Jihadism: More than monsters and acts of violence

Michael Burrill wants a deeper analysis around the attraction to jihadism rather than media sound bytes about hunting down terrorist “monsters”.


Retired Judge Anthony Whealy, QC (who presided over some high-profile terrorism trials) recently proposed that when it came to those convicted of terrorism offences who remain radicalised, “We should either consider keeping them in prison after the term has expired or, at the very least, put them under control orders so they can be watched very carefully.”

In response, two experts on prison radicalisation, Dr Clarke Jones (of ANU) and Dr Gabriele Marranci (of Macquarie Uni) proposed that authorities should rethink the AA classification (the special designation for such offenders based on segregation and isolation) that Jones claimed “makes their whole situation, their ideology and their beliefs even stronger,” and focus on rehabilitation and de-radicalisation programs rather than utilising increasingly draconian measures.

That a high ranking ex-member of the judiciary should need to be informed of something which seemed quite simple to me – that de-radicalisation might take a bit more than just locking people up in isolation – left me feeling both worried and amused. Initially I intended to touch on the issue in my weekly column, but as I reflected amongst the sounds and smells of my morning (alright, as ever, it was really the afternoon…) flatulence, it struck me how much it was a microcosm of the wider discourse on how to deal with what is generally described as “homegrown terrorism.”

Amongst all the talk of “GPS bracelets”, “metadata retention”, “alert but not alarmed” and other proposed methods of stopping terrorist attacks, discussions on how to prevent young people from falling under the spell of Salafi Jihadism seem to be few and far between. When they do occur, accusations of “excusing” or “justifying” terrorism tend to surface rather quickly, as though it is impossible to both reject a philosophy and understand why it might attract people. I guess some prefer simple narratives and amongst all the political point scoring (which is happening all the time whatever Short William and Tone claim), they are many to choose from, including “Western civilisation vs. Islam” and the oldest and simplest of all “good vs evil.”

Such narratives do provide some illumination on the topic (though not in the way their proponents think), displaying to some degree similar black-and-white thinking to that of the “righteous vs infidel” mentality (some will argue “Yeah but I don’t go around killing people”, however, just because one thing is less obviously harmful than something else doesn’t suddenly mean it’s not harmful). Both highlight a desire by many to deny any responsibility of wider society in the cycle of radicalisation and play a role perpetuating that cycle. In seeking to define homegrown jihadism as something occurring in a vacuum, or purely a result of outside stimuli, these narratives willfully ignore the part Western intervention has played in shaping, and in some part creating, the groups that inspire home-grown jihadists. Furthermore, implying subtly or otherwise that Muslims are inherently unable to participate in “our accepting society” only serves to further the siege mentality and sense of alienation within that community.

When you’re young, unsure of your place in the world and constantly being questioned as to whether you belong to the society in which you live, it only follows that an ideology that tells you that not only do you not belong in that society, but that belonging is immoral, may become appealing. As you begin to fall under the influence, you may notice that representatives of the society you’ve been told is evil will justify the deaths of civilians in the Middle East as something that is an unavoidable part of a battle between good and evil. The justification for committing similar acts of violence yourself may suddenly become easier.

Though I only really seek to explore and hopefully explain, I’m sure some will still think I’m justifying or excusing violence myself, which probably speaks to something even deeper than the here and now of Salafist Jihadism. There is desire in almost all of us to paint those who commit monstrous acts as actual monsters, devoid of humanity, lest we face the nagging possibility that the ability to commit such acts might actually be something very human, of which anybody may be capable under the right set of circumstances. The dark side of humanity may not be a nice thing to acknowledge, but just as simplistic narratives around home-grown jihadism may maintain the conditions that sustain it, so too can similar narratives around violence and those who commit it in general.

Sure, personal responsibility is part of the equation, but that equation is a complex one to which there will always be contributing factors outside of an individual’s control. Whether it be genetics, upbringing, peer pressure or socio-economic status, too often such things and the collective responsibility we possess as a society are overlooked.

If we convince ourselves that only “monsters” commit acts of violence, then instead of a collective responsibility to create an open and free society that nurtures and encourages the best of human nature, it becomes a collective responsibility to fight “monsters” and when you’re fighting them you can justify almost anything.

Even, rather paradoxically, more violence…something of which politicians of every persuasion seem more than aware, and something of which that the rest of us need to be aware.


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