Getting to the Root of Radicalization

Getting to the Root of Radicalization


By Al Markowitz


After the mass shootings in Paris and San Bernardino there was a lot of talk in the news about “radicalization.” This idea of people being radicalized has got me thinking. We heard reports repeated ad infinitum on the news that San Berardino shooter Syed Farook and especially Tashfeen Malik had been in communication with, and taken pledges of loyalty to the Islamic State. As with much of what passes for news in our country, it turns out not to be true.

FBI Director James Comey said that San Bernardino shooter Tashfeen Malik did not post jihadist messages on Facebook before she came to the United States. Instead, he said, the couple was communicating with each other in direct, private messages. He is quoted as saying “We have found no evidence of a posting on social media by either of them at that period of time or thereafter reflecting their commitment to jihad or to martyrdom.

Mass shootings last year happened in our country on a nearly daily basis. When the shooter is “white,” as in the case of the shooting at the Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado or at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, or at the Cinema in Colorado or many of the other 355 mass shootings around the country in 2015, we don’t cite their being radicalized. In some cases, like Robert Dear (Planned Parenthood shooter), Dylan Roof (Charleston Church shooter), Frazier Miller (Overland Park Jewish Community Center shooter), Ted Hakey Jr. (Baitul Aman Mosque shooter) or Wade Michael Page (Sikh Temple shooter) or those who shoot at physicians providing women’s health services, they clearly have radical and terrorist agendas. Most often they are presented as merely emotionally disturbed.

So, what is the difference between being emotionally disturbed and being radicalized? Certainly it takes a lot of being disturbed to get to the point of going on a shooting rampage. What do we mean by “radical?”

Dictionaries define radical as, “growing from the root or base,” or in political context, “favoring extreme changes in existing views, habits, conditions, or institutions.” This is not necessarily a bad thing and has a long tradition in our country. In fact, our country was founded on concepts that were radical at the time such as the rejection of the divine right of kings, the notion that all people are equal before the law, and most radical, that average people, being well informed, could govern ourselves. Had the American Revolution failed, our nation’s founders would have been sentenced to death for their radicalism.

Radicalism, or efforts to address social inequities at their root and to bring about extreme change have shaped our society and our country. Examples include rejection of the rule of church and royalty, the abolition of slavery, the labor and cooperative movements, the struggle for women’s rights and equality and the civil rights movement. None of this would have been possible had people not been radicalized. Think of great Americans like Thomas Paine, John Brown, Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglas, Mother Jones, Susan B. Anthony, William Z. Foster, Eugene Debs, W.E.B. DuBoise, Caesar Chavez, Rosa Parks, and Martin Luther King Jr. to name just a few. It was Dr. King who said. “If a man hasn’t found something he will die for, he isn’t fit to live.”

Of course radicalism, in challenging established institutions, is usually unwelcome and met with reaction. Much of the dark side of the last 150 years is shaped by that as well. Reaction and resistance to the ending of slavery and to racial equality gave us the Civil War, the Ku Klux Klan and later the John Birchers, and other hate groups which persist to this day. Reaction to labor struggles have resulted in violence against strikers by companies like Ford, the National Guard, vigilantes and private goons.

Early in the last century reaction to labor activism had our national fears focused on “foreign agitators” and anarchists. This resulted in severe immigration quotas, the founding of the FBI and even massive deportations called “The Palmer Raids” as well as the famously shamefully legal lynching of immigrants Sacco and Vanzetti. Reaction to the radical idea of ending wage slavery and corporate power – and especially to the Bolshevik revolution which, by example threatened the legitimacy of the power of banks and corporate interests — gave rise to fascism.

Reaction is always based in fear. Much of the race riots, lynchings and burnings of Black areas in our past was based on fear, as was the rounding up and imprisoning of Japanese Americans after the Pearl Harbor attacks. Today, the fear and fanned hatred against Muslims is resulting in violence that is just as shameful. Fear, as history shows, is a tool used to manipulate populations for agendas they would otherwise not find in their interest – most often, war. Most if not all wars are based on lies used to instill fear and anger. German fascists stoked resentment of the unjust and difficult penalties inflicted after that country’s defeat in the First World War. They staged false attacks by Poland and libeled Jews as a threat to the nation. The US used the questionable sinking of the Maine to seize colonies from Spain. The red-scare was used as an excuse to crush the labor movement and to justify many wars including our involvement in Vietnam based on the “Gulf of Tonkin” lie.

Today’s rise of Islamic extremism is less “radical” than it is a reaction to invasions – both cultural and military, which have replaced traditional forms of order with dictators, bombings, military assaults and the terror of ubiquitous drones bringing chaos and destruction on a massive scale. This is exacerbated by years of drought and stagnant economies. It is harder to react to abstractions like hunger and lack of opportunity than it is to rally around what has in the past provided security, comfort, identity and order. People tend to rally around things like religion and nationalism when faced with insecurity and threats.

As a friend once explained to me, everyone wants justice and respect. Everyone also wants the ability to eat, work, and live. When that becomes too difficult or impossible and people feel trapped or desperate, they resort to extreme behavior. They migrate, out of desperation, to where life is more possible. Many choose to fight against perceived or real enemies for their dignity and ability to live. This is a radical truth because it gets to the root of what we are witnessing in stressed and war torn places like Afghanistan and the Middle East.

Individuals can go over the edge when faced with perceived injustice or when they feel threatened by constant harassment. Major Hassan, responsible for the Fort Hood shootings, had been a psychiatric intern listening to soldiers on rotation from Iraq who reacted to his being Muslim. They reported participating in atrocities, some promising him they would kill more Muslim civilians on their return to Iraq. This apparently drove him to increased religious fervor and eventually to targeted multiple killings. I read in the paper that San Bernardino shooter, Syed Farook had been constantly confronted about his faith by a co-worker. None of this justifies going on a killing spree but I do understand this process of extreme reaction.

Growing up with often violent anti-semitism, I came to identify with the radical nationalist movement of Rabbi Meir Kahane in my teens. Their motto was “Never Again” and at the time, the call to a defensive militant zionism had an appeal to me. This group was even banned in Israel at the time but this was in the 60’s and 70’s, a time of radical change. The idea of defense against antagonistic oppression and of cultural pride is also what motivated the Black Panther Party around that same time.

Many of us seem to require much less in the way of personal threat or injustice to be “radicalized” or, more accurately, fantasized. Ignorance and easily manipulated fear seem to be the driving force. The media focus and emphasis on labeling or portraying all Muslims as terrorists is partly to blame. Journalism, and especially what passes for news on TV tends to be more narrative-based than factual. It tends to focus on and repeat a single story in the most terrifying of ways while ignoring often more important news. While we saw the San Bernardino event over and over, another shooting was ignored as was the meeting of world leaders in Paris to agree on a plan to deal with the much larger actual threat of climate change. Our print media are not much better. The Virginian Pilot seems to have less actual news than ever before and is glad to publish letters ranging from climate denial to blood-libel anti-Muslim hatred.

The result of irresponsible journalism in the past has led us into the horrendous war, based on lies, that created the situation we are seeing now. As with hate speech in other times, the ramped-up fear and demonization of Muslims by the press, right-wing media and Republican candidates is resulting in violence. As Democracy Now! reports, “New data shows hate crimes against Muslim Americans and U.S. mosques have tripled since the Paris attacks. The hate crimes include violent assaults on students wearing headscarves, vandalism and arsons at mosques, as well as shootings and death threats at Muslim-owned businesses. The study was performed by the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino. It shows there have been 38 Islamophobic attacks since the Paris attacks on November 13, a little over a month ago.”

I’ve since grown away from the cultural fanaticism of my youth, even to becoming an anti-zionist. How did I move from such cultural militancy? It took a long time, but it began with me being able to listen to the experience and stories of others and to actually read and learn about related issues. It progressed with me wanting to understand other belief systems and to find commonality. I still seek to understand experiences different than my own. That is how we grow. It is how we overcome irrational fear and look for common justice. In the case of people living in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and other areas of war, severe injustice and hardship, it will require all of us working for an end to the festering injustices that feed human misery, anger, fear and militancy.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt, maybe our best President, famously assured us stating, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.” This certainly seems to be something that still rings true and that we need to remind ourselves of. History is rife with examples of atrocities driven by fear. We are at an important place where fear threatens to split our country, resulting in savagery we will come to regret. We need to stand up to the candidates who stoke fear and hate in hope of reaping political capital. We need to speak out when someone repeats hate, fear and ignorance directed at Muslims, or for that matter any other ethnicity, race or gender. We need to be examples of the tolerance and openness that makes our country the free and open society it is.

I have been impressed recently by Rabbi Israel Zoberman of Virginia Beach, who has reached out to local Muslims and spoken against the threat they face. He has also spoken out for welcoming refugees coming from Syria. I was surprised by this as Rabbi Zoberman has always been a strong Zionist and we have argued about this on numerous occasions. His public stand against hatred comes from personal experience as a refugee and as a Jew. It also reflects the deep commitment to social justice rooted in traditional Jewish culture. I am proud and deeply moved by his actions. He is an example for all of us.

The hate-speech and blood-libel that fills our airwaves and media is another aspect of rising corporatism or fascism which requires enemies and the sacrifice of scapegoats. Sinclair Lewis wrote, “It Can’t Happen Here” a book timelier now than ever about the possible rise of American fascism. Together, the civilized among us must do everything possible to stand against the madness and to insure that it does not happen here.