The January tragedy at the Charlie Hebdo office has led to several vociferous debates on a range of topics: freedom of expression, French Islamophobia, French secularism and the nature of satire, among others. While somewhat sidelined in mainstream media, there has also been battle of opinions among prominent left intellectuals on the nature of jihadism. While a worrisome trend exists to locate violence within Islam itself, more responsible writers note the peaceful comportment of the vast majority of Muslim populations.
The question, then, tends to depend on different understandings of the nature of the attack on Charlie Hebdo – whether it can be read as a startling response to pervasive oppression, or if it is the product of a semi-autonomous ideology in need of staunch opposition. Both sides of this discussion seem to agree on a basic definition of “jihadism” as the topic of inquiry. But what if the notion of jihad was much more complex? Is it possible that we must not only make a distinction between jihadists and Muslims as a whole, but that further clarification is needed regarding the definition of jihad and jihadism, before we can even begin an inquiry into its character?
The left has found itself disoriented by the murders committed against Charlie Hebdo, and acrimonious debates have been the result. Among prominent figures, Michael Löwy and Slavoj Žižek have defended the magazine very forcefully, while maintaining a cautionary perspective on the continuing rise of Islamophobia. In contrast, Noam Chomsky and Norman Finkelstein have avoided coming to the defense of the magazine, with the latter condemning it in particularly harsh language.
My disagreement with Chomsky’s way of framing it is that he avoids the concrete question by simply contextualizing within imperialist violence. He says that there is an undue attention given to terrorism that takes place in Western Europe and the United States; the media apparatus defines “‘living memory’” as “a category carefully constructed to include Their crimes against us while scrupulously excluding Our crimes against them.” While Chomsky is describing the media narrative here, I think that referring to “Us and Them” reinforces the idea that there is a clear line between the West and everywhere else. It can appear that the ideology of the attackers is an immediate expression of the wretched of the earth. While Chomsky is certainly correct about the presentation of the occurrence in televisual spectacle, there needs to be attention to this particular moment rather than simply quick recourse to the global situation as a whole. Löwy and Žižek fail to see how Islamophobia slips into racism, whereas Chomsky and Finkelstein are not attentive enough to the specifics of this particular situation and tend to see it as a simple expression of the contradiction between imperialist ideology and violent resistance to it. It is necessary to make a distinction between the exact type of racism that Charlie Hebdo espoused and the attack on it, which I argue is an effect of a separate and incommensurable ideology that was not produced as a simple reaction to racism.
Étienne Balibar’s comments are more perceptive, as he describes the “imprudence” of the magazine in terms of its audacity, but also its contribution to a climate of bigotry. However, Balibar is also concerned about the theory and practice of jihad. He says:
The only way to answer the exploitation of Islam by jihadist networks – whose main victims both worldwide and in Europe itself are Muslims, lest we forget – is a theological critique, and ultimately a reform of the religion’s ‘common sense’, thus making believers see jihadism as a fraud.
Balibar makes a common distinction between jihadism and the Muslim population as a whole, which is laudable. However, I think that it is important that the name “jihad” is also polysemic. There is no simple “us and them” between Muslims and non-Muslims. Moreover, it is not necessarily more accurate to replace the dichotomy with an opposition between jihadists and anti-jihadists. Western leftists often employ the term “jihad” as if it had a unified reference point, rather than paying attention to the polysemy that the word actually has. This is apparent to me because the first street that I lived on in Ramallah was called “Jihad Street,” and this was in a fairly upscale neighborhood, the Al-Masion district. “Jihad” just means “struggle.” It has a theological meaning, and can also describe a variety of cultural or political conflicts.
Like jihadism, terms like “radical” or “extreme” Islam are much too vague and do not clarify very well what is actually being discussed. They function as umbrellas for a wide variety of different ideologies, and they do not define the topic of inquiry, or the many and consequent internal disagreements between tendencies. Commentators often rely on a continuum of political Islam, explicitly or implicitly, where Turkey is at the most restrained spot and then the "Islamic State” of Iraq and the Levant (Da’ish) is all the way at the other extreme, all of the other groups falling somewhere on that continuum. But these are completely different groups with distinct and often opposed political and theological commitments, rather than simply expressing the same basic ideology with varying degrees of intensity. For example, Saudi Arabia is in some respects very “moderate” in terms of explicit foreign policy, but very extreme in other ways, including domestic law. Further, it is well-known that its funds and influence are the main cause of the worldwide spread of Wahhabism, and therefore Salafism.
When discussing groups like Al-Qaida and Dai’sh, I think that the name “Salafi-Takfiri jihadism” is much more precise and useful. Vincenzo Oliveti employs the term in his book, Terror’s Source: The Ideology of Wahhabi-Salafism and Its Consequences, published over a decade ago. While a group in Jordan calls itself the Takfiri-Salafi Group, generally the name is not claimed or advocated by the groups that it describes. This name may sound like jargon, so it is worth spelling out the three components. Salafi ideology advocates a return to seventh-century precepts. This is in contrast to other varieties of Islam, which have varied relationships with the heritage of subsequent interpretation. Takfiri, from the accusation that someone is a non-believer, “takfir”, refers to the assertion of an autonomous capacity to identify apostates and infidels. “Jihadism” in this case describes an imperative to act on these principles with armed struggle and violence. These three attributes delineate a recent political phenomenon, primarily twenty-first-century in nature.
It should be obvious that Balibar does not refer to “jihad” in its theological or cultural meanings, but rather to the groups who translate this into armed struggle. Here again, there are significant distinctions to which we must attend; there are other jihadists who are not Salafi-Takfiri. Hamas is arguably a “jihadist” group insofar as its members believe in armed struggle waged in tandem with an Islamist program. However, Hamas has clearly condemned the actions of Yemeni Al-Qaeda in France. So I think that the “Salafi-Takfiri” modifier is necessary if we are going to name this ideology precisely, rather than eliding distinctions among groups that can be named jihadist, as Benjamin Netanyahu often does. This problem immediately reminds me of the culture that I experienced in Palestine, although I understand that there are differences, as well as similarities, with the situation there as opposed to the banlieues of France.
The distinction among varieties of political Islam was very evident to me; for example, there are some Islamists who participate in Fatah, although Fatah has a reputation as an ostensibly “secular” nationalist party. The Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, a militant wing of Fatah, indeed has some of the qualities of a jihadist organization. Hamas is clearly much more committed to a political enactment of Muslim values – but it is very important that Hamas remains a national liberation movement, albeit one that believes that national liberation is best achieved by means of cohesion according to Muslim heritage. Hamas is not a Salafi organization, rejecting the simple return to seventh-century precepts, and it absolutely is not Takfiri, because it does not give itself the capacity to decide who is an apostate or an infidel. Hamas crushed the few Salafi-Takfiri organizations that existed in Gaza.
Let us examine a case that is even more clearly defined by a commitment to political and military jihad - the Palestinian group Islamic Jihad. I took one of its flags from a demonstration at Al-Quds University three years ago. Seemingly, Islamic Jihad is a jihadist group – it is its nominal definition. But it is completely distinct from a Salafi-Takfiri jihadist group. Islamic Jihad is supported by Iran, aligned with Hezbollah, and supports Bashar Assad's regime in Syria. It is, then, a mortal enemy of the so-called “Islamic State”. How is this possible? Because its members have a different political perspective and they have a different theological approach to the idea of alliance with Shi'a or Alawi. They are not a Takfiri organization. They do not arrogate to themselves the capacity to define apostates, and they do not believe that it is acceptable to kill Shi'ites.
There has been some attention to the condemnation of the Charlie Hebdo attacks by Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah. However, this is often ascribed to his Shi’ism, because Shi’ites are less offended by the idea of representing the Prophet. But I do not think that this is the determining point, because both Hamas and Islamic Jihad are Sunni organizations. It is a political question about goals and strategies. Whatever their errors, limitations, or defects, both Hamas and Islamic Jihad have a fundamentally national understanding of struggle, and both have some accountability to a popular base. This is in stark contrast to Yemeni Al-Qaeda and its operatives in France: Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is an elitist organization that makes its own decisions without concern for the effects they will have on the Muslim population.
This is where I disagree with the way that Norman Finkelstein and Chris Hedges present the situation. Finkelstein and Hedges seem to interpret what has happened as if this was a logical, if horrifying, reaction from the French Muslim community. In their description, one gets the impression that there was popular authorization of the attack, that it represented the culture or temperament of the French Muslim community. I have already criticized the racism of some of Charlie Hebdo’s content, and explained why the “Je suis Charlie” slogan is unacceptable (as have many others). I think that Charlie Hebdo insulted the French Muslim community in an unacceptable way that we cannot endorse or defend. However, the attack on the magazine was in no way authorized by the Muslim community in France or anywhere else. Political comprehension of this situation depends on an understanding of French (and European) Islamophobia – but also an analysis of the specific political agenda and recruitment strategies of Salafi-Takfiri jihadists, who are totally distinct from the culture of French Muslims as a whole.
I have not had the opportunity to do extensive fieldwork in the French Muslim community, but scholarly work has established that the appeal of militant Salafism is very limited and diminutive, if at all fanatical. An oft-cited study taken by the Russian news agency Rossiya Segodnya in August claims that one in six French citizens supports Da’ish. This would be nearly the entire French Muslim community – unless large numbers of non-Muslims came to support ISIL, an idea that has no cultural explanation. Adam Taylor of the Washington Post has cited alternative studies that strongly contradict Rossiya Segodnya’s conclusion. It appears most likely that a political agenda affected the methodology of the survey. Last year, Mohamed-Ali Adraoui conducted a study titled “Radical Milieus and Salafist Movements in France: Ideologies, Practices, Relationships with Society and Political Visions.” According to his research, there are about 10,000 to 20,000 Salafis in France, in a population of several million. However, the vast majority of these are “Purist Salafis” who disdain political involvement and have an entirely spiritual approach to their radical faith and practice. They are primarily interested in improving their Arabic and knowledge of the Qu’ran, as well as personal moral rectitude and community values. Only 100 to 300 of these are thought to be jihadist, wishing to achieve a broader visibility or enforcement of Salafi ideals by means of armed struggle. From this information, Saïd and Chérif Kouachi can only be said to represent the beliefs of a few hundred, at most, of the millions of French Muslims, and even those few did not participate in a collective decision that would endorse this action.
Moreover, the Salafi-Takfiri form of militant group should be distinguished from other forms of jihadism that require a popular base. The two brothers, Chérif and Saïd Kouachi, were apparently acting on behalf of Yemeni Al-Qaeda. They believe that they can decide how to wage jihad unilaterally. That is in stark contrast to the kind of political calculations that groups like Hezbollah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad make. For this reason it is not appropriate or correct to simply label all of these as “jihadists” who have interchangeable ideologies or pose an equal threat to our communities. The Muslim community does not simply react to its oppression immediately. Rather, there are many political tendencies – even within political Islam, and even within jihadism. Some people on the left seem to see Salafi-Takfiri jihadism as an automatic response to oppression, and I think that is completely wrong. Still others want to reject political Islam completely and say that we need to only support robust secularism. This is also wrong, and shows little understanding of the actual culture and life-world of these populations.
If Islamist national liberation tendencies were to develop further, this may have certain positive qualities, as well as limitations. This is completely distinct from Salafi-Takfiri jihadism, which is bankrupt and has no positive qualities, not even as wild acting-out. Riots, as ineffective as they may be, have a quality of mass popular vengeance, whereas Salafi-Takfiri jihadism is elitist and entirely authoritarian. We might hope for the possibility of a truly progressive or left-wing transformation of political Islam, although the only situation in which this has actually taken place is in the brief political career of Malcolm X. Nonetheless, Malcolm's example is extraordinarily influential. Hisham Aidi’s book, Rebel Music, discusses Malcolm's broad influence, including on world Muslim communities. In France, the movement called Indigènes of the Republic, whose spokespeople include Sadrik Khiari and Houria Bouteldja, comes closest to incarnating this possibility. In the Palestinian context, I think that organizations that mobilize on the basis of national liberation, like Hamas and Islamic Jihad, must be delineated from Salafi-Takfiri groups. With that said, it would be naïve to think that Hamas incarnated the kind of promise suggested by Malcolm X. These groups should not be championed or romanticized, but they should de differentiated and understood.
Andrew Ryder is Visiting Lecturer of the Department of Gender Studies at Central European University in Budapest, Hungary. He has written numerous articles on Continental philosophy, modern literature, and Marxism. He is presently finishing a book manuscript, titled Irreducible Excess: Politics, Sexuality, and Materialism, and beginning a project on autonomist feminism.