We’ve seen a rash of homegrown Islamist terrorists in recent years, and there has been a lot of agonizing about why. One explanation that I haven’t seen elsewhere still strikes me as plausible: The attraction that adolescents and the disaffected feel toward groups that their parents and teachers fear. If you’re feeling marginalized, after all, why not choose the margin? And while you’re at it, why not choose a marginalized group that inspires fear and unease on the part of mainstream society? At least then you’ll get a kind of respect.
In the past fifty years, adolescents have joined a host of marginalized groups their parents found dangerous – juvenile delinquents, mods and rockers, punks, skinheads, and Goths. So why not jihadis? Islamist terror certainly scares authority figures; why wouldn’t Western adolescents and misfits be attracted to violent Islamism — at least as a symbolic stance?
I’m sure that’s not the only explanation for the appeal of homegrown Islamist extremism to a handful of youngsters in this country. Some of it has to do with ties to a home culture among second generation immigrants. But second-generation adolescents may also be tempted to affiliate with a strong, feared movement tied to their background.
Most of us think that Islamic terror is just too serious to be trivialized into a pose for disaffected Western youth. But we may have underrated the effects of a decade of political correctness and anti-Americanism in popular culture, where the search for transgressive shock value never ends.
Take M.I.A.’s new album. It lacks much of the raw energy and boogey rhythm that enlivened her first two albums, so transgression is pretty much all she has to fall back on. And transgress she does. One cut, “Illygirl,” manages to rhyme (and identify the singer with) three cultural lodestars — her “tight jeans,” “Bruce Springsteen,” and the “muhahedin.
For M.I.A., in other words, Islamic terrorism is already a kind of life-style fashion item, a marginalized-and-proud, third-world stance that can be easily worn to parties in Brentwood by a wealthy former British art student. And if it works for M.I.A., why shouldn’t it work for an immigrant kid in New Jersey?
Let’s assume that this is part of the appeal that Islamic extremism holds for Westerners. What does that mean for policymakers? It doesn’t mean that these “Springsteen mujahedin” won’t turn out to be very dangerous. But it might suggest a different approach to the problem of turning them away from terror. Some of them will just plain outgrow their infatuation. Others will turn out to be unreliable fighters, prone to abandon the cause when they get tired or frightened by the risk. And best of all, if the tight-jean mujahedin lose their power to shock, they’re likely to go the way of the mods and the rockers. So maybe we should be looking for ways to speed that process by making all these Western jihadis look, well, silly and unfashionable.
Mockery may turn out to be the key to breaking the movement. That’s what finally destroyed the mystique of the KKK. (Steven Levitt tells the story in Freakonomics — how Stetson Kennedy infiltrated the Klan, learned its secrets, and leaked them all to “The Adventures of Superman” radio series. One Klan member who came home to find his kids playing “Superman against the Klan” later said “they knew all our secret passwords and everything… I never felt so ridiculous in all my life.”)
Maybe it can happen to Al Qaeda too.
UPDATE: Correction thanks to a commenter.