This essay was published in the Observer, 1 March 2015, under the headline ‘The search for identity draws jihadis to the horrors of Isis’.
First it was Shamima Begum, Amira Abase and Kadiza Sultana, three schoolgirls from Tower Hamlets who smuggled themselves to Syria during their half term holiday. Then it was ‘Jihadi John’, the IS executioner who was unmasked by the Washington Post this week as the Kuwaiti-born Londoner Mohammed Emwazi.
The stories of the three schoolgirls and of Jihadi John are very different. But the same questions are being asked of them. How did they get radicalized? And how can we stop it from happening again? These are questions being increasingly asked across Europe. A recent report from the International Centre for the Study of Radicalization suggests that there are now some 4000 European fighters with IS, a figure that has doubled over the past year.
What is it that draws thousands of young Europeans to a brutal, sadistic organization like IS? ‘Radicalization’ is usually seen a process through which extremist groups or ‘hate preachers’ groom vulnerable Muslims for jihadism by indoctrinating them with extremist ideas. Some commentators blame Western authorities for pushing young Muslims into the arms of the groomers. The advocacy group Cage UK claimed this week that Mohammed Emwazi had been driven to Syria by MI5 ‘harassment’. Others stress the ‘pull’ factor in radicalization. The problem, they claim, lies with Islam itself, a faith that, in their eyes, legitimises violence, terror and inhumanity.
Neither claim is credible. Whatever the facts of his relationship with MI5, Emwazi himself was responsible for joining IS. No amount of ‘harassment’ provides an explanation for chopping people’s heads off. Nor is Islam an adequate explanation. Muslims have been in Europe in large numbers since the 1950s. It is only in the past twenty years that radical Islam has gained a foothold. Blaming it all on Islam does nothing to explain the changing character of Muslim communities and their beliefs.
The problem with both approaches lies in the very idea of ‘radicalization’. Marc Sageman is a former CIA operation officer who worked with the Afghan mujahidin in the 1980s. He is now a distinguished academic and a counter-terrorism consultant to the US and other governments. ‘The notion that there is any serious process called “radicalisation”’, he argues, ‘is really a mistake. What you have is some young people acquiring some extreme ideas – but it’s a similar process to acquiring any type of ideas. It often begins with discussions with a friend.’
European recruits for IS are certainly hostile to Western foreign policy and devoted to their vision of Islam. Religion and politics both form indispensible threads to their stories. And, yet, the ‘radicalization’ argument looks upon the jihadists’ journey back to front. It begins with the jihadists as they are at the end of their journey – enraged about the West, and with a black and white view of Islam – and assumes that these are the reasons they have come to be as they are. But for most jihadis, the first steps on their journeys to Syria were rarely taken for political or religious reasons.
What is striking about the stories of wannabe jihadis is their diversity. There is no ‘typical’ recruit, no single path to jihadism.
Sahra Ali Mehenni is a schoolgirl from a middle class family in the south of France. Her father, an industrial chemist, is a non-practising Muslim, her mother an atheist. ‘I never heard her talk about Syria, jihad’, says her mother. One day last March, to the complete shock of her family, she took not her usual train to school but a flight from Marseilles to Istanbul to join IS. When she finally phoned home it was to say, ‘I’ve married Farid, a fighter from Tunisia.’
Kreshnik Berisha, a German born of Kosovan parents, played as a teenager for Makkabi Frankfurt, a Jewish football club, and one of Germany’s leading amateur teams. He went on to study engineering. In July 2013 he boarded a bus to Istanbul, and then to Syria. I didn’t believe it’, said Alon Meyer, Makkabi Frankfurt coach. ‘This was a guy who used to play with Jewish players every week. He was comfortable there and he seemed happy.’ Berisha eventually returned home to become the first German homegrown jihadi to face trial.
There are hundreds of stories such as these, from all across Europe. What they tell us is that, shocking though it may seem, there is nothing unusual in the story of the runaway Tower Hamlets schoolgirls. And that what Jihadi John has in common with other European recruits is not so much his harassment as his college education.
The usual clichés about jihadis – that they are poor, uneducated, badly integrated – are rarely true. A survey of British jihadis by researchers at London’s Queen Mary College found no link to ‘social inequalities or poor education’; most were highly-educated young people from comfortable families who spoke English at home. According to the French newspaper Le Monde, a quarter of French jihadis in Syria are from non-Muslim backgrounds.
What draws most wannabe jihadis to Syria is, to begin with at least, neither politics nor religion. It is a search for something a lot less definable: for identity, for meaning, for belongingness, for respect. Insofar as they are alienated, it is not because wannabe jihadis are poorly integrated, in the conventional way we think of integration. Theirs is a much more existential form of alienation.
There is, of course, nothing new in the youthful search for identity and meaning. What is different today is the social context in which this search takes place. We live in a more atomized society than in the past; in an age in which many people feel peculiarly disengaged from mainstream social institutions and in which moral lines often seem blurred and identities distorted.
In the past social disaffection may have led people to join movements for political change, from far-left groups to anti-racist campaigns. Today, such organizations often seem equally out of touch. What gives shape to contemporary disaffection is not progressive politics but the politics of identity. Identity politics has, over the past three decades, encouraged people to define themselves in increasingly narrow ethnic or cultural terms. A generation ago, today’s ‘radicalised’ Muslims would probably have been far more secular in their outlook, and their radicalism would have expressed itself through political organizations. Today they see themselves as Muslim in an almost tribal sense, and give vent to their disaffection through a stark vision of Islam.
These developments have shaped not just Muslim self-perception but that of most social groups. Many within white working communities are often as disengaged as their Muslim peers, and similarly see their problems not in political terms but rather through the lens of cultural and ethnic identity. Hence the growing hostility to immigration and diversity, and, for some, the seeming attraction of far-right groups. Racist populism and radical Islamism are both in their different ways expressions of social disengagement in an era of identity politics.
At the same time, there is something distinctive about Islamist identity. Islam is a global religion, allowing Islamists to create an identity that is both intensely parochial and seemingly universal, linking Muslims to struggles across the world, from Afghanistan to Palestine, and providing the illusion of being part of a global movement. In an age in which traditional anti-imperialist movements have faded, and belief in alternatives to capitalism dissolved, radical Islam provides also the illusion of a struggle against an immoral present and for a utopian future.
Most homegrown wannabe jihadis possess, however, a peculiar relationship with Islam. They are, in many ways, as estranged from Muslim communities as they are from Western societies. Most detest the mores and traditions of their parents, have little time for mainstream forms of Islam, and cut themselves off from traditional community institutions. It is not through mosques or religious institutions but through the Internet that most jihadis discover both their faith and their virtual community.
Disembedded from social norms, finding their identity within a small group, shaped by black and white ideas and values, driven by a sense that they must act on behalf of all Muslims and in opposition to all enemies of Islam, it becomes easier for wannabe jihadis to commit acts of horror and to view such acts as part of an existential struggle between Islam and the West.
Simplistic narratives about ‘radicalisation’ miss the complex roots of homegrown terrorism. Proposed solutions, such as banning organizations, pre-censoring online hate speech, increasing state surveillance, and so on, betray our liberties without addressing the issues that has made Islamism attractive to some in the first place.
Jihadis are responsible for the choices they make. However much we may deplore Western policies, at home or abroad, they provide no reason for the grotesque acts of IS. And yet there is an uncomfortable question to be asked of society, too. Why is it that so many intelligent, resourceful, young people find an ideology that espouses mass beheadings, slave labour, and the denial of rights to women more appealing that anything else that is on offer?
The photos are of ‘Jihadi John’ (from an IS video); brother of French schoolgirl Nora El-Bahty with photo of sister in Syria (courtesy of Reuters); IS fighters (courtesy of the BBC)