LONDON — British law enforcement struggling to cope with a burgeoning wave of terrorism? It’s the ghost of the Raj, British rule in India, that has come back to haunt Britain, says Gilles Kepel, a leading French expert on fundamentalist Islam and the author of “Terror in France: The Rise of Jihad in the West.”
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“The British state has made the mistake of subcontracting the management of its Muslim population to the local community brokers, an attitude rooted in the Raj system in India,” Kepel told Haaretz. “In places like Manchester and Birmingham they relied on Salafi community leaders while cutting back the highly fragmented police force.”
Kepel claims that in London, or Londonistan as he calls it, “they gave shelter to radical Islamist leaders from around the world as a sort of insurance policy against jihadi terrorism. But you know, when you go for dinner with the devil ....”
According to Kepel, the terrorists who struck Britain in the run-up to Thursday’s general election are part of a “third-generation of jihadists” following in the footsteps of the first mujahideens who resisted the Soviets in Afghanistan and then “generation Al-Qaida.” Al-Qaida was characterized by a structured, hierarchical model with Osama bin Laden at the top, while the new terrorists are only loosely and horizontally affiliated with one another.
Kepel considers Syrian-Spanish jihadi Abu Musab al-Suri a key figure for this third-generation, or 3G, jihadism. In 2005 al-Suri penned “The Global Islamic Resistance Call,” a guide to the new bottom-up terror strategy. Borrowing a phrase from the jihadi, Kepel says the new approach forms “an organization but not a system” (nizam, la tanzim).
“The terrorists in the U.K. used low-cost weapons and acted as individuals with unsophisticated plans, which suggests the absence of a pyramidal support system,” Kepel says. “But we should not call them lone wolves — they are still part of ideological and organizational networks functioning mainly online” — for example, YouTube and social networks.
In an interview with Haaretz last week, another leading French scholar, Olivier Roy, argued that the problem of jihadi terrorism is only loosely related to Islamic fundamentalism. That is, radicals are radicals from the start, and they embrace the jihadi narrative largely because of a shortage on the “global market of fundamentalist ideologies.”
Kepel, who has received multiple death threats from the jihadi world because of his work, strongly disagrees.
“Roy’s theory on the Islamification of radicalism is the theory of someone who does not speak Arabic and does not look into the relation between jihadi actions and the Salafi doctrine behind them,” Kepel says. “The real challenge lies in understanding the radicalization of Islam and its connection to terrorism.”
Using the German word for a national community, Kepel insists that the violent behavior is a direct consequence of a “Salafi Volksgemeinschaft,” a fundamentalist worldview based on the literal adherence to rules set out in Islamic texts.
“You become a terrorist after you become a Salafist, not out of the blue,” he says. “An ideology that clashes with the fundamental values of Western democracies is at the root of the jihadis’ misdeeds.”
According to Kepel, such an ideology also leads to the targeting of places symbolizing Western democracies. “We saw this with the attack on the Westminster Parliament in London a few months ago, and again with the bloodbaths at the concert in Manchester and at London Bridge. They led to the interruption of the general-election campaigns,” he says, calling these attacks a “direct assault on democracy.”
While Roy argues that one should not over-rationalize the choice of targets by unhinged nihilists with a death wish, Kepel insists their ideology is key in pointing to “the significance of previous targets like the Bataclan or the Jewish supermarket in France.”
Kepel refutes Roy’s argument that the “oversecularization” of Western society has marginalized religion, leaving believers to fall prey of fundamentalism.
“When France was under attack, scholars like Roy brought up the issue of secularism, arguing that laws like the burkini ban, the prohibition of wearing veils on public beaches, issued after the July 2016 Nice attack, were conducive to aggressive practices on the part of the minority,” Kepel says.
“Britain, they said, remains untouched thanks to a greater tolerance of religion. Now look what happened: France hasn’t been attacked in eight months, while Britain is constantly targeted.”
If anything, Kepel says Britain has left too much space for its Muslim communities to thrive autonomously, with radical preachers poisoning believers’ minds across the country. He also warns against ignoring the postcolonial legacy when trying to understand jihadi terrorism.
“Let’s not forget that the attack by Mohammed Merah against the Jewish school in Toulouse back in 2012, which inaugurated the latest wave of terrorist attacks, was carried out on the day of the 50th anniversary of the end of French-Algerian hostilities in 1962,” he says. “We can say that the man, an extremist of Algerian descent, broke the cease-fire reigniting the war against the ‘evil empire.’”
In his recent book “Terror in France,” Kepel describes a “retro-colonial resentment” affecting disgruntled youths whose social exclusion was heightened by the global financial crisis, making them more vulnerable to the call of Salafism and jihadism.
“This is an issue also touching the U.K.,” Kepel cautions. “Its imperial past in the Indian subcontinent, and particularly the situation they left in Kashmir, has an impact on local patterns of radicalization.”