Reflections on The Jihadist Next Door

The New York Times Magazine has a long profile of an American from Alabama, Omar Hammami, who is now fighting for the Islamists in Somalia, The Jihadist Next Door. The optics of his family background seem tailor-made for a compelling narrative (or a TV-movie). A father who is a Syrian immigrant, a standard-issue American Muslim and professional. A mother who is a Southern Baptist and native Alabaman. The childhood is framed as "torn-between-two-worlds." Both his parents were members of exclusive religious traditions. Apparently Omar's was raised in both his parents' religions, and both sides of the family held views whereby unbelievers would be consigned to hell. This is what you might term an unstable equilibrium.

Omar's sister, who faced additional pressures of being an American teenage girl who was constrained by her father's Syrian expectations of how a young woman should behave, resolved the contradictions by leaving home and becoming a hippie. Omar resolved the contradictions and by leaving home and becoming a jihadist. At the end of the piece Omar asserts:

"They can't blame it on poverty or any of that stuff," he continued. "They will have to realize that it's an ideology and it's a way of life that makes people change. They will also have to realize that their political agendas need to be fixed."

Humans seem to have an orientation whereby the choices they made are not conditioned upon situational factors. But even earlier in the piece you see another factor at work:

A trip to Damascus the summer before Hammami's sophomore year would make a lasting impression on him. He loved the order of things: how his aunts waited on him, how his male cousins shared a "cohesiveness of brotherhood," Stevenson, his high-school girlfriend, recalled. In photos of the trip, Hammami had traded in his khakis and polo shirts for a long cotton tunic and a prayer cap. A family video shows him bowing to Mecca in prayer one evening.

We are individuals, and as individuals we take responsibility for the choices we make, and society holds us accountable for those choices. But the reality is that humans are a deeply social organism. Most of our "choices" are constrained by the options available in our social milieu, and our opinions on various topics rely strongly on the cues we receive as to the state of the world from our peer-group. This principle operates even when it comes to deeply held beliefs which would seem to drill-down to our ultimate core values.

For example, in Catholicism and American Freedom: A History, John T. McGreevy recounts the reality that evangelical Protestants did not react very strongly to Roe. vs. Wade. In fact in the late 1960s the evangelical magazine Christianity Today published editorials which looked positively upon the decriminalization of abortion, such as occurred in California under Ronald Reagan. By the early 1980s a pro-life stance had become a litmus test on the Right, prompting George H. W. Bush's flip from being pro-choice to pro-life before he could receive the VP nomination in 1980. How did this happen? Randall Balmer has an explanation in Thy Kingdom Come, but the causal drive is less important I think than the general principle: social groups condition opinions, and positive feedback loops can result in rapid consensus generation. When people change identities they often change a whole suite of opinions. Often they maintain the pretense that decisions were matters of individual conscience, and not conditioned upon group expectations. But the chronology often does not seem to fit well with this narrative. Consider for example how the conservative writer Rod Dreher found Eastern Orthodox objections to papal infallibility plausible after he was clearly considering leaving Roman Catholicism for Orthodoxy.

This dynamic is general. There are many American atheists who assume that what we consider a broadly Leftish cultural worldview necessarily follows from a rejection of religion, but if you poke around the World Values Survey you see that secular societies such as Japan and China are rather conservative on many issues (e.g., gender-relations). Similarly, Communist attitudes toward "bourgeois decadence" would not have seemed out of place on the American New Right.

Humans are an incredibly social creature. We have a strong innate ability to model social relations, and some researchers have placed the phenomenon at the root of many species-unique traits. In many pre-modern cultures it seems to me that this is more explicitly acknowledged, eternal truths are truths which a society has always accepted, it is as it has always been. But with the rise of modern civilization, with its welter of economic dynamism, and rapid cultural change, humans are faced with the reality of change. How does this change happen? Individualist assumptions lead to one assume that this change occurs through our own free will, but the reality is more complex than that. Even people who are focused on a specific topic professionally and have a formal framework to dampen subjectivity can be persuaded by group level consensus; I'm talking about economists here. And yet you have average people who are asked to harbor opinions on a wide range of issues which they are not even cursorily familiar with. How do they come to their opinions? Naturally they take cues from what their identity-group peers who have more knowledge in that particular domain believe.

Omar Hammami is a normal human insofar as he would prefer that the choices he made were through rational reflection. That his, he read the Koran, reviewed the Hadiths, examined the evidence, etc. I'm sure he did all the above, but he did so in a particular social context, and quite certainly the social context drove him to examine particular issues and constrained the set of plausible choices. Though Omar Hammami is not technically a pure convert, he was raised in a partly Islamic home, it is clear that his personal story resembles that of converts. In particular, he seems to be similar to white converts in the West (John Walker Lindh is naturally referenced). I stipulate white converts, because a white person converting to Islam in the West is engaging in a much more transgressive act in relation to their broader social-cultural frame than a black person (this is evident in the reduced hostility toward Islam from blacks as opposed to whites when you control for religious conservatism).

Similarly, a white American who converts to the Hare Krishna movement is also engaged in a transgressive act. Unlike other Eastern religious traditions which have attracted converts, such as Zen Buddhism, adherence to Krishna Consciousness tends to entail a closing off of one's social boundaries, as well as a somewhat adversarial stance to the society at large (i.e., society must be saved and brought over to Truth). Scholars who study culture in a scientific and naturalistic framework emphasize the importance of between-group differences, and sharp boundaries which demarcate identity-groups. The nature of the boundaries often are less relevant than the fact that they separate the group from the Other. Many socially marginal religious movements have distinctive dietary restrictions which minimize the possibility of socialization with outsiders. Once I was visiting a house where a group of Hare Krishnas lived, and I was told to drink something fruity because I'd just eaten a hot dog, and it would be best to cover up the smell of meat on my breath.

In regards to the Hare Krishna movement one salient aspect is that large numbers of non-South Asians have now been raised within a Hindu religious tradition from childhood. These individuals are often far more well versed in the details of Hindu tradition, or at least their particular tradition within Hinduism, than South Asians who were born and raised as Hindus. Part of this is a function of their liminal identity by their race. Since they do not "look Hindu," there is surely some pressure to be above reproach.

I point to Hare Krishna to pull the issues of identity-groups and their affect on cognition out of an Islamic context because of the geo-political complications which ensue from the latter. But what group you are a member of does not simply influence your opinions, it also influences who you care about. Or at least, the issues to you allocate time & energy toward expressing concern about. Both American Buddhists and evangelical Christians are more aware of religious persecution in China than are other segments of the American population. This is not due to some necessarily strong fixation upon human rights among these two particular groups, it is because members of their identity-group are under attack by the Chinese government. In the abstract most people might avow that religious freedom should be protected, but it requires a higher threshold of awareness and concern to become concrete activists.

What this means for a white American who converts to Islam is rather straightforward. While a white American who converts to Buddhism may take a special interest in the persecution of Buddhists in China, there are nearly sixty members of the Organisation of Islamic Conference. The Islamic world is centrally placed on the World Island. Its spatial organization is not compact. There is Israel. An outsized proportion of the world's oil reserves are in the Islamic world. I could go on.

Some religions, such as evangelical Christianity, focus on the importance of a personal and individual relationship with God. Others, such as Judaism, are quite explicit about the notion of group identity as essential in their faith and practice. Being a conservative Republican or a liberal Democrat are not religions. Rather, they're political orientations, and purportedly represent individual political values and self-interest. But a conservative Republican who drives a Prius and a liberal Democrat who drives a Hummer will attract notice. Ecology matters, and social systems exhibit their own endogenous dynamics. A personal journey is an attractive explanatory model because the causal factors are often easy to pick out. Additionally, the person in question will often assert the preeminence of their own choices in making them who they are. But quite often it isn't a matter of self-interest, ratiocination, or even what is right or wrong. It is more often my nation right or wrong


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You mention free will as though it isn't an illusion; it is.

By Bob Carlson (not verified) on 28 Jan 2010 #permalink

i don't want to get into a philosophical debate about free will. that's like talking about whether quantum mechanics is really probabilistic or not when we're talking about physiology. IOW, at the scale i'm addressing here it is totally irrelevant whether it is, or isn't, an illusion.

Even though you didn't intend to break any new ground here I really loved this post and for the same reason that I love Heather's posts on the stupidity of beleiving in prayer or God's benevolence as well as her posts on actuarial risks (panty bombers v. vehicular homicide).

I feel myself to be a member of a tiny minority of CTs (Critical Thinkers, CT is my response in the "Religion" column) and it's so very very rare that I get to hear from a brother or read a post about the tenets of my belief that I sincerely relish the few times that a post like this appears.

speaking of which, do you know of other blogs where people regularly post pieces along these lines? The skeptic blogs aren't horendous but they're pretty bad. They're more into petrified "Scientism" than true CTism (witness their militant anti-racism for example - by GOD, Shermer had a major piece in his major book about how stupid the concept of race is and even SAGAN (pbuh) had to make his "smartest man in alive" in Contact a Nigerian - though in his awesome "Demon Haunted World" he allowed for the possibility of racial differences in a 20-aughts Pinker sort of way).

So, aside for your little gnxp leichtenstein, where else can a passionate and curious CTer repose and relax?

(Some in the "HBD community" aren't terrible either but there's really only THAT much incessant hate a person normal person can take. I mean I read those guys but their monomania about "blacks" gets nauseating. Also, some of them are sound on some racial matters but radically insane on everything else, e.g. see HBDbooks' recent post on the place of government [postal service and airline security no, animal rights yes - then again falling asleep to mein kampf every night can do that to you] and two out of three of Moldbug's ideas [the other third however are astonishingly brilliant and beautiful].)


I think you are a nation unto yourself.

Perhaps you should found your own online community of CT's, get T-shirts and membership cards printed and sit around patting each other on the back about how wonderful you are.

When you and the other seetees finally get around to actually DOING something, let us know, a'ight?

By billygroats (not verified) on 28 Jan 2010 #permalink

Goatboy, out of curiosity were you offended by my being TOO racist or not racist enough. Oh, and don't go bullshitting about it being some other factor. I'm trying to learn how to tell apart one groupthinker from the other so all data is useful.

Speaking of which, you insult yourself with your what you apparently regarded as an insult thrusted. See, unlike you, goatboy, I am indeed a nation unto myself and don't seek warmth and intellectual protection in "community" as you clearly believe any self-respecting human should.

As for patting on the back, guilty as charged. I consider myself, and fellow independant and skeptical minds, to be far superior to the likes of folk such as yourself who may or may not sit around in a group patting yourselves on the back but most certainly gather around for the hourly circle jerk.

"IOW, at the scale i'm addressing here it is totally irrelevant whether it [free will] is, or isn't, an illusion."

Then I guess I missed the point of your posting or, else, you did. We are caused to do the things we do by the combination of our genes and our environment. Moreover, recent studies seem to indicate that our brains may even make decisions before we are even aware that they have been made.

By Bob Carlson (not verified) on 29 Jan 2010 #permalink

Good blog! Thank you.

I think the words "resolving the contradiction" is an interesting idea here. On sibling went Hippie, the other went Jihadi -- both trying to resolve a contradiction in identity.

In Zadie Smith's "white teeth", one twin brother goes Pan-Islamic Jihadi. The other is a libertarian geneticist who embraces white culture -- both trying to resolve the contradiction of being a British-Bangladeshi.

Magid and Millat in that comic-multicultural book were based on the very real Ziad Haider Rahman and Jimi Rahman.

Anyone writing a book about your family?

May I critically remark that it's spelt "Liechtenstein"? More seriously, it wouldn't surprise me if sources of HBD sympathisers who aren't obsessed by "Blacks" might include Canada, Europe, .... or anywhere without the USA's unfortunate inheritance.

By bioIgnoramus (not verified) on 29 Jan 2010 #permalink

Interesting post. So Razib, how does that apply to you? What group do you hang out with and how has that influenced your opinions?
Whats with the race thing? I know I am not upto date on CT requirements, but once you have accepted that there may be some difference in how traits are distributed in different populations, is there supposed to be some great follow-up discovery? That seems rather ho-hum to me. Is that supposed to change social policy in some dramatic way? do you behave differently when you meet someone from another race in starbucks (and how do you know how many races are mixed up in that guy in starbucks? What is the big deal here?
billygroats, Seetee tribe membership requires one to passionately love the idea of being Seetee. There is no other basic requirement. No 5 prayers or Sunday Church, no black goat sacrifice. Unfortunately, no drugs, no rock and roll and definitely no sex either...Why bother to join?

Anyone writing a book about your family?

you think that a yarn about a bunch of self-absorbed atheists would sell? i don't talk much about my personal life because it's personal, but it seems that extreme irreligiosity is the norm of reaction in a western environment for my genotype, whether in the USA or britain.

Interesting post. So Razib, how does that apply to you? What group do you hang out with and how has that influenced your opinions?

i don't identify as a "secular" or "cultural" muslim. in terms of thinkers and philosophies, my rank of preferences are:

western > chinese >>> indian = islamic

i think that tells you what you need to know.

Regarding Razib's comment on irreligiosity and the Greater Indian diaspora in the West, take a look at S.T. Joshi's atheistic tracts as exemplars of the Westernized Indian as atheist/agnostic theme.

trajan, brown people are actually pretty obsessed with their primitive religions from the data i've seen. even well educated hindus who aren't super religious have strong cultural attachment to their ancestral faith. this is in sharp contrast with east asians. see canada and the UK's data for example, where they collect stuff on religion. or singapore, where they do the same. from what i can tell, entirely families going pretty much atheist in one generation isn't as common among brownz as i'd have thought....

Thanks for the info, Razib. My perceptions on the matter were probably colored by my personal aquaintences in University, who include a very high percentage of atheists /agnostics. One should always be on guard against assuming that one's immediate circle reflect the wider world.

western > chinese >>> indian = islamic

On behalf of the Indic tradition:
1. Perhaps because Hinduism is a more diffuse tradition, and one that is more open than others to outside influence. Consider the precocity of the Bengal Renaissance.
2. Buddhism tends more to self-introspection than the Abrahamic religions, and thus less likely to impose itself on the surrounding society. This can be gauged by the importance of the institution of monasticism (the strength of which is usually in inverse relation to the efforts the religion makes to impose itself on society, via religious law).

danny, fwiw, on a non-intellectual concrete level i have a much stronger aversion to islamic than indic culture. far better to be a non-hindu/buddhist in a hindu/buddhist society than a non-muslim in a muslim society. additionally, the islamic cultural tradition gives me more aesthetic heebie-jeebies than indic ones (mostly because the more austere islamic tendencies remind me too much of modernism).