Scott Atran, “Alt-Right or jihad?”:
It was religious philosopher Søren Kierkegaard who first discussed ‘the dizziness of freedom’ and the social disruption that it creates. Seizing on the idea in Escape from Freedom (1941), humanist philosopher Erich Fromm argued that too much freedom caused many to seek elimination of uncertainty in authoritarian systems. This has combined with what social psychologist Arie Kruglanski calls ‘the search for significance’, propelling both violent jihadists and militant supporters of populist ethno-nationalist movements worldwide. In the wake of these forces, we see what psychologist Michele Gelfand describes as a ‘tightening’ of political cultures, featuring intolerance of behaviours that differ from the norm. Thus, in our recent fieldwork with youth emerging from under ISIS rule in Mosul, we find that although ISIS may have lost its state, the Caliphate, it hasn’t necessarily lost allegiance among the people to its core values of strict religious rule and rejection of democracy. As one young man put it: ‘Sharia is God telling you what to do … Democracy is humans causing wars and distrust. To be free to do whatever you want leads to many problems and divisions and corruption in society.’
From jihadis in Europe to white supremacists in the US, people most susceptible to joining radical groups are youth in their teens and 20s seeking community and purpose. The attraction of community is especially keen where there are sentiments of social exclusion or community collapse, whether or not accompanied by economic deprivation. It is a sense of purpose that most readily propels action and sacrifice, including a willingness to fight and die – especially when that purpose is perceived to be in defence of transcendent values dissociated from material costs or consequences.
In our studies across Europe, North Africa and the Middle East, we find that when membership in a tight community combines with a commitment to transcendent values, the willingness to make costly sacrifices will rise. The idea is to encourage devoted action for the sake of absolute values that fuse community and purpose.
This applies to the alt-Right as well. Just look at Patrik Hermansson’s undercover investigation of the extreme Right for the anti-racist group Hope Not Hate. Like recruiters who seek to bring in people from the larger Muslim community through cultural mixers and gatherings and then nudge them towards jihadi values, the alt-Right aims ‘to bring the [white] mainstream towards us’, as far-Right Scottish YouTube vlogger Colin Robertson put it, by avoiding the stereotypical ‘race hate’ line, and by relentlessly focusing on what Aryan Nations portrays as ‘a spiritual-based, numinous way of living’.
Fearful of the chauvinism and xenophobia that fed two world wars, many Western leaders and press simply denounce national identity or cultural preference as ‘bigoted’ or ‘racist’, and show an ostrich-like blindness to pan-human preferences for one’s own. This leaves the field wide-open for the offensive of white-nationalist groups of the alt-Right, or the far-Right’s less overtly racist alt-Light defenders of ‘Western culture’ against the onslaught of Islam, globalism, migration, feminism and homosexuality.
So how might we intervene? At the 2017 World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, where I presented some of our research findings, I had the impression that most people in attendance thought that the recent surge of jihadism and xenophobic ethno-national populism were just atavistic blips in the ineluctable progress of globalisation that were destined to soon go away. That to me was the most worrisome feature of Davos, whose denizens basically run the world (or try to). Few there seemed willing to change their policies or behaviour. They seemed to view the left-behinds of the dark side of globalisation as simply losers that might be given a handout when artificial intelligence and robots deny them any chance for a decent living.
At the very least, we must embed ourselves within actual communities to understand which approach may work best. A necessary focus of this effort must be youth, who form the bulk of today’s extremist recruits and tomorrow’s most vulnerable populations. Volunteers for al-Qaeda, the Islamic State, and many extreme nationalist groups are often youth in transitional stages in their lives – immigrants, students, people between jobs and before finding their mates. Having left their homes, they seek new families of friends and fellow travellers to find purpose and significance. The ability to understand the realities facing young people will determine whether the transnational scourge of violent extremism continues and surges or abates.