By Frank Furedi *
It is not just the threat of particular horrific acts of terror on the streets of Sydney that Australia has woken up to this week (September 15 – 19, 2014)
It is the disturbing realisation a significant minority of its Muslim youth feels greater solidarity with jihadist fighters in the Middle East than with the citizens of their own society.
Until now, the focus of concern has been on young Muslims who have taken the dramatic decision to travel to the war zones of Syria and Iraq. This week the spotlight swung back to their stay-at-home peers, who regard the jihadists as heroes and share their hostility towards Australian society.
Calls for measures to deal with the threat posed by Australian recruits to Islamic State are coupled with incomprehension regarding the reasons that incited these individuals to turn against their society and embrace the jihadist cause.
Experience indicates that there are no obvious and distinct social or psychological characteristics that typify the new breed of global jihadists. There appear to be diverse pathways towards the adoption of the jihadist cause.
Recruits come in different shape and sizes. In their previous life some of them were high-spirited young men whose main preoccupation was to have a good time. A few were idealistic teenagers, who were socially engaged in their community’s life. Some were into music, others into sport, while still others were drawn towards casual crime and their local gang scene. In Europe a few were exemplary students with good career prospects. Many were the beneficiaries of the economic security and opportunities afforded by Western society.
It is frequently claimed that at least in Australia those drawn towards the jihadist cause are likely to have a previous record of anti-social behaviour. They are said to be economically unskilled and marginalised. Such claims echo the findings of a study of 378 German radical Islamists who travelled to Syria. A third of these jihadist recruits had criminal convictions and most of them were poorly educated and unemployed.
However, such studies should be treated with caution. These people may have had low expectations towards their lives. But it takes motivation, initiative and a sense of purpose and organisation to leave your comfort zone and travel halfway around the world to take up arms to fight for cause.
Many of the Australian recruits, like those from other Western societies, are disturbingly ordinary. Ahmed Succarieh was in many ways an unremarkable schoolboy in Runcorn State High School in South Brisbane. Having made his way to Syria, he died last September and became Australia’s first suicide bomber. Amira Karroum, whose voyage from suburban Gold Coast to the battlefields of Syria led to her brutal death was in her previous life a very normal schoolgirl.
Individuals like Karroum, who are drawn towards the violent lifestyle of jihadism, are very different to the highly politically motivated members of previous terrorist networks. Today’s home grown jihadists have little in common with their 1970s European counterpart such as the Italian Red Brigade or the German Baader-Meinhof Group. These tiny extremist groups, like the Animal Liberation Front, consisted of a handful of fanatical individuals, who had little influence over others.
In contrast to the lack of appeal of these isolated terrorists, the culture of radical jihadism exercises influence over significant sections of Muslim youth in Western societies. If anyone is in doubt about this influence they should go online to see the visibility and support it enjoys. The online jihadist community is not confined to a few thousand hard-core militants. It embraces a far wider audience of passive supporters who, at least emotionally, side with their active brethren.
So what are the influences that motivate young Muslims to reinvent themselves as radical jihadists? In reality, what security officials characterise as radicalisation of young Muslims can be more accurately expressed through terms like “alienation” and “estrangement”. The sense of estrangement from and resentment towards society is logically prior to any radical dogma that individuals internalise.
In Australia and elsewhere the attraction of radical Islamist ideology is preceded by a rejection of society’s Western culture. Many young people who find it difficult to gain meaning from their lives in their wider community life react by rejecting it. Their Muslim peers sometimes go a step further and express their alienation through the medium of a jihadist outlook. The appeal of this is that it provides a coherent and edgy identity. It offers the cultural resources for the constitution of a distinct Islamic youth subculture.
Radical young Muslims self-consciously distance themselves from the moral and social conventions of a society they claim to loathe. However, their rebellion against the way of life of their community is coupled with a rejection of the customs and behaviour of their elders and family members.
Invariably such a response bears the hallmark of a generational reaction against the behaviour and way of life of the parents. That reaction is also directed towards the way their elders express their cultural and religious identity. One manifestation of this reaction against the conventions of their elders is the adoption of the outward markings of an in-your-face Islamists cultural identity. That is why young Australian Muslims are likely to be more religious and anti-Western than their parents. They are likelier to sport a beard as symbol of piety, wear the veil or go on a pilgrimage to Mecca. They are likelier to perceive the West as a threat to Islam.
However, the embrace of the outward symbols of Islamic identity should not be interpreted as the adoption of a traditional religious way of life. The politicisation of identity and the attempt to construct a jihadist lifestyle is not unlike the lifestyle politics that flourish among different sections of Western youth.
Moreover the jihadist subculture draws on the resources of Western youth culture — music, social media, language — as freely as it does on the Koran.
Most young people who are attracted to jihadist websites are not searching for a new religious experience or world view. Their behaviour is not all that different to the numerous non-Muslim Westerners who visit nihilistic websites and become fascinated by destructive themes and images.
Jihadist social media, like some conventional internet sites, provides young people with an outlet to let off steam. Young people use these sites to express their frustration and alienation. They often use extravagant language and boast about their defiant behaviour. The sites often offer a synthesis of Middle East symbols and images and angry Western rap music. Jihad is often presented not just as a religious duty but as an exciting adventure.
Take the recently released Islamic State video Let’s Go For Jihad. This relatively skillful production harnesses the power of upbeat music and violent scenes of battles to offer an inspirational representation of the life of young Western jihadists.
For many, these are “cool” sites that encourage their fantasies to flourish. For others — a relatively small minority — such sites provide something more, a medium through which they can make sense of their life.
Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, the parliamentary secretary in charge of multicultural affairs, has asserted that the jihadist subculture is comparable to other manifestation of youth rebellion such as drug taking. However, although the jihadist subculture shares many of the attitudes of alienated Western young people, its goals and trajectory are strikingly different to conventional form of intergenerational rebellion.
Since the 1960s the rebellion of youth has tended to adopt an explicit anti-authoritarian orientation. Often it called into question not only a specific symbol of authority but also authority itself.
In contrast to the rebellion of Western youth that of the jihadist subculture explicitly celebrates authority and laments its absence. It even exhibits powerful authoritarian tendencies. Indeed, one of the recurring themes of the jihadist critique of the West is that this is a society that lacks authoritative cultural values and institutions and therefore cannot give meaning to human experience.
In my conversations with young radical Muslims I have been struck by their caustic remarks regarding the absence of moral clarity and authority in their host society. From their perspective Western societies are typically immoral to the point that they cannot even uphold the institution of the family. As far as they are concerned Western societies lack an authority that can give its people direction and meaning.
The nihilistic violence celebrated in jihadist videos and the rage expressed by radical Islamists should not blind one to the paradox that these young rebels are also disposed towards conforming to authority. Unlike their Western peers they have found a cause that offers a total view of the world. It is a cause that provides meaning in exchange for obedience and duty.
Unlike the alternative lifestyles of Western dropouts, the outlook of the jihadist subculture requires total submission. Such submission is willingly offered by most of the young Muslims who volunteer to travel to Middle East to take up arms. Their quest for meaning and authority finds its most disturbing expression in their willingness to die for a cause.
A long time before the current wave of conflict in Syria and Iraq intelligence analysts were concerned about the powerful influence that jihadist ideas exercised over young Muslims. Back in 2006, Ian Blair, the former commissioner of police for the London Metropolis drew attention to the fact that young British Muslims are “willing to die for an idea” and “this is a phenomenon we have not seen en masse, since the Spanish Civil War and the battle against fascism”.
Idealism among the young was and continues to be monopolised by the wrong side of this conflict. Of particular concern for Blair was the fact that the appeal of their “coherent narrative of oppressions, war and jihad” seems “very potent”.
Yet, what the experience of the past two decades indicates is that it is not the potency of jihadist ideology but the failure of Western societies to motivate and inspire its youth that constitutes the crux of the problem. That 54 of the 378 German Islamists who have travelled to Syria since 2012 were converts indicates this crisis of motivation is not simply confined to those born as Muslims.
Australians, like other Western societies, need a positive account about who they are and the values that bind its citizens. As the recent arguments over what history should be taught in school demonstrate, cultural divisions are not confined to the divide between Muslim and other Australians. The history debate indicates that Australia, like many other Western societies, has become uncomfortable about its own tradition. Consequently its intellectual, scientific and moral inheritance rarely succeeds in providing a positive sense of meaning.
Within the West there are formidable cultural influences that disparage its historical achievements and belief in progress and enlightenment.
Some commentators take the view that the West faces a moral crisis and finds it difficult to believe in itself. In such circumstances many young people feel deeply estranged from their way of life. But the real problem is not the impressionable and immature mind of a youth suffering from identity issues but the failure of society to offer inspiration with positive and forward looking ideals.
The rebellions of the young tend to soon exhaust themselves. There is evidence that the revolt of jihadists will follow a similar pattern. Already many of the Western youth who travelled to Syria have become exhausted and demoralised by their experience.
But unless Western society can actively engage in a battle for hearts and minds it will continue to provide a terrain for the flourishing of a zealous and destructive subculture.
* Frank Furedi is a sociologist and author; this article published by kind permission of the author.
On October 9, 2014 Frank Furedi will discuss the topic of risk, fear and terror in the 21st century at the Hawke Research Institute at the University of South Australia, Adelaide. His latest book, First World War: Still No End in Sight, is published by Bloomsbury (February 2014); available on Amazon UK