Nihilism and terror: how political is the new jihadism?

Sunday 23 October, 17.30 - 18.45 , Frobisher 1-3 Eye on the World
Watch the video of this session at the bottom of this page.

Attacks by Islamist terrorists pledging allegiance to the Islamic State (IS) have occurred in Europe with grim regularity over the past few years. Meanwhile it is estimated that thousands of European Muslims have flocked to the Middle East to fight for the group. The character of recent violence seems more random and nihilistic than earlier instances of political violence in the West. Groups like the IRA, ETA and FLN had clear objectives and demands. It is more difficult to discern what the wave of IS-inspired extremists are demanding short of the complete destruction of Western civilisation.

Those who commit acts of Islamist violence often have few if any formal links with the Islamic State they claim to fight for, nor do they tend to have been particularly observant Muslims. From Birmingham natives Yusuf Sarwar and Mohammed Ahmed who in 2014 bought the book Islam for Dummies days before signing up as jihadis, to Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel, who was a heavy drinker and drug user who led a promiscuous sex life before murdering 85 people celebrating Bastille Day in Nice. This has led many commentators to suggest terrorism has ‘nothing to do with Islam’. President Obama calls IS ‘un-Islamic’, while the BBC has an official policy of calling it ‘so-called Islamic State’. Nevertheless, the attempt to distance terror from Islam often seems a defensive bid to pre-empt Islamophobia rather than really trying to understand what is spurring people to violence. Alternative explanations can seem just as simplistic as blaming the Koran, downplaying the agency and determination required by those who carry out attacks. Mental illness has most recently been used to explain a number of attacks. It does seem that those who commit such acts often suffer from a free-floating rage, with radical Islam serving as a convenient ideology to attach meaning to their nihilistic fury.

While this nihilism superficially seems to be rooted in nothing more than medieval barbarity, many observers believe this disguises the very modern and indeed Western-inspired nature of it. Not only does IS propaganda draw heavily on tropes from Hollywood action movies but it also rails against consumerism, corporate greed and the objectification of women, all common themes in contemporary Western culture’s criticisms of itself. There are no easy answers to what compels individuals to commit senseless acts of violence in which destruction and death seem to be ends in themselves. But is it possible to make any sense of the complex factors involved? And if we can, how can we use that knowledge to fight back? How Islamic and how political is Islamist political violence?