As someone who grew up between two cultures, I have been fascinated with the question of why men and women with similar backgrounds to mine were drawn towards radical messages of hate and violence. Was it a response to Western foreign policy, to the position of Muslims in the world? Did it come from an inevitable clash of diametrically opposed cultures? These were the questions in the back of my mind when I filmed my documentary Jihad, but what I found was unexpected, and much more complex.
A lot of words have been written about why women and girls would sign up to be 'jihadi brides' in service of the Islamic State, particularly given the extreme misogyny of their beliefs. But there has been much less examination of the sinister appeal of extremism to men and boys, as if it were natural for men to become involved in violence and brutality. And while there has been a lot of attention paid to the often restricted lives of South Asian and Middle Eastern women and girls, the question of what it means to grow up as a Muslim man in Western societies has been comparatively neglected. Often living next to white, working class communities where racist abuse and violence are a part of everyday life, these boys and young men absorb competing messages about what 'being a man' means.
At home, it means being a good son: devoted to his mother, obedient to his father, the guardian of his sisters' honour; pressurised to achieve academically, to follow traditional rules around drugs, alcohol and contact with the opposite sex. On the other hand, in school, these values are reversed: the most "popular" boys are those who present themselves as being 'too cool for school', having high levels of independence from their parents and where drinking, clubbing, sexual relationships and drug use are normal rites of passage - even a source of status. Young Muslim men find themselves torn between these competing masculinities, being belittled for their ethnicity and religion as well as for their lack of conformity to their peers' definition of masculine behaviour. Even the most able may feel that the prospect of achieving status through social mobility is unlikely, in a world where hiring practices remain prejudiced and higher education increasingly expensive. Small wonder that some adopt the exaggerated masculinity of popular African American culture, from hiphop to gangs, as a way to reject being categorised as passive or feminine. But there is now another way to assert this precarious masculinity - through taking on the image and language of extremist Islam. Through adopting radical extremism, some young men who previously felt humiliated and emasculated by their peers can now feel powerful and intimidating, and gain status, attention from young women, and the comradeship and solidarity of other young men like themselves. As one of our interviewees says, jihad is perceived as "a very macho thing... it's kind of alpha male".
Our media provides a continuing message that for men, heroism is defined through association with control, independence and the ability to commit violence, from superheroes to crime dramas. Most world leaders are male, and many present exaggeratedly masculine personas, such as dressing up in military garb at any opportunity, in a show of strength and dominance. The message seems to be that if young men are not respected, some of them will settle for being feared. Extremism is a complicated issue, but without addressing how it appeals to men and boys, we may be missing an important motivation, and a way to address the problems in our towns and cities. Feelings of humiliation and emasculation are keenly felt, and can lead to extreme and violent behaviours in many contexts. Building a culture in which varied forms of 'being a man' are accepted and respected may help all our boys and young men to feel more comfortable in their own skin, able to live according to their own desires than trying to fit themselves into a prewritten gender script....and less likely to assert their masculinity through violence and brutality.
You can watch the trailer for Deeyah Khan's 'Jihad' below