Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Beacon No. 97: “It Looks Good to Get White Guys”


Having been raised Catholic, one of the things I’ve never quite gotten about Protestantism and Islam are their lack of top-down ideological control.

For Catholics, the Pope and the Vatican bureaucracy (high-ranking cardinals and their staffs) set a unified policy that everyone understands and usually obeys. Even though groups like the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops will grumble about nuclear weapons or women’s rights, they pipe down and toe the line when the Pope or a deputy tells them to.

Not that that a supreme central authority is always a good thing. Central control of Catholicism by the Vatican can lead to high-quality university education and good works—but it also caused the disaster of the Crusades.

On the other hand, U.S. Protestant denominations tend to have highly democratic leadership structures, setting theology and policy by sending representatives to infrequent but regular synods. But nothing stops any Protestant from starting a new denomination. Here’s an extreme example:

—The Seventh-Day Adventists spring from the Millerites
—The Shepherd’s Rod breaks off from the Seventh-Day Adventists
—The Branch Davidians arise from the Shepherd’s Rod
—David Koresh ascends to lead an even smaller Branch Davidian offshoot in Texas

And that’s just in the past century. By the time you’re on the ranch with Koresh, you’re sufficiently distant (ideologically) from mainline Adventists, Presbyterians, Baptists and Methodists that the feds feel it’s okay to burn you out.

Ideological control in Islam is even looser. There is no central, governing authority for what constitutes “Islam,” and so beliefs and practices vary enormously over regions, countries and even valleys. There are many authorities on the faith, but their influence depends entirely on reputation. The head of Al-Azhar University in Cairo, for instance, has great moral authority as an interpreter of the Qur’an and Islamic beliefs, but his impact is limited because of Islam’s lack of hierarchy and enforcement mechanisms, not to mention the Sunni/Shi’a/Sufi schisms. Islam, like Protestantism, is at once global and intensely local.

I’m writing about this because Dick O’Neill suggested that I read “Hungry for Fresh Recruits, Cult-Like Islamic Groups Know Just When to Pounce.” Despite the scare headline, this article calmly discusses British—that is to say, white British—converts to Islam and how they are at once coveted and set upon by extremists who want to make new extremists.

Three of the 24 bomb-plotters arrested in Britain two weeks ago were “blue-eyed Muslims,” i.e. gringo converts. Sarah Lyall’s article makes the point that the converts’ newfound extremism isn’t necessarily because they’re being taught a deranged version of Islam, but suggests a few other factors. One of these is a tendency among addictive types to swap addictions:

Myfanwy Franks, a researcher who has studied converts to Islam and is the author of “Women and Revivalism in the West: Choosing Fundamentalism in a Liberal Democracy,” said, “Being troubled does not necessarily lead people to conversion—people who aren’t troubled convert—but it could lead to extreme radicalization.”

Mentioning reports in the news media that [British convert and bomb-plot suspect Abdul] Waheed was a heavy drinker and drug user before turning to Islam, Ms. Franks added: “I think there’s a tendency for some people, when they stop using some kind of addictive substance, to be left with a big hole in their lives. To do something extreme is the easiest way to go, because it fills that big hole.”

People with holes in their lives that are that big will always find ways to fill them. But the larger problem seems to be that in the otherwise normal development of identity, some British youths are seeing an association with Islam as an extension of adolescent rebellion by other means:

... Among young people in Britain, a common theme seems to be adolescent anomie, a longing for answers in a world full of intractable questions. “It’s not a physical thing — it’s a passionate approach,” said Khalad Walaad, a spokesman for the Bradford Islamic Center, in the north of England. “When someone is looking for something, it’s us who can lead him as a human being.”

Then there’s the political factor: Some people are so opposed to the Iraq war, the war on terror or both that they convert this opposition into identity with Muslims:

Before Sept. 11, converts tended to discuss spiritualism and personal choice, [conversion researcher Myfanwy Franks] said, “but now they’re not talking like that.” She added: “I think there’s this polarization now. It’s like the middle ground has disappeared.” Where women once tended to wear head scarves — even in her hometown of Bradford, in West Yorkshire — she says that she sees many more in garments that cover their entire bodies, including their eyes. “It’s a political statement,” she said.

Sarah Lyall is nice enough to wrap these two factors together into a new equation:

Identity Quest + Political Motivation = Blue-Eyed Bombers

For young white men in economically blighted sections of the north, where jobs are scarce and disaffection is high, [Myfanwy Franks] said, Islam speaks to their masculinity, offering a place of refuge and a solid political base from which to reject their heritage. “The greater Muslim community is transnational and supranational,” she said. “It gives them an identify and a togetherness which is inevitably going to be against the West, because of their identity with other Muslims.”

There is literally no way to keep people from being sympathetic with Osama bin Laden, George Bush, a Palestinian refugee or Britney Spears if that’s what appeals to them. But blue-eyed Muslims have no reliable, central authority to turn to that can define the duties, rights, responsibilities and limits of being a Muslim. If they did, it might make the task of keeping converts—traditionally thought of as zealous in the first place—from making mistakes that engulf those around them.


Hairy Carrot said...

How come protestant extremists don't spawn protestant terrorists? Do militias and white supremacists fall into this category? Every Klansman will swear he's a good Christian.

Paul D. Kretkowski said...

The Klan has always been a Protestant group, and what they swear isn't germane to what they are. Several Protestant terror groups operated in northern Ireland for decades, although this is generally seen as a reaction to IRA violence rather than as arising from a vacuum.

I suspect that Protestants are relatively prosperous and tend to inhabit countries with relatively high opportunity and social mobility (the U.S., for example), and don't have such a strong need to right perceived wrongs.

Site Meter