World View


You'll find the same view of the roots of Al Qaeda in The Weekly
Standard and on the editorial pages of The New York Times: The group
draws its energy and its recruits from the unresolved conflicts in
the Middle East. "[A]ll the Arab-Muslim states that are failing at
modernity ... have become an engine for producing undeterrables,"
wrote the Times' Tom Friedman on September 18. Democratize Iraq,
reform the Saudi autocracy, and/or bring peace to Israel and the
Palestinians, and Al Qaeda will go away. But Olivier Roy, France's
leading expert on Islam and Central Asia, sees Islamic radicalism
rather differently. He considers Al Qaeda as much a product of the
Occident as of the Orient and as much a product of a bastardized
left-wing anti-imperialism as of contemporary Islam.I had breakfast with Roy, director of research at the Centre
Nationale des Recherche Scientifique, France's huge publicly funded
research organization, in Paris on September 11, 2002. I sought him
out because I admired his earlier works and needed his help
deciphering (with my wobbly French) his two recently published
works, The Illusions of September 11 and The Globalization of
Islam. After one week in Paris, I was also desperate to talk to a
critic of the Bush administration's foreign policy who doesn't
believe it is being run by the American Petroleum Institute.

Roy is a short, balding, and unassuming man who first visited
Central Asia in 1969 as a 19-year-old. In Afghanistan in the 1980s,
while researching a book on the mujahedin, he met the men who would
later be drawn to the Taliban and Al Qaeda. Even then they struck
Roy, who himself had been a fair-weather Maoist, as distant
relations of the European students who had waved the Little Red
Book and erected street barricades in the late '60s. Osama bin
Laden's group, as Roy would subsequently argue, was not simply a
product of Islamic fundamentalism; its Islam was theologically
unorthodox and politicized. Bin Laden and his followers elevated
violent jihad, which is not one of the five pillars of Islam, to a
permanent and individual duty. (Even fundamentalists in Saudi
Arabia don't take it that far.) They also fused radical Islam with
a global revolutionary, anti-Western perspective that echoed the
anti-imperialism of the older Arab and European new left and even
today's anti-globalization movement.

The terror tactics on which Al Qaeda relies--among them airplane
hijacking and suicide attacks--date from the Japanese Red Army, the
Red Army Faction in Germany, and the secular Palestinian left of
the early '70s. So does its underlying worldview. Like the
anti-imperialist new left, Al Qaeda envisages revolution globally,
with the United States as the principal adversary. Unlike these
secular movements, however, the goal of bin Laden and his followers
is to create a new radical-Islamic international community, or
umma. Al Qaeda, Roy writes in The Illusions, is "a junction of a
radicalized Islam with a shrill anti-imperialism reshaped by

Most of Al Qaeda's initial "nomadic Jihadists," as Roy calls them,
were Arabs who had come to Afghanistan in the '80s from Saudi
Arabia and from countries such as Egypt and Algeria, where Islamic
nationalist movements had failed to take power. By the mid-90s,
though, many of Al Qaeda's recruits hailed from the suburbs of
London, Paris, Marseilles, and New York. Most of these men had
emigrated from the Middle East or North Africa to Europe and the
United States in the prior decades. (A few, like Richard Reid or
Zacarias Moussaoui, were actually born in the West.) Some of these
Al Qaeda recruits were middle-class college graduates, like
Moussaoui; others, like Reid, were lumpen proletarians. What bound
them together, according to Roy, was that they all suffered from
the anomie of globalization. As with other educated Arab migrs,
Moussaoui failed to find work as a professional; Reid ended up in
jail. And all of them had difficulty adapting to Europe's secular
culture. They looked to the teachings of radical mosques and later
to Al Qaeda as a means of finding themselves. Writes Roy in Islam
and Globalization, "Islam is for them the occasion to redefine
their identity and to voice a protest--both through the
construction of a local Islamic space and through participation in
the imaginary umma of an international network."

Given this understanding, Roy rejects the widespread American view
that Al Qaeda's terrorist networks could be eliminated by removing
the main sources of conflict in the Middle East. Al Qaeda, Roy
notes, has had only the vaguest relationship to the
Israeli-Palestinian conflict and to Iraq. None of its cadres during
the '90s came from the occupied territories or fought for Iraq in
the Gulf war. (In fact, bin Laden offered to fight for Saudi Arabia
against Saddam Hussein until Riyadh turned to the U.S. for help.)
Al Qaeda has become a global rather than merely a regional
phenomenon, and its converts are as inspired by their failure to
integrate themselves into the West as by Israel's continuing
occupation of the West Bank.

Roy also gives little credence to the view--still remarkably common
among European intellectuals--that the United States could have
pacified the Taliban and Al Qaeda through negotiations. He
distinguishes groups like the IRA and the PLO, which use terror but
have concrete aims that are subject to negotiation, from groups
like Al Qaeda that have global, apocalyptic aims. He thinks the
United States was entirely warranted in eliminating Al Qaeda's base
of operations in Afghanistan.

But Roy is critical of the American motif of a continuing war
against terror, particularly because the word suggests that the
battle can be won or lost over a defined period. What remains since
the war in Afghanistan, he says, are loose networks of sectarian
activists. As American and German authorities have ruefully
discovered, some of these activists may have only the most
tangential relationship to bin Laden himself. They need to be
watched closely and, if necessary, rounded up and put in jail. But,
Roy insists, the roots of radical Islam in the West need to be
addressed by integrating Muslim and Arab migrs into Western
society--particularly in secular Europe--where Muslim groups face
considerable economic and social obstacles. Unless this happens, the
networks inspired or created by Al Qaeda will persist no matter
what the U.S. does militarily.

Even with better assimilation, Roy believes complete success is
unlikely anytime soon. "We will have terrorism for another decade
or more," Roy concludes as we get ready to leave the caf. "It's a
generational movement." That's hardly a reassuring thought, but
it's one that fits the facts better than most of the views about Al
Qaeda being tossed about in Washington. Maybe some American pundits
should get out their French dictionaries.

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