Radicalisation – a solution for existential or social problems?
All over Europe, after the disappearance of the ISIS in October 2017, there is a significant decline in jihadist attacks. Many countries, including France, have lowered their level of vigilance because there is no longer the presence of an agency that plans large-scale fatalities.
But this is not the end of jihad. It is a regression, but also a kind of mutation. From almost a quasi-industrial enterprise, like the attacks of November 2015 perpetrated by several teams formed within the Islamic State in Syria, Europe is now experiencing small-scale terrorist attacks that resemble those that happened before the advent of the ISIS, with the difference that now ‘mentally challenged’ individuals are much more numerous than in the years 2000-2010.
Take the case of Mickaël Harpon, the computer scientist who worked for the police for at least sixteen years and who killed four people at the police headquarters in Paris. The decisive elements in his attitude are conversion to Islam, his Martinican origin and a certain form of marginalisation, although he was integrated into society as a civil servant. As an individual of non-metropolitan origin having different physical attributes and living in a white society, one can have grievances that adherence to radical Islamism can escalate in intensity. The conversion to the radical version of Islam metamorphoses the experiences of the past. Traumatic racial experiences then appear unbearable and instead of a solution based on persuasion and discussion, one now opts for violence and death.
A comparison with Chérif Chekatt, who perpetrated the attack on 11 December 2018 in Strasbourg, killing five people and injuring eleven others, may also be relevant in this context. Born into an Algerian family with seven children, Chérif Chekatt grew up in a background of extreme violence. His father and one of his brothers beat him and his mother rejected him. From the age of 14, he had been convicted for crimes like robbery. At the age of 16, he was incarcerated and was appraised as a psychopath. The attraction to radical Islam accentuated the situation and gave meaning to his sense of alienation from society. His radicalisation, which began in 2014, culminated in the attacks of December 2018.
What makes two such different individuals join religious extremism, a conception of Islam that is not shared by most Muslims in Europe? We have to look for that in two directions. The two men are of non-metropolitan origin, Algerian and Martinican, they faced racism, had been mentally fragile, had the feeling of being persecuted and had finally chosen a path of violence. Chekatt indiscriminately killed people at the Christmas market in Strasbourg while Harpon killed his colleagues in the police headquarters to take revenge on those who “mistreated” him.
So, beyond religion, radical Islam becomes a solution for the existential, identity and social problems that such people face. Jihad reverses the vector of stigmatisation and the individual tries to take revenge on society. This characteristic of radical Islam makes it attractive to all those who seek revenge rather than redress the wrongs through institutional channels or non-violent protests. In a moment of despair, they seek a spectacular act with which to destroy others in their violent delirium.
Radicalisation acts like a magic on individuals who operate alone. It is often a desperate attempt to transform deficiency into something substantial. Radical Islam makes society and the state into targets of hate. It operates as an alchemy in the inversion of values: if one suffers, it is others who are to be punished, if someone becomes a thief, it is society that is to be blamed.
Part of the problem stems from the state promising successful integration but imposing extreme indignities instead. This incapacity of creating citizens out of the marginalised individuals remains a major problem in Europe. The situation of such individuals, who feel mistreated because of their ethnicity or their psychological deficiencies, is then accentuated by a radical religiosity that justifies the killing of those who do not subscribe to this violent version of Islam.