The path to terrorism among Muslim youth with refugee backgrounds often begins with the embrace of hip-hop culture’s hyper-masculinity, and from there to anti-social behaviour and crime. Add religious fervour and the next step is a small one: sympathy and support for Islamist terrorism
It is a hallmark of conservative thought that much of society’s ills begin in the home. This view informs beliefs about the sanctity of marriage and a social conservative outlook that can accept significant stifling of individual freedom in the task of maintaining a cohesive family unit.
This attitude to the family has not been applied as strongly as it could be in the case of studies of terrorism, which often pits the fundamental evils of ideas emanating from Islam against the victimhood pose which puts all the blame on racism, imperialism or discrimination.
There are several strands of terrorists. This variety has complicated public policy and especially the emerging, struggling field of deradicalisation, harshly outlined by the recent case of the Sydney teenager who was arrested for planning an attack on Anzac Day commemorations despite being involved in a program undertaken by security services.
The terrorists include anti-social rebels who pull on the cloak of Islamism to channel their rage and resentment, like the most recent set of attackers involved in the Brussels bombings. They can be withdrawn, socially awkward adolescents or young adults who build a crescendo of austere, isolating religiosity ultimately exploding into acts of terror, their personal resentment conflating with a sympathetic political one. A notorious example of this kind is Jihadi John, the London-accented ISIS executioner Mohammed Emwazi, who was ultimately killed in a midnight drone attack. He was trained as a computer engineer in Britain and came from a strict middle-class Yemeni family.
In Australia’s terrorism history there have been very few ISIS recruits or local would-be terrorists from the educated group that steadily, stealthily turn towards extreme religiosity and then terror. One, a seventeen-year-old student from the selective Sydney High School, was picked up by authorities at the airport in March last year just before he boarded a flight to Syria. He was taken back to his parents and not named in the press. He was well educated and of a South Asian background, a demographic profile that has much more in common with British Muslims who have become radicalised, but unusual in Australia.
Our perpetrators have almost all come from refugee populations or have been Muslim converts with a criminal background, sometimes radicalised in prisons. The Sydney siege culprit, Man Monis, was from a refugee background and had struggled to maintain meaningful work. Some of the other notorious terrorists, from the severed-head-wielding Khaled Sharrouf to teenage Parramatta assassin Farhad Jabour, were all of Lebanese heritage and had limited work-related skills. The sixteen-year-old arrested for the planned Anzac Day attack was no longer attending school.
This essay appears in the June edition of Quadrant.
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This trend indicates the power of Australia’s social mobility and integration of migrants as well as giving a big tick to a migration policy of focusing on skilled migrants with a small proportion of refugees who, once accepted, receive the highest per capita funding in the world for their settlement. It can be inferred that once migrants acquire or arrive with marketable skills, usually in the service sector, they are able to acquire good jobs and social status, educating their children in the process to enable them to reach potentially higher rungs on the social and occupational ladders.
The sense of exclusion which can potentially build personal resentment, a compulsory psychological foundation before any ideologies of political resentment can fester, is extremely rare among skilled migrants and their children in Australia. It may also be why Muslims of skilled migrant groups feel so aggrieved and victimised.
This is not necessarily the case among Muslim populations elsewhere. Jihadi John, and the Tsarnaev brothers of the Boston bombings, who were studying at university, felt a sense of social exclusion in spite of having the skills to participate in the economy.
Given that Australia’s terror perpetrators have been primarily from refugee populations and have had anti-social tendencies if not outright criminal histories, usually not of a political nature, we have greater potential to target our policies to specific groups. This is a luxury not afforded most other Western countries, particularly those of Europe.
One aspect of the anti-social segment within refugee populations is parenting and family systems. Unlike skilled migrants, refugee populations are more likely to engage in more traditional styles of parenting derived from collectivist clan cultures. The largest such group is Lebanese Muslims, whose migration began during the Lebanese civil war in the 1970s, but smaller, emerging groups such as Afghan and Iraqi refugees share similar characteristics.
As the Danish psychologist Nicolai Sennels concluded after interviewing hundreds of Muslims in jail, key differences between Western and Arab families included laxer behavioural limits placed on Arab boys, whereas the girls were strictly disciplined. While Western parenting has an emphasis on control and regulation from a young age, such as controlled crying to encourage sleep away from the mother, more traditional parenting may have an attachment focus, with moves towards more control and conformism emerging in young adulthood, and much stricter expectations of marriage partners.
This method may work in much larger clan structures with greater social controls, but in the urban West it has had a propensity to produce higher rates of anti-social behaviour in schools and in the community, ultimately expressed through crime. The fact that there is a specialised Middle East crime squad in western Sydney is testament to this fact, which no amount of euphemism can hide.
This traditional parenting style, combined with absent fathers and large families—recent studies have shown that Lebanese-born Muslim women bear an average of four children—complicates this parenting challenge. It is further worsened by high rates of arranged marriage, particularly flying to find spouses in Lebanon. Exact figures are difficult to extract from migration and marriage statistics—there is no category for arranged marriages—but from my clinical experience it is often the men least likely to attract women locally who travel overseas to find what are often attractive women from their ancestral villages. This trend can limit incentives for men to improve their status, as they know they can acquire a wife with ease simply with the lure of Australian permanent residency.
This fact was outlined in an Economist article looking at South Asian communities in Britain, where it was found that Pakistani men had the highest rate of arranged marriage, and this was a factor in their poor educational and occupational outcomes. Furthermore, the more successful women, caught between the misogyny of their traditional cultures and the hyper-masculinity of the men in their community, will often seek to marry out.
Another key insight from terrorism studies, and one that I think is being transferred to parenting and the Muslim community, is a greater suspicion of religiosity, particularly sudden religiosity. Isolation and extreme religiosity, including chiding friends and relatives for their lack of piety, was a hallmark of Numan Haider, the Melbourne teen who was primed to shoot a policeman on behalf of ISIS.
Study after study, from organisations such as Pew Global Survey and the UK think-tank Policy Exchange, has found that a unique aspect of Muslim communities in the West is that while every other ethnic group becomes less religious, Muslims tend to become more religious. The nature of this religiosity has been outlined by the French writer Olivier Roy in his book Globalized Islam. He shows that latter generations of Muslims practise a more identity-focused version of Islamic practice, with a greater emphasis on outward markers such as beards and hijabs and an outlook linking grievance politics with faith.
Parents had previously viewed this religiosity as a good thing. They believed it protected their children from the social excesses of Western schools and universities, particularly from sex, alcohol and drugs. They did not realise that their children’s religiosity was a form of rebellion both from the mainstream society, from which they felt alienated, as well as from their parents’ religious practices which were seen to be corrupted by cultural elements and not representative of “pure” Islam.
While no survey or research evidence bears it out, in my view there is a slow shift among Muslims in Australia towards recognising that religiosity among the young may in fact be dangerous and an indicator of distress. It is potentially an important change in community outlook. An encouraging aspect of the Anzac Day case involving the Lebanese teenager was that his family and friends were closely involved with the security services and integral to his arrest.
But most adolescent rebellion among Muslim youth occurs not through austere, identity Islam but from the performed identity of hyper-masculinity mediated through hip-hop culture. While this rapidly subsides among Muslim youth from skilled migrant groups, a high percentage of those from refugee backgrounds graduate from hyper-masculine rebellion to anti-social behaviour and crime. It is here that a style of parenting that is no longer appropriate for nuclear families living in urban metropolises collides with migration policy. The result is a greater proportion of potential terrorist recruits. While the number may still be small, a small minority can exact disproportionate damage.
The leap from hip-hop to terrorism is given a nod in ISIS propaganda, especially the YouTube videos that link tanks, guns and girls to fuse into an image of jihadi street cool. While the psychoanalyst Erich Fromm had no exposure to hip-hop, his writings encapsulate the lust for glory in violence and female subjugation as a way to compensate for timidity and insignificance:
He is sadistic because he feels impotent, unalive, and powerless. He tries to compensate for this lack by having power over others, by transforming the worm he feels himself to be into a god.
The parenting aspect goes beyond setting behavioural limits. It also needs to include warning children against the propaganda of groups like ISIS.
Hussain Nadim, a Sydney University academic, identifies families as the key. He suggests that views propagated within families—such as Islam’s destined domination, the primacy of Muslim identity above all others, and the moral corruption of Western society—are integral to the radicalisation process. Nadim also suggests it is impossible to deradicalise young people without involving their families.
This highlights how deep-rooted within Muslim communities the problem of terrorism is. As the British activist Maajid Nawaz forcefully attests in his writings, terrorism overlaps with counter-insurgency in that its perpetrators are able to move freely within a community that is largely sympathetic to their views. In a recent British poll conducted by Channel 4, more than a third of the British Muslims surveyed sympathised with the Charlie Hebdo attacks, and believed wives should always obey their husbands and sharia law should be implemented in Muslim-majority communities. The key difference between the views of terrorists and significant sections of the Muslim community is the propensity for violence.
This appears to be the focus of deradicalisation efforts in Western countries, as outlined by a Rand Corporation paper titled “Deradicalising Islamic Terrorists”, published in 2010. Western efforts to deradicalise attempt to turn those with extremist views away from violence, rather than attempting to change views so tightly rooted in a major global religion. This approach has received further weight since several of those detained in Guantanamo Bay soon re-engaged in terrorism-related activities after their release despite extensive deradicalisation efforts. Australian efforts remain experimental and focused on reducing anti-social tendencies. Our aim is to turn those who may have once followed ISIS into pursuing their views through groups like Hizb-ut-Tahrir.
The relatively modest aims of deradicalisation policy are indicative of our social policies towards terrorism more generally, which still rely on a “bad apples” theory of terrorist activity, one that overstates the effect of social media propaganda, downplaying the foundational contributions of families, parenting and their overlapping communities. There is progress being made—many Muslim families are displaying greater caution about young people becoming excessively devout or self-segregating—but the challenges remain profound.
Dr Tanveer Ahmed is a New South Wales psychiatrist and author