Sunday, April 26, 2015

Explaining terrorism

Below is an excerpt from "The Metapolitics of Terrorist Radicalization" by British academic Roger Griffin.  As a former inhabitant of academe, I am well aware of the way little isolated worlds of discourse arise among academics that are virtually incomprehensible to outsiders. They largely have a private language -- rather reminiscent of how identical twins speak to one another in their early years.  And Griffin inhabits such a bubble. One feels that he couldn't speak plain English if he tried.

Since the topic he addresses is an important one, however, it would seem important to see if he actually has something useful to say.  I therefore offer below what I think is the most lucid part of his offering on the topic.

In case even that bit is too obscure, however, perhaps I should have a stab at summarizing it.  And one reason why I am summarizing something from the way-out-Left is that what he says does have a certain amount in common with what conservatives say.  So let me put in my own words what I think he is driving at:

We all have two problems:  We need to makes sense of our world and we need to be close to at least some other people. To begin with the first of those:

We very much seek to understand what is going on in our world and why.  Religion is the clearest example of that.  It answers the big "WHY?". And when there is no clear answer that does make us uncomfortable.  And in the modern world with its many competing theories about everything it is hard to find clear answers.  All answers are under challenge. So that is a problem

The second problem is that people need connections with one-another.  And an important form of connection is having language, customs, beliefs, remembered history, traditions, tastes and attitudes in common.  We call that culture.  And we get on best with others with whom we have a common culture.

But the modern world has so much change in it that culture is constantly being destroyed.  One half of politics is in fact devoted to change and that has some effect but the major source of change is technological progress.  Just look at how interpersonal interactions have been transformed quite recently by the arrival of social media.  And look at how books have become a niche product.  One Kindle machine can replace them all.

The area where the Left have been particularly successful in culture destruction has been the way they have severed our connections with our past.  Kids now graduate from school with virtually no knowledge of what happened before they were born.  The Leftist domination of education and the media ensures that. And the history we get from movies and the like is often a substantially false one.

Yet people have a strong need for connection with their past.  We see that most vividly among the children of adoption.  They routinely move heaven and earth to find out what they can about their natural parents.  Being cut off from your past is distressing.  The way older people often develop an interest in genealogy and family history is a related phenomenon.  Yet the Leftist attack on anything traditional means that much of our past is swept away.

And a frustrated need for connection with our past explains something that is happening in my town even as I write.  A vast parade is winding its way through the streets of Brisbane.  It is the ANZAC day parade.  ANZAC day is Australia's day of remembrance of our war dead.  And people are thronging the streets to watch it, even though it also continuously broadcast on TV.  And what is probably most interesting is that the commemorations get bigger year by year -- with not only the old but also the young taking part.  It is in no danger of dying out.

So why do the young people go?  Very few of them have known someone who died in war.  They go because ANZAC day is the one day of commemoration of our past that the Left have not been able to ridicule out of existence.  So ANZAC day is the big chance for young people to connect with the past and those who went before them.  It is their chance to connect with something less transitory than their own lives.  They can feel part of a larger whole.  They can feel belonging.

So ANZAC day is a way that people can cope with change.  The past and the present reach out hands to one-another then.

We live in a world that is constantly being dislocated but somehow we mostly manage to cope with it.  ANZAC day is a peculiarly Australian custom but other countries have their own traditions that perform a similar function of remembrance.

But there are some people -- marginal people -- who fail to cope adaptively with the lack of social anchors.  They find or invent new anchors that connect them to other people.  And adopting beliefs that unite them with other people is a mainstream way of doing that. Shared beliefs both provide answers and provide connections.

The oldest such unifying belief is antisemitism.  Saying that the Jews are responsible for all ills is something that many people have been able to agree on for centuries.  It gave a sense of meaning and a feeling of understanding.  I spent some years on an up-close study of Australian neo-Nazis and something that stands out from that study is the way they identified one another.  A fellow antisemite was always described as someone who "knows the score"  -- i.e. someone who was part of a specially knowing circle having rare insight into the influence that Jews wield.  So it is no surprise that antisemitism is also a major feature of Islamic agitation.  It helps them to make sense of their own chaotic and oppressive civilization and makes them part of an agreed culture.  Whatever is wrong is the fault of the Jews.

And Islam does have a very strong and pervasive culture of its own. It answers the need for connectedness very well.  So it is no wonder that it attracts people who need that.  For people who feel left out for some reason, Islam offers an alternative home.  So it attracts converts among both Africans and, mainly in England, redheads.

Red hair is an accepted normal variation of hair color in most countries of Northern European origin but in England it is stigmatized -- probably because it is associated with the Scots and the Irish.  And the informal stigmatization of it is no mean thing.  Some redheads have been distressed enough to commit suicide.  So, again, marginality, disconnection from other people, is distressing and any possible solutions to the problem are eagerly sought.

So terrorism is a cry of both pain and anger -- pain at being poorly connected to other people and anger that most of the rest of the world does not share the beliefs that make sense of the world for the terrorist.

But, like much else, it is all a matter of degree: One has to feel REALLY alienated and REALLY dependent on a minority worldview to launch into terrorism.

And the role of social support is telling.  Homicidal and suicidal attacks by Muslims in the Western world are actually quite rare -- while they happen on a large scale more or less daily in the Islamic world.  If you are a Shi-ite among Shi-ites your loyalty to your particular belief system is enormously strengthened and can readily lead to the sacrifices ordained by that belief system when you confront Sunnis.  Social support is needed for Jihad as for much else.  Connectedness again rears its head.

In the West that degree of connectedness is absent but can be provided to a degree by the local mosque and living in a self-segregated Islamic bubble generally.

So, having identified the problem, how can we cope with it? It's rare for me to think that do-gooders actually do good but some  do-gooder approaches already underway are probably the only hope.  Drawing young Muslims into some sort of group activity could provide them with the fellowship they need and make them feel that the world is not too awful and worthy of destruction.

And Christian outreach could also play a part.  The more fundamentalist Christian groups such as Pentecostals and Jehovah's witnesses are good at outreach and provide a strong sense of fellowship to their members.  It's conceivable that they could draw in young Muslims who are searching for meaning and for social anchors. Let's hope for more Christian activity in that direction.

A probably more effective but unacceptable approach would be to apply to Muslims living in the Western world the sort of rules that are applied at present to Christians in Saudi Arabia -- ban Islamic literature, including Korans, and forbid any sort of Muslim gathering or meeting.  That should destroy the social support needed to develop Jihadis.

But the anger and dissatisfaction that drives Western Jihadis does not wholly come from within the Jihadi or even from his local mosque.  It comes from Western  Leftism.  Islamic teaching is intrinsically antagonistic to non-Muslims but Islam was fairly quiescent for a long time, with the Armenian genocide being the last twitch of it until recently. So why has it suddenly had a great eruption in recent years?  It was the influence of the Left.  It took the Left a long time to throw off patriotism, with JFK probably the last sincere patriot from the American Left in public life.  But once the dam was broken, the Leftist critique of modern Western life has been both scathing and extensive. And that gave new life to semi-somnolent Muslim rejection of Western ways.  The Leftist critique of Western civilization became incorporated into the Muslim critique and gave new life to it

And the Leftist really is in much the same boat as the Jihadi.  He finds his disconnectedness with his country and much else distressing and often expresses that as anger towards others. Conservatives all know the fury that Leftists evince in responding to any criticisms of their claims.  The fury is so great that if you publicly reject global warming or are critical of homosexualiy, you are likely to be forced out of your job.

And there have of course been Leftist terrorists -- particularly in Germany, Italy and Japan. The Red Army Faction, the Red Brigades and the Japanese Red Army were all alienated and deeply fanatical young people, quite like Jihadis in many ways.  Such groups are unlikely to re-emerge now because of the friendliness of the Left towards Muslims.  Murderously motivated young men and women of the Left these days would find it most convenient to join some Muslim cell.

Conservatives, by contrast, are under no such stresses and strains.  They feel connected with much around them. They feel connected with their family, their community, their churches and service organizations, military involvements and of course their country.  And they are proud of what their forebears have accomplished.  It is no wonder that in surveys of happiness conservatives always show up as much happier than Leftists

I expand on the importance of connectedness and the Leftist lack  of it here Below is an excerpt that shows how disconnected and marginal was one convert to Jihad:

The Islamic State recruiter cited as the inspiration of the alleged Anzac Day terror plot was an ­apprentice motor mechanic who was bullied and called “black boy”’ at school.

Before he was a high-profile member of Islamic State, Neil “Chris” Prakash was a paint-­sniffing, high-school dropout who was easily led by others and “scared of his own shadow”.

Throughout his teenage years, Prakash, whose mother was schizophrenic, lived off and on in the spare room of a friend’s house in a Melbourne bayside suburb, listening to rap music and tinkering with his prized Nissan Skyline.

His adopted family describe him as a social outcast who drifted from entry-level jobs to TAFE courses before his abrupt conversion to radical Islam.

“It was a complete shock,” said David, a father of four who ­befriended Prakash as a troubled teen. “The kid was so fragile, he was scared of his own shadow.”


And on a personal note, although my service in the Australian army was completely undistinguished, I am pleased to say that I have worn my country's uniform.  That is connectedness too

Culture imparts to individual lives a sense of purpose deriving from the certainty that they are ‘capable of transcending the natural boundaries of time and space, and in doing so, eluding death’.1 Threats to cultural integrity, whether endogenous or exogenous, can thus create the conditions for extreme violence. Assaults on the integrity or self-evidence of the nomos, for example, the challenge of radically conflicting conceptions of reality or insidious cultural colonization by another society or other ethnicities, ‘threaten to release the anxiety from which our conceptions shield us, thus undermining the promise of literal or symbolic immortality afforded by them’.2 This, the authors add, can lead to the response of ‘trying to annihilate’ those who embody divergent beliefs, an impulse fully enacted in ethnic cleansing (which frequently involves terrorism) and genocide (which cannot, since there is no third party to be terrorized by the killings).

A similar conclusion is arrived at by Jessica Stern in Holy Terror as the result of numerous in-depth interviews with ‘religious’ terrorists to establish patterns in their motivation:

Because the true faith is purportedly in jeopardy, emergency conditions prevail, and the killing of innocents becomes, in their view, religiously and morally permissible. The point of religious terrorism is to purify the world of these corrupting influences. But what lies beneath these views? Over time, I began to see that these grievances often mask a deeper kind of angst and a deeper kind of fear. Fear of a godless universe, of chaos, of loose rules and loneliness.3

Modernity, she realizes, ‘introduces a world where the potential future paths are so varied, so unknown, and the lack of authority so great that individuals seek assurance and comfort in the elimination of unsettling possibilities’.4

‘One-worlders, humanists, and promoters of human rights have created an engine of modernity that is stealing the identity of the oppressed’. Extremism is a response to ‘the vacuity in human consciousness’ brought about by modernity.5 In The Blood that Cries out from the Earth, James Jones stresses how modernization and globalization have failed to create a satisfying culture for millions in developing countries, such as Indonesia and the wider Islamic world generally, and has thus created a ‘spiritual vacuum’ which is the source of the appeal exerted by religious extremism.6

In the anomie of our postmodern, global society with its smorgasbord of options and lifestyles, a religious conversion provides clear norms, a preordained answer to the postmodern dilemma ‘who am I?’—and a sense of rootedness in a timeless tradition that transcends and feels more substantial than the ever-shifting kaleidoscope of contemporary communities of reference.7

It is significant that none of these authors distinguishes between the nomic crises emanating from the breakdown of an existing nomos and inspiring what we have termed Zealotic forms of defensive aggression, and the type of nomic crisis into which the denizens of modernity are born and which they sometimes go to extreme lengths to resolve by converting to violent forms of programmatic Modernism. Nevertheless, there is a significant degree of convergence between our approaches.

The fruitfulness of this line of inquiry into the roots of fanaticism is further reinforced by Eric Hoffer’s slim but ‘classic’ treatise on political and religious fanaticism, The True Believer, written in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War when the memories of the mass rallies of Hitler and Stalin were still vivid. This offers a number of insights into the intimate relationship between anomy and blind faith in mass movements and in their leaders—that apply just as well to the commitment of disaffected individuals to terrorist causes also.

For example, he writes that when ‘people who see their lives as irremediably spoiled’ convert to a movement ‘they are reborn to a new life in its close-knit collective body’.8 The drive to belong to a community of faith, secular or religious, which provides a sense of ultimate purpose missing from an atomized, anomic individual existence leads to the ‘selfish altruism’ described by Dipak Gupta as intrinsic to the terrorist persona, and epitomized in the members of the jihadi movement whose ‘acts of self-sacrifice transform them into god-like creatures, much beloved by God himself’.9

Hoffer goes so far as to relegate the importance of ideology to a secondary factor, stating ‘a rising mass movement attracts and holds a following not by its doctrine and promises, but by the refuge it offers from the anxieties, barrenness and meaninglessness of an individual existence’.10 He sees all forms of self-surrender to a political cause as ‘in essence a desperate clinging to something which might give worth and meaning to our futile, spoilt lives.’11

In the more clinical discourse of the post-9/11 social sciences, Arie Kruglanski endorses Hoffer’s assumption by arguing that extremist ideologies exert a particular fascination on individuals suffering from inner confusion and a troubled identity because they are formulated ‘in clear-cut definitive terms’ and offer a sense of ‘cognitive closure’.12

They thus provide an antidote to what we have called the liquid, liminoid quality of modernity. In an era where all certainties are in meltdown, extremism offers a protective shelter from what Walter Benjamin called ‘the storm of progress’. Kruglanski also contributed to an important multi-author paper which views ‘diverse instances of suicidal terrorism as attempts at significance restoration, significance gain, and prevention of significance loss.



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