Each week, In Theory takes on a big idea in the news and explores it from a range of perspectives. This week we’re talking about radicalization and “homegrown terrorism.” Need a primer? Catch up here.
Hamza Yusuf is president of Zaytuna College, the first Muslim liberal arts college in the United States. He also serves as the vice president of the Forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies.
A few days ago, a colleague from the college where I teach and serve as president called to let me know the FBI had just paid a visit. They wanted to inform me that the Orlando shooter, Omar Mateen, had been Googling me on his computer and iPhone. They were concerned that he may have had malevolent intent, given that the Islamic State had called for my death twice in the last year, presumably due to my strong condemnation of the utterly anti-Islamic nature of their “state” in a sermon that went viral in the Middle East.
After some deliberation, I thought of another explanation for Mateen searching for me: Perhaps he had been conflicted about what he was contemplating and wanted to seek advice. I may be guilty of wishful thinking, but I would like to believe that in his heart he knew something was not right. We cannot determine what motivated this young man — who had a wife and a child — to infamously propel himself into American history by means of one of our bloodiest massacres. But my sense, given what we’ve learned about him since then, is that it cannot be reduced to a simple equation.
Mateen was living a double life (not healthy); he had a troubled childhood (not good); and he was frustrated in his worldly ambition of becoming a police officer (not happy). He ended up in a seemingly dead-end job of security officer at a wealthy housing development, “Dress’d in a little brief authority / Most ignorant of what he’s most assur’d,” as the Bard wrote. His violent temper, use of steroids and love for guns were a volatile cocktail ripe for explosion.
How does one cloak one’s pathology in a robe of righteousness? Religion is usually the garment of choice. A common denigration by those who dread religion is its constant enlistment into execrable causes. Yet I feel “impressment” may be more precise than “enlistment.” Much of the violence we are witnessing has more to do with political vacuums, disempowerment and self-determination movements that use religion as a rallying cry in parts of the world that are still deeply theocentric. Impressionable youth are particularly susceptible to these cries that are invariably adorned with the language of chivalry, honor and religious duty.
If we look at the places and people radicalized, certain commonalities emerge. Many of the places have been victims of violence for decades: Palestine, Afghanistan and Chechnya to name a few. As for people being radicalized — leaders notwithstanding — a prerequisite is the lack of substantial education and religious literacy. But perhaps the least understood factor is the role the Internet plays in spreading the memes of mayhem to malleable young minds.
In his eerily prophetic 1969 book, “Between Two Ages,” Zbigniew Brzezinski wrote about the technological future and its potential reach: “In the techtronic society the trend would seem to be towards the aggregation of the individual support of millions of uncoordinated citizens, easily within the reach of magnetic and attractive personalities, exploiting the latest communications techniques to manipulate emotions and control reason.” He was talking about the potential of the Internet, which at the time was the province of the Defense Department and a few universities.
That young men are attracted to violence is an ancient trope found in our earliest masterpieces of literature such as the “Illiad,” “The Song of Roland” and Jahili Arabic poetry where a 7th century poet could write, “War first appears as a dazzling beauty decked out in her ornaments to attract every youthful ignoramus.” Some reduce this male attraction to testosterone levels. Whatever it is, its reality is evident in the recruitment videos of the Islamic State that use the same graphics as the violent video games that many young men obsessively play.
But in the chaotic tenor of our current culture, we lack an understanding the ancients deemed self-evident: the need for what the Japanese called bushido, the Arabs called futuwwa, and what we in the West once called paideia — a type of chivalrous education for young men, where they were challenged to “tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of the world,” as Aeschylus put it. This is what we lack. Youthful vigor should be channeled to engage in study of the normative Islamic tradition with an emphasis on the tools of learning. With knowledge to ground them, they can face the complexities and challenges of our time with wisdom, not rage.
I wish Omar had called me; I like to think I could have dissuaded him or advised him to seek professional help, or at least helped him channel his anger and frustration into something productive and meaningful. Instead, surfing the Internet, he found a crypt full of contempt and hate that allowed him to clothe his naked aggression in a coat of religiosity.