By Walaa Quisay
In the field of security studies, much time and effort has been dedicated to studying the psychology of ‘extremism’. What drives a well-to-do Muslim boy, lounging in upper class neighbourhoods of Paris, London and Cairo, to pick up a gun and join a war miles away? Is it psychological isolation? Are they all social outcasts acting out? Did the utopia that is democracy not live up to its promises of hailing a thousand unicorns to distribute well packaged freedom to the oppressed brown people of the world? Is it because the West failed us? They promised democracy and then they failed us? Is it because all of the Facebook and Twitter Che Guevaras have become career revolutionaries? Is it because all of our friends died in vain?
Well…sophisticated academics – whom of course are the brains of our society – provide us with all these answers uncovering the bits and pieces of this broken dream of democracy. They are not wrong; they are – however – short sighted. Recently, I read an article in the Financial Times called ‘The Arab spring idealist who died for Isis’. It was an excellent and quite frankly a heart-breaking piece. Ahmed al-Darawy – a well to do Egyptian revolutionary – was found dead fighting in the ranks of ISIS. He had once held hands with seculars and socialists while campaigning for the ever so moderate Abdelmonem Aboul Fottouh. Then when it all went down ‘the toilet’ – as he puts it, he became ‘radicalised’. But surely, he had not lost the willingness to fight. He travelled miles to carry guns in Iraq. If the despair caused by the failure of the Egyptian revolution caused him to carry arms or associate with violent movement, why not finish what he started? Why go to Iraq to fight? Why not just go to Sinai? Or carry arms in Cairo?
If we are to recall the initial, euphoric moments of the many revolutions in the Arab world, a protest would erupt in Cairo which would then make the protesters in Benghazi braver, then it would flare things up in Sana’a. It was our much celebrated ‘domino’ effect. Syria came along. But some of the loud and proud Arab revolutionaries decided to sit this revolution out. The Syrian regime was the last protector of the Arab nationalist myth. Too many felt that this myth legitimised their own revolutionary existence which was so closely knit to the existence of the Arab state. They feared with the erosion of the Arab nationalist myth upheld by the Ba’th, they will no longer be. As the revolutions developed, so did the revolutionaries.
What does all this have to do with the psychology of good, democracy-believing-boys-turned-ISIS? Or why Al-Darawy did not keep his fight at home? Simply, the national imaginary is no longer there – at least for some. The state, which kept the national myth alive, has completely collapsed. The state’s existence – even in its most warped form – was resilient enough to keep its myth and all of its associated identities alive. The people played along. So as long as there was an Egypt to fight for or a Syria to fight for or a Libya to fight for, people would gladly rock its flag and weep while singing its national anthem. However, the illusion of a nation is no longer there. And when the nation’s faulty claim to a primordial existence loses legitimacy, people tend to search for a primordial truth that has a more solid basis for legitimacy than the nation.
What better basis than an already existing network based on ideological solidarity working outside the confines of an eroded nation. This is not just why an Egyptian would forgo the battle in Egypt to go fight under the nationless banner of Islam, it is also the reason a 17 year old British girl of Kurdish origin would try to get into Syria to fight ISIS.
What is the solution? The solution is that there is no solution. This is a historical process that will take its course – whatever that may be. The battle for nationhood is not new and the price has always been steep.
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