Age of terror: Why are people joining ISIS?

Saturday 19 November, 16.00 - 17.15 , Kulturhuset Stadsteatern, Stockholm Battle of Ideas Europe


This session is one of five debates at a special one-day Battle of Ideas event at Kulturhuset Stadsteatern.

In recent years, thousands of young European Muslims have flocked to fight for the Islamic State, while ISIS sympathizers have committed atrocities across Europe. But what is driving these people to abandon their lives in a free society to join a vicious band of nihilists?

Most have few if any formal links to the Islamic State, nor do they tend to have been particularly observant Muslims prior to joining ISIS. In 2014, two British men, Yusuf Sarwar and Mohammed Ahmed, bought the book Islam for Dummies days before signing up as jihadis; Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel, murderer of 86 people celebrating Bastille Day in Nice, was a heavy drinker and drug user, leading a promiscuous sex life before he began attending Friday prayers just weeks before he carried out his attack.

This has led many commentators to suggest that all of this has ‘nothing to do with Islam’, with US President Barack Obama stating that those who commit violence in the name of the Islamic State are ‘un-Islamic’. The BBC has an official policy of referring to ISIS as the ‘so-called Islamic State’. However, attempts to distance the actions of the Islamic State from Islam often seem driven more by concerns over stoking Islamophobia than by any real attempt to understand what is drawing people towards the group. Instead, the attraction to ISIS is blamed on everything from latent mental health issues to anger at Western interventions in the Middle East and ‘online radicalisation’, where directionless individuals are allegedly seduced by the Islamic State’s slick online propaganda.

Yet these explanations can seem just as simplistic as the ‘Koran made them do it” account of things, and downplay the determination required by those who rally to the Islamic State’s cause. Rather, it seems that those attracted to the Islamic State tend suffer from a free-floating rage against society, and radical Islam acts as convenient ideology to attach meaning to their nihilistic fury, rather than being the cause of it. In this way, ISIS’s European followers seem to have much in common with a broader malaise among young people in the West, embodied by a cynicism towards traditional Western values and a retreat into identitarianism.

Other have pointed to the fact many of those attracted to radical Islamist ideas are second- or third-generation immigrants who have spent their lives in immigrant ghettos, reinforced by state-led multicultural policies, where opportunities for good jobs and integration into wider society are scant, creating a generation of disaffected, bitter young men who have little connection or loyalty to the society around them.

There are no easy answers to what compels individuals to shun Western values and pledge allegiance to an organisation that prizes death and destruction as ends in themselves. But is it possible to make any sense of the complex factors involved? To what extent is this a problem specific to young Muslims? What role have multiculturalist policies played in creating divisive and separate cultural identities? What explains the failure of a democratic way of life to inspire so many young people?