I was planning to write this article during the ‘Karen the Environmentalist’ debacle, when the government was mocked for painting a picture of a ‘radical’ environmentalist who lived in forest camps and dabbled in direct action. I found it particularly funny because it described maybe a quarter of my university friends, and Karen’s exit from radical environmentalism would be commonly referred to as ‘selling out’. But I was a bit dismayed that very few people focused on the more nefarious content in the deradicalisation guide, the fact that it was designed primarily to target Muslim extremists. Two of the four case studies were clearly to do with Muslims (Jay and Khazaal). Without going into an extended analysis of the text, it’s interesting how Erin the Racist was able to self-direct herself out of white supremacy into moderate acceptable racism, and Karen the Radical Environmentalist profited off her values, while Jay the Muslim Extremist needed to have it beaten out of him with jail, while Khazaal, for all we know, is still rotting in prison. It really highlights the different approaches the state has to ‘radicalisation’, depending on the demographic it comes from.
But then the Parramatta shooting happened, and I thought it’d be best to wait a while before presenting a contrary view to the mainstream take on radicals. There was also a certain peace before the storm, when Turnbull came out saying we needed unity and no one should target Muslims for this crime. But after a day or so, the onslaught of press and political hatred rained down on Muslims, as well as numerous raids on suspected terrorist houses (most released without charge) and the policing of the school Farhad Jabar used to go to, including the arrest of one of his schoolmates for inflammatory social media postings.
And, while it’s sad that I must do this, here’s a disclaimer: I don’t support the actions of Farhad Jabar, and normally I wouldn’t feel the need to have to say this. But as this is a public article, I feel like I need to make it clear that I’m not a supporter of his, or any Islamist group, or any terrorist group, etc.
Whether honest or insincere, most sectors of society have come out saying there needs to be a focus on deradicalisation. The mainstream liberal view is that this requires ‘reaching out’ to the Muslim youth and countering alienation. (The mainstream conservative view is a hodge-podge of Western values education, finding and arresting terrorists and terrorist-affiliated individuals or groups.) While there is some truth to the idea that radicalisation is partly due to isolation and alienation from Western society and values, it misses the big point that most radicalisation happens as a response to some kind of perceived injustice (real or unreal).
The isolation framework is useful for mainstream society because it puts the burden on individuals. It isn’t as broadly racist as ‘Muslims are the problem’, but it does shine a spotlight on specific types of Muslims who you might now find suspicious — depressed Muslims, antisocial Muslims, Muslims who refuse to assimilate, etc. There is still a bogeyman. Also, while this view does suggest reaching out as a solution, rather than punitive measures, we have to interrogate what this actually means for those who are being reached out to. This may not be taken as some kind gesture, but rather as a form of extended surveillance, attempting to manage your mental state, and while they’re at it, co-opting your family and ‘community leaders’ to watch over you, people in fear of the collective punishment that comes if you step out of line.
The problem with this discourse is that it leaves the state and society blameless. It paints a picture of isolated young Muslims being radicalised by extremist Muslims in a void, where moderating Western influences are absent. It suggests that it is becoming closer with the teachings of Islam that makes someone an extremist and ready to kill. If this was true, radical Islam would be a trend throughout history, rather than a 20th century/21st century phenomenon, much like the founding of Christian fundamentalism in late-19th century America. If this was true, history and context and social structures would be irrelevant, as it would just be religiosity (and inversely, secularity) that would be the defining feature of how violent someone was. And this takes us back to the mainstream racist view, that we must purge the values of Muslims before they murder innocent non-Muslims.
The gap that everyone avoids is this: what makes Muslims with no violent tendency suddenly adopt violence as a tactic? What are they reacting to?
The answer is injustice. All radical individuals or groups are responding to some sort of perceived injustice. It is up to us to decide which of these injustices are real, but most of the time they are. This is true even when we’re talking about the far right – they’re allegations about immigrants are untrue, but some of their grievances aren’t; after all, maybe it isn’t refugees and migrants that are taking their jobs, but someone is, and it’s the bosses and the capitalist system.
As someone who has personally heard (and disagreed with) the views of quite radical but nonviolent Muslim speakers firsthand – radical in the way they reimagine society as an Islamic one, rather than supporting a radically violent upheaval of current society – it isn’t an appeal to religious ritual that radicalises people. If it were, it would simply mean a bunch of young Muslims praying and fasting a lot. Rather, it’s appealing to a sense of righteous anger and a desire to correct the wrongs they see in the world. It’s seeing the bloody effects of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, the marginalisation of Muslims in Western societies, the plight of Muslim refugees, the continued colonisation of Muslim lands in Asia and Africa, the poverty of the inhabitants of these countries, the occupation of Palestine, and so many other crimes committed against the Muslim world. And it isn’t just that – some also take it further, responding to homelessness on city streets, the brutalisation, colonisation, and incarceration of Aboriginal people (explaining why so many mainstream commentators are so afraid of Muslim Aboriginal people, particularly those in prison), environmental destruction, and even (usually from a patriarchal perspective that doesn’t actually rectify anything) the objectification and oppression of women.
This isn’t to say I agree with their answers, but they are presenting answers. Parliamentary processes are seen, at best, as ineffective, and at worst, the very purveyors and facilitators of the injustice they observe and sometimes feel. Other radical ideologies like socialism have lost a lot of their flavour since the fall of the Soviet Union, but it should be noted that secular socialism was for a large period of time the dominant ideology of resistance in the Muslim world, as it combined philosophies of decolonisation with egalitarian wealth redistribution. But it too fell, primarily as a result of U.S. and Israeli funded programs that violently wiped out secular socialist groups and funded the very groups they oppose today, like Hamas, the mujahideen in Afghanistan, and the Salafist state of Saudi Arabia (read this article to get a good idea of how Israel created Hamas and the general attitude of the West of supporting Islamist groups over secular socialist/nationalist groups: http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB123275572295011847). Only remnants of this ideology live on, either decimated by decades of Western attacks, morphed into paranoid nationalist groups, or both.
Look at the case of Jake Bilardi, the ‘white jihadist’ from Melbourne who was only 18 when he did a suicide bombing for ISIS, a pawn in their disgusting battles. His journey to ‘radicalism’ actually came before his journey to ‘Islam’ – it was his disgust at U.S. imperialism that made him want to fight for justice, and the only way he could see was through violence. He then found faith in Islam. He was drawn to ISIS not because they offer bloodshed and vulgarity – although they do, and have surely recruited on that basis too – but because they present a utopian society where the Sykes-Picot borders of post-WWI that caused almost all sectarian warfare in the Middle East are torn down, and where the U.S. and it’s allies are finally held to account.
This isn’t a defense of ISIS or other jihadist groups, nor of their goals, values, and certainly not their methods. But if we really want to tackle radicalisation in order to make sure no shootings like Jabar’s happens again, and so Australian citizens don’t go over to join terrorist organisations in the Middle East, then we have to look at ourselves first. We can’t let the government continue to whittle down the rights of all to mainly target Muslim youth, including this new law that may pass soon that will allow detention without charge of people as young as 14. We can’t let the government continue to persecute Muslim and non-Muslim refugees. We can’t let Western governments continue their warmongering. And we can’t let structural oppression of minority groups continue unabated.
Again, and I hate that I have to continue doing this, this isn’t a defense of ISIS or other extremist groups. This isn’t a ‘you deserve the violence you get.’ This is a call for us to address the real roots of radicalisation. And that isn’t singling out at-risk youth, or draconian policing strategies, or snooping in on our emails — it’s building a just society for all.