanding actors and challenges of the crisis, 2011-2013]. He is interviewed by Sari Hanafi, who teaches at the American University of Beirut and is the ISA Vice-President for National Associations.

Since September 2014, the claim of the Islamic State (IS) that it is “lasting and expanding” unfortunately reflects the reality in Iraq and Syria, in spite of the international airstrike campaign. This expansion does not necessarily mean consolidation of power. The “Sunniland” that IS aims to establish is still contested, not only in the region but also by sectors of the occupied populations. In late 2014, the CIA estimated that between 20,000 and 31,500 fighters are defending the Islamic State’s holdings in Iraq and Syria, but other estimates put the figure as high as 200,000 fighters. This expansion has to be related to the context of failed repressive states in this area as well as ideological differences. Undoubtedly, IS and its franchises operate in different countries, thereby becoming a global phenomenon – so much so, that more than 6,000 Europeans, including 1,500 French citizens, have gone to fight in Syria. Many of these European recruits are of Muslim origin but some are converts to Islam. In the interview below, François Burgat offers his thoughts about the motivations leading Europeans to join IS.


SH: IS has brought new political imagination to the region: abolishing borders, empire building, etc. Do you think this is something that attracts young people?

FB: Yes, definitely. Although the sources of attraction are numerous and diverse, we can nevertheless point to the most common ones. To clarify the spectrum of motivations, I suggest two categories: “negative” motivations, which involve the rejection of the milieu of origin, such as France, and “positive” ones that draw individuals into the world of the Islamic State.

Before exploring these positive and negative motivations further, let me first consider alternative explanations for the appeal of IS – explanations that draw on “ideological” or “religious” variables and pin all the blame on “radical Islam,” which supposedly comes into play when youth are “contaminated” by reading a page of Sayyid Qutb or through encountering this or that “radical” Imam in the depths of some suburb or, more frequently, on the web.

In my view, this (Islamic) vocabulary can accelerate the process of radicalization, but it cannot explain personal transformation. The world history of radicalization has demonstrated that rebels’ vocabulary should not be confused with the origins of their rebellion. Regardless of religion or dogma, those who want to rebel have always found symbolic resources, religious or profane, through which they can express and justify their actions. “Islamological” interpretations of jihadist violence are popular in the West because identifying guilt in the Islamic faith allows observers (as non-muslims), to deny any responsibility. Behind these arguments is often a “pedagogic illusion,” suggesting that the jihadists did not read the “right sura” or did not read it “thoroughly enough,” or did not understand what they read – all of which implies that the disastrous effects of radicalism in the Islamic world, and the globe more widely, could be eliminated through perfecting the religious education of a few million Muslims. I don’t have to explain the limitations of such an approach.

SH: Lets return to the negative motivations to which you alluded at the beginning.

FB: “Negative” motivations are explanations that focus on the jihadist’s feeling of being “globally rejected,” fueling their own “global rejection” of the society in which they grew up. Among these Jihadists, a minority often suffer socio-economic failure or the difficulties of adaptation to adult life, often specifically related to challenges of being of North African or “Islamic” origin in countries of Europe.

Simply put, many French jihadists move to Syria as a political reaction to individual or collective stigmatization: unequal education, unequal job opportunities, discrimination by the police or the law, and so on. However – and we talk less about this – these inequalities also reflect a lack of political representation at two levels. That the system of elective representation falls short is obvious when we look at statistics, but there are also the more harmful systematic restrictions on freedom of expression, especially on mainstream media. Moreover, these biases are aggravated by the media giving prominence to “official” and deeply unrepresentative Islamic “figures.”

These two layers of pernicious political domination began in the colonial era. First, the subjugated populations were silenced, and then they acquired an illusory sense of national belonging through false representatives, who accepted the terms of colonial domination. Two decades ago, in 1995, at the time of the Algerian Civil War, I interviewed young French Muslims who summed up the hardships of “coexistence” in such a discriminatory environment: “When French television talks about Algeria, Palestine or Islam, we are forced to switch channels! And, believe me, Monsieur, we switch channels so often our fingers hurt!” This programmed revulsion against immigrants and their descendants can take more blatantly offensive forms, such as spitting and other forms of aggression directed at wives and sisters for wearing a veil.

SH: Can you now say more about the positive appeal of the Islamic State?

FB: Yes, the need for citizens to break with the world that denies them their human aspirations is necessarily accompanied by more positive motivations. Even for Muslims who are perfectly integrated, both in economic and social terms, there are motivations that sometimes increase or merely replace negative motivations, triggering radical involvement first in the Syrian conflict and then in its international aftermath. Historically, jihadist involvement proceeds from transnational ideological or denominational solidarity. Among their most important reasons, many partisans cite the desire to help their religious brothers who, in their view – which is to some extent understandable – have been abandoned by the West and massacred by barrels of explosives dropped from Assad’s helicopters. From the perspective of European history, these transnational and infra-state solidarities are not unique; consider the solidarity expressed in support of Spanish Republicans in 1936, which supported the formation of “international brigades” and included some famous Frenchmen. Or consider the Frenchman Régis Debray (former special advisor to President François Mitterand) who joined the Bolivian guerrilla movement. We hear little about the several hundred Christian citizens, many of them French, who fought alongside the Falangists in the Lebanese Civil War. We might also consider French citizens who enlist in the Israeli Army, even as it acts outside international law in the occupied territories.

Yet beyond expressing some kind of humanitarian solidarity, I think IS draws much of its appeal from the fact that it represents a utopia, a kind of free “Sunniland” that echoes what Khomeini’s Iran offered Shiites – a place (at least as IS perceives it) which gives Muslims the chance to live their religion according to their interpretation, with none of the obstacles found in their country of origin. Moreover, this is a world in which targets of Islamophobia can be defended by violent means if necessary, and, even more to the point, they can retaliate, on equal terms, against the military and symbolic violence, whether of bombs or cartoons.

Official accounts miss this wider context. Interpretations of the Paris attacks of January 7th are too narrowly confined to the victims who were shot by the Kalashnikovs of the “terrorists.” Governments and the media ignored those killed by the Israeli F-16s, the French Rafale fighter jets or the US drones. This is why we must “zoom out” and consider the “broader” spatial and temporal dimensions of this confrontation. In order to understand how negative emotions can lead to radicalism we must, therefore, situate these dynamics in an international and historical perspective. Only then can we perceive how they follow deep political fractures that date back to colonial times. Recently, they have been reopened by French unilateral policies, conducted directly or through alliances with third parties like Israel or the United States, in countries such as Mali or Iraq, the Gaza Strip or Yemen.

Nothing would have happened in Paris without these earlier conflicts and conquests that are nonetheless systematically absent in most “analyses” focusing solely on sociological variables. Let me conclude: fifteen years after the 9/11 attacks, what has sociology taught us about such attacks? I would say… almost nothing.

François Burgat <francoisburgat73@gmail.com>
Sari Hanafi <sh41@aub.edu.lb>

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