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What's European About Islamism in Europe?

Tuesday, Oct. 17, 2006

Could Europe's anti-Americanism be fueling the ideology of European Islamists?

In his fascinating analysis in the latest issue of Policy Review, John Rosenthal concludes that it is. The article is great further reading for anyone interested in what's happening in France right now, one aspect of which is reported in the post below, between some French Muslims and the larger French society. Rosenthal uses as the basis for his article interviews that were conducted by French social scientist Farhad Khosrokhavar with suspected al-Qaida associates in French prisons.

What those interviews reveal, as reported by Rosenthal, are the would-be jihadists' multilayered attitudes toward their home country, the larger West and the United States in particular.

Among his most interesting conclusions is this: While native French Islamists no doubt find fuel for their Islamist rage in perceived rejection from mainstream French society and culture -- and in French foreign policy in the case of Algeria -- the next step in path to jihad, the desire to fight against the evils of an all-powerful America, is not taken against the tilt of European political culture, but with it.

Rosenthal concludes:

But it is perhaps precisely America's exteriority to the relationship of Europe and the "Muslim world" that accounts for the ease with which a metaphysical anti-Americanism of distinctly European provenance could be grafted onto the discourse of contemporary Islamism. If, as Zacarias Moussaoui puts it, America "runs the show," then everything of which one disapproves in the "show" is, in the final analysis, America's fault. This simple postulate converts the United States into the universal scapegoat. The Khosrokhavar interviews amply illustrate how the specter of U.S. power permits resentments that have their sources in France and French policy to be "safely" channeled toward an external "enemy." Another example of the capacity of the anti-American postulate to dissipate — or indeed, in this case, fully to volatilize — the sources of tension in Europe's relationship both to traditionally Muslim countries and to its own Muslim population comes from none other than Osama Bin Laden. Thus, in his "Letter to America," Bin Laden, in a remarkable feat of legerdemain, accuses the United States — not France — of being responsible for the 1992 Algerian coup and the repression that followed:

When the Islamic party in Algeria wanted to practice democracy and they won the election, you unleashed your agents in the Algerian army onto them, and to attack them with tanks and guns, to imprison them and torture them — a new lesson from the "American book of democracy!!!"

The contrast with the testimonials of Bin Laden's own Algerian followers, as recorded by Khosrokhavar, is striking.

The integration of a metaphysical anti-Americanism with the rigorist canon of the Islamists represents a particular danger because it creates the prospect of a sort of "reconciliation" of Europe and Islamic extremism: in shared hostility to America. Such a prospect may be only an illusion. Nonetheless, the eagerness of some political currents in Europe to seek "dialogue" with precisely the world's most reactionary Islamic forces — from Hamas to Hezbollah to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad — bears unmistakable witness to the power of attraction it exerts. This being the case, it is clear that the solution to America's much-trumpeted "image problem in the Muslim world" is not be found in the "Muslim world" alone.

Whether you are inclined to agree or disagree with Rosenthal's conclusion, you can learn a lot about the mindset of European Islamists from his analysis of Khosrokhavar's interviews.