Terror has been in the news again in the last two weeks. First there was the atrocity in Brussels and over the weekend a major terrorist attack in Lahore. The motive behind the killing of defenceless people in these mass murders is almost incomprehensible to most of us.
The nature of these bombings was on the surface considerably different. The Lahore atrocity was apparently carried out by a Taliban subsidiary, specifically targeting Christians. The Brussels bombing on the other hand, like the majority of those carried out in Europe, was seemingly more indiscriminate.
In the immediate past, our experience of terrorist activity was largely with the IRA. The IRA had defined political aims and religious sectarian underpinning. The Taliban atrocity might appear to be of a similar kind. Yet despite their avowed aim to kill and maim Christians, a recent report suggests that more Muslims were killed than Christians!
The attacks now occurring in Europe and elsewhere under the banner of the Islamic State, are really no different in character to the Lahore incident. The sole point of these atrocities seems to be to kill indiscriminately and to spread fear and uncertainty. In doing so, they hope to undermine the essential institutions of the West and modernity and are generally, but not, as we saw above, specifically anti-Christian. Their targets are not overtly political targets, but have been cafes, trains, mosques, entertainment venues and so on. There is normally no inherent political message just a desire to kill and maim largely defenceless people who just happen to be in the vicinity.
And let us not fall for the trap of believing, as many commentators have maintained, that Islamism has nothing to do with Islam which is a “religion of peace”. Almost all of the terrorist atrocities committed in the last two decades have been carried out in the name of Islam.
But also let us not tar all Muslims with the same brush. Most Muslims are just as appalled as we are by these atrocities committed in the name of their religion.
I have written extensively on Islam as a trawl through my archives will show. But in thinking about the underlying causes of Islamist terror, particularly its European manifestation, two pervasive influences deserve extra comment. One is a religious effect and the other is sociological. And both, as we shall see, are interactive.
The religious underpinning is one I have written about previously. It is the belief in Paradise and the attendant belief that someone who martyrs themselves in the cause of Allah gains immediate access to Paradise. As a result of this dubious belief, fanatical Islamists (often persuaded by others in the process of radicalisation) come to the conclusion that death as a consequence of defeating the infidels or advancing the cause of Allah is nothing to be feared. In fact it is something to be desired and pursued. (See, for example my essays My Views on Militant Islamism – A Summary and A Most Dangerous Idea.) The militant fundamentalists have often asserted in one way or another that whilst we in the West love and value life, they love death. It is difficult to combat a foe that doesn’t fear death!
But underlying all of this is also a sociological factor. The disproportionate majority of terror attacks have been perpetrated by disaffected young men. We know that most people crave a sense of meaning and purpose in their lives. When we are young we often try to satisfy this need by affiliation – belonging to a group that gives us a sense of identity and importance.
But another psychological driver of youth is individuation. When we are very young many of our social needs are met by our identification with mother, then family and those close to us. As we get older we want more and more to identify with our peers. But that cohort goes out of its way to demonstrate that it is different and somehow special. They like to exaggerate their differences from their families and traditional society. They tend to dress differently, use their own “insider” language and typically want to display (often very loudly) that their preferred music is very different to that of their parents. (Does that sound like any teenagers you know?)
In Western societies we have come to expect and are often very tolerant of such behaviour. We trust that, if we bring up our children well, that in the end they will negotiate these minefields of youth and settle down to be well-rounded, responsible adults.
However if you are a young person in the West living in an ethnic community that hasn’t assimilated well into the surrounding community, this can be a more traumatic process.
Interestingly many of those involved in Islamic terrorism are second generation offspring of Muslim immigrants. They are mostly unemployed. In their individuation process many have eschewed the traditional beliefs of their parents. As a result they are not only outcasts from mainstream society but they are also alienated from their families and traditional communities. As we saw above, some traditional ethnic communities are not nearly as tolerant of these aberrations as we are. These youth are prime targets for radicalisation. By taking on the beliefs of the militant Islamists they achieve two of the goals of individuation, viz. a separation from parental control and socialisation into a group of like others that offers support, confirmation of their worth and, importantly, as a result it provides them with an identity. What’s more, whereas in society generally these young men are viewed as isolated under-achievers, Islamist propaganda leads them to believe they are heroic champions of their religion.
Typically, before radicalisation these youth had not been particularly devout, often indulging in the excesses modern Western society offers youth in the availability of drugs, alcohol and sex which their traditional communities would have frowned on.
Now returning to my theme above, death is an easier prospect to sell to such people because their lives (before adopting radical Islam) seem to hold so little, being alienated from families and community and often unemployed with no great ambition other than to exercise a warped sense of vengeance against the broader society that has taken them in. But even though they have refused to engage with this broader society, perversely, they attribute to it their personal malaise.
The challenges that the radicalised Islamic youth face are no different from those faced by other young people in the broader society but are magnified by the circumstances I have just described. Then why are the outcomes largely so different?
Well sometimes they are not. We have seen young men involved in killing atrocities in many Western societies. When the conventional means to identity and meaning seem beyond them they sometimes resort to these ghastly tactics. I believe I related to you in a previous essay two young men responsible for multiple killings at a school in the USA wondering which major film producer would produce the film portraying their abominable acts!
When you read your newspaper you will find that young men are always disproportionately reported committing acts of violence which essentially reflect their lack of meaning and identity. Testosterone no doubt plays a part. But still we don’t see the incidence of atrocities committed in the name of religion emanating to the same extent from young people from other religious groups.
The militant Islamists have been able to successfully mobilise disaffected Muslim youth. There has been a concerted attempt to recruit such young people to the Islamist cause. It is not only in the mosques but also in the coffee shops and gyms that they seek out their recruits. And they can offer the religious carrot I outlined above. Strike a blow in the cause of Allah and if you die you are guaranteed entrance to Paradise. If your life is pretty meaningless this becomes a wonderful escape clause.
Combined with this the propaganda machine of Islamic State is very professional, and even if it can’t manage to get disaffected youth to Syria or Iraq as cannon fodder it extols the virtues of harming the “infidel” at home.
Europe has suffered not only because of their lax immigration processes but also because there is easier access to arms than in Australia. (We undoubtedly owe John Howard credit for this at least.) Our immigration policies, effective security services and the relatively diminished availability of deadly weapons have helped to shelter us.
It is hard to not believe that assimilation plays a large part in the terror equation. It is appropriate that we honour the background of our immigrants and our society has been enriched by their diverse cultures. But a citizen of Australia, whether they be indigenous or an immigrant, must commit themselves to the values and aspirations of Australian society. There are many Muslims who have done just that. They don’t threaten us. They practice their religion without impediment. Their children are raised to play a constructive role in our society.
In the past the Italians and the Greeks and countless others came to our shores, integrated into our society and made wonderful contributions. They didn’t violate our community because they felt part of it. That needs to be our gaol with our more recent immigrants and indeed most of them already do so. When communities of our migrants hold themselves apart from us, their alienated youth are more likely to pursue perverse strategies to assert their identity and their resentment. In our Muslim communities this has led to jihadism and terrorism.
The radicalisation of disaffected Muslim youth continues to be a problem for Australia. Thankfully , as we saw above it doesn’t threaten our society as much as it does the Europeans.
Terrorism has already impacted us reducing our freedom of movement and costing us dearly for the necessary security measures it demands. I guess most of us would not like to see our values and freedoms further curtailed or compromised. It seems to me that anyone coming into our society has to comply in certain ways with the accepted values of Australian society. I suspect we need to be more explicit about that requirement. It seems incongruous that many of our immigrants are refugees fleeing the dangers and indignities they suffered in their home countries and then a minority of them want to recreate them in their adopted country!
On the other hand we want our society to be enriched by the diversity that people of other cultures can bring to us. So I think we must encourage reasonable assimilation into our society. We admire the various accoutrements of other cultures but we can’t allow subcultures form which compromise our freedoms, our values and sometimes even our laws.
But let us return to the disaffected Muslim youth who are seemingly convinced that they need to carry out terrorist acts against their host society. What should we do about them? The first thing we need to do is counter their victimhood narrative. They complain that it is either their religious beliefs or their nationalities that have caused their alienation. We need to show this is not true. It is not hard to find Muslim people who have succeeded in our society. There are many of them and of diverse nationalities. We need to highlight these people as role models.
And importantly we should challenge the dangerous ideas that underpin militant Islam. More of us need to stand up and be counted in the battle of ideas and not be cowered by the voices of political correctness and the taunts of “Islamophobia”. Many of the things we hold dear are being challenged by the insidious influence of these deluded fundamentalists. We can’t afford to passively allow them determine what sort of a society we should live in.