The discussions around why young Australian Muslims are leaving home to join the fighting in Syria and Iraq on the side of or against Islamic State (IS) suffer from two kinds of reductionism. First, they assume that the phenomenon of young (or not so young) people leaving their homes to join these terrorist groups is largely a Western phenomenon. Second, they reduce the explanation to the primacy of information on social media that is radicalising youths in the comfort of their homes.
These two strands fail to appreciate that foreign fighters are not just originating from the West, including Australia. They also hail from Indonesia, Malaysia, China, India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Tunisia – to name a few.
Access to the internet in these countries is not at the same level as in developed states like Australia. So, their departure is caused by factors and processes other than the internet.
We need to demystify online influence
Even within Australia, privileging the internet as the prime cause and space of radicalisation assumes a dominant role for available information as the route to learning (in this case, how to join the terrorists in Syria and Iraq). If we accept that information on the web is similar to information in other spaces, the question we must then ask is why the “learning” in this space results in the outcomes that IS and other terrorist organisations seek.
What is the agency of the learner in this space? To put it differently, why are these youths being influenced by this online information? And is the information being acquired only via social media or being supported by other means such as personal contacts and whispers among people?
Consideration of these matters would suggest that not all those who access the material online are radicalised. But if they are searching for something missing in their lives, they could be influenced by the information. This could be a simple search for filling the void one feels at entering adolescence, being isolated, a sense of not belonging to the space one is physically a part of, or a simple desire for heroism and an urge to be noticed.
For some youth, it could be a search for meaning in their lives. Admittedly the information being generated by IS targets most of these needs. Videos of gun-toting young Australians chanting “Allah Akbar” appeal to feelings of Muslim camaraderie in a world where contradictions between Islam and the West are continuously and erroneously promoted.
References to the caliphate appeal to those somewhat familiar with the glory days of Islamic caliphates. They have the aim of eliciting support for recreating the same environment. It is a quest to disaggregate the Islam versus the West thesis in favour of Muslim glory, thereby removing any sense of inferiority or disengagement someone might be feeling in their specific environment.
And then there is the IS video depicting the neat and clean environment of the hospital for children. This attracts those focused on humanitarianism in a world constantly facing disasters due to political, environmental and social factors.
Internet recruiting can’t work in isolation
But why does a young person accessing this learning material internalise this information? If the internet alone has successfully radicalised anyone, then IS has discovered a magic formula, a pedagogical innovation that has so far eluded every university trying to educate students via the internet.
Those familiar with the psychology of learning would know that simple exposure to information is not the route to learning. Shared learning, though, provides a quick and fast route to understanding and relating to information.
So, we need to understand the spaces in which the internet information is being supported and supplemented with shared learning through human contacts and ideas. Without such deeper exploration we run the risk of focusing on uni-dimensional analyses that give us only half-answers.
So, if we are to understand why a teenage Australian convert to Islam chose to join Al Nusra, the answer may not be just in the internet. We need to consider the search for a purpose that took him to Indonesia to help others, the loneliness in the process of temporary migration that he would have experienced, and the silent in-person recruitment in Indonesian educational institutions that IS supporters and its opponents are using.
A complex interplay of these factors, and not just a reductionist identification of internet information, is probably the answer to the question: why are our youth becoming foreign fighters?
And so the answer must rest with more nuanced, in-depth and integrated analysis that learns and interacts with the knowledge base developed not just in Western liberal societies but also Muslim majority states. Let us hope that it occurs with the latest appointment of Greg Moriarty as the new national counter-terrorism coordinator.