INDOCTRINATING YOUNG MEN: IN SEARCH OF IDEALS

I’m writing this post in the aftermath of the terrible Barcelona attack on 17 August, in which 13 persons were killed by a young man driving a van into the crowded Rambles, leaving 180 others injured. The van driver, 22-year-old Younes Abouyaaqoub, is still at large. Later, in the early hours of 18 August, the Catalan police shot dead a group of five young men who were carrying out yet another terrorist attack in Cambrils, about 90 kms south of Barcelona. There seems to be a connection between these crimes and the blast which destroyed a house in Alcanar, where three men died, apparently members of the same terrorist cell. All reports agree today that the terrorists intended to blow up a lorry loaded with dozens of butane canisters, either in Rambles or near Sagrada Familia, killing hundreds.

The Mossos d’Esquadra (the Catalan police) suspect that one of shattered bodies in Alcanar belongs to Abdelkabi Es Satty, the imam of Ripoll’s mosque and allegedly the mastermind behind the attacks. As it has happened in England, France, Belgium, Germany and other countries under attack by radicalized Islamic terrorists born and bred in their midst, everyone is wondering today in Spain how a group of apparently well-integrated, well-behaved young men have been so quickly transformed into inhuman fiends. Es Satty, apparently also connected with the 11 March 2004 bombings in Atocha and other Madrid train stations which left 192 dead, is blamed for the brainwashing of the boys by families desperate to shift their horror of what their children have done onto somebody else’s shoulders. An article by Lluís Urría in La Vanguardia today, titled “One of Us” concludes that, like their peers in other European nations, the Ripoll boys were vulnerable to predators like Es Satty because migrant integration is failing. Whether following the British multicultural approach or the French denial of difference, we don’t know how to make second generation migrants feel integrated. Instead, we place them in ghettos were jihad seems an appealing way out. Into death and destruction.

These seem to be incomplete arguments. To begin with, let’s consider the terrorism that we used to suffer in Spain, caused by the Basque separatist band E.T.A. This was not at all the product of disaffected young men in migrant neighbourhoods of, say, Madrid and Barcelona. It was, rather, the product of nationalist indoctrination of the worst kind, apparently connected at some points with the Catholic church in the Basque Country. Yet, I don’t recall this kind of sociological analysis applied to the case, at least not on the media. The point I am making is that the pattern is much wider than the current case: whether this is the KKK, the IRA, ETA or Daesh, each successive terrorism thrives by offering new members a potent ideal through indoctrination. Much more potent than the ideal taught in schools and families, as the case of the Ripoll terrorist cell shows. If these young men could be brought to the side of horror in just two months, then we need to consider not really the efficiency of their brainwasher but the fragility of the boys’ education and values.

Although there are also young women who have made the decision to join ISIS, like German teen Linda Wenzel who was on the news after her capture about a month ago, patriarchal terrorism finds its breeding ground among young men. Indeed, one of the main, nastiest surprises in the Barcelona and Cambrils attacks is that they were caused by very young men, aged 17-24. This is possibly good news, though tragic, as it shows that ISIS needs to appeal to increasingly younger boys, even mere children, to capture adepts. Boys as young as 8 are being recruited in the war zones of Syria and Iraq to be suicide bombers (girls, too, but they are selected to be mainly sex slaves, as corresponds to the patriarchal mindset of Daesh). It is very, very easy to launch here a feminist attack against the readiness of boys and young men to engage in violence–another man in his twenties, a Chechnian migrant in France, was on the news a few days ago for brutally kicking an Italian young man to death in a crowded Lloret disco. This is not my point. My point is, rather, that if young men are so vulnerable to patriarchal brainwashing this is because the alternative is not working. That is to say, they lack an alternative masculinity strong enough to say ‘no’ to patriarchal violence. And to report monsters like Es Satty to the police. In a parallel, ideal world, Abouyaaqoub and his friends would be hailed as heroes today for helping to avoid a catastrophe, not abhorred as brutes for causing one.

There are two strategies before this situation. One is offering texts that represent in all its crudity the horrendous nature of the evil that seems so attractive from the outside. One example of this trend is the mini-series currently being broadcast by Channel 4, The State (https://www.imdb.com/title/tt6068620/). Written and directed by Peter Kosminsky, the four-part story traces the misadventures of young British Muslims travelling to Syria to join the Islamic State. The review by Mark Lawson in The Guardian wonders, however, in its very title whether “this show about British jihadis” can “avoid justifying extremism”. The series, released on the Sunday after the Barcelona attacks, “brings an extra shiver”, Lawson writes, as it was shot in Spain. Lawson concludes that watching The State would make it less likely for British teenagers to be recruited, yet he does not mention that teenagers are not today an easy target for TV programmers. Lawson’s review downplays the PR that Daesh is carrying out precisely on the sites which teens do access on the net and that the adults around them mostly ignore. For there are all kinds of manipulative youtubers, all indoctrinating young persons in one way or another.

The other alternative, in which fiction may also participate but which is everybody’s responsibility, consists of building positive, rewarding images for young Muslim men to embrace. I know: a tall order. If you google the word ‘indoctrination’ you will see that most results refer not to Islam but to feminism, as there is widespread fear that men are being moulded in the West through education in the ideology of liberal feminism and thus deprived of their masculinity. I have been explaining for years that to begin with this is not true and, anyway, it is the wrong approach: both men and women should be taught to resist patriarchy and work to reinforce equal-rights citizenship. What strikes me this summer –as I read anti-feminist books written by men, such as the late Horacio Vázquez-Rial’s Hombres solos: Ser varón en el s. XXI (2004), and also anti-patriarchal books like Miguel Llorente’s Los nuevos hombres nuevos: Los miedos de siempre en tiempos de igualdad (2009)– is how badly we need positive role models for men. Rial’s lashing out against radical feminism and Llorente’s disgust at publicly sanctioned sexism (what he calls ‘postmachismo’) reveal a similar inability to tell us what a man should be like in our times. Men are defined by both authors for what they are not: Rial complains that not all men are rapists as Susan Brownmiller and company sentenced; Llorente criticizes men for abusing women and not being good fathers. Yet, neither can truly explain what a man should be like. A good man.

I have been arguing for more than two decades that we need a new code of chivalry, new forms of gentlemanliness and heroism. I’m not naively returning to the 19th century from which horrors like the knights of the KKK emerged but proposing, very seriously, that men codify formally new codes of conduct that can be appealed to. “You’re no gentleman” used to be a very potent insult, but this has been replaced with “You’re a bastard”, which is no use. The insult should hurt the man’s pride, not confirm a deviousness he may have embraced willingly. The same applies to women. I don’t know if telling young wannabe terrorists “you’re not a good Muslim” is any use but as long as Daesh determines who is a good Muslim we are not making headway. Likewise, President Trump missed recently the chance to tell white supremacists “You’re not good Americans” by blaming “all sides” for the hatred unleashed by these racists. Indeed, he is basing his chaotic Presidency on praising the wrong people and for the wrong reasons.

I ramble but in the end the argument is easy to understand: Daesh/ISIS has managed to build an image of what a Muslim man should be like which is spreading like burning oil all over Europe among the young men of immigrant origins because it is finding no positive alternative. So, let’s offer one through education at home and at school, without forgetting mosques if it has to be that way and, above all, the internet. An image and a model that can convince other young men like Younes Abouyaaqoub that the heroic thing to do is to resist all forms of barbaric indoctrination, rather than kill innocents. This must be a joint effort, no doubt, by the Islamic communities in the world but also by anyone who opposes terror.

And, please men, give us positive images for the new times, we need them. And so do you.

I publish a new post every Tuesday. Comments are very welcome! (Thanks!) Just be warned that I check them for spam; it might take a few days for yours to be online. Follow the blog updates on Twitter: @SaraMartinUAB and download the yearly volumes from https://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. See also: https://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

6 thoughts on “INDOCTRINATING YOUNG MEN: IN SEARCH OF IDEALS

  1. A thoughtful and well-argued article, addressing many of the thorny issues sometimes disregarded in connection with Islamic terrorism. I can’t help feeling, though, that the main problem stems from the contradictions in Islam itself: a religion of peace among Muslims (ideally) but quite explicit one of intolerance and violence with respect to non-Muslims. The barbaric and tribalistic roots of the Dark Ages, when this creed was established, are all too evident in its current doctrinal beliefs and practices, even though most well-meaning people disregard or play down the injunctions to violent action against infidels, as it could not be otherwise. With a weak ontology and semiotics, fanatical and exacting in small visible things, and fantastically credulous with far-off invisible and implausible things, Islam is ill-equipped to foster or tolerate the kind of critical thought that should lead it to an enlightened reform. As happens elsewhere, “The best lack all conviction, and the worst are full of passionate intensity”. With a vengeance in this case. There is indeed lots of work to do, both within and without the Muslim communities: work in ethics, in theology, in public speech, in toleration, and yes, too, in gender issues. The reform in Islam is everywhere about women’s rights, which are in a sorry state in the Middle East and most of Africa.

  2. Dear Ángel: As an atheist, I believe that all religions should go through a process of profound re-organization, whether this is Islam or Catholicism. Reading recently about the Templar Knights, I noticed many similarities between them and current Jihad soldiers. I know you will say that was the Medieval past and this is now, but the point is the same one: religion may be a comfort to many but it is not a tool for progress for anyone. And as a woman, although I am not happy with the patriarchal application of Islam, I am not happy either with how Catholicism is still treating women’s bodies and minds as patriarchal chattel regarding abortion and other matters. There is, then, a lot of work to do in all human communities in favour of human rights. Thanks, as usual, for the comment!

  3. In your answer, Sara, you are equating the treatment of women in the West and in Islamic countries, or, perhaps, pooh-poohing the differences as if they were not crucially relevant. I think this is the kind of luxury that only Westerners, and especially Western academic feminists, can afford.

  4. Not exactly, José Ángel. What many Islamic feminists are telling us is that we cannot speak for them, as this further silences their anti-patriarchal stance. I’m trying, then, to respect this position while focusing on what is closest to me, not even ‘the West’ but narrowing it down very much, my city. Thanks again.

  5. Positions are all different, otherwise we’d all be the same person : ) —and I must congratulate you on the message you sent to AEDEAN regarding the collected edition of the blog. “Congratulations” is the very least you deserve on this immense and amazing contribution to English Studies.

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