04 July 2015

Testing Radicalization of Muslims Hypothesis: the Aaurhus Model

Recently I came across a case that seemed to corroborate my hypothesis on why people join ISIS.

For those of you who found my original presentation too long, here is what I suggested.

There are three interrelated reasons why Muslims were radicalized in the last 35 years, Year Zero being 1979.

The first one is the weak national identities that emerged in the early part of 20th century, especially after the demise of the Ottoman Empire at the end of WWI.

Balkan and Middle Eastern "nations", including Turkey had to come up with new and artificial narratives to forge previously non-existent national identities (Greece and Egypt being the two exceptions). The same holds true for Asian nations like Pakistan and Indonesia which were literally "put together" around a collective idea sometimes using an acronym.

These identities could not withstand a challenge from a much more cohesive, unifying and practical identity like Islam. As long as Islam was kept in check by authoritarian governments, there was no problem. But once the challenge was launched both in their own countries and in the countries where they emigrated, their respective national identities simply crumbled.

For the Muslims abroad, the second and third generations were the most vulnerable as their parents could not provide them with a coherent national narrative.

The second element was the Saudi push for a radical Islam which provided the challenge to those national identities.

In the aftermath of the Mecca Mosque siege in 1979, Saudi Arabia decided to spend $200 billion to squash all existing expressions of Islam and to reduce the whole religion to three precepts, covering up women, banning alcohol and hyper-sensitivity to blasphemy.

Remarkably, none of these precepts had any foundation in the Koran yet after 35 years of repetition, they are now considered the founding principles of Islam.

The Saudi money went to military regimes in the Muslim world and was used to establish Koranic courses and madrassas. It also funded the dispatching of radical imams both to these madrassas and to every Western country where there was a sizable Muslim population.

The third element was the hostile reaction to pious Muslims both in their own countries and in the West, especially after 9/11.

In countries like Turkey, Egypt, Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia, pious Muslims were convinced that the secular majorities (or autocratic governments speaking for them) had been oppressing them.

In the West, the second generation Muslims were persuaded by radical imams that the Western world hated Muslims and would never allow them to join their society as full-fledged members.

The Islamophobia that emerged in the aftermath of 911 seemed to confirm the accusations of radical imams and convinced these lost second generation young people that their only salvation and redemption was through Jihad.

In addition to these premises, in my two posts on Charlie Hebdo, I also explained how the first generation of immigrants insist on giving their kids a Muslim name and then fail to teach them their mother tongues, their cultural heritage and their national identity, turning them into strangers in the only country they have known. When these immigrants realize that their kids are lost, they simply fall back on a vague idea of making them "good Muslims" a job that is then taken over by the local mosque and its radical imam.

Finally, I noted that the beauty of reducing Islam to three precepts is the isolation and social control that goes with it. Moreover, it is so effective in creating a hostile reaction in the host society that even secular Muslims become defensive and eventually feel obligated to stand with the Salafist against what they see as Muslimophobes.

How do you test such an hypothesis?

My admittedly anecdotal but representative test case comes from what is known as the Aarhus Model. Aarhus is one of the poorest neighborhoods in Denmark with a large immigrant population.

This is the case of a young Somali boy the reporter called Ahmed. And his journey fits exactly the parameters of my explanatory framework.

Ahmed and his family emigrated to Denmark when he was only 6. He started school in Aarhus, quickly learned Danish, began to play football and by his own account, he became a well-adjusted normal kid.

His father was not happy about his jeans and t-shirts and his Danish friends. He felt his son was losing his Somali identity. What exactly is the Somali identity, you might ask. Well, you know, he is, well, you know, a Muslim.

Hence, in Ahmed's teen years, his father decided to take him to Haj to Mecca.
"I didn't know much about my religion. It was like I had left it in Somalia. But my father said, you are a Muslim, you have a Muslim name. You have to know your history, your background and your religion."
A Somali boy travelling to Saudi Arabia to recover his background, his roots.

Ahmed returned from Haj with a sense of relief and a new identity. Previously, he had this nebulous idea of being from Somalia but now he knew he was a Muslim. Things were much clearer now.

He says:
"When we came back I was happy and I was a new person with a religious identity. I saw the world differently. I saw that it was important for a person to have a connection with his god, I saw that there was an afterlife."
Just like those lost inner city kids in the US who grabbed an African identity and the attitude and clothing that went with it, Ahmed began wearing what he calls Muslim clothes to celebrate his brand new persona.

That, in turn, earned him an immediate reaction. This is the post 9/11 period after all. His friends either stopped socializing with him or began to tell him what a terrible religion Islam was.
"They would say things like, 'You stone your women, you lash people who speak freely,' and I felt I had to defend my religion, but I didn't know how to debate properly and it went out not correctly."
He grew angry and extremely defensive. His solution was to go to the local mosque to talk to like-minded people.

One day, some cops came to his door to search his computers and check his email accounts because his school principal went to the police and told them that the other kids were afraid of Ahmed. He said that they thought that Ahmed was radicalized in Saudi Arabia and he might do them some harm.

Not surprising considering how many lone wolf stories circulated regularly and the truth-bending media narratives.

Ahmed complied with their requests but he felt very humiliated. He was furious. In his mind, he was just trying to be a good Muslim and the Danish society had just singled him out and humiliated him before the entire world. He missed his final exams and as the coup de grace the school refused to let him take make up exams.

Ahmed decided that if they considered him a terrorist then he would become one. He shared his anguish and anger with his new friends at the mosque.
They were sympathetic, he says, and invited him home. There were long discussions about the hypocrisy of the West in its dealings with Muslims and Muslim countries. They watched a lot of jihadi videos online. Ahmed remembers in particular those that featured Anwar al-Awlaki, the radical American cleric of Yemeni descent, who was killed in a drone strike in 2011.

"He would say things like, 'We are at war with the West, the West will kill all the Muslims around the world if we don't stand up to them,' and I was like, OK, and my friends were saying, 'Yeah, he's totally right.'"
Then someone at the mosque told him that if he wants to be a good Muslim, he should go to Pakistan to study at one of their madrassas. In his frame of mind, Ahmed readily agreed.

At that point, the police came back to see him. This time though it was not to harass him. They simply wanted him to talk to someone named Mahmoud before he left the country. Mahmoud is not his real name.

Ahmed was very suspicious of this traitor who worked for the police. Before each meeting, he patted him for wires, he argued with him defensively for months and he tried to destroy Mahmoud's religious claims. He asked for help from his friends at the mosque to defeat Mahmoud' assertions.

They couldn't do it.

In the end, he realized that the religion he was sold at the mosque was not what it was.  Mahmoud also showed him that he could keep his Muslim identity and continue to live and prosper in Denmark.

Since then, Ahmed finished high school and is about to graduate from university. And he got married recently.
"I'm happy right now. I see my future in Denmark. I couldn't see that before because it was all dark," he says.

"And now that I'm actually finished with the programme. I hope that personally I'm going to be a mentor some day and help other people who have been in my situation."
Let's take a look at the case through my hypothesis.

Weak national identity, check.

First generation father unable to provide a national narrative and falls back on Islam, check.

Second generation kid whose identity could not withstand an Islamic challenge, check.

Mosque and radical imam selling him a different religion, check.

Hostile reaction from society, check.

Radical imam nudging him to join Jihad for salvation, check.

Under normal circumstances, Ahmed would have ended first in Pakistan and then he would have moved either to Afghanistan or Syria to become one of the thousands of expandable young people.

Gun fodder for Jihadis.

This one has a happy end thanks to what is known as the Aarhus model where a knowledgeable mentor replaces both the father and the imam to remove the effects of the first two premises of my framework.

Basically, the mentor knows that the national identity is too weak and the Muslim identity will take over regardless. So he does not fight off the Muslim identity. Instead, he disputes the Wahhabi foundations of that identity and offers irrefutable religious arguments that substantiate a moderate identity. This new Muslim identity does not isolate the Muslim person from the larger society and allows for their integration into it.

Once the first two premises are gone and the isolation and the ensuing social control disappears, the third element, i.e., the hostility from society dissipates gradually.

One more thing.

The framework I put forward is the only one that explains the difference between the first and subsequent generations.

With all its slick propaganda and supposedly solid religious arguments ISIS is unable to move the first generation of immigrants.

So they exclusively focus on the second generation.

The poster you see on the right is designed and calibrated for these kids along with all the clips and social media messages.

Accordingly, ISIS produces thousands of video clips in tens of languages. You name a language, chances are they have a clip in it. Hindi, yes, Russian, yes, Japanese, yes.

Do you know what two languages are missing?

Spanish and Italian.

According to researcher Javier Lesaca, who took on the thankless task of watching every video clip produced by ISIS, they have never produced a single clip in Spanish or Italian.

Don't you think this is odd?

And, if so, can you guess why?

This is because, as I mentioned before, Muslim immigration to Spain and Italy began in the 1990s and they still have no significant second generation to speak of. Which means all current efforts of radicalization would be wasted.

If you wait another ten years, you can test my hypothesis in Andalusia.

But I certainly hope it does not come to that.

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