I once wrote on Twitter that extremists tend to present as complete dimwits, and although a couple of people mistakenly assumed I meant to lessen the danger they pose to all of us, I meant that they come across like baddies in a pantomime almost as if you can’t take them seriously. Whilst callous and dangerous, they almost have you believing that they’d trip over trying to tie their shoelaces. Tommy Robinson is convicted of, out of all things, mortgage fraud, whilst exposes have him discussing drugs and racial violence; interviews with EDL protestors are absolute car crashes; Anjem Choudhary performed like a parody of an imam, and the ISIS supporter Abu Haleema literally wore a tea towel on his head (with the M&S tag clearly visible) ranting incomprehensibly. The examples (across all types of extremists) are endless. But that’s only the small fish. Any video with Donald Trump, Boris Johnson or Nigel Farage is like a skit from a comedy show, not only the way they speak or what they speak about, but even how they behave. Today what we observe can only be described as absolutely surreal.
Today’s extremists are not contemplative souls, but instead those attracted by populist rhetoric and fear mongering hyperbole. They’re not critical thinkers who engender nuance and intelligence, nor intellectual ideologues with a rational philosophical outlook, but they reflect a level of maturity that can only be described as juvenile delinquency; parroting tropes, misinformation and parochial prejudices. Right-wing extremists gather on imageboard 4Chan making references to video games, the ‘invaders’, the Ku Klux Clan, and misogynistic views stemming from sexual frustration, whilst Muslim extremists do much the same on their forums but replacing the Ku Klux Clan with a longing for medieval empires and penal codes. Extremists like the terrorist in New Zealand film executions at point blank range in the first person as if to resemble the screenplay of Call of Duty (a console game), whilst ISIS literally employed CoD imagery in its recruitment posters and memes. The terrorist in New Zealand claims that Spyro: Year of the Dragon, a video game, taught him ethno-nationalism and that Fortnite taught him to “floss on the corpses,” referring to a viral dance move from the game. But the realm of the absurd isn’t limited to a juvenile interest in video games. For example, in 2015 convicted extremist Mohammed Rehman idiotically took to Twitter to ask for suggestions on which target in London to choose! One of the reasons so many conspiracies about false-flag operations abound is because people simply can’t believe these lot have the capability to pull off an actual attack.
But murder doesn’t take much. Whilst they might present as fools, there is no reason not to take them seriously. Innocents are slaughtered whilst they pray in mosques, churches, and synagogues, or go about their daily business, and not merely by those with a ‘twisted’ worldview, but one literally that doesn’t fully cohere with reality. One reason they come to such a disastrous place is because childishness has become the new norm. It increasingly seems that the bad outcomes of many forms of extremism are not simply the result of religion or deeply reasoned philosophical commitments, it is the normalisation of adolescent behaviour amongst adults, and tolerated ignorance (jahl).
My major concern, and one that I’ve been warning Muslims about for a few years, is that this is reflective of what many Muslim social circles have become; driven by fear, anxieties, insularity, populism and the rhetoric of demagogues. Muslims are in no place to be complacent, nowhere seems to be immune to the normalisation of ignorance (jahl), irrationality and populist rhetoric, be it political, religious or social. Often it’s the most childish of Muslims who are most vocal, including religious leaders who demonstrate an inability to engage or differ like mature adults. In an age of polarisation, we’ve watched as the level of conversation and rhetoric has steeply declined, not only in the way Muslims do politics or engage with wider society, but also how they engage with Islam itself. Very little is discussed with nuance or reason, both massacred at the alter of dogma, and the first port of call in any conversation in which a difference of opinion might emerge is ad hominem. Some clerics come across strong and principled but often its just uninformed rigidity, and behind closed doors their lack of understanding and maturity, at least enough to hold an intelligent and adult conversation, shows the facade to be no more than intransigence.
There are many things to learn something in the face of the profound tragedy of the New Zealand attack. Amongst things (but not equally the greatest of them) that led to this evil is the normalisation of juvenile delinquency rooted in deep ignorance. Whilst it is our responsibility to defeat ignorance and parochialism, and to thwart murderous sectarians and racists, the believers cannot rise to such a noble undertaking if they themselves are infected by a lack of maturity. And if idiots are persons so mentally deficient as to be incapable of ordinary reasoning, then before dealing with the world’s various idiots we must root it out from within ourselves and our structures, and promote a culture of reason and being informed across the board.