Politica – Radicalism & the search for roots


Just as I was beginning my career in diversity and intercultural affairs, Alex Haley, a Black American wrote a book called Roots. Beyond being a bestseller, it kicked off an popular movement. People in a nation created by dislocated natives, imported slaves, indentured servants, and migrants in search of a new start, were, at least temporarily, thrown back on the question of where they came from and what their own ancestry meant to them. Many started to dig for the roots of their own family tree. The USA is a country in which the dominant culture tends to dictate that people be known and recognized by what they do for a living, what they have accomplished on their own, rather than where they came from or who they were related to. In other words, they need to be classified as "winners" instead of "losers" in the Monopoly game of life, not scions of nobility.

This curiosity about origins percolated for a while, but has been largely eclipsed by the shadow of cultural self-constructionism, aided by pop psych, offering to help one "make one's identity" or "be one's authentic self". Connections and identification with others were purportedly unimportant, or at least of temporary worth, as one strove to liberate the self from past accretions and succeed in becoming a "self-made (wo)man". Still, the longing for belonging, especially in uncertain times such as our own still pesters and festers. It does so with particular acuteness in the wounds and sore spots of those deliberately excluded and disadvantaged from the mainstream in society, education, workplace, or neighborhood.

During the last five months, a friend and colleague of mine was asked to work with ten former radicals. Some if them were in ISIS prisons, three in Iraq , two in Syria and two in Afghanistan. His task was to develop a training educational reintegration model for them. He reported that this undertaking was intense, difficult, inspiring, motivating, deceptive, both comprehensible incomprehensible, sad, as well as full of facts on why and how they finally plunged themselves in the so-called the extreme. He reported his findings as:

  1. They have somethings in common.
  2. Many things not in common.
  3. But ONE issue they had in common stood out: IDENTITY AND LOOKING FOR LOST IDENTITY.

(If you would like to know more about this experience email me and I will put you in contact with my colleague.)

If for ethnic, racial, religious, or social class reasons you are excluded from the community of the mainstream, there seem to be two options. The first is to claim that you and your kind are the mainstream, then both blame and exclude the others. If you are numerous and loud enough, you may succeed. We see this in the waves of new populism that have become a tsunami, as in the recent US elections and Brexit, as well as in the mounting tide of identity politics in many other countries. You may even drop out, find a guru and join a counterculture. Secondly, you may reject the society which rejects you and make it the enemy, the justified target for everything from plundering by petty crime, drug abuse, or deadly violence. Depending on the identity that others label you with, you may be terminally excluded, defined as a sicko, a criminal, or a terrorist.

This exclusion starts to answer the question of where radicalization comes into the picture. In political terms, this may occur in what is traditionally defined as right or left. In other words, your need to have an identity, to belong, is happily provided by a group convinced of the righteousness of its cause and unrestrained in the means it chooses to use to achieve its goals. You are now ready to both kill and die for the group that has embraced you and provided you a long desired, meaningful identity. It is no surprise, then, that the disenfranchised, the out-group, the young women and men, whose current families or communities have not provided them with acceptance, identity, and possibilities for their future, are ripe for proselytization.

Reaction to radicalization has largely taken the form of trying to find, evict or convict the proselytizers, close their centers, identify and track their sympathizers. While this sounds like a bold initiative to alleviate the fears of a community and promote confidence in their politicians and government, it is far too little, too late. It is reaction, not action. The community needs to develop the tools of insight, to look at its self-righteousness and identify its exclusionary tendencies and behaviors. They need to take solid steps to rectify them, so that they need to invest less in police salaries, rubber bullets and water cannon, as well as military forays abroad, which accentuate otherness and exclusion, and breed the radicalism they delude themselves into believing that they are eliminating.



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