I’ve been reading Scott Atran’s work for years; I initially thought he was too soft on religion, but that he was still carrying out compelling, insightful research on what makes people turn to terrorism. His key message was that you can’t simply blame religion. There’s something about young men in particular that makes them susceptible to radicalization, and it’s a cop-out to blame it on Islam, or mental illness, or economic hardship. I first heard him talking about soccer clubs — how young men isolated from other communities would room together, and begin to drift, thanks to Islamic propaganda, into increasingly radical attempts to find purpose in their lives.
Atran’s war zone research over the last few years, and interviews during the last decade with members of various groups engaged in militant jihad (or holy war in the name of Islamic law), give him a gritty perspective on this issue. He rejects popular assumptions that people frequently join up, fight and die for terrorist groups due to mental problems, poverty, brainwashing or savvy recruitment efforts by jihadist organizations.
Instead, he argues, young people adrift in a globalized world find their own way to ISIS, looking to don a social identity that gives their lives significance. Groups of dissatisfied young adult friends around the world — often with little knowledge of Islam but yearning for lives of profound meaning and glory — typically choose to become volunteers in the Islamic State army in Syria and Iraq, Atran contends. Many of these individuals connect via the internet and social media to form a global community of alienated youth seeking heroic sacrifice, he proposes.
This does not fit the media narrative. I’m sure you’ve noticed: the message they try to send is always that the terrorist, the mass murderer, is an alien outsider, someone wildly different from us — a lone wolf with a broken brain. His origin is incomprehensible, and we don’t try to understand it, but only to separate him from us, the normal people, and reassure ourselves that our social group is nothing like that.
Researchers have long studied the motivations of terrorists, with psychologist Arie Kruglanski proposing a particularly compelling theory: people become terrorists to restore a sense of significance in their lives, a feeling that they matter. Extremist organizations like Isis are experts at giving their recruits that sense of purpose, through status, recognition, and the promise of eternal rewards in the afterlife.
My own survey work supports Kruglanski’s theory. I find that American Muslims who feel a lack of significance in their lives are more likely to support fundamentalist groups and extreme ideologies.
She also sees what sets people on the path to supporting terrorism: the isolation of smaller communities from the larger, the fastening of blame on innocent groups. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.
What we really need to know now is, what sets people on this path? How do people lose their sense of purpose?
My research reveals one answer: the more my survey respondents felt they or other Muslims had been discriminated against, the more they reported feeling a lack of meaning in their lives. Respondents who felt culturally homeless – not really American, but also not really a part of their own cultural community – were particularly jarred by messages that they don’t belong. Yet Muslim Americans who felt well integrated in both their American and Muslim communities were more resilient in the face of discrimination.
My results are not surprising to many social scientists, who know that we humans derive a great deal of self-worth from the groups we belong to. Our groups tell us who we are and make us feel good about ourselves. But feeling like we don’t belong to any group can really rattle our sense of self.
Take a look at America. We fear Islamic terrorism, so the first thing we do is condemn all Muslims, displacing them from our selves, isolating them, divorcing from the True American community, and reinforcing the very sociological conditions that foster radicalization.
This isn’t just about Islam, though. This seems to be a property of young men in all sorts of conditions. Abi Wilkinson writes about the online radicalisation of young, white men. She’s been reading the Internet.
No, not the bit you’re thinking of. Somewhere far worse. That loose network of blogs, forums, subreddits and alternative media publications colloquially known as the “manosphere”. An online subculture centred around hatred, anger and resentment of feminism specifically, and women more broadly. It’s grimly fascinating and now troubling relevant.
In modern parlance, this is part of the phenomenon known as the “alt-right”. More sympathetic commentators portray it as “a backlash to PC culture” and critics call it out as neofascism. Over the past year, it has been strange to see the disturbing internet subculture I’ve followed for so long enter the mainstream. The executive chairman of one of its most popular media outlets, Breitbart, has just been appointed Donald Trump’s chief of strategy, and their UK bureau chief was among the first Brits to have a meeting with the president-elect. Their figurehead – Milo Yiannopoulos – toured the country stumping for him during the campaign on his “Dangerous Faggot” tour. These people are now part of the political landscape.
It turns out that Algerian soccer clubs, the Red Pill subreddit, and Breitbart have a lot in common: they’re all gathering places for frustrated men, who then proceed to reinforce each other’s views, starting with vaguely unpleasant dissatisfaction with, for instance, women, to increasingly vicious and dangerous forms of propaganda. I think you might recognize this tendency many men have to top each other’s stories, to exaggerate their dominance. It leads to increasingly awful stories…and the men in these groups, rather than condemning or rejecting their claims, instead strive to repeat even more outrageous claims.
Reading through the posting history of individual aliases, it’s possible to chart their progress from vague dissatisfaction, and desire for social status and sexual success, to full-blown adherence to a cohesive ideology of white supremacy and misogyny. Neofascists treat these websites as recruitment grounds. They find angry, frustrated young men and groom them in their own image. Yet there’s no Prevent equivalent to try to stamp this out.
Much has been written about financial hardship turning afflicted white communities into breeding grounds for white supremacist politics, but what about when dissatisfaction has little to do with economic circumstance? It’s hard to know what can be done to combat this phenomenon, but surely we have to start by taking the link between online hatred and resentment of women and the rise of neofascism seriously.
These communities create a kind of tension within themselves that seeks an outlet. In radical Islam, it might be to strap on a dynamite vest and kill yourself for glory. In the alt-right, it might be to raise a middle finger to the establishment and vote for Donald Trump. It’s arguable which is more disastrous for world stability.
We need to pay attention to how these radical movements develop. Avoid the cheap out of dismissing it as a consequence of the wicked other — it is us. White people are people, just like Muslims, and just as susceptible to being led down a dark path.
Speaking of introspection and examining ourselves, here’s someone else who was radicalized by a social movement — in this case, the dark side of atheism. Sam Harris, Dave Rubin, Thunderf00t, Christopher Hitchens…these guys are gateways to the normalization of hatred.
I was curious as to the motives of leave voters. Surely they were not all racist, bigoted or hateful? I watched some debates on YouTube. Obvious points of concern about terrorism were brought up. A leaver cited Sam Harris as a source. I looked him up: this “intellectual, free-thinker” was very critical of Islam. Naturally my liberal kneejerk reaction was to be shocked, but I listened to his concerns and some of his debates.
This, I think, is where YouTube’s “suggested videos” can lead you down a rabbit hole. Moving on from Harris, I unlocked the Pandora’s box of “It’s not racist to criticise Islam!” content. Eventually I was introduced, by YouTube algorithms, to Milo Yiannopoulos and various “anti-SJW” videos (SJW, or social justice warrior, is a pejorative directed at progressives). They were shocking at first, but always presented as innocuous criticism from people claiming to be liberals themselves, or centrists, sometimes “just a regular conservative” – but never, ever identifying as the dreaded “alt-right”.
For three months I watched this stuff grow steadily more fearful of Islam. “Not Muslims,” they would usually say, “individual Muslims are fine.” But Islam was presented as a “threat to western civilisation”. Fear-mongering content was presented in a compelling way by charismatic people who would distance themselves from the very movement of which they were a part.
Oh, man, that sounds so familiar. I felt the pull of this attitude myself, but at least was able to look ahead and see where it would lead me in the long run, to a belief in Western male exceptionalism that I find grossly repellent.
This morning, I got an email from someone who was in the same situation and got out. They warn of things to watch out for, that almost seduced them.
Here is a tactic to watch out for. They always justify given talking with these people as credible, by say “I disagree with what they say, but they’re nice people, not racist, bigots, sexist etc.”
Sam Harris thinks Black Lives Matter are awful and playing Identity politics. I wonder if Martin Luther king would have been dismissed as playing Identity politics. Anyways just thought I would add to the tactics these people use to lure impressionable white guys like me to the alt-right movement.
Take a look at the NY Times. Combative, Populist Steve Bannon in an article that tries to claim that he’s not a racist. Yet at the same time, it reports that…
One of his three former wives claimed in court papers that he had said he did not want their twin daughters to go to school with Jews who raise their children to be “whiny brats,” a claim Mr. Bannon denies. In a 2011 radio interview, he dismissed liberal women as “a bunch of dykes that came from the Seven Sisters schools.”
In a radio interview last year with Mr. Trump, Mr. Bannon complained, inaccurately, that “two-thirds or three-quarters of the C.E.O.s in Silicon Valley are from South Asia or from Asia.” He has sometimes portrayed a grave threat to civilization not just from violent jihadists but from “Islam.” He once suggested to a colleague that perhaps only property owners should be allowed to vote. In an email to a Breitbart colleague in 2014, he dismissed Republican congressional leaders with an epithet and added, “Let the grass roots turn on the hate.”
Not racist! Not misogynist! Just a “combative populist”.
The seeds were sown early on, and we dismissed them, and now they’re bearing fruit, while the media tries to pretend that there’s no problem at all.
Let’s not do that. Let’s look at that work on the origins of radical Islamic terrorism and appreciate that it’s not solely about those brown people over there, it’s about human beings like the ones right here.