It was a shocking sight. Newspaper front pages plastered with the face of a boy, fresh from Year 12. Next to it, an image we’ve grown far too used to – a balaclava and an ISIS flag, the emblems of the mad ideology which is tearing the Islamic world apart and provoking us to war.
The death of Abdul Numan Haider at the age of 18 will not generate too much sympathy – especially as he died trying to kill two police officers. But if we don’t ask why he died more boys will be disturbed and twisted by the ISIS ideology. And that might involve quite an uncomfortable look at ourselves.
For weeks there have been frantic calls for the ‘Islamic Community’ – no matter how fragmented that community is – to come out and shout ‘Stop.’ The problem with trying to get Muslim Australians to intervene (or, as some demand, apologise) are manifold. For one thing, the leadership is a collective – there’s no Archbishop of Lakemba to speak with a single booming voice. And frankly, nearly all the Islamic organisations have co-operated spectacularly well with the police and worked assiduously with the Abbott Government. Yes, and last but not least, none of this matters anyway – these boys aren’t listening.
ISIS has fulfilled the promise of Al Qaeda. Extremism has moved out of the mosque and into the bedrooms of teenagers. As Sheikh Abdul Azim – president of the National Imams Council – said in a Victoria Police press conference last week, ‘The sheikh we’re having the most trouble with is Sheikh Google. Have you heard of him?’
The social media prowess of ISIS is now legendary. Twitter, YouTube and Facebook are as important to the cult of the would-be caliphate as guns and knives. Scroll ‘#IS’ on Twitter and you’ll find hundreds of combatants and supporters spreading the word and posting sick photos of their crimes. But it’s not all beheadings and declarations against infidels. IS combatants also re-tweet pictures of fluffy kittens and chat about celebrities. The two sides, the seemingly normal Western kids and the mad extremist warriors, sit side-by-side and this can only discomfort any sane mind.
An Islamist fighter known as ‘Abdullah’ – thought to be British-born – made global headlines when he posted his fondness for Jumanji and The Lion King following Robin Williams’ death. As thousands swamped his account asking why he liked these kids’ films as much as slaughtering innocents, he tweeted, ‘Now I’m actually worried people will follow me because they wanna hear about my favourite movies instead of reporting jihad.’ Don’t you fret, Abdullah. The latter will command the intelligence services’ close attention.
IS speaks the language of the social media generation. It’s not a bunch of mujahedeen veterans of the Afghanistan vanquishing of the Soviets, recruiting doctors and mechanics into a post-colonial struggle. While the self-proclaimed caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi may be a military genius, he relies on an army of trolls and teenagers. And they’re not just ‘the men of Middle Eastern appearance’ who terrify tabloids.
Think of Melbourne-born Robert ‘Musa’ Cerantonio: white, middle class, and notorious as an extremist demagogue on YouTube. His videos reached hundreds and convinced fellow Australians to go off and join their terrorist brothers in Iraq and Syria before he was arrested in the Philippines. This was not some disaffected Lebanese immigrant youth but an average Aussie bloke captive to a hideous ideology that is as happy to have Caucasian disciples as any other. And the ideology reached out to him on the internet.
We shouldn’t be surprised by the link between internet troll culture and IS. In the darkest corners of the web, the 4Chans and the World of Warcrafts, we see a particularly macho, woman-hating, violence-worshipping mentality which appeals to the most suburban of teenage boys. And they are boys.
It’s the ancient Jesuit maxim at work, ‘Give me a child of seven, and I will make him ours for life’. It is a strategy everyone from Lord Kitchener in World War I to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi today has used – and lo and behold it still works up to the age of 21. Put a youth in an isolated area, subject him to barrels of propaganda and feed his innate sense of invincibility and his bloodlust, and your boy-warrior can move mountains.
Trolls of todays, terrorists of tomorrow. Geeky, Game of Thrones obsessed teens alienated from their parents and contemptuous of women generally. How far is it from demanding Harry Potter starlet Emma Watson be raped for talking about feminism to adulating ISIS’s mass rape of women whose menfolk they’ve just crucified? Many of these isolates have identified ISIS as an ideology that puts into practice the obsessions the internet has encouraged for years.
And that is the triumph of ISIS. It has crashed through socio-ethnic barriers to become a sellable ideology to the young. Islamic in fashion yes, but oh so different from adult grievances (however deadly) of Osama and his ilk. It owes more to the Cultural Revolution in China and Pol Pot’s attempts to turn back history; to cleanse the old and build a new one (or recreate a mythical past). Parents and teachers, elders of all kinds, struggle with the ideology because they are the target.
Ethnic dimensions remain. If you see your mum, wearing a headscarf, being spat on, I daresay you won’t think much of the true blue Aussies who spat on her. The government are right to be vigilant and when a boy’s anger or panic makes him attack with a knife you can’t blame the cops for the tragic consequences.
The Islamic leaders, the Muslim parents, reach out to troubled teenagers as best they can. But the president of the Lebanese Muslim Association, Samier Dandan, summed up their plight: ‘Frankly, we don’t know these people.’ The teachers of terrorism who once preyed on the mosques are finding the internet works so much better.
This is everybody’s problem. ISIS has created an ideology that attracts young guys regardless of their ethnicity or religious background. We all have a duty to tackle this twisted ideology together. Call it Team Australia if that’s the best bet. But remember the insidiousness of ISIS can mess the mind of any young guy on the net.
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