Over the decades we have seen a vast change in the nature of jihadism.
In a recent piece, writer and commentator, Kenan Malik, identified the following five iterations of jihadism.
- The first wave of jihadis were the mujahedeen who were marshalled to fight the Soviet forces in Afghanistan.
- The second wave were elite Muslims from the Middle East who went to the West to be educated and then returned to fight in hot spots like Bosnia, Chechnya and Kashmir.
- The next cohort was spawned by the Iraqi war of 2003. This wave seemed to run its course by 2010.
- They were followed by a large group of jihadis spawned by the war in Syria and the declaration of an Islamic Caliphate.
- With the declining fortunes of the Islamic State a new group of jihadis is arising who seem to be fundamentally different to their predecessors. They are now typically working alone or in small groups. Their weapons are low tech (trucks, guns and knives). Increasingly they seem to have no long term association with Islam often being recent converts.
In this essay, I particularly want to focus on this last category of jihadists.
It seems to me that the principal driver of these jihadists is not Islam. Islam provides a convenient hook to attach to because:
- It legitimizes their desire to inflict violence on others,
- It provides a sense of identity,
- In its most extreme form it provides a rationale to attack liberal democratic thinking which these jihadists believe has alienated and disenfranchised them, and
- It provide a sense of meaning and purpose in previously nihilistic lives.
The majority of the jihadists are disenchanted young men.
It was once postulated that this irrational championing of fundamentalist Islamic beliefs was merely a sign of ignorance and that a good education would serve as an adequate antidote to assuming such beliefs. But this has proven not to be the case and many jihadists are well-educated (in conventional terms).
The same may be said about issues of class. It would be simplistic (and erroneous) to believe that jihadists emanate principally from society’s lowest ranks.
A survey of British jihadis by researchers at Queen Mary College in London found that support for jihadism is unrelated to ‘social inequalities or poor education’; rather, those drawn to jihadist groups were 18- to 20-year-olds from wealthy families who spoke English at home and were educated to a high, often university, level. Or, as the study sardonically put it, ‘Youth, wealth, and being in education… were risk factors’. Insofar as they are alienated, it is not because these would be jihadis are poorly integrated, in the conventional way we think of integration, or because they are poor or lack resources.
Now while these young men seem to be rebelling against Western materialism and indulgence, most jihadis are reported to have shared such materialism and indulgence. They mostly have a history before their so-called conversion/radicalisation of being just as hedonistic as their peers partaking of alcohol and drugs and being sexually active.
It would seem that in many cases if the jihadi option hadn’t arisen they might have been just as attracted to being a member of a motorcycle gang or something similar!
So we might wonder what the attraction is for these secular jihadis. As I alluded above, it seems likely to be boiled down to a sense of identity and a sense of meaning.
We make a great mistake if we assume that the motivation of these young men has much to do with religion.
There is a lot of literature which suggests running off to war is attractive to some young men. Our own history, particularly of the First World War is replete with stories of young men falsifying their age and exercising other subterfuges just to be able to go and join the “great adventure”. Even Winston Churchill recounting his experiences in the Boer War said something to the effect that there is nothing more exciting than being shot at and missed!
As the good Dr Phil remarked to me once:
One other thing that I think is driving the increasing number of young people to participate in the Islamic Jihad is the desire for adventure. To test oneself against dangerous things is a great ‘trick’ of the egoic mind. This was the case of many who voluntarily joined up in the first and second world wars. Yes, loyalty to one’s country, pressure from peers, and one’s ‘honour’ all played a role, but there was also the very naive belief that they were going off to a ‘great adventure’ – what a collective delusion that was! This ‘going off to a great adventure’ would hardly have been limited to the allies, but would also have been the case with the Axis powers as well.
In more recent times I have read reports of Australian and American young men who after being sent to Afghanistan, Iraq or wherever could not settle into ‘normal’ life once having experienced the hype of putting themselves at mortal risk. War experience is like a drug. It seems these young men can’t do without it and yet in many ways it destroys their lives.
Very many of those who have actually been involved in mortal conflict seem unable to again to comfortably integrate back into the societies from whence they came.
So if there is this innate tendency for young men (and to a lesser degree, some young women) to test themselves and to prove themselves to their peers by committing acts of violence, where does Islam fit into the picture?
As I have intimated above it plays a part in two ways.
Firstly, in many spheres we have seen those who feel alienated from or disenchanted by mainstream society often seek out groups to identify with to augment their fragile sense of self. They will then exaggerate the defining characteristics of such groups and magnify their virtues. This is the basis of identity politics. While some might choose their sexuality or indigeneity to play this role, the jihadis choose radical Islam.
This was first explained by the American philosopher and psychologist William James who published a very influential book in 1902 titled The Varieties of Religious Experience. In this work he explored the mechanisms by which people acquired beliefs and how in their desire to belong to a certain group one must “accept certain beliefs and accept them so wholeheartedly as to experience them as one’s own.” This tendency is probably true of most religions and it is certainly true of Islam and it is such a mechanism that provides the jihadist with a sense of identity.
The Belgian academic Rik Coolsaet observes that recent experience in Europe suggests jihadis are more likely to be gang members than professionals. But it would be wrong again to surmise that such people were not well integrated into society.
As Kenan Malik points out:
They are deeply immersed in youth culture. Far from the image of austere religious-defined Muslims separated from society, what is striking about such would be jihadis is that their life is defined by drinking, clubbing, drugs and petty crime. In their dress style or music tastes they are fully part of the youth culture.
Coolsaet maintains that they see jihadism as merely a continuation of their gang life, a shift to another form of deviant behaviour, next to membership of street gangs, rioting, drug trafficking and juvenile delinquency.
So if Islam firstly provides a sense of identity for these young people, what is the second benefit it confers on them? Perversely as it may seem to some, Islam provides a sense of meaning!
Again quoting Malik:
‘Soldiers of the Islamic State’ are often just unstable young men with only the most tenuous relationship but driven by a sense of inchoate personal rage, individual’s lacking direction and finding in Salafaism a sense of order and meaning making sense of their inner furies.
No doubt that in the minds of the perpetrators there is a relationship between their acts of terror and Western decadence.
All of this challenges the common notion of radicalisation.
Conventionally it is argued that devout fundamentalists win over converts to jihadism by the force of their religious arguments. This seems improbable to me.
I believe it is far more likely that young men who are naturally inclined to hate and violence, seize upon radical Islam as a way of justifying their acting out of such tendencies. It helps their egos to belong to such a movement and bask in the approval of its members. They are able to identify with something that not only is devoted to a significant undertaking, restoring the Islamic Caliphate, but condones their own predilection for terror and violence in achieving such aims. Assuming belief in fundamentalist Islam provides them with a licence to act out their vile, inhuman desires.
Their “conversion” becomes even more dangerous if they convince themselves that martyrdom is not to be feared but confers substantial benefits to the jihadist in an afterlife. (As I have shown in other essays this is the most dangerous idea propagated by radical Islam.)
We need to revise our thinking about how such young men are recruited into jihadism. Rather than as the conventional wisdom suggests, they are not “radicalised” by being indoctrinated into fundamentalist Islam; it seems that the would be jihadists seek out Islam as it gives them a licence to act out their base desires to inflict violence and terror on their fellow humans.