By Tanveer Ahmed
August 23, 2014
THE very act of practising as a religious Muslim, for those who have grown up in the West, begins as an oppositional stance. A unique feature of the Islamic community in Western countries such as Australia is that while every other ethnic group tends to become less religious after migration, Muslims have the tendency to become more religious. This is confirmed by multiple studies, including Pew Global Research in 2009 and British surveys such as a 2007 study, Living Apart Together, by the Policy Exchange think tank.
This last study found that later generations are more likely to advocate the uptake of Sharia law — 37 per cent of those aged 16 to 24, compared with 16 per cent of those aged 55 and older — as well as believe that women should wear the veil. Some Muslim youth can admire organisations such as al-Qa’ida because they are “prepared to take on the might of the West”.
In Australia, young Muslims are more likely to wear the veil, grow a beard as a mark of piety or go on the Haj, the pilgrimage to Mecca, a practice traditionally associated with older Muslims.
The most compelling explanations for this come from Britain, where psychologists have studied second and third-generation youth from Bangladeshi and Pakistani households. They found many of these young people led compartmentalised lives in which the value systems in the home were ¬diametrically opposed to those ¬espoused by wider society. The parents teach loyalty to traditions, religious commitment and gender role differentiation while encouraging distance from the dominant culture of the West, which espouses individualism, secularism and gender equality.
Adolescent disaffection in young Muslims, hardly unique, can find an outlet in the modern expression of Islam, which is more oriented to the individual, more politicised and more overt in its outward displays than traditional Islamic practice, and includes tribalistic markers such as beards and veils. In this respect, many young Muslims are no different to punks and Goths.
For these young Muslims, it is a way of being modern, but not like non-Muslim Westerners. It is a global experiment occurring in many guises within the developing world and migrant communities, and is best outlined by Indian writer Pankaj Mishra in his book Temptations of the West: How to Be Modern in India, Pakistan and ¬Beyond.
The elders or parents have little idea that the children are, in fact, rebelling from the parents’ practice of the religion, which is perceived as too culturally stained and mainstream society, in which they feel they cannot participate socially. Nor can most parents see that religiosity may be a sign of emotional distress, viewing it instead as a bulwark against sex and drugs.
American sociologist Marcia Hermansen studied Muslim youth organisations on university campuses across the US in 2005. She wrote of the attraction of such an ideology: “One can often imagine the problems of Muslim youth, often isolated by having distinctive names, physical appearance and being associated with a stigmatised culture and religion. No wonder the concept that they were actually the superior ones, fending off the corrupt and evil society around them, rang pleasant.”
Hermansen’s study illustrates that the religiosity is partly a projection of personal inadequacies. Social unbelonging is flipped into a world view where the environment is viewed as morally corrupt and racist. This oppositionality, for the most part, is diluted as adolescents become adults with jobs and families. But the danger is that what begins in a social and psychological framework can be sharply politicised into a virulent anti-Western ideology, fuelled by worsening anger, resentment and victimhood. Terrorism is a projection of this anger.
There are other traditional, socially conservative migrant households from Asia and the Middle East, but a Hindu, Sikh or Arab Christian background does not lend itself to the same powerful ideology as a politicised Islam.
For those with a sense of victimhood, Islamism offers a potent identity for expressing alienation and connecting personal stories to a larger, global struggle, fuelled by television images of conflicts such as those in Gaza or Iraq, so that some feel connected to an international Muslim community, known in Arabic as the Ummah.
In this way, Islam has become a symbol of modern protest — political or social — attracting many who feel disenfranchised or wronged by the society in which they live. If Islam were a brand and had a soundtrack, it might be sung by Lorde wearing a Hijab with a hip-hop beat mouthed by the Black Panthers. This is also why conversions in jail are increasing: it is the prisoners’ revenge on society as they perceive the religion as its ¬antithesis.
This underdog brand gains greater weight when you consider that not only are a great proportion of the world’s poor Muslim, the places of social exclusion in the West also have a strong ethno-religious flavour, including parts of southwestern Sydney.
This tends to contribute to progressives viewing Muslims, even Islamists, as merely another vulnerable group requiring protection from their powerful, prejudiced oppressors.
Australia has been lucky in that we have had few cases of highly educated Australian Muslims intent on a terrorist act, unlike in Europe and North America. This outcome may also be related to our skilled migration program: any adolescent sense of exclusion is quickly extinguished in Australia by a strong job market and social mobility.
Terror plots in Australia have been primarily related to youth who were already antisocial and found in Islam a perfect foil to channel their sense of grievance. They have been dominated by those of Lebanese extraction, a product both of their higher numbers but also of a migration base made up of war refugees, unskilled migrants and family reunion.
In Sydney’s The Daily Telegraph this week, columnist Tim Blair reported on antisocial behaviour by Muslim youths in the Lakemba community. His article evoked an angry response from, and in defence of, the community. What this illustrates is a tendency to miss the various shades of ethnicity and class within the Muslim community, which in turn affects tendencies towards radicalisation.
It also demonstrates the inherent denial among many Muslims about the oppositionality and reverse racism that lurk beneath the surface of their communities. This denial extends to the idea that acts of terrorism have nothing to do with Islam and the community can simply distance itself.
Most Australians who have travelled to Syria to fight have shown themselves to be unsophisticated in their understanding of Islam and politics. But their views about Muslim identity trumping national affiliation, antipathy towards democracy and the central place of reason, and their broader anger towards non-Muslims and anything considered Western, may not be starkly at odds with those of some so-called moderate Muslims.
Judging by the results of British opinion polling, there are likely to be a sizeable minority of Muslims in Australia who espouse the radical Islamist view but don’t support ¬violence.
In this respect, extremists are to moderates what libertarians are to free-marketeers, a step along the spectrum of an ideology.
I also wonder whether the greater stigma surrounding mental illness in ethnic communities contributed to poorer treatment outcomes in the case of Khaled Sharrouf, given that he had been treated for paranoid schizophrenia in the past.
Meanwhile, the process of radicalisation has usually taken place outside mainstream mosques, further allowing clerics and the community at large to feel distant from its processes.
Terrorism and Islamists pose an ongoing threat to liberal democracy, most strongly articulated by Tony Blair in an April speech to Bloomberg this year where he argued the West needed to take it much more seriously.
In a home-grown context the problem underscores some of the weaknesses of liberalism and modernity. Australia has either been lucky or the beneficiary of a strategic migration program. But, as this week’s British-accented ¬beheading demonstrates, there has never been a time to be less complacent.
Tanveer Ahmed is a Sydney-based psychiatrist of Bangladeshi heritage, an author and Liberal councillor.