Masculinity. Or, more expansively, “the effort to establish and sustain a hypermasculine identity as a hedge against feelings of psychological emasculation”. That is the putative missing link in studies of violent extremism, both jihadi Islamist and radical right. If the explanation sounds shrink-ish, it is: just don’t tell the author, who is chafing to avoid any whiff of being “psychologically reductionist”. That is a pity, since his study – part gonzo journalism, part ethnographic research – could use a bit more theoretical meat.
The discussion of the seductive perversions of jihadi Islamism is skin and bone, too. The chapter titled “Britain: The Ex-jihadists Next Door”, which explores the deradicalisation efforts of the Quilliam thinktank, makes a genuine contribution to scholarship and includes 64 references. The preceding chapter about the informant to the “Toronto 18” 2006 terrorist plot is less than six pages long, with only six references deriving from a single source.
At the risk of psychologising myself, this lopsidedness is indicative of the book’s greater familiarity with radical right extremists. The latter populate the first six chapters – two on Sweden, two on Germany and two on the US – which make use of extensive individual interviews. The final two chapters on violent jihadis offer a counterpoint rather than robust bases for comparison – and that is particularly true for the focus on masculinity, which seems overstated (not least given the – once more, psychodynamic – stress upon the allegedly crucial need for mothers’ consent before recruits join al-Qaeda or Daesh).
That said, the case-study chapters on gender and the radical right are excellent, as is the epilogue. The book may also correct an imbalance in approaches to the radical right scene. Shame, victimhood, dysfunctional families, “paranoid politics” and radical ideologies are well covered as supporting agents for radicalisation. Unlike jihadi Islamists, however, most neo-Nazi “converts” are adolescent, even prepubescents. These “babyskins” learn to drink and fight before shaving; yet they are no less conversant with what the “real men” of the “Fourth Reich” should look and act like.
In just such “thick description”, to use Clifford Geertz’s terminology, Healing from Hate is at its most convincing, memorable and, at times, downright bizarre. Take Jackie Arklöv: a neo-Nazi given a life sentence for killing two police officers, execution-style, following a bank robbery gone awry. His violent past was shaped by the 1990s Yugoslav Wars, where he committed atrocities against Bosnian Muslims. Shocking stuff, but perhaps not surprising for a white supremacist. Except that Jackie’s dad is British and his mum is Liberian. A mixed-race neo-Nazi – imagine the psychological depths there.
That entry into (and exit from) revolutionary ideologies is played out psychologically is given welcome attention by Michel Kimmel, even if the idea of masculinity as primus inter pares feels forced in places. In keeping with recent scholarship, the importance of individual experiences rather than abstruse dogmas as drivers is reaffirmed here, both in Kimmel’s case studies and in his discussions with “formers” in groups such as Quilliam and EXIT.
The latter actively grasps this psychopathic nettle in deradicalisation, for example by handing out neo-Nazi T-shirts at “white power” music festivals. When washed, the shirts’ radical right slogans disappear and are replaced by the message “What your T-shirt can do, you can too.” Precisely this kind of innovative thinking is urgently needed as flames are increasingly fanned around us.
Matthew Feldman is director of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right, and co-director of Academic Consulting Services.
Healing from Hate: How Young Men Get Into – and Out of – Violent Extremism
By Michel Kimmel
University of California Press, 280pp, £25.00
Published 17 April 2018