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Why Are Young Europeans Joining the Jihad?1

Many people in Europe are under the impression that jihadist violence is a threat that comes from outside. The fact is often ignored that many young jihadists grew up in European societies, and that it is there that they became prone to this type of violence. In our efforts to combat jihadism, we must therefore acknowledge the attraction it has for young people in Europe. So let’s ask the question: How can we explain the fascination that jihad exerts on young people here in Germany?

Four interpretive patterns of jihadist violence

It is possible to distinguish four broad interpretive patterns of jihadist violence.

Diabolization is first of all an attempt to ward off the horror of these deeds by giving them a name: They are evil. It also strengthens our feelings of responsibility for people threatened by jihadist genocide. But diabolization does not provide any analysis. Diabolization is tautologous, since it infers the evil nature of the perpetrators from the evil deeds they commit. Moreover, there is no potential for self-criticism in diabolization. To diabolize is usually to externalize, but then we lose sight of the fact that the brutish jihadists appear to come from Europe.

Apart from diabolization, attempts are made to religionize violence: There is no Islamism without Islam. Ergo there is no jihadism without Islam, either. This assertion is often held to be proof that the violence manifested in jihadism is religiously motivated. But a monocausal religionization of atrocities obscures the fact that jihadism also has other motives, perhaps even completely different ones.

If we look at the profiles of European jihadists, we find that religion does not play a major role in jihadism. For instance, the French Center for the Prevention of Sectarian Drift Related to Islam (Centre de Prévention contre les Dérives Sectaires liées à l’Islam, CPDSI) produced the following profile of typical jihad candidates: “Most of them are between 18 and 21 years old (43.3 percent), almost two-thirds (63.3 percent) grew up in atheist homes. A recent study found that eight out of ten jihadists were children from atheist homes, and two thirds [...] came from middle-class families.” Many jihadists were raised in families without any fundamentalist background; 20 percent of them are converts. Yet attempts to religionize jihadist violence are problematic above all because they participate in the stylization of violence as a “Holy War” – as waged by the jihadists – and thus ultimately glorify their violence as part of a war of religions.

Numerous articles portray jihadists as impoverished, materially and socially deprived, uneducated, and criminals. Sociologization of this kind often attempts to marginalize and thus downplay their violence. Such attempts aim to exclude the perpetrators from the heart of Western societies.

The police and intelligence agencies in Germany have come to the conclusion that it is impossible to produce a typical profile for German jihadists. A majority of jihadists are male, born in Germany, have German citizenship, and are aged between 21 and 25. Half are married, of whom some are fathers with children. About 17 percent of jihadists are converts. A number of jihadists have a criminal record. About one quarter are very well educated. They have obtained the Abitur (high school graduation certificate) or Fachhochschulreife (technical college entrance qualification). Some of them have attended university. Twenty-one percent were unemployed or worked in the low-wage sector. The main reason why only one in four jihadists from Germany have graduated from high school is that most leave school early to join the jihad.

To move beyond the dualism of “good” on one side and “evil” on the other, and gain a better understanding of the perpetrators’ motives, it may be useful to ethicize violence. Ethicization in this sense means considering the perpetrators as actors whose actions are based on an ethics in the light of which these actions appear to be “good”. This interpretation offers an explanation of why it is that the perpetrators apparently have no feelings of guilt: In their view, what they are doing is not only right, but also good. From their perspective, they are the good guys and we are the bad ones. Ethicizing jihadist violence may indeed help gain a better understanding of what motivates the perpetrators’ actions. However, it runs the risk of believing and thus confirming the justifications that the perpetrators use.

Diabolizing, religionizing, sociologizing, ethicizing – these are four ways of interpreting jihadist violence. Each one of them contains an element of truth. But in and of itself, each interpretation is not only insufficient, it is also misleading.

Jihadism as terrorism

First and foremost, jihadism means teaching people to be afraid by spreading terror. Spreading terror, as we know, is the aim of all terrorism. If we want to understand jihadism, we should first interpret it as terrorism.

Terrorism contains a specific rationality, which can be read from its functions. One of the main functions of terror is to eliminate any relationship between the terrorists’ decisions and peoples’ individual fates. Terrorists want to shatter trust in human coexistence. They aim to break down individual will. The more irrational terrorist acts appear to be, the more rationally they are calculated.2 Jihadist terror has all of this in common with other forms of terrorism. But what is disturbing about jihadist attacks is not only that the violence is unpredictable, but rather – above all – that it is excessive, disinhibited, and unbounded. The ultimate aim of jihadist terror is mass destruction and extermination.

The disinhibiting violence of jihadist terror makes it akin to religious terrorism, since mass destruction seems to be a specific feature of religious terrorism. Terrorists usually make a point of emphasizing that their deeds are distinct from mere violent crime. For this reason, no terrorism to date has been able to do without an interested third party, or one it wants to interest. Terrorism has always used the third party to provide the political legitimization for its violence.3

The involvement of a third party has long meant that attacks are carried out with conventional means, not with weapons of mass destruction. However, this seems not to be true, or to be less true, for religiously motivated terrorism, since it does not necessarily need a third party – at least not one in this world. A third party in this world is able to deprive terrorism of its ideological basis by publicly declaring that the terrorists are acting against its interests. But this interventionist delegitimization is not possible if the third party is otherworldly. And the same is true with regard to the manner in which violence is used. Thus it is not surpri­sing that terrorism with a religious foundation has taken on a new, disinhibiting dimension. Religious terrorisms are therefore especially deadly.

Jihadism as active nihilism

Jihadist terrorism is a more complex phenomenon, however, because in it we see a dis­inhibition that cannot be sufficiently explain­ed as the expression of a religious extremist phenomenon. Jihadism is hatred declared to be the true purpose of life, to which everything else, including the individual will to survive, is subordinate. This hatred is only sacralized ­later on.

Such hatred is the expression of an active nihilism. Active nihilism is the activation of the in­­ability to say an emphatic “No” to the non-existence of the other, even at the price of one’s own non-existence. The will to bring about the death of the other becomes the purpose of life, as the perpetrator is willing to sacrifice his own life to this end. This will is dependent on neutralization of the capacity for empathy.

Nihilistic tendencies in Western societies

Anyone hoping to understand the causes of active nihilism would do well to consider nihilistic tendencies in Western societies. When we talk about nihilism with regard to present-day Western societies, we are talking about a specific life experience: a life horrifyingly devoid of meaning, hope and love. Despite a fall in the prevalence of youth violence in Germany since 2008, there are still forms of violence which result from a destructive desire. Writers, psychologists, sociologists and police chiefs describe absolute, senseless, blind violence, violence for its own sake. These forms of violence are an expression of meaninglessness, or perverted meaning. Through their acts, these new violent criminals seem to find a replacement for something which is apparently lacking in society: meaning. Therefore, destruction perhaps provides them with an ultimate meaning. Yet this meaning no longer consists in an affirmation of life, but rather in an affirmation of nothing. Such aversive behaviors directed at others mostly occur individually, but can be collectively mobilized and politically activated, as we see in jihadism. They do not result only from economic crises. They are caused primarily by genuine psychological distress.

Jihadism is a death cult founded in the fear of death. This fear of death is the expression of a hostility toward life that leads to a libidinous relationship with death: “We love death.” This hostility toward life results from an incapacity for life.

Through self-disinhibition, the perpetrator appears to experience self-expansion. The jihadist’s “little ego” fears death. By killing other people, he feels he is someone who shares death’s power. Through disinhibited violence, the jihadist appears to win a “double victory” as he transcends his own mortality and the boundaries of his social existence.4 In this way, he advances to the status of negative hero. You can’t make yourself a hero, however. You have to be made one. Normally one might think that such deeds would provoke disgust and revulsion. Far from it: They exert fascination.

To escape the fear of death, the jihadist uses the other as a diversion from death. Death always strikes the other. And when it strikes the jihadist, then only as a collective death, as a crowd running into death, or as death in the crowd. He who runs into death need not think about it; the others spare him the burden of his own death. What’s more, hatred acts like a delirium. Death loses its power over those who are drunk on hate. Ideology amplifies these tendencies.

Jihadism as a fascist syndrome5

Jihadism shares many symptoms with European fascisms. In surrendering the self to the greater whole, the individual finds “deliverance from guilt and the individual fear of death.” Fascism has a particularly intimate relationship with violence. Violence in fascism has a libidinous quality. Al Qaeda’s letter claiming responsibility for the Madrid attacks encapsulates this libidinous relationship with violence: “You love life, we love death.” And the Spanish fascists’ infamous battle cry was: “Viva la muerte” – Long live death!

The French political scientist and scholar of Islam, Olivier Roy, observes: “You have only to listen how the converts who set off for Syria in their hundreds justify their radicalization. They all say the same thing. Their lives were empty, people had always made fun of them.”6 Roy thus identifies critical problems in contemporary Western societies: spreading feelings of emptiness and exclusion.

So if we are to discuss jihadism, we cannot ignore the nihilism that is present in Western so­cieties.

Identity disorders

An analysis of what makes jihadism attractive here in Germany should take into account the rise in social inequality, as well as broken home situations – particularly the absence of fathers – and furthermore a belated desire for revenge resulting from parents’ and/or grandparents’ experiences of discrimination. But probably the most important aspect is the question of young jihadists’ mental state. Profiles indicate that jihadists have lost their grip at one or more points in their lives. Jihadism appeals to young people with serious identity disorders. These include insensitivity, process melancholy, loss of control, and a fragmented body experience.

The feeling of inner emptiness arises when people are unable to form an identity “that is rooted in compassion for others.”7 An identity which is atomized in this way is unstable. It is incapable of charity and self-love. This inability gives rise to self-hatred. Young jihadists in particular embody such unstable identities. Their deaths result not least from self-hatred projected onto others.

Process melancholy
Nihilism arises whenever the sense of possibility dries up. Many things in society are constantly changing. But more and more young people feel that they have no influence over the processes of change. This is the environment in which a “process melancholy” (“Prozessmelancholie”, P. Sloterdijk) spreads. It is the feeling that everything takes its course and that one’s own efforts play no part in it.

Loss of control

That the sense of possibility is in danger of being lost can be seen from the mass spread of fatigue and paralysis symptoms. These result less from a lack of having, and more from a lack of being – a lack of being acknowledged. Recognition is the source of a stable self. This source dries up when the fear of losing control over one’s life starts to spread. With an increasing loss of control, the feeling of being excluded from society grows. This is the reason why more and more people feel humiliated.

Fragmented body experience8
Another point to note is that the feeling of social placelessness among young people should always be considered in the context of bodily uncertainty. Social and bodily fragmentation are inextricably interlinked. People who aim to destroy other bodies have problems with their own body. Owing to a fundamental disorder, they are unable to perceive their body as a whole entity (“fragmented body”). The human organism is geared to balancing the various bodily functions. If massive instabilities occur here, the bodily balance is shaken. Extreme tensions build up in the body and seek discharge. If one’s own body threatens to become fragmented, then psychophysical turbulence arises, especially in the adolescent phase. Killing provides a way of briefly discharging the associated tensions.


Nihilism begins when the sense of possibility and the sense of finiteness dry up. Anti-jihadism should put the foundations in place for the experience of self-efficacy and the formation of resilience. Young people depend on the experience of self-efficacy, since this is the basis on which the sense of possibility can develop: “What is must be changeable if it is not to be all” (T. W. Adorno).9

Jihadist violence is a reaction to fear of one’s own weakness and vulnerability. Jihadism is fear of being human. What it comes down to, therefore, is ways of life “which teach young people the message that all humans are vulnerable and mortal, and that this aspect of human life is not something to hate and reject, but rather [is characteristic of human life and (J. M.)] can be counterbalanced by mutual recognition and support”.10

1 This article is an abridged version of the essay “‘We Love Death’ – Jihadism and Nihilism” (“ ‘Wir lieben den Tod’ – Dschihadismus und Nihilismus”, series: Kirche und Gesellschaft no. 430). All footnotes also appear there. For detailed arguments and references, see: Manemann, Jürgen (2015): Der Dschihad und der Nihilismus des Westens. Warum ziehen junge Europäer in den Krieg? Bielefeld. 
2 Cf. Reemtsma, Jan Philipp (1991): “Terroratio. Überlegun­gen zum Zusammenhang von Terror, Rationalität und Vernichtungspolitik.” In: Schneider, Wolfgang (ed.): Vernichtungs­politik. Eine Debatte über den Zusammenhang von Sozialpolitik und Genozid im nationalsozialistischen Deutschland. Hamburg, pp. 135-163, 158.
3 Cf. Münkler, Herfried (2002): “Asymmetrische Gewalt. Terrorismus als politisch-militärische Strategie.” In: Merkur 1/2002, pp. 1–12, p. 11; also: Palaver, Wolfgang (2002): “Terrorismus: Wesensmerkmale, Entstehung, Religion.” (accessed on: October 13, 2017).
4 Cf. Sofsky, Wolfgang  (1996): Traktat über die Gewalt. Frankfurt, pp. 56-62.
5 Cf. Hacker, Friedrich (1992): Das Faschismus-Syndrom. Analyse eines aktuellen Phänomens. Frankfurt, pp. 35, 42ff. 
6 Roy, Olivier (2015): „Hauptsache, Held sein“. Interview by Julia Amalia Heyer. In: Der Spiegel no. 4, January 17, 2015, pp. 90–92, p. 91 (translated from the German).
7 Gruen, Arno (2015): Wider den Terrorismus. Stuttgart, p. 16 (translated from the German).
8 Theweleit uses the term Fragmentkörpererfahrung (“fragmented body experience,” translated from the German), on this point see: Theweleit, Klaus (2015): Das Lachen der Täter: Breivik u. a.: Psychogramm der Tötungslust. St. Pölten/Salzburg/Vienna, p. 186; also: Theweleit, Klaus (2016): “Körperliche Lust nur durch Gewalt.” In: TAZ, July 30, 2016.
9 Adorno, Theodor W. (2007): Negative Dialectics. New York, p. 398.
10 Nussbaum, Martha C. (2012): Nicht für den Profit! Warum Demokratie Bildung braucht. Überlingen, p. 50 (translated from the German).



Jürgen Manemann is director of the Hanover Institute for Philosophical Research (Forschungsinstitut für Philosophie Hannover, fiph). His research focuses are political philosophy, political theology, environmental ­philosophy and economic anthropology.