Jihad in the West: The Rise of Militant Salafism

Posted: December 14, 2011 in International Affairs
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Slightly belatedly another review in a new journal, this time for Chatham House’s International Affairs journal, looking at Frazer Egerton’s “Jihad in the West: The Rise of Militant Salafism” for Cambridge University Press. I see that the publisher liked my review and have already incorporated it into their webpage for the site. The book was a quick read and provided a good overview of a number of streams of thinking about jihad. Unlike other reviews I post here, it seems as though Chatham House publish these through their website, so I have pasted the full text below (with a link at the top that gets through to all the reviews in that edition of the journal).

Jihad in the West: the rise of militant Salafism. By Frazer Egerton. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 2011. 222pp. Index. Pb.: £18.99. isbn 978 0 52117 581 4.

Why do they hate us? This burning question lies at the heart of much research and writing on the troublesome issue of why young men and women born or raised in the West can turn so violently against it. The key to understanding, according to Frazer Egerton, is a set of questions around identity formation among a self-selecting community of people in the West drawn to an ideology he defines as ‘militant Salafism’.

Given its centrality in the text, it is useful to highlight exactly how Egerton defines his ideology: ‘Militant Salafism is a movement inspired by a religious and political metanarrative that demands militancy in the face of alleged Western hostility towards Islam’ (p. 21). The rest of the book is an attempt to pry into the many different explanations that have been provided into what draws young people ‘either born or who have lived for a consider- able time in the West’ (p. 6) towards this ideology. Separate chapters focus on ‘alienation’ (chapter two), the ‘political imaginary’ (chapter three), ‘hypermedia’ (chapter four) and ‘movement’ (chapter five)—a final chapter (six, there is also a brief conclusion) brings this all together, summarizing why it is that these ideas catch on among such a concentrated community.

In each chapter, Egerton is assiduous in citing academia and providing case-studies from the panoply of Islamist terror cells that have troubled the West. Particular cases seem to occur more frequently, like the September 11 Hamburg cell, with Egerton making the astute point that it is Ziad Jarrah (the Lebanese hijacker who crashed the plane into a field in Pennsylvania) ‘who seemed for so much of his politically and religiously moderate life to be detached from the issues allegedly inspiring militant Salafism’ (p. 159) who often attracts the most attention.

The reason for this is that Jarrah, unlike cell leader Mohammed Atta, who is repeat- edly described as dour and serious, was a cheery sort from an affluent family, making him a surprising candidate for an ideology that is often described as being rooted in grievance and alienation. Egerton’s chapter on alienation focuses on how ‘infuriatingly loosely’ it has been defined in the past (p. 43) and points out the many contradictions in using alienation as an explanation for terrorism.

Instead, he posits the greater importance of the ‘political imaginary’ and the role of what he characterizes as ‘hypermedia’ in conjuring a narrative that draws young men in. Both of these chapters are well written and offer some interesting insights into the role of the internet, radical preachers, videos and other ideological paraphernalia in fostering the violent ‘militant Salafist’ identity. His points on the ‘deterritorialization’ of the globalized world and the ‘fluidity in identity’ it generates (p. 61) cast some useful light on the topic. Similarly, the importance of images and the dislocating effect they can have throws some incisive analysis onto their role in persuading individuals to become involved in terrorist groups.

Unfortunately, the subsequent chapter on ‘movement’ is slightly less sharp. Egerton makes the rather obvious point that most individuals involved in ‘militant Salafism’ in the West have at some point in their lives travelled and a majority are immigrants. As the chapter goes on, it becomes clearer that he is pointing to the idea that this motion in part explains the globalized ummah narrative that is at the heart of so many extremists explanations for their actions. What is underestimated is the importance of travelling to fight or train in persuading young westerners to participate in jihad. The thrill of participating in a clandes- tine army is significant in understanding the appeal of jihadism to young men in the West.

This introduces another point that seems to be missing. Egerton quite correctly highlights the importance of charismatic leaders who provide others with figures to emulate (p. 142), but he misses a tactical point. Often it is already active extremists who provide the connective tissue that helps transform the radical individual into an active terrorist. When asking the question of why some join and others do not, it is sometimes just the absence of this connection that might be the answer.

Furthermore, the selection for Egerton’s database may have accidentally dated his conclu- sions. The radical narrative that drew in Ziad Jarrah and Mohammed Atta and the path they took is different from that which persuaded young Arid Uka to pick up a pistol and shoot two American servicemen as they waited to be deployed at Frankfurt Airport. And while Uka’s actions may have taken place after Egerton had completed his research, Nicky Reilly’s, the young Muslim convert who tried to blow himself up in an Exeter restaurant in May 2008, did not. The lure of jihad clearly continues to exist, its manifestations are evolving, and while Egerton has effectively distilled the existing research into some incisive points, the subject is one that is so live that it almost immediately requires refreshing.

Raffaello Pantucci, The International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation, UK

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