The Uncanny Parallels Between Islamic and American Extremists

Author Carla Power (photo by Nic Seely-Power, courtesy of Penguin Random House)

 

 

 

 

In Home, Land, Security: Deradicalization and the Journey Back From Extremism, Carla Power—a finalist for both the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award for her previous book, If the Oceans Were Inkmoves slowly, gently, into a terrifying psychology. She wants to get past the horrors-wrought-by-monsters mindset, the one that slaps a label of “terrorism” onto the latest atrocity and brushes aside the perpetrators as incapable of humanity. What drew these young men so far from the pale?

I picture Power working the way bomb detonators do, holding steady, advancing in careful increments, lightening the mood by confessing her foibles and biases as she goes. The metaphor is not so far off: she is exploring ways we might stop a ticking time bomb, bring extremists back to a sane, safe middle ground. And she has to keep her balance, holding to her own moral compass even as she lets empathy open the inner world of young men most of us would spit on or flee. Her secret? She moves toward them through their mothers, borrowing their love and using it like night-vision glasses.

Still, Power needs her “journalistic due diligence” more often than she would with nearly any other topic. One woman, for example, tells Power she went to Syria “to feel useful.” Turns out she really went to answer a Facebook post by an Islamic State fighter who was looking for a European wife.  The rehabilitation programs Power explores (there are plenty of them overseas, not so much here) are inspiring, but only some of them work some of the time.

Report long enough, dig hard enough, and objectivity gets easier: no boasts, platitudes, excuses, or generalizations will hold water for long. What is lovely about Power’s work is that, despite the vast information she gathers, she continues to approach the subject with both intellectual and emotional humility. Watching rehab efforts, she realizes how easy it is to respond to someone who is converted back to your way of seeing the world: “My reaction had a whiff of the triumphant Victorian missionary about it. . . . By trying to steer someone away from one worldview and toward another, you risk indulging your own zealotry.” Aware of such drifts, she steers herself back on course every time. She is far more eager to learn than to pronounce.

And she learns quite a bit. Especially when it comes to the uncanny parallels between Islamic extremism and the right-wing extremism we are seeing firsthand in the United States. Though she now lives with her husband and daughters in London, Power is a native St. Louisan, and this project left her even more worried about her home country.

 

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To what extent is there a continuum, or a strong parallel track, or a spooky connection, between rightwing U.S. and Islamist fundamentalism? 

There are so many paths into extremism, but followers of both these movements are frequently drawn by the promise of an imagined past—a mythic Golden Age, before—fill in the blank—degradation happened, be it through Westernization, or modernity, or immigrants, or women. . . .  Many of these movements are powered by a phony projection of a “pure” past and a “pure” future. Bogus, of course, but seductive if you’re stuck, or depleted, or suspicious of any established means of change.

 

You quote Amos Oz: “Fanatics of all kinds, in all places at all times, loathe and fear change, suspecting that it is nothing less than a betrayal resulting from dark, base motives.” But what are the implications—how do we get people more comfortable with change? Or is that a lost cause, because this is a matter of temperament and cannot be changed, so it would be better to focus somewhere else?

We live in a world of flux—and to a greater or lesser extent, always have. I think what scares so many people now is that loathing or fear have become normalized. The technologies that were supposed to broaden our horizons, to teach us new things, new ways of thinking and being, have in many cases narrowed them. We have to be creative and think hard about what kinds of societies create fluidity, movement, and what kinds of societies promote fear of the Other.

 

But it is the fluidity and movement that scares people! And the fear of the Other seems to flow from that deeper fear of change. How do we calm that down?

The fear of the Other is to a certain extent hard-wired in us as humans. But much of it springs, in large part, from social or political systems that encourage us to create Others. I do worry about the systems of contemporary life that allow the manufacturing of the Other, and inflate the fear of it. Whether it’s Facebook algorithms that shut us in our political silos, or the fact that Americans now have fewer friends from other political parties than they did a generation ago, or the remaking of the public square, where we debate, and come together to understand one another, as a battleground—we live in an era of multiplying Others.

It’s above my pay grade to say how we get people accustomed to change and open to diversity and pluralism, but I think a lot of it has to do with strong, courageous leadership on a community level, as well as innovative programs that engineer social bonds. Someone even floated the idea of a sort of Peace Corps for community service, that allows young people to do stints in communities very different from their own. Given how divided our country is now, I’d applaud such experiments!

 

You write that with extremists “using conspiracies and falsehoods to draw followers into their world-views, the question of persuasion becomes vital.” How often do you think the radicalization is rooted in ideology, rather than an emotional desire to be a hero or get revenge for past hurts? I think of the incels in the United States, fast becoming radicalized to violence, and there it seems so personal. . . .

I think that in the past we’ve put too much emphasis on the “ideological” as a draw for people. Often, the reasons are far more personal—a frustration at their own situation, or at the political culture. Or it’s practical: that in a state, the militant group is the only opposition to a corrupt regime or autocracy. Or indeed, supporting the militant group offers practical help—survival, in wartime.

 

Did you come away with an overall sense of how many former fighters really do change in these rehabilitation programs—and what makes the difference? Is it their background, temperament, education, environment, the quality of the program, what they experienced as a fighter, who is in their life now, what other options are available to them?

It’s all of the above! I would never claim that rehab programs are all successful. What works depends very much on the individual, but also on the program—whether it’s responsive to the person, whether it’s attempting a quick-fix or a wraparound program, whether it sees the problem as just “the individual” or recognizes that when that person goes back into the community, the community needs support as much as the person.

 

 

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Toward the book’s end, as Power moves to the U.S. extremists, I find myself forgetting to breathe. She is puzzled by the scarcity of rehab programs here, for example, in this optimistic culture that embraces the born-again, the comeback, the reboot. At a conference, she watches an American walk out: “The United States would simply lock up anyone who’d fought with ISIS, he explained, so the exercise just wasn’t worth his time.”

Rehab is not our forte, former Homeland Security adviser Frances Fragos Townsend once remarked. “We know how to find and finish targets in the terror world; we’re really good at that.”

This does not bode well. Especially given that studies of militants’ psychological backgrounds “suggest that they are no more afflicted with mental illness than anyone else.” We can all be radicalized. And the way we are choosing up teams, isolating ourselves with the like-minded, is a first step. We are losing the ability to socialize comfortably with strangers, because we do not know where they stand.

“Nights, I worry about my native country becoming the loneliest one in human history,” Power writes. “A place where people are sealed off from each other in their cars and cul-de-sacs, where we now see only the Amazon delivery person.” In other cultures, community might exert a stronger pull, counterbalancing private craziness. But “ours is a culture in which the rootless thrive,” she writes elsewhere, “and which prizes dynamism and individualism over tradition or kinship.”

Does that make radicalization more likely or less likely? Ten years ago, I would have said less.

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