Bringing it home

Recently I posted related thoughts on the phenomenon of teenage jihadis: Recycle and prelude: nine years ago and Some reflections on the late teen suicide bomber. There was a thoughtful response by kvd:

Neil, I read your post and several links including the long post from the boy in question, and I can only say I am no wiser about just how this young man ended where and how he did. You say in your post ‘there are more positive paths’ and I can only hope that such is the case for the majority of his peers.

But I’m left wondering about two basic concepts for which I guess there is no specific answer: first, where did his ‘need’ spring from; second, why did he ‘want’ to pursue the course he took? I cannot find any answers from his long post which is at times quite eloquent, but at times demonstrates little understanding of some of the events he describes.

That he ‘needed’ to believe in something is intriguing in itself. These days it is unusual to find such a searching need in anyone – not to say it doesn’t exist; just that it is unusual. Then, that he wanted to believe this particular brand of truth as he understood it? Forget the many arguable points and misconceptions; why would an intelligent human think any resolution or advance could be achieved by blowing oneself up?

Anyway, thanks for a most provocative post.

I don’t have all those answers either, especially given that the truth of the matter as far as I now believe (pretty much as an agnostic) is that there are absolutely no – none, nada, zilch, zero – magic books floating around the world containing your actual words of God or an infallible guide to life. Since my agnosticism does rather shade into theism of some kind, I do think there are inspiring things in the usual suspects from the Abrahamic tradition, itself a johnny-come-lately in the human story of course. What was God up to during the millennia when the ancestors of the original inhabitants of Wollongong were sitting on that mountain I can see from my window this morning?

Nonetheless there was a time that I was a teenage Calvinist, probably not as concerning as being a teenage jihadist – but my point is that then and now teenage religious and/or political passions can be very pure and very strong. To a degree then I can empathise with the mindset of a teenage jihadist. Or Spartacist. Or whatever “extreme” you care to name.

There are actually some good points made in an article in the UK Spectator by Mary Wakefield: How do bright schoolgirls fall for jihadis? The same way they fall for Justin Bieber, though it is more than a bit patronising too.

But Mr Keary’s wrong, most people are wrong. It does make sense. Let your outrage subside and it’s pitifully easy to see what draws these idiots to Islamism. It’s not evil, or any inherent flaw, but just a simple set of ordinary influences which combine to create catastrophe.

For a child to choose religious orthodoxy may seem sinister — aren’t teens supposed to want freedom? — but look again and it’s just the usual rebellion against a parent. These girls and others like them are usually second or third-generation Brits. Their parents have assimilated, hoped their children would follow suit, so they rebel by becoming Islamists. The Dutch academic Ian Buruma spotted the trend a decade ago in a book investigating the assassination (by an Islamist) of the film-maker Theo van Gogh. He said: ‘The main perpetrators of violence in the name of religion in Europe are not, on the whole, the original guest workers or refugees… it is their children born in Europe who are vulnerable to a modern, violent, revolutionary creed.’

Buruma was writing about angry young men, but in their own way girls are even more vulnerable to the siren call of a creed. Most normal 15-year-old girls are popping with righteous indignation, desperately seeking a cause. British schoolgirls of a secular sort find their vocation defending seal pups and abandoned dogs. But for a Muslim schoolgirl, already Islamo-curious, there’s a cause waiting in the wings — and it’s a cause that understands their language.

It does seem that some of the most intelligent, most questing, most sensitive to injustice can decide that the world is seriously flawed and in need of a good cleansing, and for some this involves some kind of apocalypse.

In my second post I tried to demonstrate that there were other outcomes than self-immolation or terrorism.  To quote a former student of mine now a PhD and deeply involved in Islamic microfinancing along the lines of Nobel prize-winning but not uncontroversial Muhammad Yunus:

It was in those few years that our group of friends realised our potential, our purpose and duties growing up in Australia and what we would need to do as active citizens to hold Islamic values whilst fully functional in the wider society.

What made that experience special and the key qualities that developed was that we were truly all-rounded. We played sport together, hung out at recess and lunch, visited each other’s houses and studied together – and even sold chocolate boxes together.

He is talking of Sydney Boys High ten years ago. My two posts tell you more, from my perspective.

So imagine my feelings when Prime (7) News rather prominently featured this story last night:

TWO brothers blocked from leaving Sydney Airport under suspicion they were heading to fight in the Middle East were award-winning students at the prestigious Sydney Boys High public school.

The boys, aged 16 and 17, were prominent members of sporting teams at the selective school, one of eight Great Public Schools (GPS) in Sydney, with the older brother also excelling academically and in debating…

That is as it appears on the Daily Telegraph website this morning as the Channel 7 version has disappeared. (The front page was devoted to a particularly bizarre murder trial that finished yesterday.) Last night on Facebook I commented:

I hate the way this is being framed. The school is simply NOT one of Sydney’s most exclusive schools. It’s a state school like any other but academically selective, old and (oddly) competes in GPS sport. I went there. I taught there. I know many of the current staff. The principal is undoubtedly the best I ever worked for. I fear that the way this plays in the media will block real understanding of what might have got into the heads of the two brothers, assuming the allegations are accurate. Coincidentally I have blogged recently on matters relating to ten years ago, but can’t and won’t say anything about this latest, except to utterly support the school.

There are also over one thousand students at SBHS. It has a very well developed, supportive welfare system; I was myself on the welfare committee when I worked there.

So let us leave that topic there.

Update 9pm

There is now a more detailed report in the Sydney Morning Herald, so detailed in fact that I could if I put my mind to it probably work out who they are*.

In a concerning development for counter-terrorism authorities, it appears the pair were the antithesis of the typical teenager being lured to Syria and Iraq by the Islamic State.

They did not appear to be marginalised, lonely, unhappy or bored.

As I have been saying that is not necessarily surprising.

* By 9.30 pm I had successfully identified the older brother. It wasn’t rocket science, thanks to all the clues the Herald gave. Is that really a good thing?  A few minutes later I had both brothers. I can understand people being very surprised as I look at their record.


Turning to yesterday’s post there is a sequel in today’s Illawarra Mercury.

More than 100 people tucked into steaming platters of Lebanese food on Wednesday in support of Wollongong restaurant Samaras’ #illeatwithyou campaign.

Dozens of people showed up for the lunch, pledging their support for the Corrimal Street eatery and its message against racism.

The Muslim-owned restaurant’s Facebook page was peppered with anti-Islamic posts recently, urging people to “boycott Islamic businesses”.

Restaurant owner Omar Nemer decided to develop the hashtag campaign – an Illawarra take on the popular #illridewithyou tag that arose out of the Martin Place siege – to encourage the region to come together over food.

Good to see!