Theterrorist attack earlier this month in New York followed a pattern that hasbecome at once predictable and puzzling. A troubled young man, failing to makesomething of his life, grows alienated from his family, community, and country.He embraces a radical jihadist ideology that promises redemption in return formurder, then proceeds to act on that ideology by trying to kill as many peopleas possible.
AhmadKhan Rahami was the latest suspect in a long list of young males, radicalizedonline and abroad, who have attempted to carry out mass carnage in the name ofIslam. More than 100 people have been arrested in the United States since 2014for supporting ISIS. Two hundred and fifty Americans have traveled or attemptedto travel to ISIS territory. Compared to Europe, these numbers are quite low,but it is the possibility of a single catastrophic attack that makes theterrorist problem so acute and the biographical patterns of recent attackers soalarming.
Followingevery terrorism-related incident there is a frenetic search for clues toexplain the attacker’s path to radicalization. Almost always, it becomesevident that the jihadi in question reached a mental breaking point thatpreceded his rebirth as a self-described martyr. Something in the personcracked. This fracturing of identity, a dismemberment of the self, led to whatpsychologists call a “cognitive opening.” An existential vacuum was created intheir minds, allowing the germ of jihadist ideology to implant itself,metastasize, and transform the ordinary man into a mass-murderer.
Thiswas the trajectory of Rahami: he fathered a child while still in high school,dropped out of college, and physically abused his family. It was the trajectoryof the Pulse night club shooter, Omar Mateen: violent since his middle schoolyears, dismissed from his job, tortured by feelings of homosexuality. It wasthe trajectory of countless European jihadis who were uniformly loners,anti-socials, petty criminals, and, in most cases, drug dealers or heavy drugusers. (“He often slept during the day,” said the wife of one of last year’sParis jihadis. “The number of joints that he smoked was alarming.”) It’s afamiliar narrative of alienation fueling extremist religiosity, which in turnfuels extreme carnage.
Itis facile to pin the blame on Islam or Muslim culture alone. Rahami’s fathertold the FBI that his son was engaged in terrorism, and Muslims themselves arethe greatest victims of jihadist violence. Researchers who study theradicalization problem note that terrorists are created in basements, notprayer halls. And a significant number of Muslims who become radicals were notborn into Islam but converted in adulthood, evidently seeing in the religion apath to internal harmony.
Thepsychological element in these terrorist crimes has prompted a fresh look athow to confront them. Last year, the White House held a summit on CounteringViolent Extremism, pledging to work with local communities to stage anintervention on suspected radicals before they commit crimes. But by far themost common buzzword for how to deal with jihadism is “de-radicalization,” aprocess by which an individual with terrorist sympathies is given counseling,therapy, and intellectual sessions to convince him to abandon his radicalviews.
Anumber of European and Middle Eastern countries have implementedde-radicalization programs already. The most prominent program is run by theSaudi government. Not typically known for its humane treatment of prisoners (oranyone else), the Saudis have special prisons for convicted jihadis thatprovide the inmates with big-screen TVs in their rooms, free health care, amonthly stipend, art therapy, and access to gyms and swimming pools. While thedetention centers have the look and feel of a luxurious spa, their purpose isclear: to rid the jihadis of what the Saudis call “ideological sickness” bybringing in psychologists, therapists, and clerics to teach the “correct”Islamic view on matters of law and violence.
It’sa tough proposition because the ultra-conservative Saudi kingdom and ISIS areideological cousins—differing only in their methods. The Saudis initiallyclaimed that their program had a 100 percent success rate, but a number ofgraduates from their de-radicalization program have joined Al Qaeda. The recidivismrates are difficult to ascertain, but in any event, the scale of the Saudiprogram and its geographical location make it sui generis.
Jihadismis a cheap and all-encompassing ideology that provides easy answers to life’smost difficult questions. This past April, a federal judge in Minnesota createdthe first de-radicalization program in the United States for four Minnesotansconvicted of supporting ISIS. The jihadis will meet with a leading psychologyexpert who will assess their motives and histories, and work with them tounderstand why they were drawn to ISIS. This will be the basis from which, itis hoped, the individuals in question will be purged of their jihadistfantasies. While the program is in its beginning stages, it will be watched by prosecutorsand judges across the country to see if it can be replicated in other cities.
Butthere are a number of reasons to be cautious—even suspicious—of any suchefforts to deprogram extremists. None of these de-radicalization efforts havebeen proven to be effective, according to studies. A RAND report concluded,“There are not enough reliable data to reach definitive conclusions about theshort-term, let alone the long-term, effectiveness of most existingde-radicalization programs.”
Thisshould not come as a surprise, even with all the years that have passed since9/11 and all the countries that have instituted such top-down de-radicalizationprograms. Jihadis hijack the Islamic texts in pursuit of glory,narcissistically ventriloquize the supposed grievances of a billion Muslims,and shamelessly blame the blood they shed on America’s sins. I say “shameless”because of the non-sequitur that jihadis employ: Both Ahmad Khan Rahami andOmar Mateen justified the mass targeting of innocents, on the streets of NewYork and in an LGBT bar, because the United States was bombing … ISIS, aterrorist group that enslaves its ideological opponents and slaughters womenand children. It is to be expected that efforts to de-radicalize such disturbedindividuals would meet roadblocks.
Ofcourse, there are outlier cases. One American man who was a recruiter for AlQaeda found solace in the works of John Locke and other Enlightenment thinkersin prison, and now teaches at George Washington University’s extremism program.But his path out of the dark tunnel of extremism was a self-generated one, andtherefore anomalous. Any man or woman, given the great texts of philosophy andhistory, can annex wisdom out of books and change what they believe. It is inthis sense that Hannah Arendt called the act of thinking “a dangerousactivity.” The ability to see more than a single shade of truth, and toquestion the pretensions of all received authority, opens new vistas. Butthinking is dangerous precisely because it undercuts any solid, holy crutchthat can be leaned on for support. The problem with jihadis is that theyworship the very opposite of critical thinking—a cheap and all-encompassingideology that provides easy answers to life’s most difficult questions.
Thenthere is the question of principle. A de-radicalization program is, in effect,a brainwashing scheme—or in some cases, a reverse brainwashing. Should thestate, with its assorted arms of power, be in the business of indoctrinatingacceptable views into people who are perceived to be devoid of them? It is onething to rehabilitate convicts by offering them therapy, altering theirbehavior, and helping them reintegrate into society; it is quite another to tryto reorient an adult’s beliefs about the divine so that he recognizes thevirtues of tolerance and respect.
Instillingan ethical and moral code is primarily the responsibility of families andcommunities. Most of all, it is the responsibility of the individual. To figureout one’s existential dilemmas, and to suffer the pain of uncertainty andconfusion, is part of what it means to be a human being. Jihadis abandon thisjourney and opt for an extremist, millenarian ideology that instantly gratifiestheir searching mind. In this way, jihadism is more like an analgesic than acoherent doctrine, curing these young men of their internal agony, consolingtheir rootless existences, and paving the way to a heavenly utopia.
Freudthought that human beings clung to old religious ways because we never stoppedbeing children yearning for a father figure. There certainly seems to be auniversal urge among these radicals to prove their masculinity, to validatetheir self-worth by submitting themselves to a barbarous patriarch. Imagine theinternal loathing it must take to do this. To slaughter one’s neighbors andfellow citizens in cold blood, rationally planned, detailed, and executed. Toindict one’s fellow Muslims in an unprovoked crime of resentment. To desireturning a billion of one’s co-religionists into co-conspirators by speaking intheir name. Jihadism as an ideology is murder leading to paradise. Jihadism asa psychological state is the outward projection of an inner hell. It is atotalizing condition, one that cannot be exorcised by a visit to the therapist.
Whatmakes jihadism so alluring in the first place is a desolate, depressive stateof mind. It is not a psychological disorder in the clinical sense that drives ayoung man to a violent religious cult. Rather, it is what the cult provides—alifeline and death wish to which an anguished mind may cling. Look no furtherthan the descriptions of Rahami, which mirror those of ordinary suicide casesbefore they attempt to take their lives. “He was always in high spirits,” oneof Rahami’s former classmates said about him. “Literally a ray of sunshine.”The Muslims least likely to turn into radicals are the happy ones; they have noneed for a cult to affirm their value. This world is enough for them.
KarlMarx’s most quoted line is about religion being the opium of the people. But amore nuanced idea comes in the following paragraph, when Marx says that todemand that individuals abandon their religious illusions is to demand thatthey “abandon a condition which requires illusions.” The conditions—social,familial, sexual, emotional—that give rise to jihadism are not ones that can becured by a government-mandated de-radicalization program. Drone strikes orlonger prison sentences will not alleviate the misery of those conditions,either. But it is these conditions, the ones that have made a deathly ideologymore appealing than the arduous task of daily living and suffering, that willneed to be changed.
Unfortunately,there are no quick or easy answers here. But Muslim parents and Americancommunities with Muslim populations can start by nurturing those kids who seemto be drifting off, and listening to those who seem to be lost. Because theappeal of jihadism is finally a rebuke of traditional Islam itself. What hopedo these young Muslim men find in their seething holy gangs, real or virtual,that they cannot find in the mosque, or at the dinner table with their parents?Why are these young men so driven to torment that they seek refuge in thedarkest of alleys? What illusions do they crave, and why do they remain sounfulfilled by their surroundings?
“Theynever taught us the first thing we needed to hear,” a Muslim friend and artistsaid to me a few weeks ago, as we were discussing our similar religiousupbringings. He was referring to the mosques and family elders we knew, theones who to us seemed so far from our lived realities that they may as wellhave resided on another planet.
Whatwas it that we hadn’t been taught, I asked my friend.
“Theynever taught us to love ourselves. To accept ourselves. They only told us to beafraid.”
Itmay be a cliché to offer love as a solution to hatred. But without it, a lostgeneration will continue to fester—one that sees violence as an end to itself.And that would be the ultimate illusion.