BY INVITATION

The hero is the one who stays home, not the radical militant

-- ST ILLUSTRATION: MIEL
-- ST ILLUSTRATION: MIEL

The struggle against ISIS and militant violence cannot be fought by firepower alone. It has to be fought by society, in giving respect and dignity to those who feel marginalised and invisible in humdrum jobs and lives. 

As the struggle to contain the spread of the radical Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) movement continues, reports have emerged about the motivation of those foreign fighters who left the comfort zones of their homes and communities in the West and Asia to join the radicals fighting their war in Syria, Iraq and other parts of the Arab world.

From the accounts of some of those captured or who have surrendered, it appears that among the factors that motivated them to join the movement was a sense of hopelessness and ennui in their daily lives back home. Many complained of poor-paying jobs and menial and meaningless work, and having little faith in the future.

It is doubly ironic that some of these would-be martyrs discovered upon their arrival in the war zone that they were assigned equally humdrum tasks, such as cooking and cleaning toilets. Some who grew disillusioned with the ISIS (also known as the Islamic State or IS) now complain that even in the ranks of the so-called "brotherhood" of heroes, some are more equal than others.

While there is little doubt that ISIS is a radical militant threat that ought to be dealt with seriously, it is equally important to ask if the use of military might to counter ISIS is the only solution to what appears to be a hugely complex problem.

The deployment of jet fighters, rockets and drones may momentarily halt the advance of such an armed force of insurgents, and may rapidly turn their victories into defeats if they are soundly beaten in open combat. But this still does not address the question of how and why men (and in some cases, women) from developed countries have chosen to abandon their ordered lives in order to take up arms in a struggle that is not truly theirs.

A modern problem

If desperation and disquiet about the all-too-comfortable life of modern developed countries is the issue, then it could be argued that this is a problem that is not unique to ISIS alone. The sense of alienation and the feeling of individual insecurity is as old as the problem of modernity itself, and has been part and parcel of the process of modernisation all along.

Since industrialisation, we have seen the effects of large-scale urbanisation, the growth of routine work in factories and the mind-deadening rise of consumerist culture of urban-commercial centres in many parts of the world. It was not a coincidence that the Luddites emerged in Nottingham, ranting against what they regarded as the evils of industrialisation. And it is not surprising that the figure of Ned Ludd himself was later blown out of proportion to semi-mythical status, and lionised as "General Ludd" by his followers.

This sense of rage has accompanied the train of modernisation from the beginning, and remains palpable today as it was then. The main difference that we see today is that in the developed Western world, those who wish to opt out of the system have many other choices and means to do so, from joining new-age cults in the wilderness to forming subaltern collectives experimenting with other forms of societal organisation and production. People opt out all the time, and do so by taking various paths - not all of them radical or violent.

But the one factor that is common to all these cases - be they hippy new-age individuals or radical militants - is that none of them sees the value of persevering in a system that does not accord them value or purpose in life. Linked to this search for purpose is the yearning for a higher set of values, which suggests an aspiration for metaphysics of some sort.

In the case of ISIS militants, this alternative value system is placed on a higher metaphysical level where it contemptuously looks down upon the lives of others as mundane and meaningless. The yearning for a higher moral vocabulary may be an inspiration for some, but it is there that ISIS militants have also committed the same moral error that they accuse society of being guilty of, namely, the demeaning and devaluation of ordinary labour.

No need to be Rambo

The search for glory and social status seems to be a common human trait that is found in all cultures, and the contradictions of that yearning have become the stuff of legend. From the myth of Narcissus to the folly of Prometheus, human beings the world over seem driven by this need for recognition that allows them to stand above the rest. So pervasive is this attitude today that we seldom even notice it, but we should ask ourselves this simple question: When was the last time we watched a film, or read a novel, in which the hero lost?

Victory was, and remains, paramount in how we view and value ourselves, and in the context of today's modern and competitive society that gladiatorial contests of old have given way to the rat race of the present. Those who falter are seldom given a second chance, and the consensus of society seems to be clear as it is harsh: Losers do not deserve recognition or respect.

But surely this is one of the reasons why modern societies today continue to suffer the blight of radicals and extremists who precisely wish to destroy or beat the system, in order to gain the respect they feel they have been cheated of.

The narratives of many of the former ISIS militants repeat the same litany of neglect, disrespect and unworthiness that drove them to extremes in the first place. And if we are to address this problem - of individuals or groups being attracted to radical and violent alternatives - we ought to begin by addressing the very common and very human need for recognition first, as part of the counter-terror campaign.

Among the militants who have joined ISIS, there are those who have left their families behind, to fend for themselves. These may include their wives, children, parents and others who would otherwise be dependent on them.

The appeal of that higher moral vocabulary that sanctions such abandonment of duty is the thing that needs to be addressed and countered, effectively. For if there is one thing that needs to be emphasised again and again in such cases, it is the idea that a man who stays the course and raises his children to adulthood is not some loser who has opted for a mundane life, but rather the real hero who has stuck it out to the end.

The same applies to those whose lines of work have been relegated to the lower ranks of social value and public worth, and who have been made to feel that they are little more than cogs in a machine that is indifferent to their existence.

The manner in which some societies today treat such people - cleaners, servers, drivers, gardeners - beggars belief, for we forget that without such people who play such a vital and direct role in our own lives, much of what we take for granted - from clean offices to public transport - would not be.

For every "hero" we take note of, there are others who are equally heroic in their respective roles: the doctor cannot function without the nurse, the master chef cannot perform without the servers, and the racing driver would be still without the technicians and repairmen.

The real heroes among us

As someone who has researched the phenomenon of religious and political violence for so long, the oft-repeated lament of the unrecognised and unworthy has become so commonplace to me today that I am inclined to think of it as universal.

I have heard this appeal, this cry for recognition, in so many interviews in so many countries and contexts that the narrative seems predictable to me by now.

Addressing this need for recognition, self-worth and appreciation is, in my opinion, part and parcel of the broader and longer struggle against violent extremism and radical militancy wherever it may manifest itself in the world today.

But it is a struggle that is complex, and which requires the combined effort of society as a whole, rather than an infinite supply of missiles and drones.

Radical groups like ISIS thrive on publicity and notoriety, and may even relish the punishment they are receiving on the battlefield as it supports their clamouring for martyrdom.

But what we - that is society - need to do is to undermine the appeal of such violent voluntarism by emphasising again and again the heroic nature of decent, honest work; and the even higher value of social and familial commitment and responsibility.

For starters, a man who abandons his wife and children to chance for the sake of his own self-glorification is really no different from any wanton lothario who needs to prove himself by slipping out in the middle of the night to play out his fantasy of single playboy in the local nightclub. Both, in the final analysis, are the real losers.

Second, and equally important, we - again, society - need to restore to the ordinary working man and woman the dignity and nobility of labour that seems to have been lost of late. The man or woman who cleans your pavement, cuts the grass in your garden, serves you during your lunch break, happen to be human beings whose labour has a direct and positive impact on your life.

These are the everyday heroes who make our lives a little easier; without them, our lives would be poorer and harder.

If this mental change can take place in all of us on a societal level, then one of the key motivating factors behind the alienation of potential radicals and their self-exclusion from society will be addressed, and perhaps even resolved for good.

And the net result would be societies where the ordinary man or woman would not need to fling himself or herself unto some faraway battlefield to feel that he or she has purpose and meaning.

The war against terrorism does not have to be fought with guns alone; compassion and fellow-feeling also play a part in keeping the world safe and civilised for all.

stopinion@sph.com.sg

The writer is an associate professor at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University.