2015/01/13

Two trails to terror

Alabama-born jihadist Omar Hammami
How is it that so many young men and women born and raised in secular, post-Christian, democratic societies in Western Europe (or the U.S.) acquire the passion to kill and die for Islam? Not just the slaughterers of Charlie Hebdo or their confederate in the kosher supermarket in Paris, but many others in Syria or Iraq or on the streets of London who pose proudly for videos as they prepare to slay defenseless prisoners.

We actually do know how this happens in most cases, though it's harder to explain just why. What is clear is that it is not Islam that has driven these youth to terror, but their commitment to the movement that requires them to embrace an extremely violent caricature of Islam — to justify their actions. They are what French investigators of the phenomenon have called "precarious personalities," youth bursting with energy and rage who need direction and control in their lives. Some, like the Kouachi brothers, are/were orphans, others feel their parents have failed them for all or any of the reasons that children generally rebel against their parents — the parents' attitudes are from another time or even another country, and thus seem irrelevant. And the children live in societies where employment, education and other social goals seem unavailable or unrewarding, and where other outlets they've tried — becoming a rap star, playing video games, or petty crime in some of the known cases — have failed, and they'd much rather blame the society rather than themselves. Some of these European Jihadists come from Christian or even Jewish families, and even those whose parents were nominally Muslim were not raised to be devout.

In this respect, their path to terror has been the opposite of the original Afghan taliban, whose zeal derived from a skewed but dedicated reading and reciting of the holy scriptures of Islam, the Koran and the haddiths. "Taliban" is the plural of talib, religious scholar, a term which took on a special meaning in the isolated madrasas of the Afghan mountains, which exaggerated the intolerance of very rural people against modern, urban intrusions.

Because of course there are many other Muslims, more modern and worldly, who have also  studied the teachings and history of their religion, but come to entirely different conclusions. Islam was a religion of war, originating in a 6th century warrior society, but became in many parts of the world  a religion of brotherhood and peace and the encouragement of learning in all fields, very notably in medicine in the so-called "Islamic Golden Age" of the 8th to 15th centuries. But, like any religion, a selective reading may be taken as a pretext for bad behavior. How the ignorant, fierce taliban became useful tools for more sophisticated Muslims with other grievances against modern society is a big part of the history of Al Qaeda.

http://www.liberation.fr/societe/2015/01/12/mahomet-en-une-du-charlie-hebdo-de-mercredi_1179193

But back to our European Jihadists. Once they've committed themselves to this violent, anti-European and anti-democratic movement, at great risk to themselves, belief in the literal meanings of the Jihad becomes essential to their self-definition. Other Muslims may laugh at or ignore mocking of their preachers and their poses and their rhetoric, but the new converts to violence cannot stand it. Satire shakes the very fundament of their being, the substance that holds their personality together. It's called "cognitive dissonance" in psychology — people can't stand evidence that tells them they've made a foolish decision.

1 comment:

Peter de Lissovoy said...

Thanks for this calm insight into such a troubling phenomenon. I get a reassuring sense from it that the staying power of the worst of it is not as "permanent" as our own warrior class wants to make it out to be, if I understand you. An industry has grown up in the US to make the most of it. From other friends in Europe I get the idea that some feel their way of life is fundamentally under siege. It's a problem the overambitious West created for itself over decades.