This is a piece about politics but not the politics we normally discuss on TPS. It is a tale of two radical youth: one from the late1960s (me) and one from the 2010s (Jake Bilardi).
You probably know the story of Jake Bilardi, the young Australian who early in March became a suicide bomber for Islamic State (IS) in Iraq. For the media and the politicians, it raised questions about the radicalisation of youth, particularly of Middle Eastern background, and what could be done to counter it: why are ‘our’ youth running off to Syria and Iraq to join IS?
For me it raised a different question: where now is the radical Left?
I have read Jake’s alleged blog. My own reading of it is that much of it is probably his own work but there are parts which I think may have been ‘massaged’ by IS.
He appears a very intelligent young man. He writes that he was a 13 year old atheist in a working-class area of Melbourne when his interest in international politics was first aroused by his elder brother. He had hopes of becoming a political journalist, particularly in foreign trouble spots, and so did his own research into the world’s conflicts seeking to understand the reasons behind them. On Afghanistan, he wrote:
I saw the Taliban as simply a group of proud men seeking to protect their land from an invading force, while I did not necessarily agree with their ideology, their actions were in my opinion completely justified.
He also studied the violence of the street gangs in El Salvador, Brazil, Mexico and Los Angeles, and saw them in political terms:
The elite prefer to portray them as simply groups of young men looking to make some quick cash and who love killing and mayhem but when asked what the real reasons for the establishment of their gangs are, the founders of the these criminal organisations as well as their members always seemed to agree that they had the right to steal, rape and murder because the government and police force were doing the exact same to them in their communities. … They are predominantly from poor communities unfairly targeted by law enforcement and government policies and they are denied the opportunity to integrate into the system and build a regular life, so turning to a gang becomes their most viable option.
His research led him to question America’s role in many of the conflicts, including its attempts to introduce democracy into the Middle East, and it raised questions about democracy itself:
The reality of democracy became clear to me, place in people’s mind the idea of freedom and convince them that they are a free people while oppressing them behind the scenes.
When I read his words, I thought of my own years between 17 and 22 when many of my political views were formed and how close they were to Jake’s. And I was not alone. On March 13 ‘Kat’ commented on-line:
On top of this the Western world throws celebrities and false reality into the spotlight to distract people from what is really going on in the world, hence the widespread political ignorance among Westerners.
This was the turning point in my ideological development as it signalled my complete hatred and opposition to the entire system Australia and the majority of the world was based upon.
It was also the moment I realised that violent global revolution was necessary to eliminate this system of governance …
What is scary is how similar I was in my world view with him up until the point where he makes the transition from recognising the damage the west has caused to him thinking that blowing himself up to kill others would be a good idea. … I remember at that age exploring other religions as well. However, I came to the conclusion that there is no god. But what he has written I can completely relate to as far as a journey into realising what the world is really like at a young age.
Although I came to my own politicisation a few years later than Jake (perhaps a sign of the times), I can well imagine writing very similar words myself, expressing disillusionment with the mainstream system. I didn’t write such words but I certainly engaged in conversations about revolution. I supported liberation movements, as they were known then, and found myself supporting (at least in thought and speech) foreign fighters like the IRA, the ANC in South Africa, ETA in the Basque country, the Black Panthers in America, and the PLO. And I shared a similar disdain for America. Such radicalisation is a fairly normal process for at least a proportion of politicised youth. If you understand the system at a young age, understand its faults, and you have not yet been captured by the system, you have the youthful enthusiasm to want to do something about it.
I didn’t rush to join those overseas fights, not just because I may have had a sense of self-preservation, but because the Left then believed that those people deserved to fight their own fight, their own way, without foreign fighters interfering or, at worst, trying to tell them what to do. We saw those movements as liberation movements and that, almost by definition, required the people involved to achieve their own liberation — just as supportive males were not part of the ‘women’s liberation’ movement, nor supportive whites welcomed into the Black Panthers.
There was some talk of violence in my radical days. People knew how to make Molotov cocktails but saw no real need to use them in Australia. And their use could be counter-productive. One aspect of a genuine revolution is the need to win popular support. In the context of Australian politics, we weren’t leading a revolution but we were hoping to change popular perception of the system and seeking popular support to change the shape of Australian society. The radical youth and university students (who in those days often formed the majority of ‘radical youth’) may have led the way and brought issues into the public arena but, alone, we could be dismissed by government — but not if that wider community support was gained, as in the anti-Vietnam war movement.
While I can see similarities in Jake’s approach and my own, he turned to radical Islam and Islamic State: why?
His family background is not clear although one report suggests his family is of Italian background. He grew up in Melbourne and his mother died in 2012, which some suggest had an influence on his conversion to Islam.
And yes, it is Islam that is providing most of the revolutionary movements these days but in my terms many of them are Right-wing revolutions. I say that because, while I can accept Jake’s argument that freedom in the West is limited and a bit of a con, I cannot see how a strict system of Sharia law offers greater freedom nor that a system effectively allowing for male domination over women is a better system. If a revolution does not enhance freedom then it is not a true revolution, at least from a Left perspective: it is a Right-wing reactionary movement that will curtail freedom.
Jake did not use his best critical facilities to question the group he was looking to join. I had also come from a working-class background but I saw that many of the more radical leaders in my time came from upper-middle class families. To my mind, while they may also oppose the system I opposed, they did not oppose it in the same way because they did not really understand what mattered to the working class and, for that reason, I could also question their motives.
Jake does not appear to question whether IS was gaining popular support which, as I said from the earlier Left perspective, is considered essential for a successful revolution. IS does appear to have limited support from some Sunni groups, and in his blog Jake claims that it is ‘providing services to the people’, but IS, and similar Islamic groups like Boko Haram, also undertake mass killings of non-Sunni groups. In this context, the religious underpinning of IS is important.
In the West, our freedom and the ‘relativism’ of the post-modernist era have created ‘uncertainty’. Young people need role models to help determine what personal boundaries and values they will adopt: they go through a stage of looking for some ‘certainty’ in the values that will take them through life. Our society does not offer any one system of ‘certainty’ but says that we are free to determine our own values — within a few legal limitations. I recall that the famous poet T S Eliot became a Roman Catholic in his later years and the reason was the ‘certainty’ it offered in relation to worship and faith, whereas the Protestant religions said that each individual could find their own path to god.
If even a renowned poet can succumb in the quest for ‘certainty’, how much more so young people still searching for their adult identity? Apart from anything else, IS offers a ‘certainty’ of politics and backs it with a certainty of faith.
Jake wrote that he did research a number of religions, as he saw them as the key to many of the conflicts taking place in the world:
I found myself deeply confused by all of these outlandish and odd religious systems, that myself as an Atheist had never been exposed to. However, it was Islam that for me stood out as easy to understand and shockingly consistent with established historical and scientific facts ... Slowly but surely I began being drawn towards the religion and it was no longer a political interest for me but the truth I had been circling around for years … [emphasis added]
I, like Kat and Jake, also went through a period in my young life when I studied many religions. I still have in my library Buddhist scriptures, the Hindu Bhagavad-Gita, the works of Lao-tzu regarding Tao-ism (my personal favourite) and the Koran, not to mention the Book of Mormon and a Bible. But I also have many revolutionary works including Che Guevara’s Guerrilla Warfare, Bobby Seale’s Seize the Time and Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth.
One difference is that the Left focus in my time was essentially economic, against the capitalist system, and opposed to governments and the politics they represented mainly to the extent that they supported capitalism and denied freedom to groups that suffered under the capitalist system. These new radical youth seem much more focused on the politics (if Jake is any guide). Radical Islam may be attractive because it is offering a different political system (or more correctly a politico-religious system): it doesn’t seem to discuss economics to any degree and the social aspects are set by Islamic teachings. With the demise of socialist governments (and even China now using a form of guided capitalism), the Left no longer really offers either political or economic alternatives, only variations to the existing system, a socio-economic alternative. That may also be a sign of the times. I could still see things around me in terms of the class structure, or, in Australia, the economic structure that created class. Jake appears to have been viewing things through the prism of political systems and appears to have failed to examine fully the social and economic consequences of his choice.
If I am right in suggesting that the current radicalisation is based largely on politics, not socio-economics, then the government, for all the noise it is making, will not be able to change this because it is the system the government represents that is the very thing the youth are reacting against. Changing social and economic circumstances may help but will not be enough.
I had available other ways of expressing dissent. I took part in protests, including the Vietnam Moratorium marches. I took part in sit-ins. I could express my disdain of the system and feel self-justified when police carried me roughly away from demonstrations and sit-ins. I could discuss my views with like-minded people before and after demonstrations; we could share tales of abuse by the police; the way police did not wear their numbers when they planned to ‘get rough’ with the demonstrators; of government seeking to stir a violent reaction from us for political purposes; and we could identify the then Special Branch officers who watched and photographed us. We could discuss how the system needed to change and we had an alternative socio-economic view of a future Australia. There was an outlet that didn’t have to result in violence — at least not here in Australia.
Where are the Left movements (if not revolutions) that such young people can join now? Where are the Left organisations that provide an opportunity to protest against the current system? Why don’t we have movements that can draw these young people to protest and express dissent against the political and socio-economic system here in Australia?
We have had many demonstrations against the Abbott government and its policies but it seems that, for many, they knew what they were demonstrating ‘against’ but not necessarily what they were demonstrating ‘for’. That raises the question: where now is the philosophic basis of protest? Some might argue that the Greens offer the best Left approach at the moment but they are now a mainstream political party, embedded within the political system which youth like Jake are rejecting.
So, these young people need not only a protest march or sit-in but an alternative narrative outside the mainstream political system — which is exactly what radical Islam and IS is offering them.
The problem is not just that IS is waging a successful propaganda war on social media but that the Left in Australia is failing to provide an adequate radical alternative for disaffected youth.
What do you think?
With a piece like this, is Ken still an ‘unreconstructed Leftie’ or does he have a point? Has the Left been so marginalised in our politics and replaced by a liberal Left or progressive approach, that groups like Islamic State are filling the void and attracting some politicised youth who see it as an avenue to express their radicalism? Could that radicalism be expressed more constructively if a radical Left still existed as a significant movement in Australia?
Come back next week for 2353's 'Where will we be in 50 years' which asks whether, in Australia, there is a connection between immigration and economic conditions.