How are we to understand why a group of Canadian-born youth apparently would be hatching a plan to storm the House of Commons, behead parliamentarians, bomb several office buildings, and murder hundreds of innocent civilians? Everything we know about the alleged plotters flies in the face of the received wisdom of who becomes a terrorist and why.
These young men were not poor. They were not uneducated. They did not live in ghettos surrounded by military checkpoints. Their country was not occupied by a foreign power. All were Muslim — two of them converts — but none was brought up to believe in the Salafist teachings that undergird the ideology of contemporary jihad. They were mostly middle-class youth with everything to live for. Some had their own children. And yet, they allegedly claimed to be ready to kill and, perhaps, even to die for an idea. That idea, it seems, included the plight of Muslims in Afghanistan, and the harm allegedly being done to them by Canadian troops.
Such a phenomenon is hardly unique to these young Canadians; it can be found in England, France, the Netherlands and America; in Cairo, Karachi, Amman and Najaf. But the only way to understand the phenomenon is to hang out with Muslim youth and talk to them. I have done quite a bit of that in various parts of the world — in Western cities, in Palestinian slums, and in Pakistani madrassas. And what I've learned it this: Jihad has become a global fad, rather like gangsta rap. Among many Muslim youth, it is a cool way of expressing dissatisfaction with a power elite — whether that elite is real or imagined; whether power is held by totalitarian monarchs or by liberal parliamentarians. Of course, while many youth will go along with the fad, the violence it promotes is carried out by only a few.
The jihadi fad is spreading like a virus on an Internet vector. It is a product of globalization, but also, in part, a reaction to it. And it will take a global effort to contain its spread.
What makes this fad so virulent? The prospect of playing a heroic role in a global effort to improve the world is an understandably appealing fantasy, especially to youth. And that is what contemporary jihad is all about: ridding the world of corrupting influences and creating a new civilization — one that participants imagine as more just, more ethical, and more peaceful than the imperfect world in which they live. Jihad is a millenarian movement with mass appeal, similar, in many ways, to earlier global movements such as the anarchists of the 19th century or even the peace movement of the 1960s and '70s. But today's radical youth are expressing their dissatisfaction with the status quo by making war, not love. They are seduced by Thanatos rather than Eros. Newlywed pro-jihadi youth spend their wedding nights watching today's ghoulish pornography: the beheadings of foreigners held hostage in Iraq. Children film themselves re-enacting these beheadings, seduced by a familiar drama — the good guys killing the bad guys in order to save the world.
Terrorists often start out as "true believers," who are seduced — and sometimes victimized — by a bad idea, often one promulgated by charismatic leaders. Today's bad idea — the terrorists' narrative — is the notion that the West is deliberately setting out to victimize and humiliate the Islamic world. And there are countless examples they can refer to, from Abu Ghraib to Algiers, from Guantanamo to Gaza.
There is an appeal to an identity of victimhood: If I am a victim of someone else's bad actions, I have an excuse for not meeting expectations — my own or others. There is an appeal to righteous indignation. There is an appeal to avenging wrongs visited on the weak by the strong. The narrative will be more seductive if moral questions seem to have easy answers, if good and evil can be easily distinguished, if perpetrators and victims stand out in stark relief, and if they never trade places, as they often do in the real world.
And the West sometimes plays right into the hands of terrorist ideologues, whose success depends not only on the appeal of the narrative they weave, but also their ability to illustrate it with facts, or at least pictures that appear to be facts. Iraq, alas, is producing many of the pictures the terrorists need.
How can we reduce the spread of the jihadi idea?
Part of the solution must come from the Arab and Muslim worlds. Muslim youth around the world need more heroes — leaders as charismatic as bin Laden, but with a positive vision rather than a dystopian one. Those leaders are far more likely to emerge when Arab societies are no longer held back in a chokehold of corruption, poor governance, inadequate education, and disempowered women. Fifty per cent of Arab women remain illiterate, and their participation in political and economic life is the lowest in the world. But we in the West have a role to play as well. To win the war on terrorism — including the Islamist terrorism emerging from within, we need to understand that we are fighting an idea, not a state. The tools required, at least in the long run, are neither bombs nor torture chambers. They are good ideas, including ideas about how to reduce the appeal of jihad.
Here is my suggestion for one way to begin: Talk to the youth currently in custody. While they may not yet know why they did what they are alleged to have done, they probably know how they were seduced. Where did they get recruited — on the Internet, in a school? What is the most appealing rhetoric, and why? What websites did they find most compelling? The best ideas for curbing the jihadi fad may well come from them.
Jessica Stern, a lecturer at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government, is the author of Terror in the Name of God: Why Religious Militants Kill.