Islamism as a social movement: ′Jihadism is comparable to Stalinism′ | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 22.01.2015
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Islamism as a social movement: 'Jihadism is comparable to Stalinism'

The director of the German Development Institute, Dirk Messner, sees jihadism as a totalitarian ideology. He says both security and socio-political measures are needed to combat it.

DW: Mr. Messner, for some years now we've seen the rise of a jihadi ideology in the Islamic world that is being implemented by its advocates, above all "Islamic State" (IS), with hitherto unheard-of brutality. What's behind this development?

Dirk Messner: It has a great deal to do with the dynamics in the Islamic world itself. Jihadism came about through confrontations between Middle Eastern regimes, which were, almost without exception, all authoritarian power structures. The kind of opposition that was possible had to be based on religious movements. Other types of liberal movements were all forbidden. And part of these movements radicalized and became what we know today as "IS" or "al Qaeda."

Western countries are also familiar with the phenomenon of terrorism - the Red Army Faction (RAF) in Germany in the 1970s, for example. Why is it that almost all the similar groups in the Middle East at the moment invoke a religious ideology?

The other options for resistance have all been tried by the people and banned by regimes. You have to remember that in this region in the 1960s and 70s there were a great many rulers who described themselves as socialists: President Gamal Abdel Nasser in Egypt, for example. But those people established authoritarian power structures. That meant that socialism was, for the most part, already tainted in the eyes of the Arab public. At the same time it was scarcely possible to have an opposition oriented towards a liberal democracy as well, because in the shadow of the Cold War the liberal Western societies - Europe, the United States - supported the authoritarian rulers in the name of stabilizing the region. So the Western countries were perceived by the citizens of the region as supporters of the local rulers, meaning that liberalism was compromised, too.

Looking at Europe and above all, at the moment, at France, how do we explain jihadism here?

There are numerous reasons. Many of them have to do with individual societies. The Paris attacks certainly also reflect the social and economic exclusion of many Muslim migrants in France. These people find themselves confronted with unemployment and racism. So there are many domestic causes that can be tackled using domestic policies. We have similar problems in Germany. There are young Muslims living here who have great difficulty finding jobs, for example. In such conditions, the question is how those affected organize themselves, and what form their protest takes on. In some cases, some become radicalized. You referred to the protest movements of the 1970s - leftist or socialist utopias. But all of that has been done and tried. That's why the movement now is religion based, because all the other ideological options have been used up.

Yet one sometimes gets the impression that some of the extremists are pursuing what they see as a genuine religious objectives.

It seems to me that it has a lot to do with identity. If French Muslim citizens have the impression that they're being denied a French identity and the respect accorded to fully-fledged citizens, they'll look for other ways of creating an identity for themselves. They are finding this in religion. Everyone needs an identity, and to feel appreciated. Their search for this can lead them to radical answers. The RAF also had supporters who only partially agreed with their objectives: opposition to the Vietnam War, for example, or the rebellion against outdated social structures. The form of fundamentalism that is in the opposition we are seeing now is comparable in terms of structure. In the 1970s, opposition was expressed politically; today it is expressed via religion.

The EU foreign ministers are meeting in Brussels to discuss anti-terrorism measures. Short-term measures involve the secret services and the military; and long-term ones include socio-political instruments. What's your view of this?

Jihadism is a transnational phenomenon. It has taken hold in many regions around the world. I would compare it to Stalinism and Communism in the 20th century, in terms of its totalitarian bias which is focused on annihilating its political opponents. We need police and security to protect us against today's movement, because it's very difficult to conduct a dialog with these people. That's the short-term perspective. The long-term perspective goes further than that. There's already a difficult dynamic to the relationship between Western, European societies and the Islamic world. It's full of misunderstandings and prejudice - especially, on the Western side, about Islam. We have to work hard on this. We're not going to create a worldwide culture of cooperation if "the West" and the heterogeneous "Islamic world" don't learn to understand each other better.

The political scientist and economist Dirk Messner is the director of the German Development Institute.

The interview was conducted by Kersten Knipp.

DW: Mr. Messner, for some years now we've seen the rise of a jihadi ideology in the Islamic world that is being implemented by its advocates, above all "Islamic State" (IS), with hitherto unheard-of brutality. What's behind this development?

Dirk Messner: It has a great deal to do with the dynamics in the Islamic world itself. Jihadism came about through confrontations between Middle Eastern regimes, which were, almost without exception, all authoritarian power structures. The kind of opposition that was possible had to be based on religious movements. Other types of liberal movements were all forbidden. And part of these movements radicalized and became what we know today as "IS" or "al Qaeda."

Western countries are also familiar with the phenomenon of terrorism - the Red Army Faction (RAF) in Germany in the 1970s, for example. Why is it that almost all the similar groups in the Middle East at the moment invoke a religious ideology?

The other options for resistance have all been tried by the people and banned by regimes. You have to remember that in this region in the 1960s and 70s there were a great many rulers who described themselves as socialists: President Gamal Abdel Nasser in Egypt, for example. But those people established authoritarian power structures. That meant that socialism was, for the most part, already tainted in the eyes of the Arab public. At the same time it was scarcely possible to have an opposition oriented towards a liberal democracy as well, because in the shadow of the Cold War the liberal Western societies - Europe, the United States - supported the authoritarian rulers in the name of stabilizing the region. So the Western countries were perceived by the citizens of the region as supporters of the local rulers, meaning that liberalism was compromised, too.

Looking at Europe and above all, at the moment, at France, how do we explain jihadism here?

There are numerous reasons. Many of them have to do with individual societies. The Paris attacks certainly also reflect the social and economic exclusion of many Muslim migrants in France. These people find themselves confronted with unemployment and racism. So there are many domestic causes that can be tackled using domestic policies. We have similar problems in Germany. There are young Muslims living here who have great difficulty finding jobs, for example. In such conditions, the question is how those affected organize themselves, and what form their protest takes on. In some cases, some become radicalized. You referred to the protest movements of the 1970s - leftist or socialist utopias. But all of that has been done and tried. That's why the movement now is religion based, because all the other ideological options have been used up.

Yet one sometimes gets the impression that some of the extremists are pursuing what they see as a genuine religious objectives.

It seems to me that it has a lot to do with identity. If French Muslim citizens have the impression that they're being denied a French identity and the respect accorded to fully-fledged citizens, they'll look for other ways of creating an identity for themselves. They are finding this in religion. Everyone needs an identity, and to feel appreciated. Their search for this can lead them to radical answers. The RAF also had supporters who only partially agreed with their objectives: opposition to the Vietnam War, for example, or the rebellion against outdated social structures. The form of fundamentalism that is in the opposition we are seeing now is comparable in terms of structure. In the 1970s, opposition was expressed politically; today it is expressed via religion.

The EU foreign ministers are meeting in Brussels to discuss anti-terrorism measures. Short-term measures involve the secret services and the military; and long-term ones include socio-political instruments. What's your view of this?

Jihadism is a transnational phenomenon. It has taken hold in many regions around the world. I would compare it to Stalinism and Communism in the 20th century, in terms of its totalitarian bias which is focused on annihilating its political opponents. We need police and security to protect us against today's movement, because it's very difficult to conduct a dialog with these people. That's the short-term perspective. The long-term perspective goes further than that. There's already a difficult dynamic to the relationship between Western, European societies and the Islamic world. It's full of misunderstandings and prejudice - especially, on the Western side, about Islam. We have to work hard on this. We're not going to create a worldwide culture of cooperation if "the West" and the heterogeneous "Islamic world" don't learn to understand each other better.

The political scientist and economist Dirk Messner is the director of the German Development Institute.

The interview was conducted by Kersten Knipp.

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