Jihad is not ideological but adolescent
The expert in the fight against jihadism thinks that the West is blinded by radical Islam
By Andreas Kouwenhoven and Bas Blokker
September 21, 2015
David Kenning: "IS recruits among those who feel victimized."
He looks like he belongs in the audience for a hard rock concert: leather waistcoat, long sideburns and curls. But sitting in the Amsterdam city hall is a terrorism expert. Trained as a Spinoza scholar and as a psychoanalyst specializing in and the extreme behaviour in adolescents, David Kenning has advised governments on combating jihadist recruitment for ten years. The Brit now also advises Mayor Van der Laan of Amsterdam.
Kenning is worried, he says, about how jihadism is being fought. "If nothing changes, the Western approach is doomed to fail. It is more important that we understand the psychological condition of the jihadists than that we are blinded by the religious ideology of radical Islam. "
Fourteen years ago, Kenning says, nineteen men from Saudi Arabia attacked the United States. "They were immediately labelled as the vanguard of the clash of civilizations, a battle for life and death between the West and Islamic culture. This way the West’s counter-attack was overly-militaristic. Senseless. In asymmetrical warfare only your own power and mistakes can defeat you."
The result: "Fourteen years of the War on Terror has given us the caliphate. We have five countries in the Middle East and North Africa where jihadist militias swear allegiance to IS and threaten the state. We have ten times as many jihad fighters as ten years ago. You cannot maintain that western policy has been successful. On the contrary."
Populist politicians have Islamized the threat. But jihadism, says Kenning, has little to do with ideology. "The jihadist ideology is weak. It’s the best known ideology in the world and yet it has never inspired mass mobilization. Consider: 99.99 percent of the one and a half billion Muslims are immune to the IS ideology. Compare that with Marxism, which was able to conquer large parts of the world. "
License for violence
That ideology hardly plays a role, Kenning also sees in the high number of adolescents who join IS. 90 per cent of jihadists, he says, are younger than 24 years. And there are remarkably many converts. "It’s different in parts of the Middle East and North Africa but this is not an ideological struggle that we’re dealing with in Europe, but a psychological one. Jihadists need not be gripped by ideology, but by what it symbolizes and what it allows them to do. The ideology of IS provides them with a license for violence. The followers do not have to control their impulses like us. Jihadism is an adolescent solution for adolescent problems. "
That insight has consequences for the fight against jihadism. But Kenning sees the opposite happen. "In most western countries, politicians define this issue as a battle for 'true Islam' against the evil ideology. They demand that moderate Islam takes responsibility for fighting radicalism. Supporting and funding moderate Islam has become a profitable industry. "
This also happens in the Netherlands. For example, 53 Moroccan imams recently toured the Netherlands to promote the moderate interpretation of Islam. "That does not really help", says Kenning. "Do you really think that you can convince a Feyenoord fan on the basis of rational arguments about the basic principles of the football game that Ajax is a better club? Facts are irrelevant. Feelings about facts are much more relevant. "The Islamic State responds to this. "IS's strategy is smart. They manipulate us. "
He stops for a moment. "I do not want this article to big up ISIS. They don't really put our lives in danger. But they do endanger our way of life. "Just as the West adjusts to the supposed threat of the caliphate - that is the problem.”
Society is radicalizing
"It follows a fixed pattern: dividing, polarizing, radicalising. We have seen what the consequences are in Northern Ireland. Your own society becomes radicalized. Even moderate people in Europe are more hostile to Islam. If only a single extremist becomes violent the atmosphere becomes more edgy, more polarized. That's how you grow your own terrorists. You only need a few to disrupt the entire society. Just look at the impact of the attack on the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris. "
The Netherlands also noticed that last Friday when a boy locked himself in the toilet of a Thalys train bound for Paris - the entire train traffic ground to a halt that morning. He turned out not to have a bomb with him.
Islamophobia is deliberately propagated by right-wing populist parties and indeed also by left-wing populists - and of course IS plays a huge role, says Kenning. Anyone who sees terrorist threats as a cultural problem will therefore mistakenly label every Muslim as a potential enemy. "The push factors that drive radical youngsters to the caliphate are much stronger than the pull factors of the ideology."
The underdog bites back
IS is more adept at recruitment than Al-Qaeda that was in recent years. "Al-Qaeda sought support among the losers in society, under the motto: Islam is under attack. IS recruits those who feel victimized and a way to fight back aggressively. The motto is now: Islam is on the attack.
IS gives the underdog confidence, tells him that he can fight in any case, even if he has no chance. "Do you know which film many jihadists used to watch in Chechnya? Braveheart, with Mel Gibson in the leading role, in which the Scots would rather die than to submit to the English. Glorious failure - a typical lost adolescent sentiment.
"The coming fifteen, twenty years IS will not disappear, says Kenning - even if the Caliphate does. "So we need a long-term strategy. Recruitment is essential for the morale of an organization. We have to stop that. "Kenning's solution is typically Dutch, typically Amsterdam, he says: negotiate. Negotiation is the most important course of action in the merchant society. Negotiation means that you have to move in the person you want to sell something to. It has permeated Amsterdam with a democratic spirit through the centuries. "Negotiation is the perfect antidote to radicalization. Anyone who wants to negotiate must make compromises and cannot be a fundamentalist. "He advocates teaching children to negotiate. He says it cautiously, because he does not want to suggest ethnic superiority: it is a great way for children from immigrant families to take up the genuine Dutch cultural DNA. "They are more Dutch, and I mean Dutch as a state of mind."