In the minds of so many security and terrorism experts, to evoke the notion that there is a genuine problem with masculinity in relation to the radicalised, including from those of Muslim minority backgrounds as well as in Muslim-majority settings, raises eyebrows galore. Certainly, there has been a great deal of work on the far right and questions of masculinity, but less so emerges in relation to Muslim groups. However, the issues are entirely similar, with little to separate concerns over the status of men, their roles in society as sole breadwinners, their prowess in relation to their sexuality and the fact that they have to face the consequences of their decline while women have seen rapid ascendancy, in relative terms, over the last three decades or so.
Sex and sexuality is a major issue among these young men who have all sorts of psychological issues to do with their status and questions of belonging. In what has become the impotence of men, what has replaced it, in the case of far right extremists, is homophobia combined with hyper-ethnic nationalism. For the Islamist extremists, there is no shortage of homophobic thinking, but a much grander notion of a caliphate replaces nationalism – as a nation beyond borders, as it were. Ethnicity does not trump here, but the absolute devotion to a sense of purity that comes with a warped, alien and completely irrelevant devotion to a single narrative in relation to one’s existence and one’s relationship to a higher astral figure. In this context, ideology plays less of a role. Rather, the general workings of society and the implications it raises for inequalities and the discourse in relation to difference, including the gender component, is crucial to understand. The fact that so many Western liberal democracies have introduced same-sex marriages is clearly going to grate some men who see their societies turning to sin and debauchery however culturally, socially and pseudo-legally classified it is for these angry men in reality.
So much about violent extremism relates to the wider workings of society, but so many refuse to appreciate these linkages, which can only mean that a counter-ideological discourse, which seeks to focus on British values by countering radical messages, for example, is merely an alternative ideological discourse, not a genuinely tested policy with deliverable outcomes. These countering violent extremism policies also attempt to moderate and mollify extremist voices expressed by angry young men (and women), but they are, in fact, individuals with grievances that receive scant attention. Policymakers must understand the holistic nature of violent extremism, and not simply concentrate on the latter stages of the radicalisation process, where, indeed, ideology is a concern. Building a stronger, stable and an equal society is surely progress for all, where respect and tolerance are fostered at the highest levels, and where reward is based on merit (equality of opportunity but also equality of outcome). We could not be further apart in the current climate, and it is no surprise, therefore, that different kinds of radicalism find fertile ground in the minds of vulnerable, pliable and completely directionless young people. What these young people need is hope combined with a collective vision – both are sadly missing in their lives.
My fear is that the countering violent extremism space is being separated from a wider societal discourse, where the concentration is on policing and securitisation, using policy, such as Prevent or CVE across the world more generally, as intelligent gathering exercises. It ultimately breaks down existing levels of low interest, fosters discord and leads to a breakdown in the democratic process. People stop caring about their policymakers because they feel that their governments are only interested in the pursuits of narrow interests that reflect the aspirations of a particularly small subsection of society whose status is already guaranteed. In the past, fascism emerged when societies become politically polarised between the haves and the have-nots, and when there is no overarching grand narrative that brings the whole of the nation under one umbrella, fit for all, capable for all. No one wants fascism to return but its possible re-emergence must also be eliminated.
Policymakers need to make greater inroads into understanding the nature of identity politics that reflect internal turmoil in relation to deep questions of status and belonging that affect young men as part the workings of wider society as a whole. Anything less will simply not achieve the desired results.