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Why We Don’t Understand Radicalization

Our present explanations of the radicalized, self-sacrificial defiance of many young Muslims are at best partial and, at worst, misleading.

Born in Derby, her mother a local woman, her father a painter and decorator from Lahore, Pakistan, she has what seems to everyone who knows her an ordinary life. She goes to school, plays and mixes with other children, seeming to relish life in the community. At 17, she goes to university in Birmingham, gets caught up in the usual cataract of night clubs, bars and parties, graduates with an upper second-class degree, gets a job in hotel management, marries, has a child and settles for what we might call a manageable normal reality. Then, at 29, she vanishes.

Her family is mystified. The next we hear of her is that she, along with eight others, is killed in an apparent suicide bombing in the north Syrian town Kefraya.

This is a composite, made up of elements from several actual cases. But all the main features are germane: born and reared in an environment that appears at first welcoming, then, later, malevolent; progressing in what seems a conventional manner, then experiencing a disorienting narrative jag, something like an epiphany that hastens a reconsideration of practically everything, including the purpose and value of one’s own life. We can only guess at the reasons.

People appear to commit themselves to jihad for the same reason that people climb mountains: because they are there. Those who choose not to pursue jihad or climb mountains remain incredulous and perplexed, finding little rhyme and still less reason for activities that seem part religious, part purposeless, and wholly suicidal. Our inability to accept the scarcely credible doesn’t make it incredible; it means we don’t have the conceptual means or wherewithal to make sense of what appears senseless.

The Everlasting Bonfire

No one knows with any certainty exactly why young British Muslims have imperiled or surrendered their lives and, in many cases, wantonly killed innocent people, including other Muslims for what is, for many, a fathomless cause. What explanations have been offered seem chained to one culture without ever suggesting the distant possibilities of those beyond. According to the BBC, 850 people from the UK have traveled to support or fight for jihadist groups in Syria and Iraq. This has no peer or comparison in British history: Some 4,000 Brits and Irish voluntarily opted to fight against General Franco’s forces in the Spanish Civil War between 1936 and 1939, and their efforts were understandable. They were opposing the threat of fascism.

For young, disillusioned Muslims, the threat probably appears no less palpable or distinguishable: They see the West’s seemingly disconnected conflicts with Muslims as part of a concerted global attempt to destroy Islam.

For many, the default culprit is the internet, alive with ulema (Muslim scholars who are believed to have a specialist knowledge of Islamic sacred law) earnestly advocating death to infidels in the struggle against all enemies of Islam. The enemies are, they say, anyone who is not a Muslim. Their preaching is apparently reinforced locally by other men of god, comparably bellicose and equally opposed to the kuffar, or unbelievers. As Fair Observer’s Atul Singh opines, “these disenfranchised young men are vulnerable to charismatic ‘clerics with a cause’ who often push them down the primrose path to the everlasting bonfire.”

No doubt some imams do make proclamations on the internet and have their commands backed up at certain mosques. But the internet is almost a natural magnet for impassioned ranters angrily criticizing the world and everyone in it and encouraging others to join them in their inner world. Few take them seriously. And perhaps at another time in history, few would take the jihadist imam and his tirades too seriously.

The point is that now, many do take them seriously. This suggests a receptive audience, ready and willing to evaluate, accept and respond to new ideas that urge a comprehensive reform of existing worldviews — what we now call radicalization.

Muslims in Britain, those of Pakistani descent in particular, often regard their religion as their primary source of identity and one that supersedes being British. Disaffected youth, aspirational achievers and conflicted brides are all parts of a polychromatic montage in which there are also surgeons and call-center workers as well as the corner shopkeeper, who is not so much a stereotype as a model of diligent enterprise in an sometimes hostile environment.

For some, vicarious experience shapes awareness, suggesting that the conflict between Muslims and non-Muslims elsewhere in the world shapes their own experience in everyday life. The mindset of young people physically removed from the actual conflict in, for example, Myanmar, is impacted by the devastation of Rohingya Muslims there.

They learn of and see images of homes being torched and neighbors turning on neighbors as the brutal military campaign against Muslims continues. This is imagined as a war on Islam in the eyes of some British Muslims: Global conflict provides a terrifying schema. Is it a coincidence or a reflection of the young Muslim’s experience that there is resonance in events in faraway places and in the not too distant past? Lebanon, 1982. Bulgaria, 1989. Srebrenica, 1995. Chechnya, 2009.

The 2001 US invasion of Afghanistan, along with the Iraq War, seem like contemporary counterparts to the medieval expeditions to recover the Holy Land from Muslims.

Believing you are the victim of oppressive, prejudicial policing makes sense if you accept that you are part of an unjust exercise of force that forms a wider pattern – what some call “Othering.” They might be thankful they’re not actually in some conflict-torn times or places, but they can find reference points in their own dislocated lives.

Signals of Transcendence

Bizarre as many find it, some British Muslims believe they can enrich their religious sensibilities as well as furthering a political and social cause by finding what the sociologist Peter Berger once called “signals of transcendence” in common experiences.

There are signals every time a young Muslim feels she or he is unfairly detained under the Terrorism Act, or misinterpreted by the media or issued a rebuff by a prospective employer because she wears a hijab. Cumulatively they become a pattern that has associations with the wider struggle of Muslims, as they see it. Some ask: Why on earth do young people brought up in a culture that disapproves of sexism, supports diversity and promotes inclusivity, even countenance embracing a religion that espouses their opposites and adheres to a credo that seems atavistic?

The response might be that inequality, persecution and exploitation are not the exclusive preserve of Islam. The same media that circulates news of events in Myanmar disseminates stories of police harassment of ethnic minorities in Leeds, of innocent victims of a fire for which a local London council might be responsible, and of serious sexual assaults across the UK that increase year after year. Two wrongs don’t make a right. But the fatally flawed logic still has some purchase, it seems. Perhaps there’s a kind of cognitive triage in which certain evils are assigned degrees of urgency to decide the order they take. Subordinating women is not good; but oppressing all Muslims, male and female, is worse, according to this logic.

It’s probable that converts — to jihad, that is — scrutinize past lives, searching for fragments of memory and experience. This retrospective interpretation renders what they once considered normal, a façade masking a deeper, more sinister but more authentic reality. Their parents and peers were duped by a world that wishes to subdue and suppress Islam.

The ability to condemn what they regard as a monstrous evil suggests a belief in a moral ordering of the universe that may even be comfortable with the notion of hell. The insistence on hope in the face of approaching death implies a conviction that death may not be final: For some Muslims, their own death, which is a highly likely eventuality within just a few years of them leaving the UK, is actually a blessing; it delivers them from hell to heaven. These are concepts alien to world in which faith has diminished.

One generation’s satisfaction propels the rage of the next. The first two generations of Asians to migrate to and settle in the UK accommodated insults, rejections and violence. The third, it seems, is more variegated in its orientation. While many persevere in education, business and the professions, others invalidate the legitimacy of the West’s dominion and challenge the world’s order. It is a perplexing contradiction.

Radicalization is enigmatic, in the proper sense of the word — a puzzle, a mystery, an unresolved conundrum. Think about the earlier case again: British-born, British-educated, British value-inculcated people who leave parents, family and friends to challenge the world they were brought up in and to lay down their lives in the process. The motivational mixture that propels conversion to jihadism escapes me. I suspect it escapes others too. But I’m sure that our present explanations of the radicalized, self-sacrificial defiance of many young Muslims are, at best, partial and, at worst, misleading.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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