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How Masculinity, Not Ideology, Drives Violent Extremism


By Dina Temple-Raston

March 22, 2018

I sat down with a young Minnesota teenager last year who had sold what little he owned — his sneakers, his iPhone and prized pieces of clothing — to buy an airplane ticket to Turkey. He wasn’t going for tourism. He’d decided to slip into Syria to join the Islamic State. The reason he was drawn to the group had almost nothing to do with its ideology, he told me. “In the summer of 2014 all ISIS was talking about was fighting the Assad regime,” he said. “I thought I was fighting on the side of an oppressed people.” For him, going to Syria to fight was about something much more fundamental: It was about being a man; acting like a man. “I felt like I was going to face another military — Assad’s army — I felt like I was doing something noble; it gave me meaning.” That search for meaning ended up getting him arrested and charged with terrorism offenses. The FBI intercepted him just before he stepped on a flight that would have eventually taken him to Syria. I interviewed him while he was awaiting sentencing.

Michael Kimmel’s new book, “Healing From Hate: How Young Men Get Into — and Out of — Violent Extremism,” is about young men who find a purpose in the unlikeliest places. If you’ve ever wondered why nearly all the people you read about who are joining the Islamic State or neo-Nazi groups or the white-nationalist alt-right are men, Kimmel contends it’s no coincidence: He believes that gender, specifically masculinity, is both “the psychological inspiration” that sends young men into these groups “and the social glue that keeps them involved.”

If true — and Kimmel makes a compelling case that it is — that could be good news for rehabilitation, because it is much easier to challenge violent extremism by engaging these young men as men, instead of trying to convince them that an ideology they may have embraced is flawed. Kimmel’s theory, by extension, is that jihadists or neo-Nazis or skinheads can be steered away from violence by simply finding new ways for them to prove their masculinity and to feel that their lives have purpose.

For Kimmel, a sociologist at Stony Brook University in New York, a deep dive into the complexities of manhood is familiar territory. He’s the author of two other books that cover similar ground: “Angry White Men,” which focuses on wife-beaters and rageaholics and what motivates them, and “Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men,” which looks at the male transition from adolescence to adulthood. In his latest work, Kimmel sits down with men for whom the bright shiny object is violent extremism. The cast of characters includes a Who’s Who of the world’s extremist movements, from Jackie Arklov, a neo-Nazi who has the unenviable moniker of the “most hated man” in Sweden, to Frankie Meeink, a reformed skinhead from Philadelphia whose life is said to have loosely provided the basis for the Edward Norton movie “American History X.” Kimmel also, toward the end of the book, looks at Islamist groups, and for that he turns to Maajid Nawaz, a former violent jihadist and one of the leaders of Quilliam, a British think tank that focuses on counterterrorism.

Among other things, Kimmel uses his unusual access to “formers” (people who have left these movements) to reveal the process of radicalization. Ingo Hasselbach, who founded a program called EXIT Deutschland, recounts how he once drew young men into the neo-Nazi movement. “I liked to approach fourteen to sixteen year-olds after school,” he tells Kimmel. “The first thing I did when I met one of these boys was to show him that I wanted to be his friend, to hang out with him, which, coming from someone older, especially someone over twenty, was a real compliment. I’d act a lot like an older brother; we’d go into the woods together and do things like Boy Scout exercises, building forts and making trails. I’d always slip in a bit of ideology against foreigners along the way.”

Inevitably, Kimmel says, Hasselbach and recruiters like him would also introduce gender. They’d make a case by suggesting that throughout history there were wars between great races of men. Hasselbach said they’d look at maps of Europe from 1937 and talk about the land that was “stolen” from Germany, and over the course of many conversations they would sow the seeds of victimhood and what Kimmel calls “aggrieved entitlement.” “You could watch a fourteen year old quickly develop a total feeling of injustice,” Hasselbach told Kimmel. Add a splash of love and a dash of acceptance from the movement’s community of brothers, shake well, and you have a young man on a violent mission.

Kimmel does a good job laying out the events that lead men to violence, and the trajectory seems standard. They are people who have endured humbling setbacks: lost jobs, difficulty in school, family issues. Kimmel makes the case that rather than look inside themselves for the source of this misfortune, these men find fault with the system, or immigrants, or unseen outside forces conspiring to keep them down.

“To a man, the ex-Nazis, jihadists and white supremacists .?.?. felt like failures as men. But instead of turning that sense of emasculation inward toward depression, interpersonal violence, suicide, or self-medication through drugs or alcohol, these young men were somehow convinced to externalize their sense of emasculation, turn it into righteous political rage, and lash out at those forces that they came to believe responsible for their emasculation. Their failure was not theirs, as individuals; it was something done to them. By a host of ‘others.’?”

Much of the book contains examples that point to gender as a key motivator for these young men who are aggrieved and looking for acceptance, but it is in the sections that focus on solutions that Kimmel is most successful. Among other things, he describes the ingenious ways some grass-roots groups have found to inject themselves into the conversation. Consider Life After Hate, an organization of formers from the American far-right movement who try to educate people about the threats of violent extremism and racism.

They have a number of different programs, including Harmony Through Hockey, which brings together young urban kids from diverse backgrounds to lace up skates and get on the ice (no hitting or checking). The idea is that through contact with the “other” kids whom they wouldn’t typically meet in their neighborhoods, these young people discover their own capacity for empathy, which, in turn, makes it harder for extremist groups to recruit them.

By far the best idea Kimmel recounts involves the EXIT Deutschland group, which is trying to help skinheads in Germany build a community committed to staying out of the movement. It helps men feel more masculine by assisting them in finding steady jobs and providing therapy. Because skinhead groups are known to kill or maim members who leave their ranks, EXIT Deutschland has to be secretive, so it has come up with ingenious and creative ways to get the word out about its programs. It created what it called a “Trojan T-shirt” that members, disguised as skinheads, passed out at a white-power music festival.

“The T-shirts were really cool: black, of course, with a menacing logo on the front,” Kimmel writes. “?‘Hardcore Rebel’ was emblazoned under a skull and two flags with no insignia. Underneath that, the slogan read ‘National and Free.’ Awesome, right? And free! Skinhead swag! Attendees immediately put it on and an entire ‘Hardcore Rebel’ corps was suddenly dancing and moshing and drinking and having a great time. Apparently guys at the festival loved these T-shirts. Until, that is, they got home and washed them, at which point the T-shirt changed. The phosphorescent paint that had proclaimed their slogans, ‘Hardcore Rebel’ and ‘National and Free,’ had disappeared, and instead a new slogan emerged: ‘Was dein T-shirt kann, kannst du auch’ (What your T-shirt can do, you can too), along with the message ‘We’ll help you break with right-wing extremism’ and contact information for EXIT Deutschland.”

Kimmel writes that after meeting all these young men and spending time with these formers, he is “guardedly optimistic.” He sees a way to turn nihilistic rage into purpose with the right combination of support and guidance. If the Trojan T-shirt can change, so can they, he writes.

And that has been my own experience, after more than a decade of talking to dozens and dozens of young men who have embraced radical Islam. One of the founders of an Islamist group in New York told me years ago that in the end, he simply outgrew extremist ideas. And the Minnesota teenager who sold all his worldly possessions in hopes of going to Syria to join the Islamic State? He was put into a fledgling rehabilitation program that didn’t contest the group’s ideology but instead tried to make him a more critical thinker, a man who questioned. “Thank God I was actually stopped at the airport,” he told me. “And now I don’t believe in that anymore. I found something I could replace it with — I see a future for myself here in the U.S. I have goals and aspirations. I will just have to prove to people who think I was a terrorist that I’m not one.”