Radicalism usually prospers in the gap between rising expectations and declining opportunities. This is especially true where the population is young, idle and bored; where the art is impoverished; where entertainment – movies, theatre, music – is policed or absent altogether; and where young men are set apart from the consoling and socialising presence of women.
This thought-provoking quote is from Lawrence Wright’s vital 2006 book setting out the long context leading to 9/11, The Looming Tower, which I read in 2007. In it, he traces al-Qaeda back to its roots in Egypt, and Sayyid Qutb, the “father” of the radical Islamic movement: a middle-class, educated civil servant and writer who learned his hatred of America while studying there in the 1940s.
It was modernity Qutb took exception to (“secularism, rationality, democracy, subjectivity, individualism, mixing of the sexes, tolerance, materialism”) and returned radicalised to Egypt, a country still under the yoke of Western colonialism. After Gamal Abdel Nasser took control in a military coup against the bloated ruling class in 1952, Qtub hoped for “a just dictatorship”, but Nasser moved the country towards a socialist, secular society (ring any bells?) and Qtub’s cohorts in the Sharia law-favouring Muslim Brotherhood turned against the leader they had helped to put in place. (The Brotherhood would, of course, play its part in the post-Arab Spring reconstruction vacuum.)
Qtub ended up in prison in the crackdown on dissenters after a failed assassination attempt on Nasser, and it was here, brutalised, tortured and horrified at the Muslim guards’ treatment of other Muslim prisoners, that he wrote his apocalyptic manifesto, Ma’alim fi a’Tariq (Milestones), which, among other assertions based on his own dark reading of the Quran, stated that any Muslim serving Nasser was not a “true Muslim”. (This observation from 50 years ago felt relevant again yesterday when Malek Merabet, brother of the murdered Muslim policeman Ahmed Merabet in Paris and a proud, upstanding example to anyone in a crisis, called his brother’s killers “false Muslims”.)
Thus, did Qtub make enemies of anyone who didn’t agree with him and set the clock back to the days of the Prophet Mohammed, before which the world existed in “a period of ignorance and barbarity”, jahiliyya. When Qutb was hanged on August 29, 1966, Wright’s fastidious book seems to say, al-Qaeda was effectively born.
I reprint the quote above, and the context beneath it, because it kept coming back to me over the past week’s grim events. It might seem glib to accuse radicalised men like the Kouachi brothers of simply being “young, idle and bored” (and it doesn’t account for the actions of Hayat Boumeddiene, partner and accomplice of Amedy Coulibaly in Thursday’s Montrouge shooting and Friday’s Porte de Vincennes siege), but there is a grain of truth in the generalisation, and those in the neglected suburbs of Paris certainly felt – and feel – disenfranchised and apart from the glories of modern, secular French society.
I have no answers to the broader problem, but I do think an inquiring understanding of the situation is required – and a reaction as dignified and nonviolent as the one we’re seeing across France. None of this happened overnight. The warning signs were there. And so much of it leads back to pre- and post-war Western colonialism (Saudi Arabia’s close ties to America were always troubling to more traditionally versed Muslims and when King Fahd allowed US troops to be stationed there in 1990, the camel’s back was figuratively broken). It’s something Nigel Farrage and Marine Le Pen would do well to remember before they open their mouths today, I think.