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Looking for meaning? Islamic radicalisation as an existential project
“To understand why people radicalize, you need to understand their worldliness; how they understand, perceive the world, and how they give meaning to it”. These are the words of Jacques , a former Islamic extremist born and raised in the Netherlands that I interviewed in February 2017 in the context of my PhD project on youth’s motivations to join radical Islamic subcultures in France and in the Netherlands. Deradicalized while serving his time in prison, Jacques now works as a part-time consultant for security agencies and think-tanks, sharing his personal experience with Islamic extremism. Raised by a Christian family in a town of the ‘Randstad’, Jacques struggled throughout his childhood with existential disorientation – reporting to ‘have always been the one asking more questions about religion than anyone could provide’. After the divorce of his parents during his teenage years, he befriended a group of Moroccan boys who introduced him to Islam and recalls to have been struck by their clear understanding of what they believed in, their clear definition of Good and Evil and their existential certainty – existential certainty that he could not find in Church groups he was attending at that time. As he became increasingly interested in Islam, Jacques started attending Islamic lectures and eventually converted. Despites his shallow understanding of Islam at that time, he remembers his conversion as a feeling of being home in a world from which he previously felt alienated.
Jacques’ turn towards Islamic fundamentalism occurred at a later stage and coincided with two major events: the 9/11 attacks, which suddenly awoke his political consciousness and radically confronted his Dutch and his Muslim identity; and the advent of the internet, which ‘brought the world into [his] frame of reference’ and allowed him to broaden his search for information, leading him to Al-Qaeda pro-Taliban websites. Seduced by Al-Qaeda’s narrative, he went through a phase of ‘islamisation’ during which he came into contact with an extremist group of like-minded people. Eventually arrested in the early 2000’s, he was sentenced on terrorism charges to fifteen years in prison.
Reviewing research on (Islamic) radicalization
Mainstream studies on Islamic radicalization and terrorism tend to portray radicalization as a result of external forces (see Veldhuis and Staun, 2009, for a review of the literature). Although there is no consensus on the root causes of radicalization, scholars generally distinguish between micro, meso and macro factors. At the macro-level, the emergence of Islamic radical groups is often seen as a consequence of geopolitical and cultural conflicts, globalization and modernization, and Muslims exclusion in Western countries. At the meso-level, scholars emphasize the influence of radical groups on the individual, and focus on groups’ organizational structures, recruitment strategies and propaganda. At the micro-level, scholars focus on the impact of macro and meso conditions on the individual, arguing that poor integration, perceived discrimination, feelings of frustration and alienation may be conducive to radicalization.
Several important shortcomings emerge from a review of the literature. Besides adopting a structuralist approach, mainstream studies extensively focus on male youth born from Muslim immigration, and fail to take into account the diverse background of individuals radicalizing (gender, socio-economic status, family’s ethnicity and religion). In addition, studies fail to explain why some individuals radicalize while others do not.
Listening to Jacques’journey, I was struck by a somewhat neglected aspect of radicalization: its existential dimension.
An existentialist outlook on radicalization
Listening to Jacques’ journey through Islamic fundamentalism – from conversion to adoption of extremist values – I was struck by a somewhat neglected aspect of radicalisation; that is, its existential dimension. A prevalent value of the existentialist school of thought is that the human condition is characterized by ‘existential angst’, that is, a sense of disorientation and confusion in the face of a world of uncertainty, choices and responsibility. Confronted with the apparent meaninglessness of their existence, individuals engage in a continual process of meaning-making in an attempt to construct themselves, and to make sense of the world surrounding them. Existentialists are therefore concerned with those dynamics that drive individuals’ behavior – their feelings, emotions, concerns, aspirations, morals and values – and their relationship to the world. Radicalization, in this sense, can be understood as an existential project: drifting in a world where the only certainty is the inevitable finitude of human existence, the individual engages in a process of meaning-making and becoming by adhering to a higher cause.
Worldview ideologies are central to this process. Whether they are politically or religiously grounded, worldview ideologies enable the individual to understand his own place in the world by providing him with a coherent and logical systems of ideas, concepts, beliefs and representations standing as truth. In the case of Al-Qaeda’s narrative – according to Jacques – its attractiveness firstly lays in its ability to merge the past, the present and the future into an historical and intergenerational project aiming to awaken Islamic consciousness and to transform the world into a mirror-image of the early times of Islam. Backed up by reference to religious sources, it presents itself as an meaning-making lens through which the individual can re-interpret isolated conflicts (such as the war in Bosnia or in the Kashmir), historical changes and his own grievances in the light of one main struggle between divine Truth and falseness. Secondly, it provides individuals with a sense of divine purpose and offers them the opportunity to realize themselves in a meaningful way: within Al-Qaeda’s project, the individual becomes part of a revolutionary vanguard fighting at the frontline of history. From a disoriented individual lost in the complexity of the world, he becomes a hero, a holy warrior engaged in a cosmic battle. Ready to scarify himself for defending the scared, he therefore releases himself from his existential uncertainty and from his own finitude. As Jacques notes, ‘I wanted to become a martyr, because, you know (…) everything you do here decides your outcome eternally after that (…) and the best investment is dying on the path of God, martyrdom, because you will get the highest return’.
the Al-Qaeda’s narrative provides individuals with a sense of divine purpose and offers them the opportunity to realize themselves in a meaningful way
In my view, inquiring into those dynamics that drive individuals’ behavior and relation to the world – and how these dynamics change over time – enable us to go beyond purely structuralist explanations of radicalization and to gain a deeper understanding of individual motivations for joining radical causes. As Jacques’ story shows, his turn towards fundamentalism was more driven by his search for meaning and certainty, than by a conjuncture of external forces. My research therefore seeks to understand the role of these existential concerns in individuals’ motivations to join Islamic radical movements.
 The name of the respondent has been changed in order to protect his identity