As a high school teacher, I accompanied a group of young men from my school to John Marsden’s writing camp in rural Victoria. Marsden is a famous Australian writer, best known for his Tomorrow… series in which young adults, with their high school certificates still hot off the press, wage guerrilla warfare against invaders of Australia. At first glance, John Marsden is avuncular and to the adolescent eye, decrepit. But he had these young guys, from a rough part of town, writing enthusiastically. I could only envy his ability to connect young people with their artful hearts, and I frantically recorded his methods so to copy in my own classroom.

In short, I gained much respect for his understanding of young people’s motivations. In his book for adolescent males, “Secret Men’s Business”, he was pilloried for giving instructions on how to use a brothel. In comparison, his prescription for manhood was less controversial: that attaining manhood needs the thrilling experiences of killing an animal, having sex and defeating your father.

I want to suggest that this points to reasons that some Muslim young people, raised in Western countries, are sympathetic to ISIS. And, in some ways, what I write here could be applied to young people who join extremist nationalist groups such as the United Patriots Front.

Exclusion and Ennui

Most explanations for radicalisation include some proposal that it takes root in poverty, and/or because of anger about unjust occupation of Muslim lands by Western nations, and/or because of Sunni/Shia conflict. Of course, another explanation is that Islamic theology is to blame: a massive area of debate which I don’t intend to address here. These may all have validity. But for young Muslims raised in the West, I think the explanation has to include a couple of extra 2 factors. These are ‘push’ factors:

  1. First, poverty is a factor, but ‘poverty as exclusion’, rather than ‘poverty as deprivation’. When a young person seeks belonging, and the avenues that Australian society honours seem closed to them, where do they look? They look to those whose heroic paths are available to all – the violent, the law-breaker, the feared.
  2. The second factor is the paucity of adventure in Australian society, sometimes called ennui by sociologists – a deep feeling of boredom and dissatisfaction with life. I was watching an ABC documentary in which young people were asked about their dreams for the future. One 15 year gave a depressing answer: his dreams were to get a good job, and earn enough money to provide for this family if he had one. At 15 years old, his horizon was limited to success circumscribed by his culture: this is no adventure.

If you doubt this explanation, don’t listen to me, listen to Scott Atran, a counter-terrorism expert. This is a summary of his message to the United Nations:

Atran argued that there are powerful cultural forces behind ISIS. Many young people feel a deep dissatisfaction with society and find in ISIS adventure, comaraderie (sic) and a sense of belonging. Most attempts to dissuade young people from joining ISIS focus on the negative – the violence, savagery, and repression. For Atran this will not work. Stopping the growth of ISIS means offering an alternative – appealing to the idealism of youth and presenting a positive counter-narrative.

For an Australian perspective, Anne Aly from Curtin University has this to say:

Factors such as anger at injustice, moral superiority, a sense of identity and purpose, the promise of adventure, and becoming a hero have all been implicated in case studies of radicalisation.

What’s the solution?

Can Australia provide the sense of belonging and adventure that is needed to counter the forces of exclusion and ennui? What ideals are we holding up as worthy of danger and risk? Though nice enough, educational achievement, job readiness and entry into the housing market are not ideals that I would risk much for. As a young person, the role models I gravitated towards were not the ‘moderates’. They were the extremists, the radicals, those who took their beliefs seriously and did something about them, even if it cost them. The last thing I wanted to be was ‘moderate. I still don’t. Most of us don’t. And I suspect contemporary young people with ideals don’t either.

We need a vision of life for young people in Australia, whether they are Muslim or not, that inspires nonviolent sacrifice and adventure. How might this happen, and how can youth workers play their part? Next blog post.