Depending on where we are on the continent, in the aftermath of such horrific events we are usually treated to an upsurge of renditions of “who” and “what” those terrorists are by various radical prophets. Opinions may go as far as to lump together Islam and radicalization in the West, or even file Islamists as a “separate biological species” in the East.
The striking thing is how ominously irreversible all of this is made to be. A society-purging catharsis that was meant to happen, because we let it. As some people are inherently evil, religious fanatics are just waiting for the proper signal to kill and wreak havoc. And there is no cure, except, maybe, immediate and all-out retaliation.
Construing extremists as one-dimensional psychopaths, pegged to an “on/off” switch, certainly feeds in whatever anti-Islamist agendas are currently available. It also reminds of some of Dostoevsky’s musings on the human condition, or century-old arguments regarding the “original sin”.
But for the sake of understanding it may be better to momentarily leave aside metaphysical disputes and look beyond over-simplified explanations. Trying to put together the factors leading to seemingly unexplainable personal about-faces among some of Europe’s youth may bring us closer to answering whether terrorism is a manifestation of “total depravity” or simply a product of circumstances.
The facts: are radicals inherently evil?
Media certainly paints a slightly different picture. It appears that up to a certain point the soon-to-be terrorists, in the majority of cases young people with an average age of 27.3, are quite content to take advantage of whatever the soon-to-be demonized West has in store for burgeoning youth: discos, cars, alcohol, drugs, sex etc. Abdeslam Salah, for instance, whom the police arrested only a few weeks ago, used to frequent gay bars and had a passion for drugs and PlayStation. Hasna Aitboulahcen, a suicide bomber in Paris, liked to wear cowboy hats and was permanently on her phone, looking at Facebook or WhatsApp. Their accomplice Abdelhamid Abaaoud graduated from a prestigious Belgian school. Hardly the profile one would expect from self-proclaimed soldiers of the Caliphate.
Nevertheless, at some point something goes wrong: beards are grown, hijabs donned and yesterday’s wide-eyed youth are suddenly plotting a terrorist attack, having meanwhile also turned into fervent devotees of Islam. On-going polemic regarding where that radicalization occurs – whether it is worship spaces, Internet or simply “the street” that is the cradle of extremist ideologies. It is a telling fact, however, that many prospective terrorists were reportedly never seen to pray at the mosque.
As to how that turning point of “conversion” is reached: the exact nature of the brainwashing process is unclear but its intricacies should not be entirely unfamiliar to any half-decent psychologist. Particularly considering the historically ample material left by war, insurgence and religious cult. What seems an undeniable fact is that once applicant jihadists fill in their ISIS papers and visit Syria they are done in for: there is no turning back from a road that usually leads to at least one hideous death.
Photo: Cesar Leal Jiménez (Wikimedia Commons); License: CC BY-SA 3.0
Nevertheless, focusing on the practical aspects of radicalization, related to the place and methods of “indoctrination”, may sometimes obscure the much trickier question of “why” people would actually choose that path.
The “why” question
A common narrative is that some youth’s hitherto latent religiosity, somewhat magically, comes to fruition. Or that the awareness of colonial oppression looms out of thin air. While you are drinking your morning coffee you are suddenly nagged by the ontological realization that your grand-grandparents were oppressed by those very crusaders whose society you happen to be a part of. Next thing you know you are ready to kill people you have never met in order to compensate for evils you have never witnessed. And you need Allah’s approval for that.
That picture is a tad improbable. If anything the fight seems to be rather informed by utilitarian considerations. Otherwise the sudden collective left turn of happily consuming youngsters seem unexplainable. It seems more plausible that certain youth feel disaffected because they simply cannot consume as much as some of their peers. A likely product of shifting social dynamics in Europe and elsewhere, brought about by various factors. Among those are, for instance, a growing gap between the wealthy and poor, globalization, economic instability and market changes caused by technological progress.
Some might thus find themselves completely excluded from particular jobs and/or sectors that guarantee access to certain lifestyles, which seem invariably filled by the impenetrable ruling class This may or may not be a fallout of lineage, upbringing or religious preferences, but for the sake of Jihad it always is.
Of course it is also not impossible that some adolescents actually develop post-materialist values and find growing post-modern materialism, which they link to liberalism and democracy, ever-so-rotten and vain. Hence the anti-modernist face of radicalism. However, how many young people actually spend time to consider the fundaments?
Disaffected youth is always a pest. More often than not it needs a personal cause, a revolutionary new ideal to fight for, an adversary to organize against. Yet, few youngsters find the ideal to be rooted in religious dogma and the foe to be the West’s proclivity for freedom of choice. Which, apparently, they feel excluded from.
Is it really irreversible?
No matter the exact content, once questions start popping up, and they are bound to surface, particularly in marginalized communities, a young person becomes vulnerable to indoctrination. The “wrong people” are lurking around the corner ready to provide the answers and point out the enemy. Quite conveniently, those are usually the same “infidels” that foreclosed our future prospects. However, it is not before that “self-realization” occurs that a young person becomes a target for the Islamist propaganda machine.
The important thing to keep in mind, particularly in light of the recent events in Brussels, is that there are at least three processes that occur before a person goes kamikaze: self-realization, indoctrination and conversion, which are neither sudden, nor contemporaneous or equifinal. As such they are reversible – if radicalization is a product of circumstances those can be broken down and treated. If there is a moment when people get to choose between alternatives, and there always is one in Europe, it is all about the options that are available at a given moment, which may vary significantly. Despite what right-wing party members and xenophobic blog trolls would have you believe. Especially bearing in mind that they also pass through precisely the same processes.
The road from a gay bar in Brussels to a training camp in Syria is a long and winding one.