The rise of Islamic State represents perhaps one of the greatest fruitions of adolescent angst. Statistics show that the vast majority of Western recruits are between the ages of 15-25. The recent arrests in Melbourne surrounding planned attacks on Anzac Day all involved young men in their late teens.
While primarily male, the sex most vulnerable to novelty, impulsivity and stupidity, there are growing numbers of girls, the so called jihadi brides. The phenomenon is so stark that some psychologists such as adolescent specialist Michael Carr-Gregg considers terrorism increasingly a problem of adolescence and not of Islam.
The case of Jake Bilardi, an anglo-saxon child of divorce with no Muslim ancestry, is particularly problematic and illustrates vividly how Islamism transcends religion and even politics and has become the pre-eminent force of inchoate, nihilist rage against modernity. Bilardi’s case was so extraordinary that it led to a kind of agreement with News Corp columnist Miranda Devine and the leftist editor of Overland journal, Jeff Sparrow.
Writing in the Guardian Australia last month, Sparrow states that Devine is right to argue that atheism and divorce were key factors in radicalising the otherwise articulate, intelligent Bilardi. But Sparrow goes further to suggest the real culprit is the spiritual emptiness produced by free market capitalism, quoting a statistic that Belgium had far more recruits than Indonesia. The answer, according to Sparrow, is that Belgium is boring, particularly without the opportunities of enlisting in colonial enterprises that past generations had.
Regardless of whether one considers chocolate, craft beer and EU bureaucracy dull or not, Bilardi’s case thus became a football for two interpretations of what factors in the West may contribute to the success of Isis’s exploitation of disaffection. One, argued by Devine, is that the social laissez faire of the Left has left marked voids in strong belief systems, be they religion or nationalism, further exacerbated by the decline of traditional institutions such as family, clan and faith.
Sparrow uses cases like Bilardi to argue the leftist case that terrorism and particularly home grown recruits are evidence of the Marxist idea of alienation, a feature of excessive individualism in a free market economy diluting the scaffolding of human connection.
Both cases have truths but are overstated. Isis can be considered the evil twin of modernity, the most macabre fruition of identity politics particularly targeting the group that are vulnerable to chasms and disruptions in identity formation: adolescents.
The idea of adolescence has evolved in recent years as the life cycle has transformed, particularly with the delayed entry of young people into adulthood. Neuroscience has discovered that our brain does not entirely mature until almost age twenty five, which is exactly what car insurers discovered when they calculated premiums decades before scientists observed it with expensive imaging equipment. Puberty also occurs earlier, six years earlier than in 1850. The change is believed to be related to better nutrition.
Psychological theory postulates that adolescence is a time of conflict between the formation of a coherent identity and role diffusion, which in lay terms could be considered as an identity crisis. Teachers of my teenage patients often speak of how mental health issues are more apparent now and postulate changes in family as well as technology being key drivers.
What is different about youth from Muslim backgrounds growing up in the West is that all the usual complexities of identity formation are further strained by the sometimes marked contradictions in value systems between family life and the broader community. At home, collectivism, tradition and hierarchy are encouraged whereas the exact opposite virtues of individualism, autonomy and a liberal social outlook are ubiquitous elsewhere. This is why Sparrow’s assertion about boring Belgium being a driver of its terrorism recruits is wrong. Youth in Indonesia aren’t forced to contend with the same level of complexity.
It is during adolescence when children are expected to separate from their parents and assert autonomy, at least in Western cultures. Conformity and loyalty to tradition is more prized in Arab cultures. What often happens in strict Islamic households is that children are taught that Western life is dangerous and morally decrepid. This is the source of their alienation and unbelonging. It is also why they are more likely to project blame towards outer society and perceive discrimination and racism from all corners.
But when the same children are exposed to the temptations of Western life, such as the possibility of sex and drugs, the part of them that is tempted is at complete odds with their prior worldview. This is known as foreclosure, when an individual is completely invested in a certain worldview only to have it greatly challenged at a vulnerable stage in life. The angst this creates is exactly what is known as role diffusion, creating the vulnerabilities that lay the foundations for the conflation of personal resentment with the black and white, non negotiable political worldview that Isis offers. This becomes the foundation of their perceived, authentic self.
The worrying problem, as cases like Bilardi illustrate, is that the complexities of identity formation are being heightened in groups even outside Islamic communities, attracting more non-Muslims to the protest politics of Islamism. Adolescents are the most sensitive to the myriad cultures and influences that globalisation and technology present, making some past assumptions of identity formation, studies of which were usually undertaken in homogenous environments, less applicable.
Much like Shakespearean dramas such as Romeo and Juliet, adolescents have long been the canaries in the mine that expose the contradictions or failings of the adult world. In the case of terrorism, they are the most vulnerable group in danger of being attracted to the most threatening vehicle of modern protest. This continues to have everything to do with Islam and Islamism, but is also an expression of fissures in human connections and beliefs.