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Friday, April 12, 2013


By Hugh Graham.
            With the discovery that a fourth Canadian, Ryan Enderi, is wanted in the Islamist assault on the Algerian gas plant at Amenas, the astonishment is unlikely to die down any time soon. In the light of the last hundred odd years of history, of course, it’s less surprising.  Because it’s not  even about militant Islam. It’s about something much older.  Enderi, Ali Medlej and Xisto Katsiroubas  all came from London Ontario, all had few local bonds, indeed little adherence to family or community.  All felt isolated and disenchanted before they finished high school. That itself should be no more surprising than their resort to militant Islam.
          Leaving aside their immigrant backgrounds, there’s already a hard truth: social disconnection is as old as history and it’s getting worse. Traditional bonds have been weakening everywhere for decades. For most people, the gradual increase in discontinuity in personal life is taken for granted. But nor can the old foundations in physical proximity and lasting friendships, in other word, “roots,” be replaced by social media. It’s a lonely society. Imagine how bad it can be for young, second generation immigrants who feel confined by the ethnic world of their parents but find no home in Canadian society.
               So why have the media generated an atmosphere of earnest perplexity and mystery around four, Southern Ontario Islamists?  Why do people go on chiming in with the zeit geist:  about militant Islam, about broken homes, about stifling multicultural enclaves?
             History itself can illuminate, even from way out in left field.  Actually, 19th century Russia. Hang on, it’s an old story and it’s worth considering. After the abolition of serfdom in 1861, upwardly mobile young men from peasant backgrounds were channeled into the polytechnical academies of St. Peterburg and Moscow. The polytechnical schools kept them safely out of the elite Gymansia of the upper classes. The educated children of serfs found themselves in limbo: estranged from families they had left and rejected by the society they hoped to join. Socially, they had fallen between the cracks.
            Flash forward a hundred-odd years and a continent away and you have a second generation of immigrants, disillusioned with their parents’ traditionalism and greeted with indifference by mainstream Canadian society. The Russian students had been offered polytechnical schools; with better intentions, the Canadians had been offered Multiculturalism. In both cases official inclusion became a form of exclusion, even disenfranchisement.
            Multiculturalism isn’t responsible for creating “inward-turned, seething hotbeds of militant Islam.” But it has produced tolerance rather than acceptance, cultural diversity rather than integration.  It’s an irony that the “great Satan,”  the United States, with its melting pot society has had proportionately fewer young “foreign” Jihadists than have Multicultural Canada and Britain.  That may be a cliché by now, but I suspect it’s true.
               In the ghettoization of 19th century Russian students you’ll find extraordinary parallels with the disaffected who’ve chosen Holy Jihad. Many of the Russians were divinity students. Even as atheists, they applied their spiritual passions to hatred of the society that rejected them. They joined terrorist cells and planned wholesale destruction to make way for a vaguely defined utopian millennium. The typical “Nihilist” ended up in poverty, unable to pay his tuition and living in a room with no society except that of fellow pamphleteering  revolutionaries with  hidden printing presses. We’ve seen the type: in Dostoevsky’s embittered student loner, Raskilnikov of Crime and Punishmen; in the young, fanatical revolutionaries of The Possessed.
              Now, instead of a secret printing press there’s the internet. Instead of a room in a Petersburg tenement,  a small flat in Canada or Britain. Instead of revolutionary propaganda, You Tube videos of Jihad. Instead of a vaguely defined utopia, a vaguely defined Caliphate.  
              So  it didn’t begin with 9/11 and it’s not about Islam. It’s about a social phenomenon as universal as it is unfortunate: the human driftwood and flotsam left behind by in a lonely and rapidly developing society with good intentions gone wrong; it’s about the nameless and the faceless, the legions of human beings who keep falling between the cracks. Presenting the whole thing as a mystery is bound to make the problem worse. The greatest hope lies in the hardest truths.
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