What Europe’s Islamic Radicals Really Want

Olivier Roy, a lifelong French specialist on Islamic affairs, including Islamic terrorism, is exasperated by the simplistic accounts of his field that he finds in the press.

The way to think of the European terrorists is how we thought of the violent young in the 1960s and 1970s, he says:  disoriented dropouts, not apostles of long-term objectives that will really be advanced by violence.  Indeed, today’s terrorists don’t have long-term objectives.  They resemble a young French rebel of 1968 I remember, who proclaimed proudly, “I am making a revolution because I am a revolutionary!”

I once met our own Abbie Hoffman, an agitator of that stripe, in Elaine’s, a then-trendy upper east side tavern, where I was taken by a friend, George Plimpton.  Aha, thought I, a chance to get the inside dope.  “What would you do,” I asked, “if you suddenly found yourself in the White House with full powers?”  The notorious disruptor was charmed by the prospect but stupefied by the problem.  “Legalize pot?” he asked, weakly.  Not quite V.I. Lenin!

The Islamic terrorists operating in Europe, Roy observes, are like the hippies, yippies, and their ilk.  One thinks of the lunatic Symbionese Liberation Army, which intoxicated heiress Patty Hearst, or the Puerto Rican FLN, which had no following there, or Kathy Boudin, daughter of a lawyer for radical causes.  She blew up a whole house in Greenwich Village, to the advantage of no one.  Often they are middle-class intellectual drifters, who frequently have converted to Islam while already living abroad, whose language is that of the European country where they live, and who don’t return to their ancestral homeland.

Beside the problem of the young radicals, there is the issue of the mainstream Muslim in Europe.  For them, the jihadists are marginal, even freakish.  And the hostility toward all Muslims that this fringe provokes bothers them greatly.  A 17-year-old Pakistani girl in England says, “It’s not my fault I’m Muslim..  It’s not my fault [Osama Bin Laden] did it, he’ll be probably shot dead tomorrow for something like that, but it’s going to affect us because we’re the ones who’re going to have to live here.”

Conferences on these issues take it for granted that the main concerns among European Muslims are the Israeli-Palestinian problem, the American presence in the Middle East, and the like.  Not so!  Only inside the hall, not out on the street.  The rage among, say, French Muslims, is over discrimination in jobs and elsewhere, and poor housing; in a word, over their position as citizens.  It is hard to assemble a worthwhile crowd of Muslims for a demonstration on Palestine, and indeed in demonstrations of a more general nature very few of those present carry placards talking about Palestine or anything else to do with the Middle East.

Furthermore, we forget that many Muslims in Europe are losing the intensity of their faith, and indeed may be abandoning it entirely.  They may have Islamic names, but nevertheless lead secularized lives, drinking wine and so forth.   (On the other hand, we also ignore a tendency of Muslim girls in Europe to become radicals.)

Political Islam is not much of a concern, observes Olivier Roy.  Such countries as Iran and Pakistan are really secular.  Iran, in particular: Although it has fanatics at the helm, the people are fed up with them.  The country is more secularized than ever.  Pakistan, likewise.  Turkey is an interesting case.  Its admission to Europe is not of interest to European Muslims, except to other Turks. It may be too nationalist for Europe, but not too Muslim.

So, there is indeed an Islamic confrontation with the West, but it is conceptual, not national:  the Caliphate will not arise in territorial terms.

What to do, then?  Focus on the individuals, says Roy, what’s bothering the unemployed and disillusioned immigrant, not the official circles and conference junkies.

I must admit that this touches me personally.  For many years I’ve been a co-sponsor of periodic convegni in Italy between several hundred Christian, Jewish and Muslim specialists who discuss aspects of the teaching of their respective holy books.  These texts build on each other more than one might think:  The Christian Bible scoops up much of the Jewish Bible, and the Koran accepts most of the great prophets.  Jesus is described repeatedly in the Koran as “the Messiah” – not exactly in our sense, but with the utmost respect.  We come away from these conferences with greatly enhanced mutual understanding.  But I must, alas, recognize that this kind of high-level reconciliation, although very important, will not for a very long time calm Muslim radicalism.  It’s the specific griefs of individuals on the street that move them to action, not the large conceptions beloved of terrorists and intellectuals.

(Of course, all this refers to Europe, where, incidentally, only one of 498 terrorist acts committed in 2006 was Islamist, according to Europol.  The Middle Eastern suicide bombers are another story altogether, as are many of the English Islamists).

Contra the “Eurabia” alarmists, one need not worry that Muslims will take over Europe thanks to their huge families, by the way.  They are only huge for a while; then they revert toward the level of the surrounding population.  For that matter, they are declining in situ, for the same reasons as everywhere else.  The CIA World Factbook estimates that the number of children per couple in Algeria, Tunisia and Turkey is now running slightly below replacement level! ■