On ISIS and Anomie


I recently viewed some videos published by the New York Times addressing the motivations of young people, living otherwise normal lives by western standards, who nevertheless opt to join ISIL in their jihad against infidels and their mission to establish a new caliphate. The videos were very revealing, perhaps even surprising, at least to non-sociologists.

As citizens, we understand that those who join such violent movements are people with extremist views. We define such people as violently inclined, ignorant, individuals who have been duped by demagogues with extremist rhetoric and transcendent promises. As is often the case, we place the onus of blame on the distorted, or even malevolent motivations of the individual–bad people joining other bad people to do bad things. The sociological imagination, however, demands that we understand the external forces that encourage such motivations. After all, nobody is born with an ideology. Nobody is doomed with an extremist gene determining their behavior. There is no innate worldview that guides the individual from birth. How we understand the world is something that we acquire through social processes.

If the sociological imagination is of any value at all, we should be able to analyze the stories of those who chose extremism over reason and join violent movements and find commonalities. Watching these videos some consistent variables are obvious. The individuals presented in this series all experienced isolation, social exclusion and normative conflicts causing them significant anguish. First, the story of Islam Yaken, reveals a dedicated and disciplined young man disillusioned and torn between the contradictions between orthodox Islam and the developing modern world fusing in Egypt. We see this conflict playing out in young Islam as he tries to navigate the conflicting sexual norms he was facing, “I try not to look, and turn away, then I see another girl in leggings. I can’t bury my head forever to not see women. What am I supposed to do?”

An undercurrent in Islam’s life was the rapid, unpredictable changes taking place in Egypt after the Arab Spring. He saw the rise, then to overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood. He was not alone in his angst. His best friend claimed, “we feel like we are buried here. No matter how smart or creative we are, people here kill us with their way of thinking, their traditions, their routines.” Islam, however, seemed to be attracted to these traditions and routines. As a body builder, he lived his life according to routines. As time went on he turned further and further to more conservative and extremist religious teachings.

According to the narrator, Islam “wanted an even more definitive view of life…” And there’s the catch. Life is confusing. Life in places like Egypt, on the cusp of modernism and tradition, revolutionary thinking and political and social uncertainty is especially confusing. For Islam, trying to navigate through rapidly changing and ill defined norms was daunting. Perhaps body building offered him a brief respite, a temporary focus, but was certainly not enough. The worldview presented by ISIL, on the other hand, is about as definitive as one can get. Extremism offers simple answers to life’s questions. Groups that embrace extremism reinforce a clear worldview and a transcendent mission in which the agent understands his actions in terms of the sacred, in terms of a higher calling. This brand of religious fundamentalism allows the adherent to surpass the mundane and profane realities of being human, something that the modern, rational world is sorely lacking.

The second video focuses on the transformation of an English teenager, Kadhiza and three other girls into subjects of ISIL. The reporter points out that Muslim women in that London community were especially isolated from the overall culture. As members of a minority religion in a predominantly Christian nation, they stand out. As women, they are expected to signify their faith by wearing the veil. This is a standard not required of Muslim men. So therein is the next layer of isolation. Women in conservative Islamic communities are of especial disadvantage. The narrator points out that “girls are especially vulnerable because their community imposes such extreme restrictions on women.” Women are under intense pressure to conform while at the same time surrounded by liberalizing western ideas. Dedication to fundamentalism is one strategy for stabilizing these pressures.

The third video focuses on a former Christian girl who befriended a fundamentalist online and converted to Islam. By all appearances, she was being recruited. In this case, the young girl appears to be quite conflicted about the expectations of Islam. Many of the strictures she just did not “get.” On the other hand, she understood the friendships she made online. She stated that her online friends were more of a community than the one in which she was living. She was living in very real isolation in rural Washington, curious about the outside world. Here “friend,” Faisal, a suspected bomber for ISIL, satisfied that curiosity and flattered her with gifts and kindness. Through Faisal she found belonging and acceptance. Faisal, as a recruiter, was adept at integrating the young woman into his worldview, even offering to find her a husband.

Focus on the issues above is as old as sociology itself, encompassing Durkheim’s analysis of anomie and egoism and Marx’s concept of alienation. The single most important thing that a society can do, indeed, a society’s essential function, is to impart a stable identity upon the individual. Through socialization and interaction, the individual adopts a worldview and a sense of self, a sense of personhood that respects his individual human dignity while at the same time integrating him with others and providing a stable foundation on which to develop his or her potential. When societies fail to serve this function universally, the resulting anomie (to use Durkheim’s term) is destructive to the individual’s sense of self.

One thing is certain, the individual will construct a self. It’s what human beings do. If this cannot be done through the normative processes of society, then maladaptive worldviews will be embraced. Confusion will be abandoned for certainty, isolation will be cured by integration and scorn will drive the individual into the arms of the accepting. This is as close to a “law” of sociology as exists in the field.

When individuals abandon seemingly “normal” lives to embrace fundamentalism, extremism and even violence, it is easy to pass off such a choice as a flaw in the individual. Yet the real flaw, the real motivating factor, is all too often a shortcoming in or a failure of the normal processes of social integration. In this way, ISIL’s attractiveness to these individuals can be analyzed in the same context as those who join gangs or criminal syndicates, cults or fall victim to any form of demagoguery. The demagogues offer the kind of integration and social embrace that the misguided individual fails to find in the society as a whole.

We then further the cause of the demagogues when we stereotype and alienate “the other.” Through this time honored method of isolation and social opprobrium, we are doing nothing more than feeding the very machine we are trying to fight. We create individuals who are confused, isolated and lacking social integration. Those whom we scorn will find embrace and solace in our enemies.

Rapid social change, economic inequality, persistent racism and ethnocentrism that comes from an increasingly unstable marketplace, not to mention rampant militarism and cultural imperialism are all sources of individual disillusionment, desperation, and fear. These fuel extremism. Policies that exacerbate these problems, even in the name of fighting extremism, can only serve to undermine the mission of modernity.

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