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Radicalization through religion

I-Sacred values and transnational radicalisation

In classical sociology, two sets of concepts seem of notable significance : instrumental values versus expressive values. The first type of values are mobilised in order to achieve goals. They are supposed to be interchangeable since what is aimed at is the goal and these values are simply “instruments” in order to achieve the goal.

On the contrary, expressive values are supposed to be somehow “absolute”, “non negotiable”, related to the deep expression of one’s psychic or social life and therefore, not interchangeable. Expressive values cannot be “changed” at will since they embody the deep desires or the “sacred” values the individuals prevail upon.
Religious values are of course “expressive” at least up to the moment people who refer to them, believe sincerely in them.

Radical values in the name of religion have always been a problem for those who are
“moderate” or “non fundamentalists”. In the catholic areas, the “intégristes” are those who identify too closely to the religious values which are supposed to shape their entire life. “Fundamentalists”, in the protestant areas are seen mutatis mutandis in the same fashion by the others whose life is not as strictly determined by religious values as the former. In the history of Islam, “radical” sects and groups were legion :
the Khavarej after the death of the Prophet believed that all those who did not strictly abide by the Islamic rules according to their interpretation were de facto Heretics and therefore, shedding their blood was religiously permitted. The number of Islamic sects up to the 19th century is probably higher than those within Christianity in spite of the diversity of the Protestant and Orthodox groups and cults. With the advent of European colonialism, Jihad became one of the major ways through which Muslims could justify the fight against the intruders. The change within the Muslim world after the Second World War and the end of colonialism induced new forms of Jihad, although many features of the new wave are akin to those of the past, expressing forms of social or political protest.

The problem arising within the contemporary Islamic Jihadism is threefold :
1-first of all, the relationship between “expressive” and “instrumental” values becomes
much more complex than before ;

2-second, new forms of radicalisation occur that are not related to the concrete "situation” of the individual but to a complex framework, mostly “imaginary” within which he embeds himself without any firm community or deeply rooted traditions ; in this respect, processes of individualisation are as important as those giving birth to new imaginary communities (the Neo-Umma – see below) ;

3-third, there is a major difference between what might be called “national” Jihadism
(related to national claims and demands like the Palestinian, Tchechnian, Kashmiri etc.) and “transnational” Jihadism where the claims are much more abstract and “imaginary”, much less “tangible” and “definable” in the classical sense. It is a phenomenon related to the global changes within the world at large (the constitution of sizeable Muslim minorities in the West and particularly in Europe since the 1960s) and in the Muslim countries in particular (beginning with the Shi’ite and then spreading to the Sunni : the nowadays’ Jihadis are exclusively Sunni). The ideology of transnational Jihadism as well as the nature of their recruitment and the ways individuals realise their Self within them present marked differences with the national patterns of Jihad.

If the above remarks are to be taken seriously, in the process of radicalisation, what is
important is at least as much the “sacred values” (or the “expressive values”) as the processes of sacralisation. My entire research on Iran and Europe (particularly France) has been dominated by this sweeping fact : the generation which sacralises “martyrdom” and Jihad does it in a way that is totally alien to its fathers and grand-fathers. What used to be a “sacred value” in a ritualistic and theatrical way (through doloristic Ashura rituals in Shi’ism, “orthopraxy” in Sunnism) has taken on an entirely new dynamics based on self-realisation through martyrdom and Jihad. The dimension of “perverse modernisation” in terms of the individualisation of the decision and on concrete accomplishment of it are processes of sacralisation which go much beyond the “sacred values” in the traditional sense [1]. New social and generational categories enter the scene, which were forbidden to act in the public sphere before : the very young and women for example. Their implications might seem “un-islamic” or even “anti-islamic” from the perspective of traditional Muslims [2]. Here too, “sacralisation” takes precedence over the “sacred”. The shaping and framing of new social groups or subgroups defining and revisiting Muslim notions and ideals is, in this respect, more important than the mere study of cultures or “alien” cultures from the views of the secular Western eyes. It is precisely because the embedded traditions are in deep crisis where Jihadists operate that we have nowadays phenomena of martyrdom and sacred death to an extent unheard of before. The extreme forms of Jihadism nowadays in Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Pakistan, Western Europe (to name the main places in the geo-politics of martyrdom) are related to new forms of “perverse modernisation” in which individualisation and new forms of communities (between political parties and grass root associations) are produced in non-traditional ways.

That is why I’ll concentrate on these processes of sacralisation rather than on "expressive” or “sacred values” [3].

Read more

New book of Farhad Khosrokhavar, « Radicalisation », Interventions, december 2014 (in french)


[1See my three books on Iran :
L’utopie sacrifiée, sociologie de la revolution Islamique , 1993 ; L’islamisme et la mort
, 1995 ; L’anthropologie de la revolution iranienne, 1997 and my book on French second and third generation Islam:L’islam des Jeunes, 1997. Of course many other scholars have done similar ideas on these topics, a list of them being provided in the bibliography of my latest book : Quand Al Qaeda parle , 2006

[2In my extensive interviews in Iran during the Islamic revolution, many traditional Muslims told me that the young coming out in public demonstrations and women being there were against Islam. It was ayatollah Khomeyni who published “fatwas” declaring licit their participation, against the view of many other traditional religious marja’ that made this participation “legitimate”, mashru’. The same case holds for many other acts in the name of Jihad and martyrdom. Many religious authorities are reluctant to let women engage in them because at the end, this would mean some kind of equality between men and women and the challenge to their dissymmetrical legal situation. In the Iranian revolution women were not permitted to engage in acts of war, not because they were more precious but for fear of their later claims to some kind of equality. Nowadays, these are being put into question, not without resistance from traditional circles and ulama

[3Since processes are focused upon, biographic methods are more appropriate than statistical data. The latter usually provide us with extensive yet static pictures of reality (this is true of the remarkable article of Atran’s, at least the part provided for this seminar). This default can be remedied but in this case, the financial means should be very significant in order to have a much more complete questionnaire (which has not been the case for my studies, always made with negligible financial assets).

Les opinions exprimées et les arguments avancés dans cet article demeurent l'entière responsabilité de l'auteur-e et ne reflètent pas nécessairement ceux du CETRI.