The radical Islamist ideology that has motivated terror attacks over the past decade must be seen in large measure as a manifestation of modern identity politics rather than of traditional Muslim culture. As such, it is familiar to us from earlier political movements. The fact that it is modern does not make it less dangerous, but it helps to clarify the problem and its possible solutions.
The argument that contemporary radical Islamism is a form of identity politics has been made most forcefully by the French scholar Olivier Roy in his 2004 book Globalised Islam. According to Roy, the root of radical Islamism is not cultural—that is, it is not a by-product of something inherent in Islam or the culture that this religion has produced. Rather, he argues, radical Islamism has emerged because Islam has become "deterritorialised" in such a way as to throw open the whole question of Muslim identity.
The question of identity does not come up at all in traditional Muslim societies, as it did not in traditional Christian societies. In a traditional Muslim society, an individual's identity is given by that person's parents and social environment; everything—from one's tribe and kin to the local imam to the political structure of the state—anchors one's identity in a particular branch of Islamic faith. It is not a matter of choice. Like Judaism, Islam is a highly legalistic religion, meaning that religious belief consists of conformity to a set of externally determined social rules. These rules are highly localised in accordance with the traditions, customs, saints and practices of specific places. Traditional religiosity is not universalistic, despite Islam's doctrinal universalism.
According to Roy, identity becomes problematic precisely when Muslims leave traditional Muslim societies by, for example, emigrating to western Europe. One's identity as a Muslim is no longer supported by the outside society; indeed, there is strong pressure to conform to the west's prevailing cultural norms. The question of authenticity arises in a way that it never did in the traditional society, since there is now a gap between one's inner identity as a Muslim and one's behaviour vis-à-vis the surrounding society. This explains the constant questioning of imams on Islamic websites about what is haram (prohibited) or halal (permitted). But in Saudi Arabia, the question of whether it is haram to shake hands with a female professor, for example, never comes up because such a social category hardly exists.