Inner world of lone wolves

The conventional explanation for the diasporic jihadist, radicalisation, may not be the complete one

Written by Praveen Swami | Updated: June 17, 2016 12:28 am
orlando shooter, omar mateen, orlando shooting, orlando shooter psyche, radical islam, us attack, us shooting, orlando nighclub attack, orlando news, world news, indian express This undated file image shows Omar Mateen, who killed 49 people inside the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, on Sunday, June 12, 2016. (MySpace via AP, File)

“Man is ruined”, wrote Salman Rushdie, “by the misfortune of possessing a moral sense”. Though some beasts were odious, even dangerous, he conceded, “a jackal is a jackal, and a leopard is a leopard, and a boar has no option to be boarish one hundred per cent of the time”. “Only Man’s nature is suspect and shifting. Only Man, knowing good, can do evil. Only man wears masks. Only man is a disappointment to himself”.

For Omar Mateen, author of the largest terrorist killing in the United States since 9/11, that sentiment may have been familiar: A failed marriage to a woman who could not be battered into submission; a hoped-for law-enforcement career that never took off; above all, sexual urges he loathed in himself.

Killing is redemption: In recent years, this script has played out often with so-called Lone Wolf terrorists drawn from the Muslim diaspora in the US and Europe. The attack in Orlando is certain to have seismic political impact, and makes it imperative to carefully examine just what is going on.

The conventional explanation for the diasporic jihadist is one word: Radicalisation. In essence, the proposition holds, some individuals transition from conventional, pietist Islam to more extreme versions, and then to violence, propelled by the impact of wars raging in West Asia. Internet propaganda, put out by the Islamic State, or al-Qaeda, is in this rendition of events, a vector that drives the radicalisation process.

It is a not-implausible story, especially attractive to those who hold that belief in Islam in itself is a potential cause of violence. The problem is, it doesn’t stand up to the facts.

For one, the evidence doesn’t suggest religion had much to do the trajectories of many jihadists. Salah Abdeslam and his brother, Brahim Abdeslam, who shot up the Bataclan theatre in Paris, were known for smoking pot at the Les Beguines bar, as local residents prayed at the mosque across the road. Khalid el-Bakraoui, and Brahim el-Bakraoui, who bombed Brussels airport in March, showed no great interest in religion, either. In other cases, diasporic jihadists had, at most, an uncomfortable relationship with the Islam they grew up with. Mohammed Sidique Khan, the leader of the 7/7 London bombers, stayed away from his local mosque and refused an arranged marriage — leading his parents to all but disown him.

The converse is also true. Rizwan Farook, who with his wife Tashfeen Malik carried out the San Bernardino massacre last year, appears to have become obsessively religious at a young age — the consequence of witnessing his westernised, hard-drinking father’s savage violence against his mother. There’s no evidence, though, that he ever joined an Islamist religious group, or party. Put simply, as the scholar and intelligence analyst Marc Sageman has often pointed out, there is no one path to become a jihadist — any more than there is to other political choices. The additional problem with the radicalisation thesis is that it doesn’t actually explain anything. Wars pitting Western imperialism against Muslim countries have raged through the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, as have violent Islamist movements — but no suicide bombers or terrorists flourished in the West at those times.

The real question we ought to be asking, as the scholar Kenan Malik has pointed out, is why jihadism has emerged among young people in Muslim communities in the West at this particular historical moment.

Islamism, for Omar Mateen or the el-Bakraoui brothers or Mohammed Sidique Khan, is not a religion in a conventional sense. It exists free from traditional institutions of mosque and community, free from the historical contexts which their parents’ generations brought with them from their homelands. Inside small groups, online or physical, they give their diasporic Islam meaning — and act on it to dismantle the world around them.

The ultra-violence of the Islamic State, or al Qaeda — it matters little which — thus provides a language for the anger of a generation alienated from the political system, with no personal or political agency. The crisis has come at a moment when traditional political parties seem disengaged, more than ever before from the lives of ordinary people, especially the working class.

Farhad Khosrokhavar, author of an authoritative study on France’s jihadists, casts this transformation as a kind of spiritual experience: “Through jihadism,” he writes, “they transform the contempt of others into fear”. For the diasporic follower, the jihad allows entry into a feared tribe, the global Nation of Islam. Entry to this tribe comes with adoption of a sexually-neurotic code. In 1949, Syed Qutb — the founding patriarch, with the Pakistani ideologue Abul A’la Maududi, of political Islamism — visited the US, on a trip organised as part of the CIA’s efforts to recruit the savagely anti-Communist Muslim Brotherhood. In 1951, he would publish The America I Have Seen — compelling reading today, as we struggle to understand the moral dystopia young jihadists inhabit.

In the US, Qutb visited a dance organised by a local church in Greeley, Colorado. “They danced to the tunes of the gramophone”, he recorded, “and the dance floor was replete with tapping feet, enticing legs, arms wrapped around waists, lips pressed to lips, and chests pressed to chests. The atmosphere was full of desire”. For Qutb, the American woman was “a naked, screaming temptation” — a metaphor for the broader seduction of the Enlightenment, which placed human agency at the core of its project.

The experience of America’s “spiritual wasteland” was to lead Qutb to write his 1964 opus, Milestones, which fired the imagination of two generations of jihadists. He rejected modernity, a “system which is fundamentally at variance with Islam and which, with the help of force and oppression, is keeping us from living the sort of life which is demanded by our Creator”.

Islamists are far from the only ones seeking escape from the complex, often agonising, ethical choices modernity confronts us with. From the secession of the New Age spiritualist or the junkie, to the ugly violence of the anarchist and the white supremacist, liberal values are under siege as never before. The assault is evident in the West, from parties of the right, but also in India.

Each of these challenges can be contained by better policing and gun control — but defeating them requires something more fundamental. These are fundamentally political challenges, and require politicians to engage in a clear-eyed defence of the principles that define liberalism — individual freedoms, democratic rights, and the rule of law. For a large cohort of disenfranchised young Muslims in the West, jihad has emerged as a language of rage — just as crime or drugs have done for others. Liberal political forces need to demonstrate that there are other paths to redemption.

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First Published on: June 17, 2016 12:20 am
  1. J
    Jai Kumar
    Jun 17, 2016 at 8:08 pm
    if the ingredients and the process is incorrect the product cannot be right.lt;br/gt;what was good for seventh century cannot be true today
    Reply
    1. M
      Man
      Jun 17, 2016 at 11:46 am
      Reply
      1. M
        Man
        Jun 17, 2016 at 10:37 pm
        You are a potential j1h@di. Law enforcement should track you. "The sun jumps in to the muddy water at sun set and gravity comes from the mountains" are truth??? no wonder what can you expect from an illiterate desert thug??? huh!
        Reply
        1. M
          Man
          Jun 17, 2016 at 10:41 pm
          Your great great g mother was r@ped by some moghul soldier and you are a moos today and you are defending the r@pist. Huh! and denouncing your ancestor's r3ligion.
          Reply
          1. Y
            Yakobi
            Jun 17, 2016 at 8:12 pm
            Because they are typical hindu crooks, hiding their true ideny, to spew their hinduism venom, against Muslims and Islam.
            Reply
            1. Y
              Yakobi
              Jun 17, 2016 at 2:48 am
              Better then a, hindu dumb, deaf and blind to truth will, ever do.
              Reply
              1. Y
                Yakobi
                Jun 17, 2016 at 1:19 am
                Death is a death, end of being, injustice murders humanity in a slow pain full pace, and justice served in service is better thousandfold, fast, no need to beat chest to make an act of a person of self sacrificial justice, worst of every act, but noble if, committed to teach a lesson in kind , to a hindu beast, to refrain him, from practicing his nature of a beast, without any price.
                Reply
                1. Y
                  Yakobi
                  Jun 17, 2016 at 5:39 am
                  No need to talk in hindu ignorant language by its hindu low standard of a hindu mander, dungeon of illegality, unable to see light truth in life, get rid of hind darkness of hinduism illegality, to comment on matters of civility.
                  Reply
                  1. Y
                    Yakobi
                    Jun 17, 2016 at 8:32 pm
                    Only by hindu stupid mind of a hindu ignorant by faith, Truth was absolute then, and truth is absolute today, one can not escape grip of truth , Islam is all about truth in life, and one in hindrance to truth, hindu dumb, deaf and blind to truth in life, are the same, as they were thousands of years ago, having learned nothing in life, to be human.
                    Reply
                    1. K
                      K SHESHU
                      Jun 17, 2016 at 11:39 am
                      Jihadists springs not from religious beliefs or thought, it is a combination of frustration, bigotry, utter recklessness by society and family, lack of employment and host of other socio-economic, conditions perpetrated by political system. The solution lies in political will and Reformation. Simply blaming the perpetrators of jihadists is a partial view of the problem.
                      Reply
                      1. A
                        ak dev
                        Jun 17, 2016 at 7:21 am
                        Terrorism is English equivalent of JEHAD in Islam. Sicularists will continue to give explanations that Islam is not responsible for the type of violence we see today. As Quran can't change, the Muslims will continue to produce terrorists. World must learn to live with it.
                        Reply
                        1. H
                          HELLWITHISLAM
                          Jun 17, 2016 at 1:24 pm
                          islam preaches allah is the only god ,there can be no other god .............automatically ...........other religions become target .quran mentions hate against jews and Christianity.quran focusses on the concept of ummah (islamic brotherhood) ,which is nothing but a command to form an army of muslims against others.so u see an african ,indian ,stani muslim running to join isis .islam has jihad ..................means fight anything which is non-islamic.islam says kill kaafir(non-muslim).
                          Reply
                          1. H
                            HELLWITHISLAM
                            Jun 17, 2016 at 1:23 pm
                            islam preaches allah is the only god ,there can be no other god .............automatically ...........other religions become target .quran mentions hate against jews and Christianity.quran focusses on the concept of ummah (islamic brotherhood) ,which is nothing but a command to form an army of muslims against others.so u see an african ,indian ,stani muslim running to join isis .islam has jihad ..................means fight anything which is non-islamic.islam says kill kaafir(non-muslim).
                            Reply
                            1. H
                              HELLWITHISLAM
                              Jun 17, 2016 at 1:18 pm
                              muslims are born terrorists ,reason being ,quran is a radical hate module ,that preaches ,hate ,violence,and dominance .................this is not a religion .islam is a death cult ..................
                              Reply
                              1. A
                                Ashz
                                Jun 17, 2016 at 6:07 am
                                The verse you are quoting was relevant to the times when the Prophet and his people( who believe in the revelations) were thrown out of their homeland and many restrictions put on them. It came as a command to defend their rights and to reclaim their homeland. Jihad's were fought not to kill bit as a means of defence. So that verse does not apply generally to all and sundry. Pls do not quote out of context.
                                Reply
                                1. N
                                  Narender Balda
                                  Jun 16, 2016 at 11:53 pm
                                  That is your wishful thinking but in reality it is other way around.
                                  Reply
                                  1. R
                                    Rajesh
                                    Jun 17, 2016 at 6:17 pm
                                    And if we call this fellow a jihadi supporter, we will be called "communal". Ha ha!
                                    Reply
                                    1. R
                                      Rajesh
                                      Jun 17, 2016 at 10:56 am
                                      Murthy bhai, the "seculars" and "tolerant" people have a habit of censoring opinions they dont agree with.
                                      Reply
                                      1. R
                                        Rajesh
                                        Jun 17, 2016 at 3:54 am
                                        Oh, looks like the Jihadi Express removed my comment. I dont want to type the w thing again. But in summary, my point was this. This specifically is about the US, because in India, the jihadi supporters will label me "intolerant". So there are 2.2 million Hindus in the US. There havent been any cases of lone wolves, or Hindus blowing stuff up or shouting death to America. Neither have the Buddhists, Sikhs (and those guys get attacked over there all the time) etc So how do you terrorist supporters keep claiming this is not related to religion ?
                                        Reply
                                        1. R
                                          Rajesh
                                          Jun 16, 2016 at 9:29 pm
                                          They say religion has nothing to do with it, but there are more than 2.2 million Hindus in the US and they arent running around committing m murder or trying to blow things up. Neither are the Buddhists, the Sikhs or the other minorities there. Only the Mullahs have some problem or the always. I am not even mentioning India here because I will be labelled "intolerant" for expressing my opinion.
                                          Reply
                                          1. R
                                            Rajesh
                                            Jul 5, 2016 at 5:43 am
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