After killing 12 people at the offices of Charlie Hebdo, brothers Chérif and Saïd Kouachi were heard proclaiming, “we have avenged the Prophet Muhammad”. Amateur footage also revealed the killers invoking God with the Arabic phrase “Allahu Akbar”. This otherwise innocuous everyday religious utterance is frequently usurped as a jihadist battlecry.
The sanctimonious declarations made by these killers about acting in defence of their religion are often heard from jihadists. Even though two of the victims in the Paris attack were Muslims, the two brothers made self-aggrandising assertions about being moral arbiters of religious sensitivities and sanctities.
We continue to see jihadist terrorism as being about religion more than anything else but “religious avengers” of this kind are often actually religiously illiterate. This is particularly true of Western Muslims who have been lured to fight for Islamic State, or who have carried out attacks at home.
Those drawn to jihadism are usually not particularly religious prior to their involvement with violence. They are either raised in largely secular households or possess only a rudimentary grasp of their parental faith, which rarely extends to religious practice of any sort.
As we try to make sense of what has happened, we have to acknowledge that religious meaning is often tacked on to crimes to validate them. Religion might provide the motif or stamp of approval but it is not the original motive.
Mohammed Ahmed and Yusuf Sarwar are a recent telling example. These two young British men were jailed for travelling to Syria to join a Jihadist group in 2013, as part of their religious duty. They were found to have bought two books before leaving that showed just how much they knew about that religion before making their life-changing choice – Islam for Dummies and The Koran for Dummies.
Similarly, the Kouachi brothers, orphaned children of Algerian immigrants, were not raised as pious Muslims. Chérif led a decidedly non-devout and hedonistic lifestyle, smoking marijuana, drinking alcohol, listening to gangster rap, and had numerous girlfriends. Indeed, during his trial in 2008 for helping transport jihadist fighters from France to Iraq, Chérif’s lawyer revealed his client described himself as an “occasional Muslim”.
This is not to exonerate religion in any sense. But religion is also a product of social, economic, political and other factors that offer solutions to something.
Chérif has been described as a “confused chameleon”, aptly summing up the troubled identity crises commonly experienced by many jihadists. They feel alienated by their ethnic or parental culture and the mainstream culture in which they live. They are unable or unwilling to fulfil either group’s expectations and can develop a cultural schizophrenia and a sense of a lack of belonging. Religion provides an emphatic rejoinder to the identity offered by Western society.
In France, Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons reflect a broader rise in anti-Muslim and anti-immigration sentiment. Many depicted ordinary French Muslims and other minority groups in a way that was, at best, tasteless and, at worst, revelatory of an underlying French racism that is implicitly tolerated.
This fear of Islam and immigrants is what leads to the desecration of gravestones of French Muslim World War II veterans, opposition to Muslim women’s dress, and the publication of fear-mongering bestsellers that imagine an Islamic takeover of France. Most significantly it is helping boost support for the far-right Front National. In this context, it is not difficult to see why a welcoming religious identity might be more appealing than a tainted national one.
But the new religious identity also offers something else – it allows religion to be interpreted anew, as a distinct fundamentalist brand of Islam. They turn to Salafism or Wahhabism as a way to adopt a religion that is free from the cultural baggage attached to their parental or ethnic identity.
Take for instance the case of Umar Farouk Abdulmuttalab, the Nigerian student who was recruited by al-Qaeda and tried to detonate explosive-laden underwear on a trans-Atlantic flight in 2009. In his final text messages to his devout Muslim father in Nigeria, he said he had found “real Islam” and was no longer his son.
These sorts of melodramatic crises of identity can prove useful for Jihadist recruiters. They can use the confusion to sell a new utopian identity around the Ummah or global community of believers – which does not recognise colour, race or nationality and is besieged from all sides by evil forces. This radical interpretation of a religious community becomes the sole locus of identity and belonging.
Those who buy into it should be thought of as the “born again” variety of believer. They have much in common with religious converts found in all faiths. It is no accident that Islamic converts are disproportionately represented among jihadists. Recent terrorist attacks carried out in Ottawa, Quebec, and New York were the work of recent converts to Islam, as was the hostage crisis in the kosher supermarket in Paris that played out alongside the siege that led to the death of the Kouachi brothers.
With little previous religious socialisation, no effective spiritual counterweight in their immediate circle, and a desperate desire to prove their religious credentials, the born again are far more likely to accept totalitarian visions of Islam and to do it with zeal.
Zero to hero
This particular form of religiosity also offers meaning and purpose in the lives of those who desperately lack it. Life in the banlieues is, for many French Muslims, a mix of unemployment, crime, drugs, institutional racism and endemic cycles of poverty and disenfranchisement. It is in these scenarios that jihadism potentially offers a way out of the banal and inane drudgery of daily life.
In direct contrast to feelings of boredom, purposelessness and insignificance, the jihadists offer redemption through the image of the chivalrous warrior, recast as some sort of avenging hero.
Following the Charlie Hedbo attack, Islamic State’s official radio station praised the “jihadi heroes who had avenged the Prophet”, validating the Kouachi brothers transformation from petty criminals and nobodies into heroes of Islam.
Recent jihadist social media agitprop has also included the phrases “Sometimes people with the worst pasts create the best futures,” and “Why be a loser when you can be a martyr?”
Religion is important to these murderers. But only because, for many, it serves as the most emphatic critique of the failed promise of the French Republic, enshrined in her motto “Liberty, Equality and Fraternity” for all.