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In Love With Death

Eugene Brennan

Jihad and Death: The Global Appeal of Islamic State, by Olivier Roy, Hurst, 136 pp, £15.99, ISBN: 978-1849046985

When ISIS declared the caliphate in 2014, initial analyses highlighted a new terrorist logic at odds with that of previous forms of jihadi terrorism. Al-Qaeda’s mode of operation was largely based on the idea of an explicit war on the West while ISIS initially seemed more focused on local horizons, terrorising and ethnically cleansing Shia Muslims and “heretics” in northern Iraq. Al-Qaeda attempted to strike on the basis of a decentralised global network with loosely anchored local cells, while ISIS were firmly focused on reterritorialisation, prioritising, as the name suggests, a state.

Since then we have seen attacks on a range of Western cities, which seems to disrupt any neat distinction between the logic of the two jihadi groups. ISIS depends on the myth of the caliphate for its propaganda and recruitment, but its attacks on far-flung, opportunistic targets appear to resume the project of global decentralised warfare, if in even more horrific and theatrical terms than Al-Qaeda. Olivier Roy’s newly translated Jihad and Death: The Global Appeal of Islamic State provides crucial insights into the contradictions and consistencies of modern jihadi terrorism, with a particular focus on attacks carried out by Western jihadis. It starts from the observation that the attacks claimed by both Al-Qaeda and ISIS exhibit a specifically modern phenomenon: the systemic use of suicide as a weapon. The differences between the groups mask a more crucial common tendency in the active pursuit of death on the part of the attacker(s), which only became more prominent in these kinds of attacks from the mid-nineties. The book thus sets out to examine a suicidal nihilism which is historically and generationally specific.

Before getting to the core of the argument, Roy initially proceeds by undermining numerous miscomprehensions prevalent in both left- and right-wing perspectives on contemporary terrorism. Some of the most important of these concern the relationship between Jihad and Islam, already explored by Roy in Globalized Islam (2004) among other works. Much debate in the West on this subject has largely been shaped by the interdependent narratives of reactionaries and liberals. For the former, it is often asserted that “our values” are threatened by a “clash of civilisations”. Passages from the Quran are often cherry-picked to show how Islam is inherently violent. Liberals then get duped into this narrative framework by cherry-picking passages of their own to show that, on the contrary, it is a peaceful religion. This gesture might be well-meaning but to claim that it is an intrinsically peaceful religion is a patronising, ahistorical and unhelpful approach for understanding modern Islam, or any other religion for that matter. Roy reminds us that if we want to understand contemporary issues related to Islam, “textualist” approaches which analyse the Quran for an essential meaning can be hugely misguided. Like any modern globalised religion, an understanding of the beliefs and practices of contemporary Muslims is better served by sociology and reception studies than essentialist pseudo-theological debates. In other words, rather than trying to decipher what the Quran says, one might more learn more about modern Islam by listening to what Muslims say the Quran says.

Roy’s book illuminates the asymmetry between even fundamentalist Islam and Jihad. One may find Salafi ideology, and fundamentalist readings of Islam, unpleasant and reactionary, but there is little direct causal relationship between either textual fundamentalism or religious piety and political radicalisation. Modern jihadis are almost never radicalised by their religious readings nor by their involvement in religious spaces such as the mosque. (Roy notes in passing that the UK is an exception in this regard in that mosques do often play a more prominent role in politicisation.) Radicalisation in fact usually takes place in other spaces, such as prison, social clubs or online. Contemporary jihadis rarely have a strong religious culture. This is why the deradicalisation programmes which advocate a “moderate” Islam are misguided. Jihadis have not become radicalised because they have “misread” or misunderstood Islamic texts. They have become radicalised because they have chosen radicalism and turn to Islam for a (post-)rationalisation. This is what Roy means by the statement that “terrorism does not arise from the radicalization of Islam, but from the Islamization of radicalism”. (The phrase was in fact originally coined by the anthropologist Alain Bertho, whom Roy duly credits).

Jihad and Death contains nuanced and careful readings of the links between jihadism and Salafism but, fundamentally, Roy stresses that jihadism should be understood less for its religious underpinnings than as a twenty-first century realignment of the geopolitical horizon of revolt. For Roy, it appears to offer rebellious and alienated youth the sole cause today towards which they can align their desire for radicalism. Roy identifies a generation of jihadi terrorists, beginning with Khaled Kelkal, who was behind the bombings in France in 1995, and continuing through the Paris attacks in 2015. This generation is characterised by a profound sense of nihilism and an active pursuit of death. In contrast to previous generations, most terrorists of this generation blew themselves up or embraced death at the end of their attack: “What fascinates is pure revolt, not the construction of a utopia. Violence is not a means. It is an end in itself. It is violence devoid of a future.”

A common profile of this generation of Western jihadis, with particular focus on France, is that they are almost all second-generation immigrants. Their parents, originally from Arab countries, are usually well integrated into French society and speak French at home. Second-generation youths often come to see this integration of their parents as a sign of humiliation, as if they have subjugated themselves and abandoned their roots. But the jihadis usually have barely any affinity with these roots: their radicalism is a pure construct, and one which is met by their parents with total incomprehension. The idea that their parents have humiliated themselves is one that is suddenly acquired in early adulthood following periods of social alienation, petty crime or imprisonment. Youths with barely any Islamic culture, little if any knowledge of spoken Arabic, and no contact with their parents’ country of origin suddenly find expression and release for their own alienation and nihilism through over-identification with a phantasmatic culture of Islamic violence unrecognisable to their parents.

The emphasis on the number of second-generation immigrants who become jihadis is striking, but it is part of a more complex picture which extends far wider. As the major cause on the market today, jihad is one of the most recognisable (anti-)political expressions of a global suicidal nihilism that takes many different forms. In this regard, Roy draws a key comparison with American high school shootings. Between 1999 and 2016 there were fifty attacks in or attempted attacks in America in the style of the Columbine high school shootings. The shooters display striking similarities with jihadi terrorists in their formal approach to the attacks and in their psychopathologies. In both cases, the attackers display a similarly narcissistic heroic self-imaginary. The sense of heroic adventurism is crucial. A nerdy teenager with no friends and bad grades who comes from a drab suburb of a western European city takes on a more impressive stature in his own imagination or that of his classmates when he’s suddenly posting Facebook photos of himself in Syria holding a machine gun. Whether going to join ISIS or committing attacks elsewhere, terrorists today are often infatuated with documenting themselves on social media to “prove themselves” to their friends or society more broadly. And a similar combination of narcissism and heroism informs Columbine-style high school shooters, as Roy notes, who post online photos of themselves in heroic poses before the attacks. On this point, Roy echoes Franco “Bifo” Berardi’s analysis of modern suicidal murderers in his book Heroes: Mass Murder and Suicide (2015). Where Bifo focuses on mass murders such as Columbine and Roy focuses on jihad, both note that the “modern” or “new” element in both jihadi attacks and mass shootings is the same: the pursuit of death on the part of the perpetrator. Suicide has become systemic, a weapon in itself. The major difference is that jihadis have a global cause with which to align themselves, whether it is explained in political or religious terms, while white American kids who commit mass murder simply get pathologised. Both modern forms of mass murder nevertheless appear to partake in a culture of nihilism specific to contemporary global capitalism.

Despite the jihadis’ distinction of having a “cause” with which to align themselves, they generally exhibit a striking lack of actual knowledge or engagement with specific political issues. Contemporary struggles have a strangely spectral presence in jihad imaginary. There is little evidence of support for the Palestinian struggle. Terrorists frequently carry out explicitly anti-Semitic attacks but rarely attack Israeli sites. References to specific historical moments are absent too. As Roy writes:

Radicals never refer explicitly to the colonial period. They reject or disregard all political and religious movements that come before them. They do not align themselves with the struggles of their fathers, precisely because they believe their fathers have lapsed and that, basically, they are the only generation equal to that of the Prophet’s time. As mentioned previously, almost none of them go back to their parents’ countries of origin to wage jihad, which would be the case if there had been a colonial genealogy. For converts, this “virtual” relationship to the entire Muslim community is obvious. There are interested in global Islam, not a specific conflict.

The “revenge” jihadis wish to enact takes place on the level of a “virtual” imaginary. Roy argues that there is not a clearly traceable anticolonial logic in attacks nor a solely anti-Western motivation. Western jihadis who claim to go to Syria to save Muslims end up killing more “heretics” than “crusaders” without realising that many “heretics”, as Roy says, “share their rejection of Israel and their hostility toward Western imperialism”. They practice a jihadic nomadism and “leave behind a real world for an imaginary world. Their iconoclasm also signals their indifference to any local culture.”

But if contemporary jihadis enter into a “virtual” imaginary to realise their fantasies of revenge, it is worth recalling that the political framework for this nihilism came from more material historical events. ISIS is often depicted as a barbarous opposition to Western society, but in reality it is a monstrous offspring of a capitalist modernity which it appropriates. More directly, it is obviously a product of the Iraq war. The origin of ISIS was an armed resistance which thought of itself as an anti-imperialist “uprising” against its American oppressors. Iraqi Sunnis showed little signs of communitarianism before the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, but their stigmatisation and cruel treatment under the system put in place by the Americans created a marginalised population, ready to be further exploited by any alternative, as was the case with the alliance of jihadis, former Ba’athists, former Al-Qaeda members and other opportunists who had formed the beginnings of ISIS in American-run prisoner of war camps. ISIS is a counter-imperialist operation based on expansion, domination and exploitation, but because of the devastating effects of the Iraq war, it was originally able to effectively depict itself as an anti-imperialist liberator.

Myriam Benraad’s Iraq, la revanche de l’histoire (2015) offers a reminder of these uncomfortable facts and an illuminating framing of contemporary jihad as a “revenge of history”. The “revenge” thesis has been considered on a number of historical levels, including as a revenge against long-term Western intervention in the region best symbolised by the Sykes-Picot border, which ISIS sought to destroy from early on. A more recently cited “revenge” is for the Iraq war. But an interesting point which Benraad suggests is that this is also framed as a revenge for the entire direction of geopolitical history since the fall of the Soviet Union. In the early nineties, Francis Fukuyama argued that we were witnessing an “End of History”, an argument which was pushed by neoconservatives triumphantly asserting liberal capitalism as the only game in town. The discourse and vision of the neocons gave capitalism a radicalised religious dimension. They famously pushed the idea that there was an incompatible “clash of civilisations” between Islam and the West, and continue to deploy racist and historically ill-formed arguments.

ISIS propaganda appropriates neocon narratives in many ways. Prior to execution, prisoners are filmed dressed in orange jump suits, implicitly referencing iconic neocon sites such as Guantánamo Bay and post-invasion Iraqi prisoner camps. They recuperate the “clash of civilisations” thesis, assert a Manichean world view, and use their own millenarian, apocalyptic discourse to send the disturbing message that they are attempting to replay the last thirty years of geopolitical history, realigning a post-Soviet “new world order” on their terms, and this time asserting their own more nightmarish “end of history”.

These are just some of the issues overlooked by Roy, whose perspective, in its welcome nuance and his rightful insistence that modern jihad cannot be solely explained by the crimes of the West, risks going too far in absolving the West and powerful geopolitical actors of their responsibility. More broadly, Roy’s work offers some of the most precise and rigorous accounts of the relationship between contemporary Islam and jihadi terrorism. It does not simply deny the relationship, but it does convincingly suggest that, rather than focusing on Islam, we should be focusing on the connections between the different forms of nihilism in the world today. However, his account leaves us with many questions as to why the suicidal nihilism he describes weighs so heavily on the contemporary world.

In Our Wound is Not So Recent: Thinking the Paris Killings of 13 May (2016), Alain Badiou offers a highly convincing account of our malaise as being embedded in the historic failure of communism. For Badiou, the absence of a politics of emancipation and the subsumption of life within globalised capitalism is ultimately responsible for the culture of nihilism exemplified by jihad. It is worth reiterating some of the statistics Badiou starts from: ten per cent of the world’s population possess eighty-six per cent of the available resources, and fifty per cent of the world’s population possess nothing. Beyond the dispossessed, there are at least two billion people in the world who do not have access to waged labour and do not have consumption power. There are at least two billion people in the world, then, who, from the perspective of capital, count for nothing. They are “surplus” to the requirements of capital, and hence expendable.

For those who do have access to work, the workplace under neoliberalism increasingly breeds competitiveness and cruelty in place of any solidarity. The most horrific effects of this are evident in the endemic suicides of workers at Foxconn factories in China or at France Telecom where, between 2006 and 2009, sixty-five workers took their own lives, almost certainly as a direct consequence of the impossible performance targets and cruel working conditions forced on them at the recently privatised company. Jihadi killers and high school shooters do not all come from such difficult workplaces or socially impoverished backgrounds. But in a world which suggests that genuine egalitarianism and solidarity is impossible, in which we are repeatedly told that there are no alternatives to the cruelty of capitalism, it does not require a huge leap of imagination to see why more and more troubled individuals might look for solidarity in brotherhoods of hate.

Badiou’s essay indirectly raises one major problem with Olivier Roy’s perspective. Following Alain Bertho’s formulation, Roy talks about the aforementioned “Islamisation” of “radicalism”. But there is a relativistic and fatalistic assumption implicit in this vocabulary, as if all genuine alternatives to capitalism (itself in a deranged phase of “radicalisation”) share the same space on the ethico-political spectrum. At one point Roy describes ISIS’s vision of “reconquering and defeating the West” as “a huge fantasy, like all millennialist ideologies since Marxism and Nazism”. It comes as a surprise that someone as otherwise perceptive and sharp would make such an ahistorical and false correlation between fascism and Marxism (which would be more properly described as a “mode of analysis” rather than an “ideology”). This makes explicit some of the problems with Roy’s vocabulary around “radicalism”, which risks treating all political alternatives and perceived extremisms on the same terms. But it is a matter of political and history necessity to refuse any suggestion of a correlation between the “extremes” of emancipation on the one hand and fascism on the other. Liberals often obfuscate historical violence by pointing to the origins of “terrorism” in the “terror” of the French Revolution for example. But to suggest that there is any real correlation between the “terror” which played a role in the foundation of the modern French republic and the “terror” carried out by jihadi fascists, is a renunciation of thought and politics. Alberto Toscano, whose Fantaticism (2010) provides an excellent critique of the relativism of this liberal world view, offers a further contribution in this regard with his recent “Notes on Late Fascism”. Toscano cites Theodor Adorno to make a rather straightforward but essential point:

Rather than an emancipatory concern with equality, fascism promotes a “repressive egalitarianism”, based on an identity of subjection and a brotherhood of hatred: “The undercurrent of malicious egalitarianism, of the brotherhood of all-encompassing humiliation, is a component of fascist propaganda and fascism itself – it is its ‘unity trick’.”

This distinction is crucial. In a world where contemporary capitalism tells us that an “emancipatory concern with equality” is “radical”, the alternative offered by jihad is a fascism of repressive egalitarianism, of brotherhoods of hate and humiliation. This is why it makes more sense to take up Badiou’s vocabulary in describing contemporary jihad. Rather than “radicalism”, it would be more appropriately described in the language of contemporary fascism. Jihad exhibits an “Islamisation” of modern fascism, or fascism hiding under the front of Islamic politics. This fascism is based on an identitarian death drive which depends on religion for its articulation. In the face of such fascism it is surely urgent to defend “radicalisms” which do not cede on their desire for genuine emancipation and justice.

Finally, if Roy’s use of the term “radicalism” is somewhat obfuscatory it is worth briefly considering the pertinence of a diagnosis of “nihilism”, a recurring term as we have seen, also used by Badiou as more or less synonymous with contemporary fascism. The overuse of the term “nihilism” in cultural and political theory can often be symptomatic of a hand-wringing moralism rather than a concrete analysis. Attributing historical causes to loosely defined metaphysical anguish can often obscure more than it reveals. But nihilism, in its most basic definition, simply refers to the observation that existence is worthless and does not have any intrinsic or pre-ordained meaning. In this regard, nihilism is not simply synonymous with fascists and reactionaries but has gone hand in hand with the most progressive of political and aesthetic movements. Nihilism can give rise to a sense of urgency and possibility. The promethean aspiration to change the world for the better is one often informed by a sense of nihilism described by the philosopher Ray Brassier: “Nihilism is not an existential quandary but a speculative opportunity.”

The recognition that meaning is not given to us in advance, but must be constructed by humans working together, has arguably fuelled and intensified emancipatory politics for the better. A sense of nihilism is thus not the preserve of reactionaries. However, given the realignment of political horizons since the end of the Cold War, the surge of suicides in workplaces, school shootings, and jihadi attacks as charted by Roy, Bifo and others, it seems that we are witnessing a historically specific form of reactionary and destructive nihilism. Bifo labels this an “annihilating” nihilism. If communisms and modernisms have often been fuelled by a “constructive” nihilism, the desire for humans to make and remake themselves and the world on the basis of solidarity, Bifo’s “annihilating” nihilism seeks revenge and destroys any possibility for solidarity beyond the limited confines of brotherhoods of hate.

In reimagining and striving for a genuinely emancipatory horizon of revolt antithetical to this form of nihilism, it is worth remembering that communist politics have been characterised by the internal tension between, on the one hand, historical materialism’s attempt to rigorously analyse the world as it is, and on the other hand, revolutionary visions of the world as it could be, of hope in alternative futures. One of the major tasks any emancipatory politics finds itself confronted with is to resist the temptation towards theological belief in abstractions. But on some level, whether or not we consciously believe in any political or religious horizon, few of us get by without a little faith.


Eugene Brennan teaches English and comparative literature at the American University of Paris and the Université Sorbonne Nouvelle - Paris 3.