The identity of two of the men who beheaded American and Syrian captives has been revealed. They are not birth-Muslims, but converts from solid French families: one is of Portuguese descent, formerly a Catholic, and the other from Normandy. Both of them converted when they were in high school, and were somehow attracted to Islam, then ISIS, then beheadings. Their relatives are in shock. It would be a good idea for all of us to ask why these young men have become convinced that this is what they should be doing with their lives.
Those that have studied radicalization tell us that the recruiters are very good at using the internet to entice people. They paint a fantastical picture of radical Islam with many rewards that young men would be attracted to. There is of course the idea that in Islam women are there to serve men, and don’t forget you can even have a harem if you want. So the sexual slavery angle has great appeal for young guys. But it’s more than that.
All of us want to belong to something. We are wired that way. Western society has failed young people in not providing anything like a rite-of-passage from the immature child, dependent on his mother, to a man who is now ready to support the tribe, ready to marry and raise his own children. The Church used to provide this perhaps in the confirmation ceremonies, but they were performed at too young an age, usually, and these days our various traditional churches have lost so many congregants, that you would be hard put to it to find more than a handful of serious teenage theists in any community outside the Bible belt. That especially goes for Europe which has been leaking Christians for decades.
So these teenagers on the edge of manhood are looking for something to belong to and have found it. One of my Chinese students recently read Band of Brothers by Stephen Ambrose and was enthralled by the stories of these brave men of Company C fighting the Nazis in World War II. He told me he felt like he’d give anything for that kind of connection, forged under fire. Boys want to be men. They want a challenge. They want to feel brave. They want a band of brothers. They want women. They want to be recognized and rewarded. That’s what ISIS provides and our own communities do not.
There’s one more thing. The teenage years are also when people become spiritual seekers. If you’re not satisfied with the religion you’ve been brought up in, and millions in Europe and America are not, then you begin to look around for alternatives. The claim that God wants these young men to follow Him and set up a state in His name has great appeal. It’s the same thing some Jews claim for Israel, and let’s not forget that in the United States it was our manifest destiny to take over all of the Southwest held by the Mexicans so we could be a coast-to-coast nation. Our forefathers heard God singing “This Land is Your Land” and it wasn’t in Spanish.
It should also never be forgotten that the teenage years are a time when a person can make really stupid decisions. You can marry someone completely unsuited to you, you can do dumb things with your father’s car, …you haven’t got the judgment that you will have later in life. Since this is a case of Frenchmen who have taken a wrong turn in life, I was reminded of another case, from the year 1766 when a group of young men barely out of their teens thought it would be a good idea to desecrate some crosses and crucifixes in Abbeville, France and mock some of the Catholic rites in a blasphemous and disgusting way. One of them was the Chevalier de la Barre, who was tried and sentenced to have his tongue cut out, and then be decapitated. In his case they found a copy of some of Voltaire’s writings among his possessions, who of course, was famous for his attacks on the Church. So here’s a young man, searching for something to believe in, and he thinks it’s cool to join the iconclasts, he takes it too far, and pays with his life. Both the book and the body of de la Barre were burned in the public square.
Two hundred and fifty years after Voltaire it’s no longer sexy to be an agnostic. The wheel has turned and now the allure for young searchers is to believe again. Doubt is out, blind belief is in. And what to believe? One of the Frenchman executioners gave an interview a few months ago in which he said, “My personal goal is martyrdom, obviously.” What a waste of a life, to believe that God wants you to be the instrument whereby others lose their lives. I can’t help thinking that if only there had been other proselytizers in their lives it might have come out differently. Not the Mormons, though they would certainly be preferable to ISIS, but humanists, the descendants of Voltaire who could make the case for reason versus fanaticism, for women as the equal of men, for compassion for prisoners, and social justice for everyone.