On Wednesday 22nd May 2013, the United Kingdom was shaken by the brutal murder of a British soldier, Drummer Lee Rigby by two alleged Islamic fundamentalists Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale. In the aftermath, much of the mainstream media and internet have taken to trying to construct an explanation and identify possible causes for how two otherwise apparently normal young men could be driven to committing such a horrific act against another human being. Generally, there seem to have been two main recurring ideas, which I will set out here:
1) “Islam, as an ideology, is specifically susceptible to inspiring acts of violence within its followers.”
2) “Muslims, as a group, are angry with British foreign policy and the West’s military involvement in places like Iraq and Afghanistan and this incident is really a bubbling over of that anger.” This was allegedly the reasoning given by the perpetrators themselves.
I don’t think either of these statements can be dismissed outright; there is probably some element of truth in both of them. Taken in isolation however, they both beg the same question: logically, if either statement were taken to be true, then why hasn’t the entire Muslim community, or at least a considerably larger proportion of it, resorted to similar measures? Statistically, about 0.0008%, an improbably tiny number of British Muslims have been convicted of terrorism related offences since 2001*, demonstrating that the overwhelming majority are not terrorists. Even if certain verses in the Qur’an can be taken to condone violence against and killing of non-Muslims in times of war, then why do the vast majority of Muslims in the U.K. disregard this?
As with any religion, it’s a question of interpretation. Religious scriptures tend to vague at best and self-contradictory at worst. But what causes most British Muslims to observe their religion in a peaceful way and the likes Michael Adebolajo or Abu Hamza to interperate its teachings so violently? The answer must lie in social and cultural conditions outside of the ideology itself. The foreign policy argument presents an additional conundrum: if these men claim to be railing against the injustices committed against “their” people and “their” country, then why, as British-Nigerians hailing from Christian families, do they identify with predominantly Islamic nations in the Middle East as opposed to Britain or even Nigeria?
In-groups, self and social alienation
Humans are necessarily social creatures, we literally cannot survive without banding together with others. Psychologically, our sense of self is constructed in relation to the social bonds we form and the groups within society in which we belong. The groups that you consider yourself to be a part of are known as ingroups and are always typified by set of cultural customs and norms. Most people belong to multiple in groups at once: you can be a doctor, a Conservative Party supporter, a footballer, a metalhead, an Oxford Alumni, British and Muslim all at once. Most of the ingroups we belong to generate relatively little friction within mainstream society. The case is no different for moderate Muslims:they do not just see themselves in relation to their religion, they see themselves in relation to their job, their family, their hobbies, their musical taste and how they partake in the mainstream political process. On the whole, this does not differ that much from the accepted norms of British society.
However, what is to happen if someone becomes disconnected from and disenfranchised with most of the established ingroups around which they are situated? This is known as alienation. Alienation can have multiple causes including, but not limited to: poor socioeconomic status, family breakdown, discrimination and substance abuse. As with lots of social phenomena, these things tend to be systematic and mutually reinforcing. In the case of Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale, both men came from devoutly Christian backgrounds and experienced extensive problems with drug abuse, which would’ve likely alienated them from their families. Both men also dropped out of university and Adebowale experienced bullying at school, likely producing alienation from peers.
When people become alienated from mainstream groups and orders in society, they lose their sense of self. This is a profoundly unpleasant phenomenon to experience. When the status quo fails us in the validation of ourselves, we veer towards more fringe cultures and groups for validation, fringe groups that often extol extremism, tribalism and violence. This is the same reason why inner-city youths plagued by family breakdown, lack of positive role models and poor economic opportunity become beholden to violent gang culture and why cults seek to socially isolate their members. In the case of Adebolajo and Adebowale, the remedy these men would’ve turned to deal with alienation via family breakdown, drug abuse and loss of educational prospects would be radical Islam. This is consistent with a statement by Maajid Nawaz, from anti-extremism think tank the Quilliam Foundation that a disproportionately high number of Islamic terrorists are actually converts as opposed to being born into the religion. Hate preachers like Abu Hamza and Omar Bakri understand this, and as such deliberately prey on the disenfranchised and alienated within our society.
Two sides of the same coin
The most ironic thing of all may that radical Islam is but one product of social alienation; another would be right wing extremism. Groups like the BNP and EDL may claim to be in opposition to Islamic fundamentalists, but in reality such groups are two sides to the same coin. BNP and EDL supporters have become socially alienated from a political order that they see as aloof, out of touch and self-serving. Both groups, for various reasons, have become disillusioned with the customs, values and beliefs of mainstream liberal, globalised, consumerist society and have sort refuge in ideologies that define themselves in a distinctly oppositional “us vs. them” way to this society.
To say fringe ideologies, whether they be radical Islam, far-right nationalism or gang culture are the “cause” of violence and social atrocity is a simplification. What is a more accurate thing to say is that these ideologies serve as something of a rationalisation for already angry people to commit atrocities with greater conviction, fanning the flames as opposed to being the spark. Psychology shows that when people hold a deeply hold sense of belonging to a clearly defined social group, they will be considerably more likely to attack members of oppositional groups, even if the group distinction is something as trivial as sports teams at a holiday camp. With its strict and clearly defined customs and norms, Islam is especially powerful in its clasping of the rational individual into tribalism and groupthink, but if it didn’t exist, a billion and one other ideologies, no matter how innocuous on the surface, could take its place. Religious fundamentalism is not completely a cause of social breakdown and atrocity; it is as much a symptom.
There seems to be a fashionable current of secular thought that “religion is the cause of all conflict in the world” but religion is really a proxy for human tribalism, which is manifest in all kinds of ways. In terms of tackling the problem of Islamic fundamentalism, rationally opposing its ideologies, going after those who seek to indoctrinate and preach hate and asking difficult questions about British foreign policy are all helpful. Yet it takes one to listen as much as it takes one to preach, and we must address the complex factors that cause so many disenfranchised young men to turn to such extreme cultural stances. Furthermore, we should be suspicious of those who seek to stereotype and criticise groups of millions of people, as such acts only entrench division and alienation further. Regardless of religion, race or political belief, within the right social conditions, anyone can become an extremist and a killer.
* The statistic I have given here is based on 283 people being convicted of terrorism related offenses from September 2001 to March 2012 in the United Kingdom (page 14). It has been assummed that about 75% of these people self-indentify as Muslim, based on that proportion appearing in reports I found on the number of convicted terrorists in British prisons both in 2008 (p. 25) and 2012 (p. 40). This gives us 212 Islamic terrorists, which was then calculated as a proportion of all 2.7 million Muslims living in the United Kingdom, giving 0.0008% or about 8 in every 100 000.