A strain of toxic masculinity learned in childhood is at the heart of Islamic State’s offer to angry young men in London, Manchester, Paris and Brussels
The Guardian, Monday 10 July 2017
A few days before they murdered eight people and injured many others, the three men who were planning to carry out the London Bridge terrorist attack met late at night outside a gym in Barking, east London. Khuram Butt, Rachid Redouane and Youssef Zaghba were captured on CCTV just after midnight. They looked like a gang, laughing and joking as they finalised details of the attack.
Following the attack, there was a great deal of comment about the fact that Redouane had reportedly abused his wife, Charisse O’Leary, who had left him in January. He has thus become the latest addition to a list of men whose extreme acts of violence towards strangers were preceded by attacks on women in a less public sphere. The Manchester suicide bomber, Salman Abedi, is another, with acquaintances recalling that he once punched a female classmate in the head for wearing a short skirt.
Obviously Islamist extremists are not the only men with a record of domestic abuse who go on to kill other people, especially in the US, where mass murder is more common. Misogyny exists in all communities, but that isn’t a reason for ignoring what appears to be a specific connection between domestic abuse and terrorism.
The link is complex, involving more than one generation. According to senior police officers, there is a striking similarity between young men who are drawn towards organisations promoting terrorism and those who join gangs in the UK’s big cities. Gang members are generally younger, but both groups tend to come from unstable backgrounds, often involving mental illness either in a parent or themselves. Domestic abuse comes up as a factor, time after time.
Boys who witness a father or stepfather beating their mother are known to be at risk of becoming abusers when they become teenagers and adults. They grow up habituated to violence and with a secret fear of it, leaving them terrified to show weakness; hence they are likely to replicate the same controlling and abusive behaviour in their own intimate relationships.
“Every day, my officers go into homes where a three-year-old boy has seen his mother being beaten up,” one police officer whose area of expertise is gangs and knife crime told me recently. “And I know that we will probably be involved with that boy in 10 or 15 years’ time.” The police recorded just over a million domestic abuse-related incidents in England and Wales in the year ending March 2016. The extent of the damage, to adults and children, is terrifying.
For young men with fragile identities, membership of a gang offers confidence, security and a sense of belonging. Sexual violence is endemic – rape is used in initiation ceremonies and to punish members of rival gangs through their girlfriends – and that is one of the clearest parallels between gang culture and terrorist organisations such as Islamic State.
Isis is led by a known rapist, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and the opportunity to rape female captives is one of the lures it has held out to young men thinking of travelling to war zones in the Middle East. A species of toxic masculinity is at the heart of the organisation’s offer to angry young men in London, Manchester, Paris and Brussels.
It makes sense, in fact, to think about Islamist terrorist organisations as gangs, even if their weapons are different. It’s true that some home-grown terrorists don’t seem to have had direct connections with Isis and end up being described as “lone wolves”. , given that the ideology of IS is so steeped in male dominance. But what they need by identifying with the ideology – joining the gang, in effect – via cyberspace. Isis rewards them – and encourages others – when it subsequently “claims” the attack.
The implications of all this are far-reaching. We don’t have sufficient refuge places for all the abused women who need them, let alone the resources to offer long-term help to children who have witnessed prolonged violence. I am not trying to excuse boys who grow up to become abusers, but it is clear that the government has, over a long period, failed to recognise the long-term impact of domestic violence.
The events of the last few weeks should concentrate minds. After the Manchester bombing, we found out that the UK security services are severely stretched, with 3,000 individuals suspected of posing a terrorist threat and another 20,000 who have come to their attention but aren’t actively being investigated.
It may be that a history of domestic abuse is common among would-be jihadis, given that the ideology of IS is so steeped in male dominance. But the link has come up so often that men who support Islamist ideology, and have a record of violence against women, must surely be of particular concern.
Domestic violence ruins lives and creates dangerous vulnerabilities in the next generation. Now it appears that contempt for women and an extremist ideology have come together with lethal results on British streets. Terrorism, like other manifestations of toxic masculinity, appears to begin in the home.