Friday, February 17, 2012

Jihad Joe by J.M. Berger

Whatever else lies in their hearts, virtually all American jihadists share an urgent feeling that Muslims are under attack. The most important religious and political justification for jihad are based on the idea of self-defense, striking back against aggressors and protecting the members of the Muslim community. Therein lies a sticky, painful problem. The narrative of victimization does not originate with al Qaeda. It is a pervasive theme that is deeply entrenched in mainstream Muslim thought, both in America and abroad.

In preparing for this book, I read nearly two hundred issues of the monthly English-language magazine published by the Saudi-supported Muslim World League, arguably the single most influential Muslim organization in the world. Month after month, the magazine trumpets the alarm: Islam is under attack from enemies everywhere. Islam is misunderstood because of vicious lies by its enemies. Muslims are persecuted and discriminated against on the global stage and in individual countries.

This isn’t only a Saudi predilection. It can be found, to a greater and lesser extent, around the world. In the United States, the most vivid example is the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit whose daily e-mail newsletter enumerates grievance after grievance, from workplace discrimination to alleged hate crimes, which can be anything from a nasty word to murder or arson. CAIR’s message is more carefully calibrated that that of the MWL, but it contributes to the echo chamber.

CAIR follows in the footsteps of the American Muslim Council, founded by Abdurrahman Alamoudi. AMC was, in its day, as prominent as CAIR is today, but it faded from the scene after Alamoudi’s arrest for trying to assassinate the Saudi crown prince Abdullah. During his time in the spotlight, Alamoudi gave voice to the same litany of grievances and the same sometimes-explicit argument that America, as it currently exists, is fundamentally inhospitable to Muslims. This dynamic is made more complicated by the fact that all three of these organizations have meaningful ties to jihadist movements. The Muslim World League was Abdullahah Azzam’s employer, and its personnel have been linked to al Qaeda and a number of terrorist plots. Alamoudi was funneling money from Osama bin Laden to Omar Abdel Rahman even as he advocated for American Muslims as head of the AMC. And CAIR’s incorporators can be found in the personnel rolls of Hamas support groups in North America during the early 1990s.

Some of the specific complaints aired by these organizations are entirely valid. Muslims in the United States and around the world suffer their share of travails and persecutions. It is also true that prominent mainstream U.S. politicians on the right have compared the organizers of the Islamic Center in New York City to Nazis and other historic wartime enemies of the United States in comments that too often went unchallenged by members of the media and other politicians. Newt Gingrich was the most visible and most mainstream voice to make this comparison:

Nazis don’t have the right to put up a sign next to the Holocaust museum in Washington…We would never accept the Japanese putting up a site next to Pearl Harbor…There is no reason for us the accept a mosque next to the World Trade Center.

Muslim advocates absolutely deserve to have a voice, but they must asked themselves how they may be helping to perpetrate a counterproductive narrative about how the United States collectively treats Muslims. But Americans should also understand that extreme and indiscriminate anti-Muslim rhetoric helps validate the worldview of our enemies- the premise that America’s wars are indeed wars against Islam. Muslims who perpetuate a victimization mentality must accept some responsibility for the result. Non-Muslims who wish to define the entire religion of Islam as America’s enemy must also carry their share of the burden.

But accepting that someone, or everyone, is engaged in a war with Islam is only a precondition to the radicalization process. To complete the transaction American jihadists will usually need one or more of the following traits:

Idealism/altruism: In the beginning at least, many act out of good intentions and the simple belief that their actions can bring about positive change in the world. For both Ismail Royer and Abdullah Rashid the complexity of the real world outpaced the simplicity of the do-good stories they liked to tell about themselves. Idealism burned brightly in their hearts, impervious to reality.

Violent tendencies or an obsession with violence: In certain cases- like those of Tarek Mehanna and Isa Abdullah Ali, violent impulses are the primary driver that leads someone to jihad. Adoption of jihad seems at times like an effort to ennoble a preexisting attraction to violence. Sometimes people seek out a convenient rationalization for their worst impulses, and sometimes that rationalization happens to be jihad.

Ideology: The role of ideology has changed in the last thirty years. During the 80s people were recruited to jihad out of a sense of adventure (legitimized by the foreign policies of their government) or due to the personal charisma of leaders such as Abdullah Azzam, and only became indoctrinated with religious rationales after they arrived in Afghanistan, or other fields of jihad. Today, the Internet offers a path to ideological radicalization before action.

Identity politics: On paper, Islam is color blind. In practice Muslims can be as racist as anyone else, and radical American movements like Al Fuqra – whose members are mostly black separatists – have a strong component of racial and social politics. Islam itself can also be experienced as an exclusive political or social identity. Some American Jihadists, such as Jose Padilla, have a history of gang identification prior to converting to Islam. The allure of joining a seemingly empowered social network should not be underestimated.

Alienation: In Europe, social alienation is seen as a significant driver of radicalization among Muslims, but American Muslims tend to be more assimilated. Nevertheless, some American Muslims- such as Daniel Maldonado- felt they could not practice Islam in the United States due to social pressures. Millions of American Muslims would disagree with Maldonado on this point, but it should be recognized as a potential risk factor ( especially in areas where Christian fundamentalism predominates).

Fetishization of sex and women: The psychology of sex and gender is incredibly complicated, and I will not attempt a detailed deconstruction here. Yet it is worth noting that sex often makes an appearance in the stories of American jihadists. Nidal Hasan and Omar Hammami were described by friends as “desperate” to get married but only to extraordinarily chaste women. Some jihadist clerics even allow followers to have sex outside of marriage as part of their recruitment pitch. Jihadists can also show clear signs of sexual dysfunction, such as Anwar Awaki’s penchant for hanging around schoolyards and patronizing teenage prostitutes. The ubiquitous use of rape stories in jihadist propaganda also points in a suspicious direction: the recurring tales of jihadists whose dreams are haunted by the screaming of Muslim women raise some questions worthy of deeper consideration than the admirable goal of preventing rape and assisting its victims.

The ready availability of sometimes shockingly brutal jihadist propaganda on the Internet also attracts a large cheering section of bottom feeders: violence junkies, anti-Semites, and small men gripped by hate and self-loathing who lack the will to act themselves but are willing to provide a social context for those who would.

Jihad Joe by J.M. Berger; Potomac Books, Washington, D.C. 2011

Mr. Berger runs the investigative journalism website from his office in the greater Boston area.

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