Throughout the West, everyone has become preoccupied with the question of what has turned ordinary young people into zealous jihadists. Take the former Aberdeen schoolboy Abdul Raqib Amin. In his previous life he was a keen footballer and enjoyed going out clubbing. In his new life he has become a jihadist in Syria. You can watch him on the internet describing jihad as the “cure for depression”. Sitting in front of ISIL’s black flag he invites other British Muslims to join the struggle in Syria.
Abdul Raqib Amin is not alone. Sitting alongside him in this recruiting video is Nasser Mauthana. Formerly a high-flying student from Cardiff he has given up his ambition to study medicine to join the holy war. Up to 2,000 young British “Muslims” have decided to abandon their former lives and to take up arms and fight in the Middle East. Others have focused their energy and hatred against the communities where they grew up. The murder of a British soldier in Woolwich last year by two self-appointed jihadists indicates that home-grown terrorism constitutes a threat to the West as well.
Today’s home grown terrorist has little in common with their 1970s European counterpart such as the Italian Red Brigade or the German Baeder Meinhof Group. These tiny extremists 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 marginalised terrorists, the culture of radical jihadism exercises influence over significant sections of Muslim youth in western societies. If anyone is in doubt about the influence of this jihadist youth culture they should go online to see the visibility and support it enjoys.
So what’s going on? The radicalisation of young Western Muslims is often blamed on the apparently powerful appeal of radical preachers. It is frequently suggested that young people become radicalised because they are brainwashed and manipulated by these formidable charismatic figures. No doubt committed jihadist leaders do their best to promote the appeal of their brand of ideology and recruit new followers. But while they do contribute to the radicalisation of Muslim youth they only play a minor part of the drama.
The real question is why radical Islamic ideals appeal to young people who are often the beneficiaries of a relatively comfortable and secure lifestyle. It is evident that their embrace of a new cause is coupled with rejection of the way of life of their parents and also of the communities they inhabit. Such a generational rebellion against the old ways is not confined to Muslim youth. When you to talk to young radical British Muslims it is obvious that they are motivated by impulses that are shared by many of their Western non-Muslim peers. Take their rejection of Western consumer society: “Are you willing to sacrifice the fat job you’ve got, the big car you’ve got, the family you have,” asks Abdul Raqib Amin in his ISIL-sponsored video. His words, which draw on the anti-consumerist rhetoric of Western radicalism, would be shared by a significant section of European youth. It could just as easily be a statement made by a member of Occupy. But Amin is not just a radical protester and he reminds his audience that he also belongs to a distinct youth subculture by asking “are you willing to sacrifice this, for the sake of Allah?”
What security officials characterise as radicalisation should be understood as an expression of generational estrangement.
Young Muslims’ estrangement from, and resentment towards, Western society is logically prior to any radicalising message that they might internalise. Many young people who find it difficult to gain meaning from their experience in western society react by rejecting it. Their Muslim peers sometimes express their alienation through the medium of a jihadist outlook. Unfortunately, unlike the typical manifestation of the generation gap the embrace of a jihadist subculture can have very destructive consequences.
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 web sites 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 behaviour. The sites often offer a synthesis of Middle East symbols and angry Western rap music. Jihad is often presented not just as a religious duty but as an exciting adventure. For many these are “cool” sites that allows their fantasies to flourish. For others – a relatively small minority – such sites provide a medium through which they can make sense of their life.
In western societies, the appeal of a jihadist youth culture represents the crystallisation of rejection of the cultural values of western society. What often appears as a sudden conversion to radical Islam by an impetuous or confused young man is usually preceded by the detachment of the individual from their communities. The really important question worth exploring is not what lures a young man from Wales to an ISIL training camp in Syria but why has he rejected his previous way of life?