Radicalisation and Self-Education

In Sebastian Faulks’ novel Engleby, a significant scene occurs early on, during a university interview. Faulks’ protagonist, the titular character, is the interview candidate. Engleby is a prospective student of literature; a discerning one, to his own mind. And in the course of things, he is asked to make a comparison between the writing of T. S. Eliot and D. H. Lawrence. Engleby, an abrasive, arrogant young man, does not believe there is much to compare.

‘I thought he must be joking’, Engleby declares of his interviewer’s question. ‘An American banker interested in the rhythms of the Anglican liturgy and a pitman’s son who wanted to escape from Nottingham, maybe via sex, or by his crude paintings. Compare them?’

Engleby continues: ‘I looked at him carefully, but he showed no sign of humour so I gave an answer about their use of verse forms, trying to make it sound as though it had been a reasonable question.’ My italics.

Though his description of Lawrence seems to contain a little of the easy contempt Engleby feels for his interviewers and those around him, Engleby himself resembles the writer. And he does so in more than way. Both the writer and the character could be considered clever. But both are determined by brutality, and in each can be found the desire to escape the material circumstances, and class background, of their birth.

Escaping straightened circumstances is not all. Of a piece with that desire comes the pursuit of a kind of flinty worldliness.

‘I can deal with reality as it is’, Engleby later declares, contrasting that to Lawrence’s comparator. ‘Poor old Eliot thought humans couldn’t stand too much of it. But I can stand as much of it as you care to throw at me.

‘As much as D. H. Lawrence anyway,’ he concludes.

In Faulks’ novel, Engleby’s desire to confront reality leads him to treat his contemporaries and those he considers beneath him with bitterness and derision, and later the same impulses give rise to an act of shocking violence.

Lawrence, in a way, felt the same disdain as Engleby expresses for the people who did not think as he did. Among them were those with whom he grew up. And this attitude brought Lawrence’s intimate thoughts, expressed in private language, close to fascism.

‘I don’t believe either in liberty or democracy. I believe in actual, sacred, inspired authority’, Lawrence wrote to one correspondent. To another, he declared ‘Let us have done with this foolish form of government, and this idea of democratic control. Let us submit to the knowledge that there are aristocrats and plebians born, not made. Some amongst us are born fit to govern, and some are born only fit to be governed.’ Note the position of the word ‘us’ in this phrasing.

Both Engleby and Lawrence are prickly characters whose intelligence leads them to dislike, then to despise, those they live among. In society as well as in literature, feelings of this sort can provide a potent resource for radicalisation. It is something those intent on propagating far-right perspectives know well. The attitude is so common that extremists seek to ape appeal to those who espouse such views. They attempt to make their ideology, with all its cruelty, seem the path to toughness, to improvement, and to truth.

One part of the picture is how extremists cloak their beliefs in unearned grandeur. A style guide produced for the benefit of contributors to the Daily Stormer, a notorious neo-Nazi publication, suggested that there was ‘no such thing as too much hyperbole’.

‘Even when a person can say to themselves “this is ridiculous,” they are still affected by it on an emotional level,’ the guide’s author suggests. It directs that writers must ‘Refer to teenagers who get arrested for racist Twitter posts as “eternally noble warriors bravely fighting for divine war to protect the blood heritage of our sacred ancestors”’. Even the self-evident absurdity of this phrasing attaches lustre to extreme activity which, when repeated sufficiently often, is intended to draw in those eager for a noble cause and a heroic mantle.

Correspondingly, far-right rhetoric and ideas can propagate while attached to less directly contemptuous feelings. Disaffected youths can find themselves among extremist cultures which appear to reflect pure self-improvement and self-education.

Young Muslims who seek to learn more about their religion can be attracted by the intellectual exercises associated with some Islamist groups. Learning to take the real world as it is can mean, in effect, pursuing religion which promises absolute, world-defining theology. Peter Pomerantsev’s new book This Is Not Propaganda includes an illuminating description of the practicalities of this approach.

Rashad Ali, now a researcher and counter-terrorism practitioner at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a think tank, was involved in his youth with the revolutionary Islamist organisation Hizb ut-Tahrir.

It began with the promise of erudition. Hizb ut-Tahrir recruiters went into schools, where little wrong was thought to come from ‘well-dressed, erudite young college lecturers in engineering and science speaking so engagingly about big ideas: about whether you could prove God exists, evolution, identity’, as Pomerantsev writes.

Ali was interested by the prospect of totality and true knowledge. ‘Can you be a complete Muslim?’ one of the recruiters asked, in implied contrast to other ‘part-time’ or ‘Friday’ Muslims. That distinction between part-timers who couldn’t take Islam at its true extent and the possibility of completion was enough to pique the young man’s interest.

Significantly, Ali began his involvement with Hizb ut-Tahrir not at a mosque, but in a school, and latterly through a succession of ‘study groups’.

What was on offer reads like hidden knowledge: novel ideas, and the possibility of hearing more than others in their quiet lives seek to understand.

Hizb ut-Tahrir is a non-violent Islamist organisation which prioritises the propagation of its political ideas. That is what Ali, as he rose in the organisation, was trained and expected to do. Other groups have more violent ambitions for their recruits. But the same impulses appear in those they seek to co-opt, and are used by recruiters.

A recent New Yorker investigation of the British far-right group National Action evidenced the organisation’s pseudointellectual culture and its – perhaps perverse – appeal to someone seeking more learning than life had hitherto provided.

Robbie Mullen, the piece’s subject, a man who joined National Action before informing authorities about its members’ violent intentions, is described as a ‘bright’ boy whose ‘education was truncated’. ‘[I]n our conversations’, journalist Ed Caesar writes, ‘he sometimes lacked the vocabulary to express complicated thoughts or feelings’. Mullen’s formal education was inconsistent, and he fell in with a crowd his mother considered unsuitable. Less than well educated and lacking training, he took unskilled work upon finishing school.

Mullen’s lack of formal education provided an opening for the radical group he eventually joined.

Amid uninteresting surroundings and unchallenging relationships, the racist worldview of National Action can be seen, or skilfully presented, as a perverse education in itself. New ideas, and more strident belief, overtook a life of not thinking about very much at all. As Caesar puts it, ‘More established N.A. members educated Mullen in what seemed to him a sophisticated world view’; the cornerstones of that worldview were racial resentment and political radicalism.

National Action’s methods of propagation included the mock-intellectual magazine Attack, which served as justification for some of its pretences. Elsewhere, National Action’s leaders described the core of their organisation not only residing in its membership, but also in what they termed ‘our ideas’. This elevation of vulgar prejudice to intellectual effort not only justified the group’s worldview; it also seemed to meet standards for education and improvement, even self-betterment, which are attractive to those in less than perfect lives.

In ‘teaching’ socially awkward and under-educated people such as Mullen, radical groups can indoctrinate under the guise of educating. While their overt worldview provides a direct cause for which adherents can advocate, and their commitment to action provides political motivation, other, more subtle factors can attract those who are bored or drawn to aggressive pseudointellectual politics.

National Action’s purported ‘ideas’ were intended to give cover and justification to its planned violence. Mullen only began informing on the group after its members did not stop or even try to dissuade another member, Jack Renshaw, from openly contemplating the murder a Member of Parliament, Rosie Cooper. Mullen could stand no more. It proved too real.

Matthew Collins, who is now a figure in the anti-extremism organisation Hope not Hate, began his political involvement as a young man drawn to the far-right. ‘In high school, Collins became, in the words of his teachers, a “racist” and a “bully.” At a library, he began to research the National Front and other fascist groups’, Caesar notes.

These researches led to the boy, someone later described in Collins’ memoir as ‘leaderless’ and ‘bored’, to overt radicalism.

Boredom and the desire for challenge combine with another common theme: the desire for self-improvement in its most general sense.

On forums and message boards, such as 4chan, which provide partial meeting places for opinions far from the mainstream, those who post are as likely to discuss improving one’s own or others’ tastes in books and film, and improving the physique, than overtly radical material. The vast majority of the material shared on these websites is almost innocuous, if often strangely specific and generally odd – deliberately at odds with the opinion of others and disdainful of other views, but carried out with diversion as the aim. All, in other words, designed to escape boredom as much as any other objective.

But things can, and likely will, carry a strange undertone in these communities, which define as much by their edginess and vulgarity as anything else.

On forums such as these, discussions of fitness, for example, will not be entirely free of strange subtexts. Not only will some posters talk, as anyone discussing the subject might, about wanting to improve their attractiveness; others, either ironically or sincerely, will talk about wanting to get into shape for the race war which they say is coming. Even these boards contain aspects of the spirit of the more politically extreme parts of the site, and serve as something of an annex to wider pursuit of extreme politics.

Entertainment and diversion still predominates. On boards dedicated to literature, the Western canon is more likely to be recommended than the writings of the fascist intellectual Julius Evola. But nonetheless, in the pursuit of reading books, visitors are likely to be induced to read biographies of the British fascist Oswald Mosley, or Louisiana’s populist governor Huey Long, works which complement or supplement more radical talk about race and nation. On anonymous (and since deleted) Twitter accounts, some of the people who frequent these online destinations spoke to those who agree about how fulfilling the experience of reading this niche material can be, and how others – the people they encounter in daily life – were unenlightened for not having trodden similar paths.

The desire for self-improvement and self-education can lead the untested down strange and uncommon routes, all born from a desire, as Engleby evidences, to see life as it really is and to face it. This desire has unpleasant corollaries. It can lead some to seek perverse education in things far from the accepted tenets of plural and peaceful society – in radical politics or hatreds. These pursuits can cause others to hold their contemporaries in contempt as Lawrence did, and to decide, after years of intellectual effort, that most people deserve to be ruled rather than to hold power themselves.

In many ways, given his desire to escape his provincial background amid knowledge of all kinds – intellectual and sensual – it is not surprising that Lawrence’s politics developed as they did. For him, an awkward and intelligent provincial working-class boy, it was easy to became contemptuous as Lawrence, in his own eyes, made himself better, but saw his contemporaries remaining much the same as he had left them. The violence of Engleby and National Action, seen in this context, is an outgrowth of wider desires and drives, all of them with deep roots.

This piece was originally published at European Eye on Radicalization.

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