Hairy and scary: ISIS recruits as the hippies of today

The idea of the barbarian goes back to the ancient world. It was used pejoratively by those who considered themselves civilised—the Greeks and Romans—to describe those they considered savage. Barbaroi meant bearded ones; when Alexander the Great insisted that his soldiers shave their beards off to prevent their enemies from grabbing them and stabbing them, he established a new paradigm equating civilisation with smooth faces.

In recent years, the West has rediscovered the paradigm of barbarism in its collision with Islamism. The new symbol of barbarity is the bearded ISIS jihadi. YouTube abounds with videos of them revelling in their excesses. We respond, as the civilised have done for millennia, by decrying their behaviour as inhuman and animal.

That doesn’t help us deal with it. To deal with it, it’s not enough to condemn it—we have to outflank it. But so far, we’ve not been able to get past our outrage, and that suits the barbarians just fine. From established news organisations to the Twittersphere, and from government agencies to independent think tanks, we’re paralysed by ISIS’s flaunting of its evil and brazen degeneracy. We’re hijacked not just by jihadi “wickedness” but by our revulsion at it.

Grasping at straws, we blame radical mullahs and unpoliced social media for leading the vulnerable astray. We fund deradicalisation programmes in schools and prisons, try to intercept networks of influence locally and online, and press families and “more responsible” imams to keep an eye on the impressionable, as if Muslim patriarchs were all naturally persuasive and Muslim youth all meekly submissive.

In doing so, we pour fuel on the fire of Muslim discontent, leaving us in a self-righteous stand-off of mutual recrimination. For us, Islam seems the crucible of our troubles. Muslims have nothing to complain of, should be grateful for our embrace of them, and should think twice before raising grievances about their lives in the West, given the ghastlier alternatives that they themslves have turned their backs on. They ought to be grateful to us and they ought to be policing themselves—and apparently they’re not.

This paradox torments us because it’s on our doorstep. The Cold War, Vietnam, North Korea, the break-up of Yugoslavia and even the arrival of the Taliban and al-Qaeda accustomed us to thinking of the enemy as a distant threat; ISIS, by contrast, has a bridgehead into every Western town. Our neighbours include communities of fine, upstanding, passport-holding, tax-paying, Muslim fellow citizens with all the rights afforded by the democratic state. Some of their children, however, will be tempted to fly off to become jihadi fighters in Syria and northern Iraq rather than buckle down as accountants or shelf-stackers.

This seems like a new and slippery threat. For all their beardiness, the barbarians of ISIS are as tantalisingly ungraspable as if they were clean shaven.

They can be tackled, however, if seen in their historical context. For this, two models are most relevant. The first explains why educated teenagers and young adults are flocking to join ISIS fighters. It has nothing to do with radicalisation by preachers of hate or the appeal of terrorist bootcamps in Afghanistan and Sudan. It has a lot to do with the very same drivers that created the counter-culture of the Sixties.

Anyone reading this who is over the age of 60 will remember that heady age of youth rebellion—the long hair, the rock bands, the drugs, the psychedelic music, the tie-dyed shirts, the beads, the Aubrey Beardsley posters. The talk was of dropping out, of anti-institutionalism, of love not war. The very stability that our parents had worked for was now anathema to us. We found the status quo hypocritical and self-serving, and we committed ourselves to bringing it down.

Many of the meekest teenagers were touched by the new agenda. They identified with the spirit of youth revolution, regarded the police as “pigs”, and joined student protests and sit-ins. Some were arrested, which only made them feel more righteous in their victimhood; others merely sympathised or bought the records.

We had our heroes—Timothy Leary, R.D. Laing, John Lennon, Buckminster Fuller—but had anyone said that we were being manipulated, we would have sneered at their bourgeois bigotry. What we belonged to was an international community that drew in different types of creative entrepreneurs—artistic and musical as much as political and commercial—who bound us, in spite of numerous differences, into a self-sustaining culture.

Imagine telling our parents then that they should monitor what we read or censor our friendships. Imagine our reaction had they tried. Many families broke up in any case over our refusal to compromise, our choice of lifestyle, our decision to move out and shack up with girlfriends and boyfriends in bedsits and squats. Any effort to stop us reinforced our self-belief and our sense of needing to rebuild a world our parents (and their partners: corporate America) had betrayed.

True, we didn’t cut off heads with breadknives but we admired the French Revolution and forgave it its guillotines. Some of us collected our free copies of Mao’s Little Red Book from the Chinese Embassy without questioning the massacres in Tibet. Some of us became anarcho-syndicalists, Marxists, Leninists and Trotskyists without the slightest concern about how Communist policy might have affected class enemies qua individuals.

The recruits to ISIS may be espousing a wildly different ideology but they are barely different in other ways. Like the hippies and flower children of the Sixties, they are appalled by the conformism their parents have prepared for them. They want something of their own and find it in their reinvention of provocative Arabism. It isn’t so much Wahhabi firebrands who are radicalising them as peer pressure and peer validation. Being a rebel, especially a Neo-Salafi rebel, makes them appear exotic, glamorous and challenging: what could be better? They want excitement, exhilaration, heroism, danger, even if—particularly if—it means hardship and the possibility of death. More than anything else, they want to enrage their parents, stick two fingers up at authority, and get applauded by their friends for doing so.

We had it easier; they’ve had to go further—murderously so. But much else is similar. We spent time in impoverished ashrams in India learning to play the sitar, they’re living in rough encampments in Northern Iraq learning to fire surface-to-air missiles. We had Hendrix and Cream, they have Dawlat al-Islam Qamat, Saleel al-Sawarim, and other naheed chants.

The idea that their parents or the local imam might have a quiet word with them is laughable: above all, this is generational protest. And just as the Sixties revolutionaries turned a blind eye to risk and abuse—the narcissistic contempt for others, the self-destructive dangers of marijuana, LSD and eventually heroin, the sexual exploitation of naive thrill seekers by rock stars and rock-star wannabes, the contemptuous indifference that greeted loving families—so today’s generation of Westernised mujahideen is uninterested in self-restraint, whether the call for it comes from elders of their own community or from government.

As far as they are concerned, this is their moment and it’s there to be taken.

Other youth movements have acted no differently. Those who flocked to the Jacobins and to the Hitler Jugend felt this way. So did England’s Mods and Rockers, who loved nothing more than smashing each other to pulp with beer bottles and motorbike chains on Brighton Beach on bank holiday afternoons and came back season after season for more of the same. Johnny Rotten and Vivien Westwood spoke compellingly to the Punks of the late 1970s; Abū Bakr al-Baghdādi speaks compellingly to today’s Muslim punks. The messages may be vastly different but that’s largely irrelevant; it’s the mechanism that’s significant, with its new uniforms, new rhetoric, new values.

How and whether “we” can deal with this is best answered by looking at what happened to other precursor phenomena. They all had their day, as long as their adherents were still young and able to indulge themselves, but eventually, as they got older and tireder and took on the responsibilities of adulthood and parenthood, the issues became more complicated and less clear cut. Novelty waned, what had been rewarding became stale, charisma faded, alliances broke up, money became tighter, heroes disappointed, young upstarts emerged. Cults pass.

To that extent, if we take the long view, the jihadis’ present Reign of Terror might go on for five or ten years before something newer overtakes the novelty of outrage—the extremists’ drug of choice. In the scheme of things, that’s not long, however little consolation that may be to the victims of the Paris mobs in the 1790s and of the German mobs of the 1930s.

There’s something else that’s no consolation, and that’s the other model. The Middle East, which Islamic and leftist radicals cite automatically as the origin of their discontent, has barely ever known political stability. It is, by contrast, one of the most contested regions in the history of the world—not that our present oases of stability have been all that tranquil either. So if we go to the long view for consolation in the face of today’s jihadi barbarians, the even longer view should remind us that territorial disputes cast a long shadow over what also flatters itself as the cradle of civilisation.

Without wanting to invoke Nietzsche, it appears that human evolution and brutality go side by side. We may deplore violence and revere peace, and so may millennia of our predecessors, but carnage keeps returning. When it comes, people fight or don’t fight, prevail or suffer, live under tyranny or die under it. There is no pattern, and no outcome is ever predictable.

As for the battle of the civilised against the barbarian, we need only look to the clean-shaved Alexander to unsettle our view of who was righteous and how virtue emerged. In the course of ten years, the Macedonian ruler turned the whole of Asia Minor into his empire. He was by any standards one of the most brilliant military generals ever known, and the relative hegemony that he ushered in brought a level of cultural achievement that still inspires. But how did he gain his ascendancy? By murdering his father and all but one of his brothers, and by the mass execution—often by crucifixion—of armies that did not immediately capitalute to his own. Atrocity is atrocity but it is also a means to an end.

Our task is to win a generational Kulturkampf not against anonymous terrorists but against, in effect, our children and the children of our neighbours. That means understanding our own limitations—Weaknesses: conservatism, slower reactions, less agility; Strengths: experience, financial security, patience—compared with the shorter attention span of the young, its need for stimulation, its restlessness and lack of perspective.

We may not be able to win the very short game or the very long game, but for the rest of the time, which is a very long time, the field is ours.

About the Author
Dr Stephen Games is a designer, edfitor and award-winning architectural historian, formerly with the Guardian, BBC and Independent. He was until spring 2018 a member of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, has been involved in synagogue activism for many years, and is in his spare time currently editing various volumes of the Tenach.