Monday, 31 August 2015

What Tribe Are You In? Thatcher’s Britain, ISIS and the Need to Belong

Listening to a radio programme about how ISIS attracts followers, a couple of things struck me about people in general, and young people in particular:

1)      They need to belong

2)      They need to put their energy and commitment behind something that seems meaningful

These needs must have their roots in our tribal past, and they are particularly strong among adolescents with their drive to create a new adult identity.

In many ways, chance dictates what particular tribe people join. It might be a sub-culture, gang, football team, political movement, religion, type of music or support for an issue or minority. When I was a teenager I was into the Anti-Nazi League and CND. I went on marches and attended rallies against Cruise Missiles being brought onto British soil. It was only when I went abroad for a year to be an au pair that they managed to install them behind my back.

Image courtesy of

Young people are often fervently engaged with their cause, however wrong-headed or trivial it might seem to others. In my twenties, I studied English Literature. You may not realise how passionately that subject area was divided in the early eighties – how we disdained old-school, bourgeois literary criticism and cheered on Marxist, post-structuralist, psychoanalytical and linguistic approaches – oh, I can’t even remember all the ‘isms’ we believed in, but we were passionate about every one.

Thatcher's Britain - the miners' strike, image courtesy of

And of course, I lived in Thatcher’s Britain, and so we occupied campus banks that supported South Africa, and marched for the miners and against the cuts. In 2013, when Thatcher died and was duly eulogised, the vilification that followed was a wake-up call. People still detested her, in their blood and bone – which in an era of insipid battles for the middle ground, was a reminder of how tribal British politics used to be.

Ideology was made for the young, who haven’t yet suffered the disillusionment of seeing things fail. With maturity (or is it complacency, or compromise?) we look back on the beliefs of our youth and see how starkly black and white they were. I would not have believed you if you had told me then that in throwing out the old orthodoxies, we were just creating new ones.

When you are young and energetic, you are on the lookout for something to throw your energy into. It might be a sport or a personal challenge, but it might be a campaign or activity. Churches ignore this at their peril. If they are teaching the love of Jesus, but not leading young people into an active expression of that teaching, they will lose those young people (and some older people too).

Christian young people in community action, courtesy of

And young people quickly become expert at debunking the myths they are fed; the marketing and the media narratives that bombard them all day. This puts them on the look-out for an alternative reality, a counter-narrative that they can believe in.

I am no expert on jihadist persuasion, but I do wonder if it uses all these factors to draw young people in. What if they haven’t found something to believe in, if life seems mundane or pointless, if they don’t have a feeling of belonging? What if someone points out that the media are feeding them a worldview that needn’t be theirs? A lot of what enters their minds through screens, large and small, is skewed or untrue. If someone offers them an alternative reality, it might feel like the scales falling from their eyes and a truth that had been kept from them finally being revealed. Friends or loved ones who argue against it might just seem blind to its real value. 

This is why people join cults; it might also be why they leave everything behind them and travel to Syria, while in the same news bulletin, we learn that people whose lives and homes are in Syria have died in their desperation to leave.