Over the past several years, Olivier Roy, a professor at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy, has come to be regarded as one of the world’s leading experts on political Islam.* Roy has offered up a theory, generally applied to Europe, on the “Islamization of radicalism.” It essentially holds that young followers of Islam have broken with their parents (a “generational revolt”). Roy believes that these young people “find in Islam the best way to express, experience, and to live their rejection of society.” This theory has proved controversial among other scholars, who tend to stress the opposite: the radicalization of Islam through the spread of Salafist ideas.
I spoke by phone with Roy, who is also the author of Holy Ignorance: When Religion and Culture Part Ways. In our conversation, which has been edited and condensed, we discussed Donald Trump’s strange brand of Islamophobia, how Muslims are assimilating in Europe, and what the Orlando shooter tells us about radicalism.
Isaac Chotiner: How does Omar Mateen fit into your thinking about radicalization?
Olivier Roy: The first point is that the guy is second-generation, which is the most common pattern for terrorists. The second point is that, to the extent we know—and every day we learn something new about him—he was not very religious: He was an angry man without a precise cause. One thing that is interesting is that his family was Afghan, and his father has made political statements. But he never mentioned Afghanistan during the killing. He could have said he was attacking the American people in revenge for Mullah Mansour, the Taliban leader killed by an American drone. He could have justified his anti-American stance by referring to events in Afghanistan. He didn’t.
This is a very common pattern among terrorists. Terrorists almost never refer to their own country or the country of origin of their parents. They usually refer to global jihad, not to concrete situations. You can be angry at the United States government for good reasons, or at least real reasons: drones, the invasion of Iraq, and so on. But these guys always refer to virtual, global jihad.
What does that signify to you?
They are not reacting to a real situation. They are not reacting to a real conflict. They are in a virtual war. The key thing about Daesh is that it has evolved to promote a narrative of global or virtual jihad: Daesh almost never mentions real conflicts. It attracts these types of guys who are what I call de-culturated and who never adjust to any society, whether it is American society or any society. It is not the revenge of the Afghans against the Americans. It is not connected to real struggles. They live in an imaginary world.
It sounds like you think this guy was on a path to some sort of radicalization or violence, whether or not it was through Islam.
I think that these guys do not become radicalized because they become more and more religious. It is not religious radicalization that leads to political radicalization. When they became radical, they are religious. They frame their wrath in a religious narrative. They think they will go to paradise. It is Islamization of radicalization. I think Islam is the framework of the radicalization; it is not the primary cause. What I am saying, which there is a lot of misunderstanding about: It is not because they pray more and more, or go more and more to a mosque, that they become radicals. When they became radicals, they choose the religious narrative and believe in it.
These guys are not Salafi. The idea that this is the Salafization of Islam does not make sense because their approach to salvation is not the Salafi approach. The Salafis do not believe in suicide. They think that suicide is a sin against God, like the Jews and the Christians. If you kill yourself or put yourself in a position where you will necessarily be killed, you preempt the will of God. But in the mind of the suicide bombers, the idea is that you don’t need to be a good Muslim, you don’t need to pray five times a day, you don’t need to go for hajj. If you make a supreme sacrifice, you will go directly to paradise and there is no need to be strict believer.
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