The Old New Religion

For its young followers, the new Islam is anything but new: it is the purest and most pristine old-time religion as preached in the deserts of Arabia 1,300 years ago. Yet although radicals presented themselves as returning to the authentic spirit of Islam, the message they offered was in fact modern and globalized both in form and content. In Europe, radicals gained influence because they spoke, literally, in the same language as their young hearers, which was usually the local vernacular, French in France, English in Britain. The first generation of migrants had existed in a complex linguistic world, drifting between four or five languages. In Britain, Pakistanis were taught in English at school, heard classical Arabic at the mosque, watched videos and television in Hindi or Punjabi, while using Urdu for most matters. The second and third generations, however, were mainly comfortable in English, which was also the lingua franca of radical Islam. As a conservative older Muslim protested,

It doesn't matter what the imam says inside the mosque because the young people don't understand. The real education goes on outside. In mosques our religious leaders are speaking in Urdu. The only people speaking in English are extremists like Abu Hamza and [Omar] Bakri Mohammed. Youngsters do not get the real message of Islam.25

Also strictly contemporary were the means of recruiting and training militant followers, whether or not groups planned to use violence. In recent years, academics and intelligence agencies have tried to formulate a profile of the kind of young person most likely to be drawn into extremist Muslim activities, but no simple answer emerges. Many are well-qualified students and recent graduates, particularly those with degrees in engineering or information technology; at the other extreme, we find "underachievers with few or no qualifications, and often a criminal background."26

What most have in common, though, is the classic dilemma of the second-generation resident who finds himself caught between cultures, who feels utterly separated from the country of family origin and yet cannot identify with his own country of birth and upbringing. As one observer notes, "People recruiting for Islamic Jihad know exactly who to be on the lookout for in the Netherlands: second-generation Moroccan youths suffering from an identity crisis with few prospects and plagued by the thought that the Islamic world is being suppressed." Such prospective recruits can readily be persuaded to identify their own sense of oppression with that of fellow Muslims throughout the world. Older mores are rejected as staid and irrelevant, newer values as callous and materialistic. As Olivier Roy notes, "Adrift from both, they are attracted by a simple, electronically disseminated version of the faith which can readily be propagated among people of all cultures." The result is an individualized kind of religion that sets the believer not just against secular society but against any forms of religious authority that preach moderation or restraint. One conservative Muslim complains that when the young reach this stage, "all doors close for them. 'Everything else is black,' they think, 'but I'm white and I'm going to paradise.' Those who see black and white think they are angels, they think they are flying. If a Dutchman speaks to them on the street, they think 'he's a Zionist' or 'he's a Satan.' "27

Recruits who reject their European homelands are instead offered visual images of the spirit of true Islam, as expressed in the self-sacrificing purity of jihad in Chechnya, Algeria, or Iraq. Commonly, recruiters use videos, usually via the cell phones that were the ubiquitous tools of the European young some years before they became so common in the United States. Interested candidates for the movements would attend meetings, conferences, and special summer camps, all the while participating in Internet chatrooms focused heavily on themes of jihad and martyrdom. And constantly, members and prospects would watch and discuss videos of suicide missions and of the ritualistic murder or beheading of infidels—American captives in Iraq, Russian soldiers in Chechnya. A classic story of such a recruit would be Mohammed Bouyeri, the young man of Moroccan origins who in 2004 earned notoriety as the assassin of Theo van Gogh. Born in 1978, Bouyeri had a solid college career but was imprisoned for a violent attack. "He emerged from jail an Islamist, angry over Palestine and sympathetic to Hamas." He joined what became a particularly extreme cell, the Hofs-tad Group, which devoted itself to watching violent video clips, with a special interest in beheading. As one Dutch security expert observes, "The breeding grounds [for extremism] are websites, prisons and the mosques."28

This process of radicalization is a very modern confection. Throughout the long history of Islam, images of jihad and martyrdom have existed but have seldom played a significant role in encouraging conversion. More commonly, missionaries have won followers by stressing the mystical aspects of the faith, or else its superior morality and social organization. The whole cult of suicide martyrdom that is so central today is a recent innovation. Islamists did not invent the modern fash ion for suicide bombing, which was developed by Hindu Tamil extremists, and the Muslim association with the tactic dates only to the early 1980s. In the past two decades, though, the suicide cult has become a major selling point in some circles.29

Moreover, the means of spreading the word make wonderful sense for many young Westerners. Islamist recruiters urge followers to spend long hours on the Internet, where they encounter gory snuff films and exchange fantasies of death and dismemberment. Enthusiasts collect and trade particularly gruesome items portraying torture or decapitation, which are studied to produce a thorough desensitization to bloodshed. And as in such circles, we find a kind of comedy of errors. Watching gruesome videos, discussing bloody plans, an individual might find such themes sick or upsetting but is afraid to admit the fact lest he lose status; therefore he compensates by contributing his own ever-more extravagant flourishes of machismo. Through this process of escalation, a group of quite normal boys and young adults drive each other into an upward spiral of bloodthirsty fantasy. Admittedly in extreme form, the whole phenomenon sounds very much like the thought world of disturbed teenagers in North America, the sort who, in a few cases, actually carry out their fantasies of gunning down rivals in the corridors of their high schools. If only the Islamists packaged their message to the young through raucous heavy metal music, the resemblance would be perfect.

We can understand how such a glorification of religious militarism might arise in conditions of terminal political stress, in war-ravaged societies in Palestine or Iraq, though even there, the stress on armed resistance is never more than one facet of the complex faith. Yet in prosperous Europe, we find a cultish perversion of religion in which the bombings and beheadings almost become the central tenets of practice. In Europe too, unlike north Africa or south Asia, young enthusiasts are not subject to the very powerful constraints of traditional values and social structures, the iron laws of village and clan that mandate strict customary limits to the use of violence and disorder. Older Muslims complain of losing their children to militant recruiters. Following the London bombings of 2005, one father declared,

This is another tragedy: the generation gap between young and old in the ethnic minorities is much greater than in the indigenous population. Our elder generation were law-abiding and hardworking. Where they failed was they put all their God-given hours into work and didn't spend time with their children. When these people are brainwashed, they are brainwashed to an extent that they don't talk to their parents.30

Similar complaints are heard across Europe. The teenage son of prominent Danish imam Ahmed Abu Laban was expelled from a largely Muslim public school after he used Friday prayers as an opportunity to call for the annihilation of Israel and to denounce Danish democracy. His father complained that the Hizb ut-Tahrir "sell a simple package by giving young Muslims martyrdom in fifteen minutes. If they were good Muslims, they would have told my son to listen to his father." The desperate need to compete with the Hizb and like-minded groups goes far to explaining the seemingly hysterical reaction of mainstream Muslim leaders to apparently petty slights, since they must not be seen to be too accommodating. Abu Laban himself later attracted worldwide fame as the leader of protests against the cartoons of the prophet Muhammad.31 Severed from both past and present ties, young men find themselves open to the formulation of a new religious synthesis, potentially an emerging new Islam that might be truly pan-European, neither south Asian nor Maghrebi, Balkan nor Turkish. The prospect might be encouraging in the long term; but at least in its early stages, the Islam of Young Europe has some terrifying elements.

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