Scott Probst asks the timely question … Is there any such thing as ‘radicalisation” ?

These days in Australia we hear a lot about ‘radicalisation.’ This is supposedly a process where bad people, mostly outsiders on the internet from the Middle East, get into the ears of innocent young locals and turn them into bloodthirsty marauders who want to go into the streets of Australia, or the war in Syria, and murder others.

This does not seem to be a realistic description of what happens, for a few reasons.

First, the only way that these online extremists can come into contact with the young person via the internet is for the young person to search for them, or open a link they have been sent by someone else. The extremist cannot just broadcast into their phone or computer without any warning.

Second, the young person, for some reason or more than one reason, must be receptive to what they see and hear. Why would this be so? There are a number of obvious possibilities:

  • they are alienated in some way – isolated socially or physically
  • from a minority group
  • unemployed or with poor job prospects
  • social and educational disadvantage
  • mental health issues such as depression
  • drug use, leading to destabilised behaviour

Some of these issues have great relevance to young people. For example, a substantial percentage of young people suffer some form of significant mental health challenge at some point in their lives. Some estimates of this range to above 30%. Mental health services for young people are well documented to be insufficient, particularly in socially disadvantaged areas. Drug experimentation is common amongst young people, often leading to social and educational problems. The punitive/law and order response to this, rather than health-based response, leads to under reporting and surreptitious use, preventing this issue from being properly addressed.

Poor education also must be a risk factor amongst youth; education is chronically underfunded in Australia and recent political issues mean that this will get much worse in the future rather than better.

Migrant communities are commonly poorly connected to the rest of our culture. Recent political responses to multiculturalism, refugee issues and terrorism threats have only reinforced this isolation and made a number of ethnic communities feel mistrusted and this further alienates them.

All these conditions predispose the young people to listen to simplistic messages that tell them how to give meaning to their lives or right injustice, or take revenge on the people who have caused their problems. Added to this is the apparent romance of fighting for a cause and being part of a brotherhood – aspects which are only emphasised in recent celebrations of ANZAC day in Australia and repetitive message about the ‘glory of mateship in war’ and similar ideals.

Don’t forget, Australia itself has a long tradition of young men going to fight in foreign wars, from the Sudan in the late 1800s, to the Maori War in New Zealand, the Boer War, WWI and so on.

Combined together, all these factors are a heady mix of  ‘pull factors’ for young, somehow disaffected or romantically inclined men who want to prove themselves, to go to a war in a far part of the world to fight for a cause, no matter how misrepresented or manipulative.

Rather than make more noise about radicalisation, we should pay more attention to the ways our young people are driven to make this leap.