Academic Researcher and Composer
My current research considers the cultural products of terrorism and political violence, with a focus on the audio and visual propaganda of Jihadi-Salafi movements, especially the "Islamic State".
In particular, I am interested in how terrorist movements utilize propaganda to engender thinking and behavior change in consonance with the common purpose of the group. Aspects of culture, identity, meaning, and emotion, as articulated through video, print and music, form the primary focus of my inquiry. I am interested in not only what the cultural production is about and how it is framed, but what it means and how it is supposed to make us feel.
My goals as a researcher are to document, analyze, and interpret the role of culture, specifically music, in the contexts of radicalism. To the best extent possible, I pursue ethnography-driven research that contributes to the fields of terrorism and political violence in ways that seek to: (1) understand how radical groups employ cultural elements (music) to cultivate and reinforce hateful attitudes, which often leads to violence in its varied forms; and (2) to use my understanding of those processes to weaken the appeal and activity of the ideologies that provide the foundation for radicalism.
I make a conscious effort to approach the people and ideas in question exclusive of preset, fixed judgments or expectations, in order to allow impressions to form directly from my experiences and encounters. Any theoretical and interpretative frameworks I employ derive from the ethnography, documentation, and examination of the research subject with relation to the following questions:
My research perspective originates with the idea that a terrorist group can possess dynamic leadership, brilliant tactics, abundant funding, flawless training and ample armaments, but if they cannot convince people that it is in their best interest to risk their lives and kill another human being, then terrorism simply does not happen. The so-called “hard elements” of study, such as finances, arms, training, leadership, tactical expertise, etc., that have drawn much of the attention of the field matter little if no one commits to the common purpose of the group. In my opinion, radicalization—and trying to understand this process for the purposes of weakening it—is a fundamentally human and socio-cultural process.
The conventional line of reasoning has frequently asserted that a group’s propensity towards violence can largely be explained through analysis of their ideology. This perspective, however, overlooks the likelihood that people become involved in terrorism or political violence for a variety of factors in conjunction with the cognitive or rational appeal of a group’s ideology. For those interested in recruitment, retention, and motivation for action in radical movements, we must question whether it is ideology or a variety of factors--social identity formation, emotional appeal, enculturation, social bonding or connectivity, finding meaning or purpose in one’s life, having impact on the world, heroism, and more--that drive involvement.
FINDINGS & IDEAS
“Us vs. them” (in and out-groupness, “otherness”)
An outside threat to a community or territory (religion, race, or a glorified past is threatened)
The validation of violence as justified noble defense (protectors of truth)
Dehumanization of the “other” (enemies of God, moral/racial impurity, foreign oppressor, etc.)
Grievance, injustice, victimization narratives
Hero/warrior status granted to in-group activists (veneration of martyrdom)
Mandates/duty for action
The first step in proposing solutions is to understand the deeply human aspects involved in radicalization and violent action. From identity, bonding, and purpose to extreme violence against “others,” these are profoundly human desires and responses. The fairly recent worldview of liberal democracy and human rights runs counter to much of human history in which threats from outsiders were consistently responded to with violence. We tend to deem the act and actors involved in terrorist violence as irrational fanaticism, and while we should not lesson our rebuke of such violence, it helps to keep in mind that these are very human responses.
Also, it bears mentioning that precisely who and why remains a mystery. We can craft a profile of likely causes, processes, and candidates for radicalization but what exactly triggers involvement or action for one individual over another remains an unknown. And, the continued search for more specifics, while not a futile endeavor, seems to me to be a somewhat wasted effort. More attention should be placed on solutions—we know and have known certain things for a while, and we know what we don’t know (and probably will never come to know).
For example, we know that there is no single, causal path to radicalization; we know the varying trends of how the process unfolds; we know the themes and narrative frameworks in which extremist ideology is cast; we know the deeper social, identity, and emotional factors (basic needs, purpose and belonging, holding "transcendent" values) that can underlie adherence.
Money might be far better purposed if it were dedicated to community enrichment programs that targeted at-risk youth (especially young men) in which they were encouraged to participate in programs that supported their sense of identity, empowerment, purpose, and belonging. If the unmooring of young people (by a variety of factors—Internet, social media, liberal democracy, etc.) has been significant in turns to extremist ideology, then we need to find ways to fulfill those needs, especially among at-risk communities.
The community immune systems that regulated radicalization in the past have largely fallen apart. Reducing social disorganization in certain communities may help increase their resistance to extremism, especially if local community (socio-cultural) and religious organizations can step in and offer fulfillment of the basic emotional needs of young people. Also, we have seen something of a shift involving increasingly peer-to-peer recruitment within extremist movements. But if friendships among young people are important to the radicalization process, then they can be important in the prevention and de-radicalization process as well. Support for youth enrichment programs that involve leadership and high levels of person-to-person social interaction may help local communities regain some of their immunity to online and narrowly confined social interactions that influence radicalization.
Finally, many people eventually leave the radical movement they were once involved with. In thinking about solutions, we may want to fund research involving de-radicalization as much as preventing radicalization. Those who were once involved in extremist movements may represent the best and most credible voices for not getting involved.