The Real Jihadi-Imperialist Connection

Gary BrecherKey fact about foreign-fighter stats: More jihadis in IS are from Belgium than from Indonesia.

Now that is a weird stat. How is it even possible? I’ll tell you in one quick quote:

“It’s boring in Belgium.”

Remember that line. It was spoken by a typical jihadi who left his boring Belgian life, sheltered by the pious, bland welfare state, to kill and die in Syria. Boredom and easy travel sent these guys on their way, not oppression. A hard look at where the foreign fighters come from will show that.

Take Indonesia, by far the biggest Muslim-majority country on the planet. There are about 238 million people in Indonesia, and 88% (209 million) are Muslim. The Indonesian population skews very young, and when you break it down by age and gender, you end up with at least 40 million males of military age from Muslim backgrounds. That’s the available pool of jihadi recruits.

So, how many jihadis has Indonesia contributed to Islamic State?

About 60, maybe 70. Not 70 thousand, you understand; 70 guys. A miserable two-digit total, about a platoon and a half. Hell, let’s be generous and double that figure, make it 140 men. Triple it! Fine with me! It’s still going to amount to something very close to zero-point-zero Indonesian volunteers in Iraq/Syria…

Everything about Belgium says it shouldn’t be making any significant contribution to the jihad in Iraq/Syria. First, the total population is tiny, less than 11 million people, and unlike the Indonesian population it skews very old. The total number of males of military age in Belgium is less than one million, or about two percent of the equivalent in Indonesia. And unlike Indonesia, Belgium is not a Muslim-majority nation. In fact, only six percent of Belgium is Muslim — call it 600,000 people. Let’s say that the Muslim minority in Belgium skews younger than the general population, as recent immigrant minorities usually do. That still means a total pool of something like 70,000. But from that tiny pool, Belgium has sent at least 350 volunteers to Islamic State.

Of course, that’s still a tiny number. It’s worth repeating that all these numbers are ridiculously small, considering the pool of Muslim young men who could be taking up jihad. But Belgium is still an anomaly, producing way too many IS volunteers. Never mind what’s wrong with Kansas, what’s up with Belgium?

Two things: first, that comment “it’s boring in Belgium.” Why is it boring? Consider the huge change in Europe after the great de-fanging of 1945. For certain countries, going o’er the waves to kill and die had been part of the national tradition for generations. Look at which countries relied most heavily on those foreign imperial ambitions in the early 20th century, and you get a surprising match-up with the non-Muslim majority countries with the highest rate of Islamic State volunteers. The states with the highest per capita rates are the ones that formed part of the most aggressive overseas empires of the last century: Turkey, England, France, and Belgium. All these countries have suffered a sudden shrinkage, from ruling distant outposts to maybe, if you’re lucky, getting an office job in the boring ol’ home country, such as it is, what’s left of it…

It’s easy to miss this persistent cultural trend, because it’s taboo in contemporary Western Europe, at least in polite society. But researchers are starting to realize that the myth that countries like Belgium were “reluctant imperialists” is, uh, crap — that in fact, most people, and especially the young males who would get to go abroad and shoot people, loved the idea.

Compare that dream with the less aggressive European states of the 20th century, like Spain and Italy. Their contributions to Islamic State has been tiny, especially in view of the huge Muslim community in those countries. How many IS fighters have come from Italy? Fifty. Five-zero.

Italy has a population of 1.5 million Muslims, poor humble people who are glad to get across the Mediterranean without drowing. Poor humble people are not jihadis; that’s an arrogant, middle-class phenomenon. Those 50 IS volunteers means that only one out of every 30,000 Italian Muslims has made jihad to Syria. You see the same low rates in the European countries without the tradition of recent, aggressive overseas Imperial careers.

—Gary Brecher
Islamic State and American Narcissism

8 thoughts on “The Real Jihadi-Imperialist Connection

  1. This is a fascinating take but I’m not sure I buy it. If life in former colonial powers is so boring, why don’t European-heritage men in those countries sign up en masse for “Soldier Of Fortune”-type stuff?

    I stick with the Occam’s razor explanation for “jihadism” (dumb term, of course “jihad” means a personal spiritual struggle for almost all Muslims); political reasons. Specifically frustration at their current living conditions and the current foreign policies of Western governments.

    Oops. Now I’ve read the whole article and there are some serious problems with it. I just returned to my library “The Price Of Thirst” by Karen Piper, about water scams worldwide (OK book, not much you haven’t heard of before, but decent on-the-ground reporting), and she visited the same museum to victims of the Halabja gas attack Brecher visited (and which Colin Powell held a press conference at.) Piper provides more info, about how the machines and materials behind the attack certainly were bought from the US, and it’s quite possible we provided intel to Saddam about where to target those attacks as well. (Horrid old joke circa 2002: we know Saddam used chemical weapons on “his own people” because we kept the receipts.) That museum is totally empty now. It’s a shell. Not because Kurds don’t care to remember but because Kurdistan is hugely vulnerable right now, largely because of what the US did in Iraq and what our support of neoliberal economics does everywhere.

    All of Piper’s information on that attack is certainly open to scrutiny. Her info on water privatization seems pretty sound to me, and Kurdistan — a lovely region, by all accounts — is getting ruined, its ancient water distribution systems destroyed by profiteers, its people (who have always been hated by Turkey) in serious danger of being threatened by chaotic spillover from our Iraq disaster.

    And, young Mr. Brecher, think twice or three times before you attempt to discredit Bill Moyers. He was a pimp for Johnson’s Vietnam policy, he’s regretted it ever since, and he’s done a damn lot of good work.

    • Yeah, I wasn’t thrilled with the attack on Moyers either. But I do think there is much wisdom in what he wrote. Boredom does all kinds of evil. And his point is specific to the Islamic State. Why are people coming from places you wouldn’t imagine? Why were the 9/11 attackers relatively affluent? This isn’t to cast aside political explanations. But the people with the biggest complaint are too busy trying not to get killed by drones and too poor to do anything anyway.

      • There might be something to that. I’m more ready to buy Kundnani’s analysis in “The Muslims Are Coming” — that it’s largely frustrated people who aren’t allowed political activism. You can’t be an activist in Saudi Arabia, they’ll kill you. In Minnesota we’ve had a few Somalis go join juntas in Somalia after being persecuted by the FBI — university types who were harassed for joining student groups. The way Kundnani describes the situation in Europe, if you attend the “right” sort of mosque (let’s all get rich and assimilate together) you’re only hugely affected by racism. If you attend the “wrong” sort (that actually mentions politics) the authorities watch your every move. Kundnani may be biased but what he reports sounds a lot like what I understand is happening in my neck of the woods.

        It makes more sense to me that the WTC bombers were well-off and bonkers, not because they were bored, but because they had the free time to alleviate their frustrations with a horridly corrupt government by going down all kinds of psycho rabbit holes. Poorer Saudis are trying to get by and deal with the nightmare mess such a sexist system makes of family life (it’s worse for women, no doubt, but I can’t imagine being a male in such a world, that must be deranging.) They are too busy surviving to be political. Richer Saudis have more leisure to look around for explanations why their country is run by jerks, and given the extreme repression of information there it’s probably easy to fall in with lunatics who give the lamest, most magical-thinking solutions.

        • It is certainly complex. And that’s especially so in Saudi Arabia because there is so much radicalism in the ruling class. I’m sure part of it is just the stupidity of youth. And that is kind of what Brecher means by “boring.” It’s exciting to feel part of something important. I wish I felt part of something important. Instead, I’m just a Democrat.

          • LOL on the Democrat line . . . there are definitely activists who work in the party but it’s not like the party is exactly encouraging us to be activists, is it?

            Most days I walk by a little strip mall, with offices that get rented for a short while to various tenants. In 2008 one of those offices was rented by the Obama people for phone banking and the rest. One day they put up a sign on their window asking for food for the volunteers; they had a list of what they would like, casseroles, cookies, vegan-friendly meals, etc. Two days later they had to put up a sign reading “STOP BRINGING FOOD.” They were overwhelmed with donations from people who just wanted to do something, something more tangible than writing a check.

            It’s something Graeber has noted about the support for the military among conservatives. Some of it is fear-based, but some is also support for “doing something.” The military is seen as a kind of public service, churches are too. (How many of our young men join the military out of idealism and boredom and lack of opportunity? Most, I would think.) The last TV ad I saw for the Marines epitomized this — it’s amazing:


            When chaos strikes, the Marines go help. (With gunships and assault rifles towards chaos they probably created, but that’s not the point. Notice the boxes generically marked “aid” in the ad.)

            People are starving for political involvement, everywhere. It turns out that “one dollar, one vote,” change-the-world-through-your-consumer-purchases activism isn’t satisfying anybody, except maybe super-comfortable upper-class types.

  2. @JMF – I do think people long for something more meaningful than voting for their favorite person on Dancing With the Stars. But my main point about the Democratic Party is that it isn’t importing, being as it is, Republican Lite. That’s something we can change, but if you’ve ever attended local meetings, you will see that they are highly bureaucratic and designed to inhibit change.

    • Yup (sorry for the long thread, here . . .) I have friends who’ve been utterly dismayed by attending local caucuses. I’ve been dismayed by doing the phone-bank stuff. People want the chance to engage with others, not to follow party directions. (Idealistic kids who join the military soon find out it’s all about following directions.) Look at the Arab Spring. All of those revolutions were doomed from the start, because mostly they were about food and water and jobs, things you are not allowed to have by bondholders or the IMF. People were out in the streets, hopeless cause or no. People here are out in the streets over murderous racist cops and crooked banks, hopeless cause or no.

      There’s a very unprovable, unscientific sense I have, which a lot of well-known writers also express having, that we’re all on the brink of exploding. Into what, nobody knows. Could be the global green movement Naomi Klein imagines. Could be the global religious-fascist movement Chris Hedges imagines. Could be something else, could be nothing. (Maybe the newest iGizmo will transfix us all for a while.) Who the bleep knows.

      • Well, standard organizing is kind of boring. But necessary. I don’t know the solution. I may give it another try soon. For one thing, I really want to be involved in 2016 to get people out to vote. It might matter here in California with Boxer retiring. But regardless: I’m a liberal and so I believe that people ought to vote!

        I know there are people who think something big might happen. If it is over global warming, I would welcome it. Otherwise, not so much. I like marginal improvements because revolutions usually make things worse — regardless of how bad they were before. We’ll see. But I don’t expect to see anything big in my lifetime.

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