I have several heroes (don’t we all), and I’ve referred to a few of them in my rants. The recent discussions about Western youth becoming radicalised and joining murderous terrorist organisations like ISIS has several times reminded me of the wise words of one of my heroes: the economist, social scientist and all around genius Amartya Sen.
In 2006, when the Iraqi war was already going seriously pear-shaped, prisoners were being tortured in Guantanamo and elsewhere and tensions between Western countries and islamists were consequently at an all time high, Professor Sen wrote an insightful book called Identity and Violence.
The book resonates incredibly well today. If I grossly oversimplify its central message, it is that we all have multiple identities. I will use myself as an example to illustrate: I am, among other things, a friend, a partner, a daughter, a sister, a humanist, a feminist, an environmentalist, a lawyer, a hockey player, a Finn, a vegetarian, a Linkin Park fan, a reader, and left-handed. All of these identifies have a role to play in shaping my life. I can also bet that if I continue the list for a little while longer, there will not be a person left on this planet with whom I will not find an identity in common.
This is the key, according to Sen, to understanding (and perhaps assisting in de-radicalising) the young extremist. Because nobody is “just” a jihadist. A person who takes their religion very seriously will see this identity influence more aspects of their life than someone like me, but it will never, ever, become their sole identity. We are all still the children of our parents, friends to those we like and while religion might influence what we eat, read or listen to, those interests in food, books and music still exist and shape us independently of the underlying religion.
Religious fervour tends to lead to tunnel vision, in which all the rest of our identities become obscured, but this does not mean that those other identities are not there. Maybe they can be teased out by non-confrontational techniques – in other words, discussion. As I said, there will not be a person in the world with whom I will not share at least one identity, usually many. When you have something in common with someone, you have something to talk about. And when someone is talking about something, they are remembering that part of their identity and engaging with it.
This is an idea of how to get an obsessive radical to obsess a little less. It is not going to help in dealing with the aftermath of someone having committed atrocities. That is what criminal law, prosecutors, courts and the police are there for.
I try to also think of it as a good reminder when I am talking to someone with whom I appear to have very little to talk about. There will always be that shared bit of identity there somewhere.