Rather than looking for logic behind the Paris attacks, consider the forces driving young Muslims into the arms of ISIS.
A Muslim man holds a placard during a gathering at 'Le Carillon' restaurant, one of the site of the attacks in Paris. Getty Images
The attacks on Paris Friday night left more than 120 people dead and the world reeling, wondering what would compel someone to carry out such an atrocity. We know that on Saturday, ISIS, or the Islamic State, claimed responsibility for the attack. There has been a rush to dissect the group’s statements about their assault on the City of Lights—“capital of prostitution and obscenity”—as if this could ever help us understand why ISIS does what it does. Yet such efforts are pointless—instead, we ought to focus on what draws young people to ISIS in the first place.
The easy reaction here would be to dismiss the eight gunmen and suicide bombers involved as “crazy.” But mental illness is no more prevalent among those who turn to terrorism than the general population. And neither socioeconomic status nor education level determines whether someone will turn to radical Islamism (not to be confused with Islam). Yet there are a few factors that might make someone more susceptible.
Many of the Islamic State’s recruits are disenfranchised youth living in the West. They often grow up in Islamic households, but not always. By the time they have joined ISIS, they have been radicalized by their peers, religious leaders, and increasingly, by charismatic personalities they find on the internet who claim joining the fight is “like Disneyland.” As part of the Islamic State, they want to prove themselves before Allah and their peers, believing that violence is mandatory. But where do these beliefs come from?
One answer may have to do with the Arabic language itself. It’s not an easy language for most Westerners to master, and while there are a number of excellent translations available, the Quran must be in Arabic to qualify as a holy text—a translation is impure. Each region of the Arab world has its own dialect, wildly different from any other region, making it challenging for even native speakers to communicate, and to make it even harder to access the Quran. It’s written in classical Arabic, so even if potential recruits are proficient in the language, they may still struggle with the text much like a native English-speaker struggles with reading Shakespeare.
It’s understandable, then, that Muslims so often turn to religious leaders for guidance in their faith. Islam has five major schools of jurisprudence. The most fundamental is Wahhabism, which calls for the strictest interpretation of the Quran and relies heavily on the doctrine of abrogation, which means when two Quranic verses come into conflict, the one that was written later takes precedence. Because of this, Wahhabis are more inclined to adhere to the violent ideology that dominates the later verses, ignoring the peaceful messages that came first.
Via Twitter user @Ukhti_Shariqa
Wahhabism is most popular in Saudi Arabia, where we spend billions of dollars annually procuring oil, which allows ultra-wealthy clerics to fund mosques in the West, many of which are Wahhabi-run. And while Islamism and Wahhabism are not the same, Islamism draws heavily from Wahhabism to make arguments, creating the ideal ideological background to recruit members for Islamist organizations like ISIS and al-Qaeda.
The Quran requires all Muslims to take up arms should the religion come under attack, and Islamist organizations are working hard to argue that that is exactly what Western countries have been doing since the Cold War, when the United States first put leaders like Saddam Hussein in power. With the ongoing conflicts around the Middle East, Islamist groups find they have exactly what they need to create propaganda that Western interests are intentionally destabilizing the region, presumably in order to destroy Islam itself.
Fortunately, the majority of Muslims do not believe their faith is under attack by Western interests. But policies that disproportionately target Muslims are not helping. In France, the situation for Muslims is incredibly fraught, and has been for quite some time. Until the mid-20th century, most of North Africa was under French rule, and the long history of colonialism and exploitation has not been forgotten. Immigrants from the region living in France today often feel they are treated as second-class citizens, with few opportunities beyond the gritty banlieue suburban housing projects where so many live.
This disenfranchisement pushes immigrants to seek community and belonging, often in local mosques. To the powerless and isolated, radical and ultra-conservative mosques—often funded by moneyed Saudi Wahhabis—are particularly attractive. For young people who already feel a compelling need to belong, the impetus to become active in the religious community is even greater, and while religious involvement is not inherently a risk-factor for radicalization, it is for those who become involved with fundamentalist groups.
Terrorism is, of course, an incredibly complex issue, but reducing the sheer number of people who become radicalized is entirely possible. While our knee-jerk reaction may be to fight, opening our hearts and our communities to our Muslim neighbors is a far better strategy. By demonstrating at every turn that Islamist propaganda is patently false, and that we support young Muslims who feel isolated, we will likely reduce the frequency and severity of future attacks.
We cannot stop Islamism from claiming that anyone—Muslim or not—who views the world differently is a direct threat to Islam. But we can stop fueling the circumstances that makes such claims sound reasonable to an isolated few.