Healing from Hate
I have not spent as much time as I should reading the literature on why people become what we euphemistically call violent extremists let alone on how we can help people leave that world. However, at a conference I attended on building an architecture for peacebuilding in the United States, a number of people mentioned this book and one of the organizations Michael Kimmel includes, Life After Hate, whose work in the United States I knew a bit about. Then, I picked up the book and realized that he also covers former extremists in countries I write about in Europe, so it suddenly leapt to the top of the pile of books to read on my Kindle.
It was worth my time.
Kimmel takes on a pair of tough questions. First, he considers right-wing and Islamist extremists in the same book, although he gives the former more attention in the United States. Second, he makes a controversial case in viewing this kind of extremism through a gendered lens.
On one level, he is absolutely right. To begin with, almost all violent extremists are young men. And, not everyone who holds extremists groups joins the kinds of organizations Kimmel profiles on both sides of the Atlantic.
Although I’m not inclined to go as far as he does, he presents compelling evidence that the people who end up in these movements in large part because their
political-economic emasculation is accompanied by a more personal sense of emasculation: they come because they are isolated or bullied in school, and feel they need the support of something much bigger than they are.
Again, I am not able to say just how important those factors are. Nonetheless, Kimmel presents compelling evidence on efforts to lead people out of violent extremism in Germany, Sweden, Great Britain, and the United States, all of which have issues of masculinity at their core.
The pathways to radical extremism which he chronicles are hard to dismiss. The men he interviewed all had dysfunctional childhoods in which they were both witnessed plenty of violence and were exposed to it personally, often as victims of abuse. Then, somehow, a connection gets made with a friend or relative who helps the young man see the connection between his own frustrations and broader social/political issues. The extremist group then provides both a place where the young man feels wanted and a venue for deepening and expressing his frustrations, fears, and hatreds.
If Kimmel is right–and I have no reason to doubt that he is more right than wrong–the successful attempts to “deradicalize” these extremists succeed because they address these issues of masculinity as well as–and perhaps even more than–the extremist views themselves. That seems to hold whether you talk about groups like EXIT in Europe or Life After Hate in the United States or for organizations like the Quilliam Foundation in the UK. All offer an “exit strategy” that does offer things like job training or a new and more tolerant belief system. Even more importantly, all find ways of appealing to these young men as men and provide them with alternative networks
This is an important book to read, too, because Kimmel does not treat these young men as sociological abstractions–despite the fact that he himself is a distinguished sociologist. Rather, he brings these young men to life by actually sitting down and talking to Europeans and Americans who have made the journey into and out of these movements. The book is filled with interviews and images of the material that is used to recruit them into extremist movements in the first place.
In short, this is a raw but compelling book that anyone looking for simple solutions to polarization and extremism in the democratic world for one simple reason. There are no simple solutions.