Islamic State and its media units release over 90,000 social media posts per day. That’s nearly 33 million posts a year. As the head of MI5 stated, social media is the command and control network of radical Islamism. The appeal of social media is evident. There are no gatekeepers. Messages posted from one remote or hidden location are immediately transmitted to the hip pocket of anyone with a SmartPhone.
After 9/11 a new wave of global Salafist jihadism turned to social media. Abu Musab al Suri developed the strategy of lone-wolf attacks and leaderless resistance online via his Global Call to Resistance. The Yemeni-born, but American-educated Anwar al Awlaki repackaged the message for Western youth and made jihad cooler than hip hop. Awlaki was killed in Yemen in 2011, but by then he had created the Jihadi John phenomenon in the West.
Awlaki and his successors, like the former West Sydney male stripper and boxer turned zealot, Feiz Mohammad, or failed Melbourne rapper, Neil Prakash aka Abu Khalid al Cambodi, use social media to brand the IS product. IS considers this aspect of their movement so important that in August they formed the Anwar al Awlaki Brigade, a special unit that includes at least ten Australians, to promulgate the message and recruit online. The brigade’s media awareness is attuned to Western sensibilities. Segueing off a L’Oreal ad, for instance, a recent recruitment message targeting young Western women runs, “Cover girl, no; covered girl, yes. Because you’re worth it.”
The flow to Islamic State of young Muslim men and women brought up in secular, Western, multicultural societies demonstrates the success of the messaging. Western governments seem as shocked by the cultic appeal of IS as they were surprised by the rapidity and lethality with which it achieved de facto authority over vast swathes of Syria and Iraq.
In February 2015 the Obama administration felt constrained to convene a summit of like-minded democracies to counter violent extremism. The United States discussed ways to “prevent violent extremists and their supporters from radicalizing, recruiting, or inspiring individuals or groups in the United States and abroad to commit acts of violence”. During a summit described as a “strange and woolly affair”, President Obama conveyed a curious impression of Western impotence, observing: “We all know there is no one profile of a violent extremist or terrorist, so there’s no way to predict who will become radicalized.”
Like a possum trapped in the headlights of an oncoming ute, the US, UK and Australian governments’ default response is to introduce yet another tranche of counter-terror legislation and throw even more money into security agency budgets and counter-radicalisation strategies. Academic entrepreneurs and NGOs across the Anglosphere have, since 9/11 and 7/7, and contra Obama, exploited the funding opportunities available to establish a range of early warning initiatives that seek to identify those in danger of radicalisation. Yet after more than a decade of intervention they have singularly failed to curb the enthusiasm for jihad.
The Abbott and Turnbull governments have allocated over $40 million to countering violent extremism. In recent months the Minister for Counter-Terrorism, Michael Keenan, made $700,000 available to an Australian Intervention Support Hub for academics from ANU, Deakin and elsewhere “to research radicalisation and develop responses” for governments and community workers. The government devotes $13.4 million specifically to counter radicalisation through programs such as “Living Safe Together”. After Neil Prakash groomed fifteen-year-old Farhad Jabhar online to carry out a lone actor attack, resulting in the death of police accountant Curtis Cheng in October, the Turnbull government announced it would devote more funding to social programs aimed at “preventing youth radicalisation”. Counter-terror co-ordinator Greg Moriaty hosted a meeting of state and federal officials, police intelligence agencies and multicultural affairs and education bureaucrats to “develop a more co-ordinated approach for its de-radicalisation push”. The latest approach will stress the need for “social cohesion”. “Early intervention and community based solutions work best,” Moriaty averred. Assistant Minister for Multicultural Affairs Concetta Fierravanti-Wells fervently hoped to engage “the views of the Muslim community” and address “gaps” in the program of counter-radicalisation. Last month the Victorian and New South Wales governments announced funding amounting to $72 million to address radicalisation. Explaining the Victorian programs, “terror expert” Greg Barton observed that they were “aimed at ensuring young people … do not fall under the spell of those that would seek to radicalise them and damage their lives incredibly badly”. The new push reflects the fact that despite more than a decade of funding for de-radicalisation programs, they have, as one government spokesperson acknowledged, “failed to hit the mark”.
In the same week that state and federal governments announced the new initiatives, Hizb ut-Tahrir, the transnational Islamist party headquartered in London and which established a presence in Australia after 2001, denounced both the Australian oath of allegiance and the “forced assimilation” implied in singing the national anthem. British barrister and Hizb luminary Ibtihal Bsis informed the delegates that “Islamic State is not really a problem” at all. Evidently, de-radicalisation so far has failed to get near the mark, let alone hit it.
In other words, while IS offers jihadi-cool messaging, the government responds with insipid pieties about cohesion achieved through culturally sensitive de-radicalisation programs that in the US, Europe and Australia have proved expensive and ineffective. It might be worth asking, before engaging more academics and bureaucratic agencies in taxpayer-funded programs, what precisely does the counter-terror community understand by “radicalism” and “radicalisation”?
What’s in a name: radical or fanatic?
A cursory survey reveals that no government agency or counter-terror expert has paused to consider whether the term “radicalisation” in fact captures the process that converts a young Western Muslim to the salafist cause. Indeed, governments, academics and police and security agencies rarely used the term before the London bombings of 2005. After 2005, it became the fashionable catch-all term to capture various aspects of the internal security, integration and foreign policy debate about Islamism. It also served at the same time both an analytic and a public policy function. Moreover, its attempted objectivity played into the notion of jihadi cool, for to be radical means in some sense to be street-smart. The political terminology matters. An adequate response needs an accurate diagnosis. George Orwell observed in 1948 that “the slovenliness of our language makes it easier to have foolish thoughts”. “Political chaos is connected with the decay of language,” he argued, or, more precisely, with prevailing orthodoxies that “conceal and prevent thought”.
This is precisely what has happened with the misuse of the term “radicalisation”. Radicalism, in fact, has a precise etymology. It entered modern usage in the nineteenth century in the context of political and economic reform and social progress. It was the nineteenth-century secular, liberal, utilitarian reformers associated with Jeremy Bentham and James Mill who devised the modern understanding of radicalism. It stood for a program of rational, constitutional, social and economic reform. Radicalism as an ideology dismissed religion as irrational superstition and sought political reform along secular, capitalist and progressive democratic lines.
One thing we know about Islamic State and its message is that it is does not do democracy or secular modernity. Thus it is not radical, nor does it engage in radicalisation. As Orwell pointed out, distorting meaning distorts understanding.
Rather than being radicalised, young Western Muslims are attracted to what a more religious age than our own recognised as enthusiasm, zealotry or fanaticism. This phenomenon has a long history in Jewish, Christian and Islamic religious understanding. Seventeenth-century Europe knew well the revived post-Reformation penchant for religious sectarianism, enthusiastic zealotry and its deracinating social consequences. Ben Jonson satirised the phenomenon of the religious enthusiast in plays such as Bartholomew Fair where characters like Zeal-of-the-Land Busy imposed their puritanical views on the wider populace. Fanatical millenarian sects like the Ranters or the Fifth Monarchists violated social and political norms during the English Civil War in order to establish what they thought would be the chiliastic millennium leading to the rule of Jesus Christ in England. Ranters like Abiezer Coppe claimed that “to the pure all things are pure” including, of course, murder and rape.
In the aftermath of the political chaos caused by religious sectaries, eighteenth-century social commentators, wits and philosophers like David Hume, Jonathan Swift, Alexander Pope and Joseph Addison identified the limited character of the zealot. Writing in the Spectator in 1711, Addison noted:
Zeal is … a great ease to a malicious man, by making him believe he does God service while he is gratifying the bent of a perverse revengeful temper. For this reason we find that most massacres and devastations which have been in the world have taken their rise from a furious pretended zeal.
… the instruments [of the zealot are] Racks and Gibbets, Gallies and Dungeons; when he Imprisons Men’s Persons, Confiscates their Estates, Ruins their Families and Burns the Body to save the Soul, I cannot stick to pronounce of such a one that … his Faith is vain, and his Religion unprofitable.
Pope found that “graceless zealots” fight for “modes of faith”; hence, “his can’t be wrong whose life is in the right”. Hume, meanwhile, thought fanaticism and enthusiasm had produced “the most cruel disorders in human society”. Hume, Pope and Addison would recognise in the activity of today’s jihadi zealots fanaticism, not an anachronistic radicalism.
In other words, any analysis of jihadism’s self-confirming zealotry suggests that those labelled “radicalised” are not really radicals at all. Ideological radicalism, properly understood, requires a clear break from traditional religion, of whatever form, in order to achieve a pluralist, secular modernity.
By contrast, a scriptural literalism based on the message of the Prophet Mohammad and the hadith of his rightly guided seventh-century successors, the Rashidun, fuels Islamic State’s thought and practice. They look to past models purified by purificatory violence today to build tomorrow’s religious utopia. Like the seventeenth-century puritanical sectaries they are fanatics who adapt the tenets of an ultra-traditional literalism to guide present action. Today’s jihadi is an enthusiast as defined by the Oxford Shorter English Dictionary, namely, one who is “possessed by a god” or in “receipt of divine communication”. No matter how deluded their actions appear to modern secular sensibilities, in their minds they are directly engaged in a divine mission to re-create the caliphate.
Therefore they are not radical in any meaningful sense of the word, because before the Enlightenment, it could be said that most of the world—and certainly Europe—often subscribed to non-negotiable religious precepts with a fanaticism similar to that which motivates present-day jihadism.
Both medieval Christendom and, in its aftermath, the early modern confessional state saw battle as an instrument of divine will, a providential means to deliver God’s judgment. Even after the Enlightenment and with the decline of religious enthusiasm in Europe, the rise of political religions that replaced divine ordinance with ideologically determined nations, races or proletariats remained the touchstone of purifying violence. These ideas reached their apocalyptic apogee in Nazi Germany.
By contrast, the progressive emergence of cosmopolitan, representative, liberal democratic modes of rule in the nineteenth century constituted the “radical” structural break with the past. As a consequence, modern democratic pluralism in the West embraced secularism and, with it, as Max Weber observed, a condition of disenchantment. Soteriological order receded before a world increasingly governed by scientific reasoning. This secular rationalist worldview achieved spectacular and revolutionary change, but also narrowed the horizon of the good life, rendering citizenship modular and fulfilment to be gained through physical and material rewards.
It also had a down side. From at least the late nineteenth century, sociologists, psychologists and philosophers as different as Freud, Durkheim and Nietzsche recognised in modernity not only democratic opportunities for self-discovery and the revision of life choices, but also the anomie, anxiety and alienation associated with a complex mass society. By the late twentieth century writers as various as Herbert Marcuse, Tom Wolfe and Christopher Lasch identified a modern culture of narcissism and anxiety where altruism dissolves into an increasingly atomised, relativist and techno-managerialist world.
In other words, secular modernity offers a radical form of life against which the jihadist rages, considering it a “hideously schizophrenic” condition, as the Muslim Brotherhood leader Sayyid Qutb argued in the 1950s. Indeed, from the fanatic perspective, the kufr world order is weak, fragmented and ready for the taking because it lacks the capacity to submit to a politically religious truth. Refusal to recognise this point exposes the scale of the problem facing Western governments. It also allows the stage upon which the modern zealot can disport his oppression, proselytise and strategise.
The global salafist jihad’s appeal resides, then, in its ability to re-enchant the world through a manichean worldview and a millenarian vision. Its style is not dissimilar to the manner in which the seventeenth-century sectaries anticipated a new heaven and a new earth or the Nazis offered a racially pure future as a means of overcoming the failings of depression Germany in the 1930s. Contemporary salafist fanatics thus transform the fears and anxieties of disaffected sections of the diasporic Muslim youth in the West into a non-negotiable enthusiasm via the use of social media.
What is to be done?
To curb the jihadis’ enthusiasm, Western societies need desperately to recuperate their foundational understanding of what political activity entails and how it forms the basis of a tolerant and pluralist good life. This will not be straightforward, as there are no quick, technocratic fixes to the problems of urban disenchantment.
However, we can make a start by abandoning the language of radicalisation, which perversely misreads the problem. De-radicalisation reflects and reinforces progressive secular rationalism that refuses to treat religious worldviews as coherent within their own politico-theological terms of reference. It persists in portraying disaffected Muslims inclined to travel to Syria or snub the national anthem as “clowns” and “numbskulls”, the pejoratives Australian politicians applied to Hizb ut-Tahrir (the party of zeal), rather than zealots that in some cases are willing to die and behead for the realisation of their total vision.
The result is that public policy in the West ignores fanatic agency and responds instead in self-consciously depoliticised ways. For Professor Greg Barton this requires communities to befriend the local jihadis. Islamic State, Barton claims, “offers friendship. They’re filling a void.” What “we have to provide”, with taxpayer-provided pelf, is “alternative forms of friendship”. In this approach there is only the need to de-program those who have been “radicalised” with a mixture of therapy and feel-good workshops, overseen by social workers offering empathy and boosting self-esteem.
In effect, this criminological therapeutic approach treats the converted zealot not as a danger to the wider society but as a victim pumped full of ideological steroids by unscrupulous online recruiters who, like paedophiles, ruthlessly groom their otherwise innocent prey. The approach becomes even more suspect when extended to the case of the young women who trip off to IS to offer themselves as jihadi brides. De-radicalisation paints these young women as the deluded subjects of brainwashing. The simple but harsh truth is that, like the men they embrace, they have found meaning in an enthusiasm which the wider society finds rebarbative, but which inspires action.
Neither “radical” nor victims, they are largely immune to de-radicalisation programs promoted by Western governments because there is not much that is particularly radical in jihadist self-understanding. Arguably, it is we in the West who are deluded, and we should make a start by “de-radicalising” our own thinking.
After much tergiversation David Cameron’s Conservative government appears to have grasped this point. At the Conservative Party conference in September, Cameron expressed his determination “to tear up the narrative that says Muslims are persecuted and the West deserves what it gets” and to take on not radicalisation but “extremism in all its forms, the violent and the non-violent”. Turnbull and Obama, who have much in common with Cameron’s brand of liberal conservatism, might be advised to adopt a similar anti-fanatical, anti-extremist policy.
Associate Professor David Martin Jones is Reader in Political Science at the University of Queensland. His latest books are Sacred Violence: Political Religion in a Secular Age (2014, with M.L.R. Smith) and The Political Impossibility of Modern Counterinsurgency: Strategic Problems, Puzzles, and Paradoxes (2015, also with M.L.R. Smith)