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Rethinking Radicalization in the West

Rethinking Radicalization in the West

Are we overlooking the influence of gender right under our noses?

In March, London was shaken by a terror attack that killed four and injured dozens more. It was one of the largest attacks to take place in London since 2005, when explosions in a subway killed more than 50 people and wounded several hundred. London was targeted again in a June attack that killed eight people, while an attack in Manchester in May killed 23.

Khalid Masood, the terrorist who carried out the attack in March, was killed by police. In the days after the attack, information trickled out about this man and his past. Masood was 52, a bodybuilder, and was married with three kids. He was born Adrian Russell Elms (his mother changed his last name to Ajao when she married his stepfather) and apparently changed his name after converting to Islam while in prison. He had been in and out of prison for years, with several convictions, though none for terrorism. Masood represents multiple trends that have been identified among jihadis: He had a life of crime and was radicalized in prison, but was by no means poor.

Notably, and what I would like to focus on here, he had a history of domestic violence. This is something that is only recently getting more attention in questions of radicalization. Masood’s history of domestic violence points to his sense of masculinity as an important factor in his radicalization, all too often overlooked. Poverty doesn’t explain Masood’s trajectory, and his ideology was adopted relatively late in life. We shouldn’t say these can never be factors in an individual’s radicalization, but in this case, they clearly don’t explain why Masood came to radicalize and carry out this heinous attack.

We must adopt an intersectional approach to thinking about and studying radicalization in the West that puts our focus on masculinities, not merely ideology or material conditions. While some people indeed seem to radicalize online through exposure to propaganda, it is certainly not true for all. We should most certainly be interested in how those who come to carry out attacks use digital tools, but we must also be wary of placing too much explanatory power in them, a form of technological determinism.

Importantly, I limit my argument to radicalization in the West because I see different facets and trajectories for those who have grown up Muslim in a Muslim country to join a group like ISIS or carry out a suicide attack compared with Muslims in the West. In taking this direction, I was recently inspired by sociological work on men in extremist neo-Nazi groups. The scholar, Michael Kimmel, has written extensively about the subject. When discussing humiliation, Kimmel wrote: 

One of the most prescient observers of violence I’ve ever read, James Gilligan, wrote a book called Violence. He argued that shame and humiliation underlie basically all violence: “Because I feel small, I will make you feel smaller.” In my interviews with extremists, both “actives” and “formers,” I have found time and time again that they have experienced that sense of humiliation and shame.

The starting point for any discussion of humiliation must be culturally situated. We can separate it from embarrassment by saying that humiliation must have a power dimension: either one has had power exerted over them in a matter that pushes them out of their expected role, or the action for which they are being judged so affected their social standing that they feel a significant and more than temporary loss of status. Just as reasons for humiliation vary across cultures, they likewise vary when gender is taken into account. Focusing on gender, in this case masculinity, moves us away from facile and binary arguments that either jihadis are following an extremist ideology, like Wahhabism, or that they feel economically marginalized.

A False Binary

The empirical record forces us to look past poverty and material conditions when it comes to radicalization. A little over a year ago, Thomas Piketty, a noted economist, offered an explanation outlining how radicalization in the Middle East stemmed from extreme income inequality built on the back of petro-monarchies. Piketty’s description of the economic reality in the Gulf was certainly true, yet how exactly this was affecting other countries in the region wasn’t clearly elaborated. Additionally, many jihadis from different countries are middle or upper-middle class, not unlike Masood. If marginalization is the issue for them, it isn’t economic in nature.

Assuming that extremist ideology is the sole factor pushing people to radicalize, and for some, join ISIS, leaves a ton of questions unanswered. For example, why does the overwhelming majority of Muslims not join ISIS or radicalize? No religion is monolithic in its interpretation among all adherents. Islam isn’t exceptional in this regard. Clearly, other factors are at play, and neither a purely economic nor ideological explanation sufficiently answers questions about radicalization.

Members of Al-Nusra Front in a military parade > Flickr/Coolloud

A recent article in The Guardian by Olivier Roy, a noted scholar of globalized Islam, backs up the idea that economic factors do not explain radicalization. Drawing on data he gathered on French jihadis, Roy shows how religious piety is not leading people to carry out attacks. Instead, most have long histories of violence and only convert to Islam in adulthood. Stated succinctly, he argues that “terrorism does not arise from the radicalization of Islam, but from the Islamization of radicalism.” He points to interesting and under-explored aspects of how cells form, often among brothers and acquaintances, maybe from school or prison. He also notes that they are linguistically integrated, speaking the language of the country where they live, indicative of often being the second generation behind their parents. Despite always using the pronoun “he” in the article to refer to jihadis and referring to brothers frequently, Roy’s analysis does not explicitly touch on gender dynamics.  The multiple points outlined above lead me to ask a series of questions about toxic masculinity and its relationship to radicalization.

Toxic Masculinity

Toxic masculinity can be a key part of radicalization for those who decide to carry out terrorist attacks in the name of Islam. When I use the word “toxic masculinity,” I refer to a sense of what it means to be a man, including domination and the idea that men are superior to women and need to assert themselves as such. These men think that showing weakness, passivity or acceptance of women taking charge are signs of weakness. This often, but not exclusively, manifests itself in extreme attempts to develop strength, fight other men or sometimes in domestic violence.

Taking a more narrow focus than I do, Hadley Freeman, writing in The Guardian, recently focused on “lone attacker” terrorists, not ISIS recruits, but the connection is clear. Freeman shows how many of these attackers were men with a history of domestic abuse toward their partners, while others had rape, stalking and harassment of women in their backgrounds. Freeman also points out that ISIS sexually enslaved Yazidi women and others in Iraq and Syria, a practice with no justification in Islam. It pushes us to consider that Islam might be a justification offered after the fact by the jihadis themselves, while the underlying reason is tied to their toxic masculinity and patriarchal conceptions of relationships they’re willing to use violence to maintain across the board.

A June 2016 New York Times article documented how 16% of mass killers had domestic abuse in their backgrounds, while their partners were among those killed in their rampages 57% of the time. Both Omar Mateen, who attacked the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, and Cedric Anderson, who carried out a shooting in a school in San Bernardino, California, fit this profile of serial domestic abusers. The idea that engaging in domestic violence means one will later radicalize and carry out violent extremist acts can’t be extrapolated too far. It is not too much of a stretch, however, to see ISIS’ use of rape in war and as a means of recruitment as tying extreme masculinity to jihadism. Yes, rape is sadly a weapon of war. The difference here is that it plays a role in attracting ISIS fighters rather than being something denied and covered up. ISIS has doubled down on the toxic masculinity.

Muslims in the West face humiliation from discriminatory encounters with police, prejudiced encounters with other citizens or from unemployment. This amounts to a form of racialization. Muslims, while clearly not an ethnic group, are nonetheless perceived as inferior, barbaric, violent, in need of control and unable to grant women equal rights. Wars and ongoing conflicts, such as the U.S. invasion of Iraq or the Israeli occupation of Palestine, have angered Muslim communities in the West. Each new attack where Muslim lives are taken with impunity rightly inflames anger. The feeling is compounded by the perception that Western media and politicians show little, if any, regard for this loss of life.

Olivier Roy highlighted this as one of the most common justifications offered by jihadis for their actions. As such, it is inaccurate to make the broad statement that Islam is patriarchal and these men who radicalize share that patriarchal worldview, and therefore Islam is still at the root of radicalization. This fails to explain why so many Muslim men don’t radicalize.

Gender, again, helps us think more critically about economic factors and their role in radicalization. Many statistics show discrimination in employment against Muslims regardless of gender. Statistics from various countries with large groups of jihadis fighting in Syria — including France, Belgium, Sweden and Germany — show notable levels of employment and social discrimination against people perceived to be North African or Muslim. Muslim women most certainly face significant prejudice in Western Europe and the U.S., yet they react with violent extremism in a much tinier fraction of cases than Muslim men.

Yet we should be careful not to talk about masculinity as if there is only one form. It needs to be thought of intersectionally, along with multiple other factors. As there can’t be one “masculinity” or set of norms about how to be a man that all Muslim men, regardless of age or nationality, subscribe to, there clearly will be a plurality of masculinities. I won’t attempt to categorize these, or to label some as “docile” and others as “violent.” Those would be highly speculative claims, at best.

Gender also helps us rethink what we know about prison radicalization, a phenomenon whose ties to ISIS is woefully underappreciated. I made sure to emphasize this point in a recent interview I gave, because I see that prison radicalization undoes a basic narrative about Islam and violent tendencies culminating in jihadism. If a large share of jihadis is new to Islam because they converted in prison, it shows us that non-ideological issues are being masked and confused for being fundamentally ideological. Gender helps us dig even deeper below this surface by looking at prison dynamics in male-only institutions, where men become viciously competitive and form gangs. It also ties back to the similarities in the quote I highlighted from Michael Kimmel, with White supremacist groups another ideology that is often the result of prison radicalization.

There is a highly lopsided gender imbalance with regard to jihadi violence that cannot be ignored. There are also notable similarities between extremist groups of very different ideological backgrounds, pointing to other factors animating their radicalization and violence. I take the variability of cultures seriously enough to say I don’t think we’ll ever find one scientifically viable explanation of radicalization that holds true inside one cultural context, let alone across them. We need to break out of the stale debate between material and ideological factors in radicalization. An intersectional approach that makes sure to center our focus on masculinities helps us think more specifically about both ideological and economic factors in radicalization, not simply reject them.

I would like to thank Bozena Welborne, Sean Widlake and Mediha Sorma for their comments and critiques of drafts for this piece.

*Image: A portrait of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS. >Flickr/ThierryEhrmann

About The Author

Michael K Degerald

Michael K Degerald

About Michael K Degerald

Michael Degerald is a PhD Candidate in Interdisciplinary Near and Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Washington in Seattle and was recently a visiting scholar at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Lund University in Sweden. He runs a blog about ISIS to reach audiences outside of academia called History X ISIS. You can find him on Twitter: @MENAhistorian

More from Michael K Degerald...

Rethinking Radicalization in the West
June 23rd, 2017


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