Olivier Roy: Religion and de-radicalisation, an approach in need of development
One of the major problems in studying the religious element in violent phenomena is that we are a society that does not understand – or no longer understands – what it is to be religious, for we we are profoundly secular societies (and this secularisation also affects Muslim countries). This is not something unique to Western Europe. There is a profound and growing ignorance of religion, which makes anything religious seem strange. The social sciences do not help in the process of understanding religion because they are active in supporting the secularisation of religion. They are constantly trying to turn what is religious into something secular, for instance into something to do with identity, protest or psychology. The law also treats religious phenomena under other headings, such as freedom of speech. Hate speech laws, for instance, put religion, race, gender, etc. into the same bag. We do not see and we do not comprehend the specificity of religion, so much so that when it does appear as such, it is often in the guise of violence; as if violence and religion were fundamentally connected, in that they were based in irrationality and an incapacity to think clearly.
In what concerns us here, religion may obviously be utterly absent, for instance in extreme left-wing movements, which are in the main anti-religious. Religion may be overtly present, but in an ambiguous form. We talk of “Catholics” and “Protestants” in Northern Ireland, so there the reference is explicit. But does this religious reference coincide with an actual faith? Does it coincide with religious practice? In Northern Ireland, the answer is no. The IRA had socialist and Marxist tendencies, and the rate of observance among Northern-Irish Protestants is one of the lowest in Western Europe. But religion can also be something implicit: without making any overt reference to religion, people can display mystical and religious-type behaviour through violence. So you see, this is already a source of complexity. There is a problem of categorisation. Let us take the Norwegian extreme right-wing killer Breivik, for instance. In the enormous work he published online, he explicitly affiliates himself with Christianity: the Crusades and Charles Martel take up dozens and dozens of pages. At the same time, he is not at all religiously observant. He does not request to see a chaplain, does not pray, did not go to church, etc.
Working on the life paths of the Islamic terrorists who have been active in Western Europe over the past twenty years, starting specifically with Khaled Kelkal in 1995 right down to the Bataclan attacks, what is clear if that most of those who commit a suicide attack have not been following a religious path, i.e. they are not the products of radicalisation through religion. But they are religious when they take action. They sincerely believe they are going to heaven. Religion is therefore not merely a pretext, not merely a thin disguise for other deeper explanations. It is at the heart of what they do, without being its cause. And that is something we have difficulty in understanding. We can study everything that fosters, let’s say, the feeling of frustration that is a constant feature among terrorists: racism, social exclusion, post-colonialism, personal failure,… you name it. There is still that final jump, that final religious phase. Either we can eliminate it, as my colleague François Burgat does, explaining that what we are dealing with here is “Muslimspeak”: they are expressing in religious terms something that is not religious, but which is deeply political, social and cultural. And why not? But while we can comprehend their political choices, we no longer understand the particularities of the way they act, including this almost systematic pursuit of death. I am not going to address the controversy mentioned by Michel a little earlier; I am merely going to state the issue. How are we to understand the relation between religion and violence?
In order to explore how people can exit violence, we must understand this fascination with violence. The problem comes when we try to assess the role of religion in the context of exiting violence without having really understand its role in fomenting violence. Let me give you a few examples. The relation between religion and violence is generally seen as operating along four different lines.
Firstly, it is said that the problem with religion is that it makes non-negotiable demands. If one makes non-negotiable demands, how can one expect to be part of a democratic society, for example? How can one even envisage getting along with others and compromising? The conclusion then becomes that religious people must negotiate their religion, must accept to rethink its basic tenets – in short, it is a theological negotiation that is required. This is a false problem. In this connection, I would refer to the work done by the historian Olivier Christin on “religious peace” as a response to “religious war”. Religious war was triggered precisely because there was a “non-negotiable demand”. When one comes to the final two of Martin Luther’s 95 theses, it is spelled out: “What I have just said is non-negotiable. I would be ready to die for what I have just said. You can kill me. ” What happened? There was war for almost a century (1545-1648). But the war brought no one victory. The States and the kings quickly asked themselves: “How can I avoid civil war in my kingdom? ” They endeavoured to make religious compromises. They gather together Protestant and Catholic theologians and told them, “Go ahead, talk about the Eucharist”, as at the Colloquy of Poissy in 1562… all to no avail, obviously! Because there was nothing to negotiate. Thus, bringing together theologians to talk about Abraham, and so on, is pointless. But a political approach, with the principle of negotiation at its core does work. Christin demonstrates that religious peaces were the doing of legal experts, politicians and the political authorities. Thus we have a good example of political management of the refusal of religion to negotiate. It has already be done, and is doable. When Pope Benedict XVI says “abortion is non-negotiable”, there is no question of demanding him to recant; instead, we begin to negotiate, not with the Church, but with the political powers, and even the electorate, that is close to the Church. But we do not demand that the Church abolish the “Humanae Vitae” encyclical. Similarly, there is no point asking Salafists to say, “I respect Christianity because it is basically a good religion and there are some really good things in it”. There is no point asking them to sign a declaration saying that Yazidis or Shiites are not heretics. On the other hand, there is work to be done on the political front, particularly concerning the idea of religious freedom for all and the notion that tolerance and liberty belong to the political sphere of responsibility. The issue is not how to exclude religion from the public sphere, but how to build a framework in which religious freedom can be exercised.
A second area where there is a general sense of how religion feeds into violence is that of intensity of belief. This is especially true in France. As you perhaps already know, when the police does a background check prior to the granting of accreditation to the baggage handlers at Roissy airport (who are often of Muslim origin), they look into the intensity of their religious observance. The police form is organised along the following lines: “Never attends mosque and drinks alcohol”: favourable opinion “Attends mosque once a month, does not eat pork, but will take a drink at the company party”: favourable opinion “Attends mosque and does not drink”. Ah… fishy. So, the second background check. “Prays once a day”. Third background check. “Prays five times a day”. Accreditation refused. This is a grand old French tradition! In 1904, the Ministry of War carried out a check on French officers eligible for promotion to the rank of general. It was exactly the same type of form: “Attends mass once a year”, “goes to mass very Sunday”. And if it was noted that one “went to mass every day with prayer book in hand”, that was the promotion done for.
The third area where religion is looked to in order to explain violence is that of theological radicality. In other words, the cause of violence is seen as being theological radicality. Salafism is theologically radical, no doubt about that. There a definition of what is heretical, of what is and is not halal (i.e. permissible and prohibited), which is very strict. And this creates social problems, problems to do with living together and participation in political life. But does it lead to violence? Not necessarily: there is no automatic link between Salafism and terrorism. The overwhelming majority of terrorists have never has any links with Salafism; they are “born again” or converts. But once they have turned religious, do they become so in a Salafist mode? I have my doubts. The behaviour of Abdeslam and Abaaoud after the attack were not Salafist. But let’s not go into too much detail.
So, the problem is that these three factors (non-negotiability, intensity of faith and theological radicality) cannot help us respond to religious violence, because they are not systematically linked to political violence and, above all, do not in themselves offer a “religious solution” to political violence.
There is a fourth area where religion is explicit and where it is possible to find a link with political violence. This is what might be referred to as the ideologisation of religion. The theory of the caliphate is an ideologisation of religion. And Daesh is a remarkable product of this ideologisation of religion. While the young recruits are not scholars, Daesh go and take real Islamic scholars. These scholars then provide a litany of religious justifications for the political choices and forms of violence chosen by Daesh. The idea is not to return to a tradition far removed from what Daesh is doing, but to present a sort of genealogy apparently linking Daesh to the time of the Prophet. In order to anchor themselves in the Koran, they use terms that have a vague Koranic resonance, but which are in fact utterly modern-day neologisms (such as hakimiyya). Here is case where, because we are dealing with an ideologisation of religion, a political response can be formulated and a political combat can be waged. The political dimension must absolutely not be dismissed with the idea that this is merely a theological problem. It remains the case, however, that this political choice is indeed expressed in religious terms. And here is where theologians have some responsibility to act. The question is how to define the framework in which they can act, and it should not be theological reform, weekly sermons or deradicalisation programmes.
It is good that theologians explain that Daesh is wrong and that the Salafists are wrong. It is a good thing for many reasons. But we must not believe we are going to win radicals over to moderation by giving them courses on religion. If they became radicals in the first place, it is not because they read the Koran incorrectly. In general they have not read it when they become radicalised. It is because they want to become radicals. So, sending good chaplains to teach the Koran to those who have come back from Syria in order to bring them back onto the right path makes no sense. I am totally sceptical. Perhaps I am wrong, perhaps there may be some exceptions (in the case of the very young in particular), and we are here to debate such things. But attempts at deradicalisation have not produced convincing results.
What is the core issue, the problem we have difficulty comprehending? It is the implicitly religious issue, i.e. the mystic dimension of violence. Mystics exist outside of religion. Read Dostoyevsky. Look at the anarchists of the nineteenth century, the Narodni, the revolutionary Russians at the end of the nineteenth century, and there you see a death mysticism and a mysticism of violence that is explicit. In the pursuit of death, there is not only the hope of going to heaven. This is why I have used the term nihilism – which is not a very good one, I grant you. It is fair to say that an anarchist who allowed himself to be caught, who explained what he did at his trial, who was sentenced to death and was executed, and who died not yet aged 30 did not believe in heaven. On the other hand, it is safe to assume that the young men at the Bataclan thought they were going to heaven and that they were thus no nihilists. But, fundamentally, for me – and perhaps I am mistaken –, the behaviour is profoundly similar. In both cases, there is the idea that there is no future on earth. “No future”. None of these young terrorists and jihadists is really interested in building an Islamically just society in Syria. They say, “I want to live in an Islamic society”. But none of them are really involved in constructing an Islamically just society, and it is interesting that this does not interest them. And this is why Daesh has an amazing reservoir of volunteers willing to die, which they are currently using by the hundreds, notably in their military resistance around Mosul. They have young men who are, indeed, lining up to die. I believe that this is an aspect of the problem that we must work on, one which clearly explains why mental health professionals (psychoanalysts, psychiatrists, etc.) are involved in the area of radicalisation and deradicalisation. And this involvement is legitimate. But the challenge is to combine this approach with an understanding of violence as a political phenomenon. Because the risk is that, by psychologising the issue, we end up seeing the problem as an individual matter, or a metaphysical malaise affecting a certain section of the young population; but, on the other hand, if we politicise everything, we lose sight of why, in the end, these young people take violent action. I believe that the focus should be on that area where something deeply personal, spiritual and mystical – yes, that is the word I would use – connects with a narrative like the one put forward by Daesh, which is political and ideological. It is the combination of the two that makes the absolute form of violence practised by Daesh so powerful and strange.
 Like Emile Henry, the first to say “There is no such thing as an innocent person”. In reality, what he said was, “There is no such thing as an innocent bourgeois”. The men at the Bataclan might have said: “There are no innocent French people”. Adding an adjective does not alter the meaning. But, in this case, the idea is that everyone is guilty.