Externalising the Symptom: Radicalised Youth and The Membrane

By | 1 February 2019

The French government asks for help

Forty years developing and refining the unique field of ethnopsychiatry in France – a field that doesn’t exist as such in English-speaking countries – gave Nathan the background and expertise for him to be commissioned to write a report on the radicalisation of French youth by extremist Islam. The result was a report, and also the autoethnographic work, The Wandering Souls, that I translated.

Nathan suffers from no illusions generated by his sympathetic ‘they are just like me’ attitude. Along with his compatriots, he has seen the most violent of organised attacks like the well-known Charlie-Hebdo one in 2015. He knows that the Salafist sect targets, grooms, initiates, converts and trains young people. But what interests him is what makes certain kids (and they are not all of Arabic extraction) vulnerable.

He listened to young people in danger of radicalisation over a period of three years. They have stories of broken-hearted mothers, fathers at the end of their tether. He learns from them about how they see the world as it is today. ‘I want to understand,’ he writes, ‘how a nerdy high-school student can, in a few months, become a jihadist on the way to Syria. Or a stylish girl from a good part of town becomes a militant’s fiancée, with attitude. Or a housing estate delinquent becomes a respected imam. The story of radicalised youth is one of metamorphoses. It is often unpredictable.’

He is exasperated by the usual official responses. There are two, only two! ‘Firstly, they are compassionate and understanding about the individual problems that they think might have driven these young people to such extremes, including towards a kind of suicide. Secondly, they have recourse to the law, the Republic and secularity. In the first case psychological and social work programs are the prescription (more listening, more services, more retraining); in the second they recommend the rigorous application of law and order (more police, more repressive laws, more sanctions).’

As with his psychiatric patients he wants to understand where these kids are coming from conceptually, historically and culturally. They are neither a symptom of the failings of their parents’ generation nor passive victims of the Islamic onslaught. They are actively seeking solutions in their own lives, and find it in a new community offering them a new future. They meet, perhaps for the first time, a group which says to them, ‘You are somebody. We care about you.’

Picked up in Turkey …

Such is the case of the lad who had always done badly at school. In his teens he took up non-stop hash smoking, driving his parents so mad with worry that at first his conversion to Islam seemed like a good thing. These parents didn’t have the slightest religious connection, just a vague humanist morality. They were ‘ancestral’ French. Their ancestors were no doubt catholic three or four generations ago, then they became communists, and finally atheists in the generation before theirs, then nothing. This lack of ancestral grounding in the name of modernity ensured, for their only son, a quite loose sense of ‘belonging’. And then his conversion to Islam was also a ‘solution’ to his hash addiction because it forbad intoxicants, and put in its place a rigorous structure of prayer, halal food and religious and militant training.

A year later he was picked up in Turkey when he and two of his friends were in the process of trying to meet up with the Daesh troops.

Another girl was the only daughter of a woman, a single mum, who had run away from Spain into France when she was seventeen. The mother had been ‘terrorised’ first by Nuns in a Spanish convent, then by an old aunt. She lived in France, but was always an unsettled immigrant. She kept up no connection with Spain through religion or culture:

One day the mother finds a prayer mat in the nineteen year-old’s bedroom, along with Islamic clothing, a burqa, sarouel pants, and pamphlets that send her into a rage: ‘How to be a Good Muslim,’ for example, or ‘The Right Way to Read the Koran.’ Her blood began to boil; she who had escaped the clutches of the viragoes in the convent, how could she lose her child to these sick veil-wearers?

The daughter had converted and was paying visits to Muslims in prison. Later the mother learnt that these young men her daughter has been visiting bearing sweets, clothing and mobile phones were suspected of belonging to jihadist networks.

The more typical cases involve families from North Africa, especially refugees where the ancestral connections are broken. Having largely lost their roots, these young people often fail to make connections with the broader French culture. They might apply for hundreds of jobs but meet the unconscious bias that an Arabic name on the application induces. There is no future. Then an initiation and conversion via a neighbourhood cell, backed up by phone calls and messages from ‘real’ Islamic countries, gives them a new purpose. Once converted, they try to save their parents as well, these parents who have neglected the one true religion by being too mild in their observances.

Religion is fundamental to the problem, but so are ancestral roots, or the lack of them. Western countries, far from reinforcing the idea of their Christian identity, cannot afford to invest everything in secularity and the (ever more stringent) rule of law. Nathan, the anthropological psychiatrist, doesn’t think secularity can keep the lid on what he calls the wars of the gods. Shape-shifting gods who re-emerge when we least expect it; look how weird the ‘Christian’ one has become under Trumpism. These gods, along with philosophical concepts, are aligned in the thinking of a new generation where a certain number can become vulnerable to Islamic proselytising and conversion. Those elders who have the capacity to listen to their stories are hearing not just the words of their gods and the faint echoes of their ancestors, but also the lively words, the excitement even, of young people looking for a new future where we are necessarily not particularly relevant to them.

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