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World: Interview With Olivier Roy: The 'Illusions' Of 11 September

By Virginie Coulloudon

Prague, 10 September 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Olivier Roy is an Afghan and Central Asian specialist at France's National Center for Scientific Research. Roy is the author of many books on Afghanistan, Central Asia, and Islam, including "The Failure of Political Islam" and "The New Central Asia: The Creation of Nations." In an interview with RFE/RL, Roy discusses the events of 11 September and radical Islam, topics he develops in two books he has just published in France: "The Illusions of 11 September: The Strategic Debate in the Face of Terrorism" and "The Globalization of Islam."

Q: What, in your opinion, are the "illusions" of 11 September?

A: The first illusion of 11 September is to believe that these events have changed the face of the world. What I mean is that almost all decisions that are generally ascribed to 11 September had been, in fact, made before that date. This applies, for example, to the decision to attack Iraq or to let [Israeli Prime Minister] Ariel Sharon have a free hand in Israel, or to the U.S.-Russian rapprochement. The only direct consequence of 11 September is the military campaign against Afghanistan.

Q: Does that mean that the new world configuration is, in fact, determined by economic factors?

A: No, no. I do not believe the [upcoming] campaign against Iraq has any economic element in it. I do not believe that what is at stake in Iraq is oil. In my view, oil rather serves as a postfact rationalization to try to understand why the Americans have focused on Iraq. But, if one takes a rational approach, one has to conclude that there is no oil factor. If that were the case, it would have been much more logical for the Americans to work closer with the Saudis or to prompt a change of political regime in Saudi Arabia, rather than pitch into a war with Iraq, with all its unpredictable consequences.

Q: So these are strictly political decisions?

A: Yes, absolutely. Behind these decisions stand extremely complex, but mainly ideological, reasons. The American doctrine reads that the main threat today is represented by mass-destruction weapons in the hands of hostile states or terrorist groups. This is the so-called "rogue states" theory that, by the way, was elaborated under [U.S. President Bill] Clinton. According to this doctrine, it is necessary to neutralize all hostile states that possess weapons of mass destruction. As of today, there are three states that are suspected of hoarding weapons of mass destruction: Iraq, Iran, and North Korea. North Korea will be the last target. The main problem for the [U.S.] now is Iraq. From an American perspective, Iran is next.

Q: What are the other "illusions" of 11 September?

A: Another illusion is to say that [Osama] bin Laden's terrorism originates from the Middle East conflicts, that it is intimately linked with the Palestinian conflict and with a possible war on Iraq. Bin Laden's strategy, battlefields, and recruitment system are absolutely not rooted in the Middle East. They are totally globalized. Look at those places in the world where bin Laden has left his imprint: the U.S., London -- which serves as one of his recruiting centers -- Western Europe [in general], Bosnia, Chechnya, Afghanistan, Kashmir, and the Philippines.

By contrast, no terrorist attack masterminded by bin Laden has ever been reported in Jerusalem or Cairo. I would add that bin Laden's people -- at least the cadres of bin Laden's "new generation" -- have all turned radical while they were living in the West. The only exception is provided by the Saudis. But you would never find [in bin Laden's network] any Palestinian who resides in the Gaza Strip or the West Bank, nor would you find any militant of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, which has distanced itself from bin Laden.

And, as I said, all [of bin Laden's people] -- whether [Mohamed] Atta, [Marwan] al-Shehhi [eds: two of the 11 September hijackers], or [Zacarias] Moussaoui [eds: an Arab-born French citizen who is under arrest in the U.S. in connection with the 11 September attacks] -- have re-Islamicized themselves in the West. And I am not even speaking of all those militants who have converted to Islam and who add to the global dimension [of bin Laden's network].

Q: This is precisely the argument you develop in your second book, "The Globalization of Islam." But you also argue that Islamism, and not only Islam, is turning global. What do you think of the confusion that is still being made between Islam and fundamentalism?

A: In my view, radical Islam is following various and extremely different paths. On the one hand, you have some groups, which have remained confined to a national framework and which have progressively turned into moderate, though conservative, [political] parties. This is notably the case of Turkey's Refah [eds: Welfare Party, which was banned in 1998]; the Muslim Brotherhood movement, which has ramifications in many countries; Algeria's Islamic Salvation Front; Iran's Islamic Revolution.

On the other hand, there are [fundamentalist] groups, which have no national roots -- such as bin Laden's network, the London-branch of the Hizb-al Tahrir, the Jama'at Al-Muhajirun [eds: a Saudi-born movement with offshoots in Western Europe), or the Hizb ut-Tahrir in India and Pakistan. These movements are based on what I call an "imaginary ummah," that is, a Muslim community with no concrete reality. In any case, not in the Middle East."

Q: When did Islam become extraterritorial, and to what extent is this extraterritoriality the consequence of Western immigration policies?

A: Of course, this is largely due to immigration. But it would be a mistake to see that extraterritoriality as the sole consequence of immigration. There are other aspects such as the circulation of people, which is not precisely a migration flow. There are people who, for example, study in one country, find a job in another country, and then move to a third country.

Citizenship and nationality crises, which are also a characteristic of the Middle East, should also be taken into account. Look at the Palestinians. They provide a very good example of that. But there is also all these displaced persons and refugees who represent a stateless population.

In addition, we are confronted with a globalization of cultural and social behaviors or, to put it more simply, to a Westernization of the world. This is noticeable in a number of social behaviors, in the decrease of fertility, the predominance of couples over families, or the greater access to higher education offered to women.

Although the pace of this evolution is not the same everywhere, it nevertheless leads to a sociological Westernization of populations. Last but not least, one should not forget consuming habits both on the economic and cultural levels. The expansion of McDonald's and the spread of the Internet do refer to global models.

Q: Still, the extraterritoriality of Islam does not represent a threat in itself, does it? A: No. Besides, I do not perceive bin Laden as being a strategic threat. He certainly represents a security issue. But he does not represent a strategic threat, precisely because this extraterritoriality [of Islam] goes in parallel with Westernization, not with the Islamicization of the West. Bin Laden will never topple the U.S. government and replace it with an Islamic cabinet. This is not even an issue.

Q: However, you consider Islamic fundamentalism to be inherent in Western globalization?

A: Yes, it is both a symptom and an agent of globalization. Bin Laden is taking up the anti-American protest that, up until now, was the privilege of ultraleftists in the West and supporters of the Third World elsewhere. Of course, bin Laden has Islamicized this space with his discourse and references. But he also occupies a space, which is a product of the modern world, of the Western world, and which is not the space of traditional Islam."

Q: Is there a way out of this situation?

A: We are witnessing the expression of a transition crisis. Bin Laden represents both the morbidity and the climax of this crisis. The acceleration of the Westernization process inevitably leads Islam to make compromises and try to integrate. This is what the majority of Muslims have already done. But the same process will inevitably lead to creating a small, marginalized group of opponents who will reject globalization -- although they themselves are products of globalization.