Muriel Degauque: Islamo-fascist, freedom fighter or what?

The Belgian brunette didn't only blow up herself in Baghdad - she also blew to bits the various stereotypes of Islamic terrorists.

Muriel Degauque did not only blow up herself in Baghdad three weeks ago; she also blew to bits the various stereotypes of Islamic terrorists. Supporters of the war in Iraq and the war on terror tell us that these Islamists, or ‘Islamo-fascists’ as they like to call them, are evil Johnny Foreigners who were likely raised on a diet of falafels and hatred for the West in some dusty hole in Kabul or Cairo. Anti-war activists claim they are resistance fighters, the shock troops for a new ‘anti-imperialist ideology’ (as Loretta Napoleoni says in her recent book on Abu Musab al-Zarqawi); or, like the 7/7 lot, they’re Western-born Muslims so aggrieved by what is being done to their brothers and sisters in Iraq and Palestine that they feel compelled to strike against the imperialist beast (1).

So how do these two camps explain Muriel Degauque? This 38-year-old Belgian woman - an olive-skinned brunette in the pictures splashed across today’s papers - travelled to Baghdad last month with her husband, a Belgian citizen of north African origin, and blew herself up; her husband was shot dead by security forces before he detonated his bomb. Some reports say Degauque exploded near an American military patrol but only managed to kill herself; others claim she took the lives of five Iraqi policemen along with her own. Was she also one of these new ‘Islamo-fascists’, this Belgian woman raised in a cul-de-sac in Charleroi where there are ‘immaculately tended front lawns and elaborate net curtains’ and who only converted to Islam in her twenties? (2) Or was she a freedom fighter, even though neither her nor her husband had the slightest connection with Iraq and seem to have gone there with the sole intention to kill themselves and perhaps a handful of others?

The case of Degauque may be peculiar, a one-off; she is the first-ever female European suicide bomber and it’s highly unlikely that any of the good women of Belgium are queuing up to join her in Paradise. But her story also explodes some of the myths about contemporary terrorism and the insurgency in Iraq. Both the pro- and anti-war sides try to force this new and peculiar form of violence into old categories where it simply doesn’t fit; they try to render explicable what often seems like inexplicable behaviour by labelling it ‘fascism’ or ‘resistance’. In fact, contemporary Islamist violence - whether it’s of the al-Qaeda, Iraqi insurgency or four-men-from-Leeds variety - is far more diffuse than that. It is less the expression of any clear political ideology than it is a loose collection of often disaffected and middle-class individuals who want to lash out against something, anything. And it has its origins as much in the West as in the East.

Degauque may be the first white woman to blow herself up in the name of…Islam or something, but she is not the first Westerner to do so. The 7/7 bombers were four British citizens who did British things such as play cricket; one was a student, another was a former teaching assistant. Richard Reid, who tried to blow up a transatlantic flight in 2001, was brought up in Bromley in south-east London; his co-conspirator, Sajid Badat, was a speccy student from Gloucester. The ringleaders of 9/11 may have hailed from the Middle East but they became radicalised while studying in Hamburg; likewise, the Madrid train bombers were from north Africa but had lived rather cushy lives in Spain for years. Ahmed Omar Sheikh, convicted in Pakistan of slitting the throat of American journalist Daniel Pearl, was a Briton educated at posh schools and the London School of Economics. Why should it be more shocking for the Belgian-born Degauque to execute dastardly deeds overseas than for Sheikh to do so? Because her skin is white and his is brown? Both were born, brought up and educated in the West, in fairly plush surroundings.

For me, the similarities between Degauque and these other al-Qaeda supporters or wannabe insurgents are more interesting than the differences. Like many Islamist terrorists, she had a good upbringing (according to an interesting study by Professor Marc Sageman, 72.5 per cent of ‘global jihadists’ in or around al-Qaeda are either middle class or upper middle class); she was educated (Sageman found that 71 per cent of jihadists had a college education); and she converted to Islam later in life - many of the Western-born or Western-educated violent Islamists are either converts or became radical in their teenage years or twenties. Could it be that what Degauque and some of these other characters have in common is more a sense of alienation than a shared political or religious project? Reading the (still scant) coverage of Degauque’s life, it seems that she had been something of a tearaway, running away from home and eventually marrying various Muslim men, converting to Islam and causing a rift with her family. Perhaps her self-destruction in Iraq was a belated (she was 38) act of teenage rebellion. What better way to piss off one’s parents, and society in general, than by becoming a burqa-clad bomber?

The Iraqi insurgency, which Degauque and her husband clearly wanted to contribute to, is different to the global jihadism of 9/11, 7/7 and the rest - but not that different. It is estimated that around 10 per cent of the insurgency is made up of foreigners who have travelled to Iraq to take potshots at Americans or simply to blow up themselves and as many civilians as they can manage; most of these foreigners come from places like Saudi Arabia, Syria and Yemen, but some are from Britain, France and Belgium (3). And the insurgents from Middle Eastern countries tend to come from the same kind of backgrounds as those from the West: for example, one study found that ‘the average age of Saudis [fighting in Iraq] is 17-25 and they are generally middle-class or upper middle-class with jobs’; they also tend to have ‘connections with the most prominent conservative tribes’ (4).

Like their Western counterparts (such as the failed 21/7 bombers, who claimed to have watched videos of death and destruction in Iraq before deciding to execute a terror attack in London), these Easterners who go to Iraq seem to be radicalised by media images more than by the words of political or religious ideologues. The study found that their ‘feelings’ were ‘intensified by the images of the occupation they see on television and the internet….the catalyst most often cited [in interrogations] is Abu Ghraib, though images from Guantanamo Bay also feed into the pathology’ (5). These are not traditional ‘freedom fighters’ motivated by an old-style sense of political or territorial solidarity, much less by a clear desire to liberate Iraq; rather, whether the foreign insurgents hail from Saudi Arabia or Belgium, they seem largely to be middle-class individuals generally wound up by images of Iraqi suffering on TV or in newspapers; by those photos of naked Iraqis being taunted by Lynndie England which were splashed about equally in the Eastern and Western press. They seem motivated more by narcissism, a desire to realise themselves and give meaning to their lives in the warzone of Iraq, than by a new ‘anti-imperialist ideology’.

The life and death of Muriel Degauque should make all sides of the war and terror debate stop and think - about contemporary terrorism, the nature of the Iraqi insurgency, and disaffection among sections of society in the West. So come on then, what was Degauque? An Islamo-fascist, a freedom fighter - or something else?

Visit Brendan O’Neill’s website.

Read on:

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(1) Insurgent Iraq: Al Zarqawi and the New Generation, Loretta Napoleoni, Constable 2005

(2) From Belgian cul-de-sac to suicide bomber in Iraq, Guardian, 2 December 2005

(3) The ‘myth’ of Iraq’s foreign fighters, Christian Science Monitor, 23 September 2005

(4) The ‘myth’ of Iraq’s foreign fighters, Christian Science Monitor, 23 September 2005

(5) The ‘myth’ of Iraq’s foreign fighters, Christian Science Monitor, 23 September 2005

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