When the American commandos who killed Osama bin Laden found what they thought was porn in his compound, the US treated it like forensic evidence, testing it rigorously to confirm it really was. You wonder who got that job. But it was an important point to them because it fulfilled their narrative that Osama was a false prophet.
Why would the discovery surprise us, though? Don’t alcoholics curse alcohol, and libertine youths grow into repressive parents? Osama’s was the passion of the convert. Born into a wealthy family of real estate developers in the Persian Gulf, he’d led a life typical of the Gulf elite. He traveled widely, shopped abroad and gleefully sank into Beirut’s fleshpots, the virtual rite of passage for wealthy young Saudi men. But, while at university in Saudi Arabia, he fell under the spell of one of his lecturers, and his life changed forever. Abdullah Azzam, an influential thinker in the Muslim Brotherhood, introduced Osama to Islamic fundamentalism. Ever after, Osama’s seemed to be expiating the sins of his past life with his fanaticism.
Contrary to popular perceptions that radical Islam stems from deep traditions among ignorant savages, it usually emerges in the most modern of environments — in urban settings at the cutting edge of globalization (very often, in fact, in First-World cities). Overwhelmingly, it develops among young men who have had secular educations to a relatively high level and display fairly normal psychological profiles, save for one thing: they tend to have experienced a period of social isolation or alienation, often while working or studying abroad, in which they seek some sense of belonging — the local mosque offering an obvious welcoming community.
While most such young men don’t radicalize, a few will do as Osama did and fall in with a peer group who feel their alienation and rejection most acutely, thereby developing an obsession with revenge. Having departed from the ways of their ancestors, they purge themselves of their worldly contaminations, often blaming their former religious mentors for failing to keep them grounded during their secular wanderings. When the old mullahs then decry their zealotry as un-Islamic, it only confirms their view of the religious establishment as hopelessly corrupt and lacking in conviction.
Thus, once you isolate the key correlates of terrorism — single young men who feel outcast — radical jihad appears in a very different light. What we’re dealing with, primarily, is not a religious issue, but an age-old problem: where there are young men, there is a greater likelihood of violence, which alienation can accentuate. Add the overlay of Islam and what do you find?
Surprisingly, the religion would actually appear to have, if anything, a pacifying effect. As frightening as the prospect of ending up in the hands of ISIS or being bulldozed by a hate-filled terrorist in a truck may be, the fact is you’re more likely to get killed by a piece of your own furniture (mind you, you’d probably drop dead if your refrigerator one day suddenly screamed God is great). You’re at much greater risk from a random gunman, a dog and even an asteroid. And in America, despite President Trump’s fumbling efforts at a Muslim ban, if you do suffer the rare misfortune of dying at the hands of terrorists, it’s more likely they’ll be right-wing extremists than Islamists.
Which kind of makes you wonder what all the fuss is about. Faced with this disjuncture between fear and reality, liberals labour to educate the public, setting up fact-checking websites and bombarding us with data in the hopes the deplorables will stop clinging to alternative facts. I’m not sure how much this accomplishes – not because people aren’t listening, but because they probably already know. We intuit these things. In our social network, we know of people who’ve suffered violence, we appreciate its scale, yet we have little experience of Islamic radicalism.
But that’s not the point. I think what people fear – and the politicians nurturing and cultivating these fears realise this — is not death itself, but something in its character. Something about being killed by a Muslim, or an immigrant, seems to be particularly unnerving to people who already feel vulnerable or somehow threatened. Xenophobic politicians and journalists have crafted a narrative which, blatantly false though it may be, resonates with a significant share of the population. As I wrote recently, many people have legitimate reasons for feeling fearful about the way the world is changing around them. Telling them they don’t, or that they’re just ignorant, is hardly going to change their minds.
What is needed instead is a compelling counter-narrative about how the challenges posed by globalisation, immigration or religious minorities will ultimately enhance our lives. That’s easier said than done. But until we on the left do that, many people will still find comfort in falsehoods, because they at least give them a tale that helps them make sense of what’s happening around them.