Thursday, July 12, 2007


Masculinity, violence, Islam, militarism, macho, blah blah

Simple answers for complex problems usually only satisfy simple minds. Yeah, I know there are dozens of aphorisms about simple solutions being the best, blah blah. Just not true, though.

In today’s Independent.UK, I found an essay that looks at why violent terror has hooked in various young men in Britain. The tone is: why is anyone surprised?
Violence fosters violence. We know that from studies in domestic violence: people who have been abused get nuts and do nutty things later on in life. Sometimes they become perpetrators of additional violence. Sometimes they become victims—or people who rescue others from violence...But they are bent by early experience. “Bent” can be a synonym for “twisted,” yes.

It’s depressing. Sometimes it’s glossed as “PTSD,” but that’s one of those terms that’s become nearly meaningless. Like “He has issues.” Huh? Depressing and complex.

And so much of it is tied in with weird perceptions of masculinity, which, well, good luck to all of us. The women's movement talked a lot about sex role stereotypes, and for a while there was a men's movement, and even a movement that looked at how sex roles were/are exploited to perpetuate our economic-social system. No, I don't know what ever happened to all that, either...

***the authorities - the Home Office, immigration officials, the police and security service - have been so slow to recognise the likely effect of allowing into the country so many boys and men who have been brutalised in a series of terrible conflicts around the world, from Somalia to former Yugoslavia. It has long been recognised that civil wars are particularly traumatic, turning neighbours against each other and exposing civilians to massacres, rape and torture.

In the past couple of decades, there has been a steady flow to this country of teenage boys and young men damaged in such wars, without any recognition that they desperately need treatment if they are ever to control their violent impulses. Two of the men convicted of terrorist offences on Monday are from war-torn Somalia: Omar arrived in Britain via Kenya with his sisters in 1992, after their parents had almost certainly been murdered; Ramzi Mohammed fled Somalia at the age of 17 with his younger brother and was looked after by social services in Slough.

Hussein Osman was born Isaac Adus Hamdi in Ethiopia, and arrived in the UK in 1996, pretending to have escaped the Somali conflict in order to claim asylum in the UK. The leader of the gang, Ibrahim, grew up in Asmara, the capital of what is now Eritrea, and fled to Britain when he was 12 in 1990 to escape his country's war of independence from Ethiopia.

Not every young man who escapes from a war zone becomes a terrorist, but most will have experienced high levels of fear and anxiety, and are probably suffering from undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder. Such adolescents are often drawn to violence themselves, and there is anecdotal evidence that Somali gangs are fighting each other to control the supply of drugs in north-west London.

An 18-year-old man from another war zone, Kosovo, was among the half-dozen defendants convicted last year of the horrific murder of a 16-year-old girl in Reading. Indrit Krasniqi arrived in this country as an orphan at the age of 13 and should have been deported a couple of weeks before he took part in the murder of Mary-Ann Leneghan and the torture of her friend.

Since 52 people were killed in the 7/7 bombings in London two years ago, we are beginning to get a clearer picture of the kinds of young men who make easy recruits for Islamic extremists. Some are young Muslims, born in this country or brought here as small children, who are in search of a different and more radical identity than their parents' generation; others are converts, such as the shoe-bomber Richard Reid and the 7/7 bomber Jermaine Lindsay, to whom extreme Islam offers a sense of belonging and purpose. Last week we discovered the existence of another group, foreign doctors from a Muslim background who have allegedly been targeted by sympathisers of Wahabbi Islam and al-Qa'ida. The men convicted on Monday belong to a fourth, leading lives of minor criminality and easily turned against "Western" values.

There are common factors, not least DVDs and the internet, which are a very effective means of firing up young Muslims with a sense of injustice. One of the doctors arrested in Scotland is alleged to have spent hours at work looking at Islamist sites on the internet; in the case of the 21/7 bombers, Omar amassed speeches and videos of Osama bin Laden and Abu Hamza, as well as DVDs showing beheadings in Iraq and Russian soldiers being run over by Islamist fighters in Chechnya. Such images are common currency among extremists, both inciting and habituating them to violence.

Some commentators argue that the Iraq war is at the heart of this process, and there is no doubt that videos of suicide-bombings and atrocities play a part in radicalisation. But there is something else going on here, a crisis in masculine identity which leads some adolescent boys and young men in this country to carry knives and join gangs, while others are attracted by the extreme ideology of political Islam.

We need to ask ourselves not just how we can stop the recruitment of young men like Mukhtar Said Ibrahim, but how we can identify vulnerable young men before the recruitment process begins. And that means looking at the way in which this country has offered asylum-seekers a sanctuary, but not the means to develop a firm and healthy sense of masculine identity.

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