New York Times
August 4, 2005
Nothing has changed during the war on terror as much as our definition of the enemy.
In the days after Sept. 11, it was commonly believed that the conflict between the jihadists and the West was a conflict between medievalism and modernism. Terrorists, it was said, emerge from cultures that are isolated from the Enlightenment ideas of the West. They feel disoriented by the pluralism of the modern age and humiliated by the relative backwardness of the Arab world. They are trapped in stagnant, dysfunctional regimes, amid mass unemployment, with little hope of leading productive lives.
Humiliated and oppressed, they lash out against America, the symbol of threatening modernity. Off they go to seek martyrdom, dreaming of virgins who await them in the afterlife.
Now we know that story line doesn't fit the facts.
We have learned a lot about the jihadists, from Osama bin Laden down to the Europeans who attacked the London subways last month. We know, thanks to a database gathered by Marc Sageman, formerly of the C.I.A., that about 75 percent of anti-Western terrorists come from middle-class or upper-middle-class homes. An amazing 65 percent have gone to college, and three-quarters have professional or semiprofessional jobs, particularly in engineering and science.
Whether they have moved to Egypt, Saudi Arabia, England or France, these men are, far from being medieval, drawn from the ranks of the educated, the mobile and the multilingual.
The jihadists are modern psychologically as well as demographically because they are self-made men (in traditional societies there are no self-made men). Rather than deferring to custom, many of them have rebelled against local authority figures, rejecting their parents' bourgeois striving and moderate versions of Islam, and their comfortable lives.
They have sought instead some utopian cause to give them an identity and their lives meaning. They find that cause in a brand of Salafism that is not traditional Islam but a modern fantasy version of it, an invented tradition. They give up cricket and medical school and take up jihad.
In other words, the conflict between the jihadists and the West is a conflict within the modern, globalized world. The extremists are the sort of utopian rebels modern societies have long produced.
In his book "Globalized Islam," the French scholar Olivier Roy points out that today's jihadists have a lot in common with the left-wing extremists of the 1930's and 1960's. Ideologically, Islamic neofundamentalism occupies the same militant space that was once occupied by Marxism. It draws the same sorts of recruits (educated second-generation immigrants, for example), uses some of the same symbols and vilifies some of the same enemies (imperialism and capitalism).
Roy emphasizes that the jihadists are the products of globalization, and its enemies. They are detached from any specific country or culture, he says, and take up jihad because it attaches them to something. They are generally not politically active before they take up jihad. They are looking to strike a vague blow against the system and so give their lives (and deaths) shape and meaning.
In short, the Arab world is maintaining its nearly perfect record of absorbing every bad idea coming from the West. Western ideas infuse the radicals who flood into Iraq to blow up Muslims and Americans alike.
This new definition of the enemy has seeped into popular culture (in "Over There," the FX show about the Iraq war, the insurgent leaders are shown as educated, multilingual radicals), but its implications have only slowly dawned on the policy world.
The first implication, clearly, is that democratizing the Middle East, while worthy in itself, may not stem terrorism. Terrorists are bred in London and Paris as much as anywhere else.
Second, the jihadists' weakness is that they do not spring organically from the Arab or Muslim world. They claim to speak for the Muslim masses, as earlier radicals claimed to speak for the proletariat. But they don't. Surely a key goal for U.S. policy should be to isolate the nationalists from the jihadists.
Third, terrorism is an immigration problem. Terrorists are spawned when educated, successful Muslims still have trouble sinking roots into their adopted homelands. Countries that do not encourage assimilation are not only causing themselves trouble, but endangering others around the world as well.