In the 1920s, German Fascist leader Ernst Rohm would boast that he could turn “the reddest Communist into a glowing nationalist in four weeks.” His Communist nemesis, Karl Radek, meanwhile viewed Rohm’s ultra-right wing S.A. militias as “a reserve for future Communist recruits.”
These claims represented more than just belligerent taunting and bravado. As Eric Hoffer was noting back in 1951, the implacably opposed Communist and Fascist militias of interwar Germany were usually attracting them same kind of people. Hoffer remarked “When people are ripe for a mass movement, they are usually ripe for any effective movement, and not solely for one with a particular doctrine or program […] all mass movements draw their adherents from the same types of humanity and appeal to the same types of mind.” Hoffer’s beliefs about the dynamics of ideological extremism have been confirmed and built upon over decades of research in social movement, radicalisation and behavioural psychology studies. However in 2015 we seem to be forgetting everything we have learned.
The Charlie Hebdo killings of January 2015 sparked a new debate rooted in an old outlook. As social-media spare-time pundits rushed to climb aboard the #jesuischarlie bandwagon, and more discerning commentators mobilised to discuss the liberties and constraints of freedom of expression, I couldn’t help but be reminded of George Bush’s now immortalised State of the Union Address of 2002. To rationalise the horrific 9/11 attacks, Bush announced: “They [Islamic Extremists] hate our freedoms – our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other.” It was the speech that rationalised the Iraq War, the “War on Terror” and Guantanamo Bay, the speech that absolved the West of all responsibility – past, present and future – for the actions of violent Muslim radicals. Thirteen years later, #jesuischarlie threatens to do the same. The Charlie Hebdo killings were not about freedom of speech and certainly not about any incompatibility between Islam and freedom of speech, and the same is true of the latest “anti-Freedom of Speech” attack at the “Draw Mohammed” event in Texas.
So why target cartoonists who mock the Prophet?
The obvious way to diagnose the motives of the Charlie Hebdo gunmen and their imitators in Texas and also Copenhagen back in February 2015 is to note the nature of their targets. In all three cases the primary targets were cartoonists known to mock the Prophet. Given a history of violent reactions among some segments of the Muslim community to such cartoons, it is easy to make this causal link and believe it explains all. However under examination I would offer an alternative – and more tenable – explanation. Satirists mocking the Prophet were targeted for exactly the same reason as Jews were also targeted in the Charlie Hebdo, Copenhagen and other attacks. They are the most ‘obvious targets’ for a ‘rookie’ jihadist who is not entirely sure what he/she is fighting for.
To explain this theory, the example of Weimar Republic Germany again provides a useful illustration. Both Rohm’s Fascists and Radek’s Communists fed off a prevailing environment of disillusionment, disaffection and lack of fulfilment among the nation’s youth. Proud Germany stood humiliated and crest-fallen after their defeat in World War One, now enslaved to the terms of a crippling and vindictive Peace Treaty; its economy in ruins. Many ordinary German youths desperately sought a saving narrative to rationalise what had become of their once powerful country. How could they have just ‘given-up’? The Fascists offered a narrative that blamed Communist and/or Jewish treachery for Germany’s defeat and subsequent subjugation and humiliation. The Communists meanwhile offered a new world order that could supplant the old order, the failure of which had been clearly illustrated by the catastrophe of the war and its aftermath. Both narratives served their purpose as far as many German youths were concerned, and so it was often the case that a youth would join whichever movement approached him/her first. Through affiliation, both militia movements offered the very qualities these youths felt they were lacking in their ordinary post-war, economically-marginalised lives; purpose, mission and empowerment through the fulfilment of masculine ideals, and through playing an active role in the pursuit of reviving (or replacing) German prestige. Psychologist Abraham Maslow views this pursuit of “self-actualisation” as the highest of human psychological needs. The specifics of these mobilising ideologies were not so important – attachment to the ideals often grew as a product of affiliation and activism, not a motivator.
In the same way that the Communists and Fascists offered an outlet of aggression (and a reconciling and rationalising narrative) for the frustrated youths of interwar Germany, Islamic extremism plays a similar role for disaffected Muslims in today’s societies. Frustrated and alienated Muslim youths join or emulate Islamic militant groups because those groups exist in the first place to offer that outlet and rationale. In the same way that a German youth would join a Communist or Fascist group because those were the groups “on offer”, the same can be observed of the Islamic extremist trend. Essentially, Islamic extremism is, therefore it does. Disaffected Muslims become drawn to a narrative which parallels and reconciles their own personal struggles and anxieties with that of the Muslim community in general, heightening their sense of Islamic identity. Their own non-specific aggression and malaise is given cause by equating it to the plight of the general Muslim community – something worth fighting for and saving from oppression. Moreover it absolves them of any sense of personal failure. They endure their personal sense of inadequacy and victimisation because the world is conspiring against all Muslims, not because they are personally inadequate.
So a frustrated Muslim becomes an Islamo-Fascist and is mobilised by a new sense of purpose, sanctified by a God-sanctioned moral superiority. To complete the transition from disempowered youth to empowered activist or jihadi-warrior, they must now take the fight to the enemy. Locating this enemy is more problematic however. The targets of both the Charlie Hebdo, Copenhagen Coffee House and Texas “Draw Mohammed” attacks betray the selection choice of belligerents acting out on their own aggressions under a thin veneer of Islamic justification. A non-Muslim mocking the Prophet provides an amateur jihadist with the most visible and cutting affirmation of his adopted rationale. By attacking the Prophet (with impunity from the State), the cartoonist appears to be attacking the most central figure of that Muslim’s faith, presenting himself as an implacably hostile enemy in the eyes of the first-time Mujahedeen. This works in the same way that Jews were targeted (in Paris and Copenhagen), symbolising as they do the jihadist movement’s oldest rallying cry – the Israeli subjugation of the Palestinians. These are low-imagination targets that require neither theological depth nor strategic imagination to identify and justify. In all likelihood, the Texas and Copenhagen killers were merely emulating, without much contemplation, the example set by the Charlie Hebdo killers.
These ‘freedom of speech killings’ have little if anything to do with freedom of speech nor Islam. They have everything to do with individual frustration, anxiety and malaise. They are rooted in the failure of support-networks, whether at the community or state level, to provide reassurance, purpose and dignity to individuals who must then search elsewhere for such assurances. They are rooted in political decisions that make Muslims feel besieged (and so obliged to defend their Muslim identity) such as the banning of the niqab in France, or religious stigmatisation and profiling in schools, shopping centres and airports across Europe and the US. They are also rooted in a society that increasingly perceives Islam as a threat – with growing Islamophobia pushing Muslims into a corner. Explanatory narratives such as #jesuischarlie that attempt to define the problem as one between civilised and uncivilised, modern and archaic, only increase the problem, antagonising the zealots and preventing any mature and constructive debate among academics, community leaders and policy makers. The solution lies instead in pre-emptively addressing the reasons why individuals adopt militant ideologies (of which Islamic extremism is but one) – not reactionary policies of condemning such ideologies when they arise. Condemnation only gratifies and legitimises the cause in the eyes of the alienated belligerent. Only a genuinely inclusive and non-threatening society, where purpose and meaning is provided through participation in the system (and not rejection of the system), will delegitimise narratives of extremism in the eyes of those predisposed to adopt them.