December 5th 2015

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY Well designed same-sex marriage law no solution

CANBERRA OBSERVED Kidman hectares to stay in local hands ... for now

EDITORIAL How to respond to Islamic State's latest outrages

OPINION What's left if Malcolm is in the middle?

LIFE ISSUES Feminists, conservatives unite against surrogacy

NATIONAL AFFAIRS Turnbull government is not serious about defence

HISTORY Geography the great shaper of Taiwan

PHILOSOPHY AND POLITICS Green ideology balances illogic with contradiction

SOCIETY Cultural displacement and the new terrorism

PUBLIC POLICY Cannabis for R&D has precedent in poppy trade

FAMILY AND SOCIETY Swedish daycare: paradigm or cautionary tale? Part I

CINEMA Not your average psychopath: James Bond: Spectre

BOOK REVIEW Fantastical Four


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Cultural displacement and the new terrorism

by Lucy Sullivan

News Weekly, December 5, 2015

Displacement from one’s native culture as a result of migration, as with other sources of exposure to rapid cultural change, can result in a psychological condition given the name “anomie” by 19th-century French sociologist Emile Durkheim, who linked it to high rates of suicide.


Anomie essentially results from lack of support for one’s natal culture by the surrounding cultural environment, and of conflict of one’s natal culture with the wider social environment. One lives, then, in a permanent condition of conflicting values and of their disparate embeddedness in quotidian living and ritual practices, resulting in a condition of uncertainty as regards personal identity, social belonging, and reading of the social environment.

When Australia opened its doors to cultural diversity in the 1960s and ’70s, albeit of a rather limited scope (essentially limited to Eastern and Southern European nationalities), no thought was given to the pathology identified by Durkheim. The concern was rather for the possibility of resentment or hostility in the host population, which it was sought to combat by extolling “multiculturalism” for its potential to add variety and diversity to many aspects of cultural life.

This program was essentially successful, or perhaps, rather, was essentially unnecessary, in an Australia already, like the rest of the Western world, multicultural at the higher levels of the arts and sciences, and welcoming of the novel (especially in cuisine) so long as fundamental principles such as our democratic and legal systems were not challenged.

Second-generation syndrome

The only significant cultural conflicts that erupted were between immigrant groups who brought long-standing hostilities with them from their homelands, and these tended to subside given no support from the surrounding society.

It therefore came as a rude shock to me to encounter a collection of essays written by the Australian-born daughters of the first “New Australians”, as they were at first called to prevent the derogatory overtones that the word “migrant” had developed elsewhere. The contributors to Who Do You Think You Are: Second-Generation Immigrant Women in Australia (1992) expressed almost unmitigated hostility towards, even hatred of, their peers of Australian descent, taking offence at even the friendliest of interested inquiries about their culture and contemptuous of the ignorance displayed. (Charges of discrimination and insult were not laid.)

After reading it I could only feel that the multicultural aspiration had been a fantasy and, despite the best intentions, had been doomed to failure.

Only one essayist offered any reflection on this obviously illegitimate belligerence: her father, a first-generation migrant, was, she said, comfortable with himself as an Italian and also as a new Australian, while she was neither. This contrast suggests that the blight of anomie falls, not on those who make the migrating initiative, but on their children.

Search for identity

Samantha Ellis in her book, How to Be a Heroine, describes the experience of growing up as the child of Iraqi Jews in London in the 1990s, and identifies the problem for herself as one of ambivalent identity. Unlike the NESB (non-English-speaking background) Australian women, she does not sublimate it as hatred of her hosts, the English in her case, but sets about achieving a sense of self by emulation of the quests for identity of the many heroines of English novels who faced similar challenges, though for different reasons.

These stories throw light, I think, on the unexpected, puzzling and ungrateful present phenomenon of second-generation immigrant Muslim young men turning to domestic terrorism and foreign warfare.

In the 1980s and 1990s the dominant sources of immigration changed, and the influx, both in Australia and Western Europe, was primarily from South-East Asia and the Middle East. While the former imported types of crime not previously familiar in Australia, those not so engaged seem to have assimilated well and with good will – perhaps already having been half-assimilated as a result of a century or more of British Imperial rule.

Anomie plus unfamiliarity

Middle-Eastern immigrants came without benefit of this cultural familiarity and with the added dissonance of a large difference of religion (many South-East Asian immigrants are Christian). As the 20th century progressed and their children reached adolescence and young adulthood, in all probability the same resentments born of cultural dislocation as were revealed in the essays of the far more culturally similar Eastern European women smoldered in the breasts of these young people.

The random cruelty of terrorism and the brutality of Islamic State (IS) warfare are, of course, a long further step from the miseries of anomie. “What makes a terrorist?” was the question psychometrician Dr Lazar Stankov (now at the Catholic University, Sydney) investigated with two colleagues, in an international survey and analysis. Their findings were that in practising terrorists there is a conjunction of three factors, roughly representing the personal, the sociological and the political.

First, the terrorist is inherently Nasty. In this he does not differ in any essential way from the common criminal, whose defining personality characteristic is an absence of sympathy for the suffering of others, which liberates him to inflict it at will. Inflicting physical and emotional harm and pain on others is of no consequence to him – or her, but more commonly, him. (The solitary-acting domestic terrorist commonly already has a violent criminal record.)

The second factor, the authors call Grudge. This is the conviction of having been hard done by, disadvantaged, unappreciated, or unfairly treated by those around them, or by society generally. Nastiness can, of course, cause this of itself, but it is plausible that anomie, the sense of social misfit of the second-generation immigrant, is a source of grudge as a factor in the terrorist profile.

The third element in the making of a terrorist they named Excuse. The grudge is liberated into action if an external justification can be found and nastiness permits it in a violent form. The excuse can be various – historical, religious, ideological, political … .

Additionally, the urge of the isolated individual for social inclusion can be satisfied if he can join a group or movement in which his personality traits are acceptable or even an advantage, such as the terrorist project, which offers self-respect under the guise of commitment to a worthy or heroic cause.

It has been recognised with dismay that the ranks of the IS armies are filled with Muslim youth who were born and grew up in European countries and are fully attuned to the electronic and digital communication of the West. For today’s young terrorists, the harms and humiliations visited by Western powers on their countries of origin, where their loyalties and patriotism must still in part lie, can function to excuse hostile and violent action against their host cultures.

The military interference in the Middle East by Western powers provides these young men and women with both an explanation and a focus for their anomic anger, and the means to clothe in virtue their propensity for random brutality with terrorism at home and with fighting abroad. The animosity of the second-generation Australian women migrants who contributed to that essay collection provides a template for understanding its leaping of a generation, to the bewilderment and often horror of their first-generation parents.

The explanations offered by childhood associates of recent recruits to IS from Wales, reported by Denis Staunton in an article in The Irish Times (November 7, 2015), corroborate Stankov and his colleagues’ anatomy of the terrorist. “They look around the street [at home] and they’re nobody,” said one. “But now, all of a sudden, they’re in this video around the campfire and they’re broadcasting to millions of people watching.”

“[It’s] not so much fundamentalist Islam,” said another. “What they are trying to do is revive the Dark Ages period of politics, which is one of kings, battles, warfare as the norm, expansion of empire, capturing land, dominion, conquest, enslavement, pillaging … .”

One of the suggested responses of Western nations to the absconding of these warrior youths is to deny them return. But it should be borne in mind that not all will bear the first and fundamental trait of both terrorist and criminal – nastiness. It is a characteristic of youth to be drawn to extreme causes, and by the lure of adventure.

Like the young man in the participating audience of an Insight program (SBS) who had joined IS and returned, some will be shocked and appalled at what they encounter – “Awful people, dreadful people,” he said.

It would be wrong to deny a return to those for whom the reality is disillusionment.

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