The terrorist attacks in France and Tunisia on June 26th renewed the threat of Islamic fundamentalism in the Euro-Mediterranean area. The facts are too recent to allow a thorough examination; however, it is possible to sketch a first analysis. The first level of this analysis concerns the concept of jihad, which comes to the fore again as the horrific specter of religious fanaticism that takes its toll in the name of a war (al-harb) improperly defined as holy. It is important to specify that the deepest meaning of jihad is different from that of “fight with the sword” (jihad bis saif) which appertains to “armed fighting in the way of God” (qital fi sabillilah) that most of us refer to when we think of Islam in its military components.

During his first sermons, indeed, Mohammed spoke of jihad al-nafs, the ascetic struggle of the faithful against themselves and their sins in order to reach a deeper understanding of the mysteries of faith. On the other hand, the term jihad has another interpretation: that of jihad bis saif, jihad by the sword. History provides many examples in this regard: from the Battle of the Trench perpetrated by Muhammad against the Quraysh idolaters in 627, to the incursions of Arabs and Turks in Europe and in the Mediterranean area from the eighth to the seventeenth century (the last epic episode was the siege of Vienna in 1683, where an immense Ottoman army was driven back for the last time by the forces of the Holy League), up to the more recent conflicts in the twilight of the European colonialism, such as the Algerian war of independence. However, what emerges from the events listed above is an embryonic concept of jihad bis saif, characterized by the combination “Islam against non-Islam”, where the former fights for territorial (and therefore cultural) expansion or against the occupation of a foreign power. This basic concept has undergone changes leading to the addition of another element in the bi-nominal scheme of “Islam against non-Islam”: the third element of this new structure is Islam itself. Therefore, in this new concept of “Islam against Islam and non-Islam”, Islam fights the jihad on two fronts:

1) against itself, for the purification of those Muslim fringes that move away from orthodoxy;

2) against those who are considered foreign invaders.

Although for reasons of mere simplification, we can differ between the two elements against which the jihad bis saif is directed, it is important to be careful not to make the mistake of considering them independent and to analyze them separately from each other. The tri-nominal scheme of “Islam against Islam and non-Islam” can be applied to various historical events concerning Islamic states. One emblematic example is the Iranian Revolution, whose charismatic leader has been the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. The Iranian Revolution does not only represent a political change for the country, but it is also a real reversal of the way to understand the Shia tradition that had never contemplated the possibility for the clergy to lead the country’s politics until then. Khomeini and his followers claimed for a political Islam that is opposed to the weakness of the government of the Shah, who was accused by the ayatollah of westernizing Iran’s customs and of enslaving the country to the power of the United States and the United Kingdom. Most of the people, particularly the merchant class (bazarì), intellectuals and students, have seen in the Khomeinism the road to regain possession of the natural resources of their country, as well as their cultural identity, impoverished by pro-Western Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.

The result of the clash between these two aspects of Islam lies on the cultural and political radicalization, which led to structure the State under the theocratic system. One of the most relevant example of the tri-nominal scheme of “Islam against Islam and non-Islam” took place in 1979. Indeed, that was the time when Khomeini and his followers developed an important opposition not only to the political forces within the State but also to different actors within the region. In fact, the Iranian Revolution had a significant geo-strategic importance for the balance of powers in the Middle East chessboard: during the Cold War, the Soviet Union and the United States tried to ensure control over those states, which could be strategically useful for them to supply natural resources. In this case, the Iranian Revolution allowed, through the deposition of the Shah Reza Pahlavi, to weaken the supremacy exercised by Western powers in the area.

Although these facts may seem far in time, in order to understand the current problem of international terrorism and the fragile geo-strategic equilibria of the Mediterranean area, it could be useful to start from this analysis.Therefore, if we consider the terrorist attacks of Friday, June 26th (although the one in the province of Lyon is still unclear) as well as those happened previously, it will be easy to frame them within the radicalized militant Islam’s view, gathered under the black flag of ISIS. Even in the case of the Islamic state, it is possible to apply the tri-nominal scheme of “Islam against Islam and non-Islam”. As a matter of facts, the Islamic state was born from the ashes of the botched democratization processes carried out by the American-led coalition in Iraq. After the death of Saddam Hussein and the consequent collapse of the Ba’athist regime and the Iraqi apparatus, the state has tumbled into the grip of Sunni fundamentalists who have propounded the idea of an Islamic State that fights against westernized Islam and the Western powers. It is obvious that the Islamic State cannot be considered a global and articulated organization like Al-Qaeda. The Islamic State is localized in a limited geographical area (Eastern Syria and Northwestern Iraq). Moreover, it seems to be unable to fully occupy and manage even its territory, because of the fights on different borders against Kurdish forces, Syrian and Iraqi governmental and non-governmental forces. In the violent chaos of what has been happening in North Africa where security remains volatile, it is simple for some of the fringes merged under the banner of Islamic State to claim terrorist attacks in Tunisia and incursions in Libya.

After those bloody-days, it seems evident that the European states fears the rise to power of ISIS in the Euro-Mediterranean area. The most powerful tool of ISIS is its global and technological approach that manages to arouse the young recruits that swell its ranks. Thus, unlike the Iranian Revolution that did not extended beyond its boundaries, ISIS obtains its strength from using the instruments of globalization. The media impact of fundamentalism, of black flags and orange robes is exponentially amplified: it counts on the loyalty of young people who are galvanized by the illusion of an Islamic State that is, eventually, not religious at all.


Master’s degree in Law (LUISS “Guido Carli”)