It goes without saying that attacks in Paris on Friday were awful and brutal and the product of a disgusting perversion of faith. The attacks in Beirut too, of course, and their lack of equivalent coverage has been widely noted and discussed. The people who committed the acts were vile people and willing to do vile things. This entry is not about that, I have nothing to add that hasn’t been said by a thousand pundits in a thousand places. I don’t know how to defeat the ideology of IS or their physical forces. I will not refer to them as ‘ISIS,’ Isis is a loving mother goddess and I will not help them to obliterate even a portion of another religion. I don’t know how to bring peace to the middle east or end the endless war, there is no simple solution and its history, when it is written, will take up volumes upon volumes and barely scratch the surface. I don’t know how to change the culture of the various tribes, juntas, theocratic monarchies, warlords and fanatics often described under the umbrella of ‘radical Islam.’ I don’t know how to reconcile differences caused by decades of bloodshed or reconcile the modern world with Wahhabism or counter online IS propaganda. I despair of the armchair generals and insidious ‘us versus them’ attitude about Muslims pumped out by the venal right.
I do know, however, about how vulnerable a powerless and isolated young person can be in the west.
When you find yourself, for whatever reason, cut off from mainstream society there is still a powerful urge to find something to belong to. Personally I felt isolated mostly because I was bookish and quiet as a child. It was not a good way to make friends in a Bristol school in the 80’s and 90’s, I was the butt of many jokes and casual cruelties and it wore me down until it broke me. Though my social skills blossomed later and I came out of my shell as I entered adulthood I felt no real stake in the world for a long, long period of my life and as a result I resented it. All of it. I began to search for a philosophy, for a group to belong to, to find a tribe and a purpose.
As luck would have it I found Goth. I can’t honestly say why it speaks to me more than any other subculture but the sense of belonging while being simultaneously removed from mainstream society is undoubtedly a part of it. I made friends and had exciting adventures and wild times but before I got there I reveled, for a while, in a much more uncertain and cruel darkness. My isolation led to an extreme resentment against the world, I did many things I regret and I did them without conscience and it took me a long time, and intervention from people to whom I now believe I owe my life, to crawl back out of the nihilistic mire. Essentially I was an empty vessel, seeking something and never knowing what.
If I had been brought up in a different culture, one defined by the stories and history of Islam rather than secular, white England, I might easily have become a fanatic. If I had entered that period of my life and the people there with me had been radical preachers instead of relentlessly carousing, slightly messy and wonderful friends I would have turned out very differently. I can see it, when I close my eyes, a simple and horrible path to becoming a murderous zealot. I needed someone to listen to me, to help me get through the awkward years, to look out for me and to be there when I needed them. If they had been saying ‘make war on the decadent west and give your life for Allah’ in response to my search for meaning I would almost certainly take it on board. Fortunately they said things like ‘try snorting the salt, then drinking the tequila, then squeezing the lemon in your eye, whoever can do the most of those pays for the lot.’
Now I know there are as many ways to become brainwashed as there are brainwashed people. I know, also, that some of them are mentally unstable and some of them are vulnerable and a very few of them are pure, dyed in the wool psychopaths who just want to kill people. I know that, had my life been only ever so slightly different, I could have found myself one of them. It’s important to bear this in mind; can you say you’ve always understood the world and never felt in need of guidance? Can you say that you’ve never felt empty, like your life is freewheeling and without purpose? That’s the vulnerability they exploit most easily and most often, many of IS’s followers have fallen for the con, the man who enters their life and guides them gently in to the grave, broken down and rebuilt as joyless, tedious, death worshiping fascists.
It’s a hard walk back from there but it is not impossible. At the moment they are presented in the media as a cartoon villains with no nuance or subtlety, as inherently bad people with no depth and this is irresponsible in the extreme. Right now, in the immediate aftermath of the Paris attacks, it is perhaps understandable to treat IS as somehow inhuman but it is a trend that is now long established. I’m not calling for reconciliation, or for kindness, or for turning the other cheek, I’m simply calling for understanding. Already they prey on the manufactured differences between east and west and in distancing ourselves from any attempt to comprehend them we give them better tools for their awful cause. They can point at us and say ‘the west does not know Islam, they do not care to know us.’ They can use their mystique to lure the lost.
IS are only human, the things they do are human, the way they become who they are is human, a good way to weaken them is to remember that.