I often wonder why when I was younger, even before my teenage years of hanging around train stations and shoplifting, I would stalk the tall lanes of blockbuster seeking out films where the bad guys win. My parents migrated from Afghanistan in the 1980s fleeing the Soviet Invasion and assimilating to suburban Melbourne, where they remained quietly camouflaged until 9/11.
Unaware of Australia's film censorship ratings they let me hire out pretty much any film I wanted, giving me full access to all the villains Hollywood had to offer. I usually picked Van Damme and Steven Segal movies because my parents enjoyed how melodramatic they were and I got off on the same old story about a good guy hard done by, being corrupted, and exacting revenge in the most violent and ruthless way imaginable. Van Damme would put himself in the most dangerous situations for a cause we could all get behind, he would get revenge, and he would win.
Khaled Sharrouf and Mohamed Elomar lost. In recent years I have listened to marginalized Muslim youth sympathize with these mythic characters. The media propelled our imaginations and the Chinese whispers grew about the two young Muslims from Western Sydney who were fighting for an Islamic State. Were they fighting for a cause? Did they have psychiatric issues? Were they seeking to give meaning to their lives? Or get revenge? Perhaps it was an amalgamation of things. Maybe they felt cornered and thought that reacting in the spirit of faith was the only righteous option they had left. A pattern often emerges in the stories of these marginalized kids that choose to flee the West.
They were celebrating this marginalized rejected culture and the Muslim kids loved it.
Mohammed Sharrouf suffered chronic schizophrenia caused by sustained use of amphetamines in his youth. He was described by Justice Anthony Whealy as a "very sad, pathetic figure" with a violent background. Mohamed Elomar was a champion Australian super featherweight boxer who was banned from the sport after a brawl erupted when he knocked out William Kickett in 2009. Afterwards, he told the Daily Telegraph that boxing "is full of racist bastards...they've always had it in for us. They hate us."
I vividly remember the first time I saw Mohamed Elomar on television. He was greeting Khaled Sharrouf outside court, walking staunchly past the reporters. His physical presence—long curly hair, Nike TN's, thawb with a bum-bag—gave him a strange aura that demanded attention. Both Sharrouf and Elomar's identity was shaped by a collage of rejected Australian culture, united under the banner of Islam. They were celebrating this marginalized rejected culture and the Muslim kids loved it.
The revolutionary fairytale of both Sharrouf and Elomar ended when photographs were released of them in Syria holding by the hair, the severed heads of Syrian soldiers. The violence had gone beyond the rules of war according to Islamic principles. They were no longer 'warriors of the deen,' they had become monsters, even in the eyes of the 'radicalized' Islamic youth that had idolized them.
We shared a cultural proximity that was made foreign by their unimaginable acts.
There was a general feeling amongst us young Muslims that we all had traces of the Sharrouf/Elomar caricatures inside us until we saw those images. We shared a cultural proximity that was made foreign by their unimaginable acts. This cultural proximity made these acts of extreme violence different to the actions of Van Damme's characters because the identities of these two young Muslims from the western suburbs of Sydney were so close to home. The fantasy was beginning to feel all too real for the wrong reasons.
Last night I was listening to an interview with Don DeLillo where he talked about how technology advances and people become more primitive. This made me think about the advancing civilized west, and the way in which Middle Eastern youth were becoming more tribal. If we divide the foreign fighters from Western countries into two age groups, 15-20 and 20-30, we may be able to notice a difference in their ideologies which could be attributed to the blossoming of the terrorist, the character, and it's meaning as it conceptually developed after 9/11.
The trend amongst Middle Eastern youth from ages 20-30 (my age) that tend to sympathize with foreign fighters is that they come from violent or criminal backgrounds, were drug dependent, or have been victimized in some way. Their relationship to 'the cause' is generally a redemptive one in which they are reacting or countering the norms of society. If we assess their age along the timeline post-9/11, they would fit roughly between the invasion of Afghanistan and the Iraq war. The terrorist villain was still in flux and hadn't fully been developed and defined in the media. The expansion of the war on terrorism into Iraq broadened the stereotype, first it was Afghan, then it was Middle Eastern, now it's Muslim.
The new generation—those aged from 15-20—grew up in a society that had a pretty indoctrinated conceptual definition of a terrorist, and in their radicalization have become passive to it. The key difference being that the older generation violently rejected it. Sometimes I genuinely fear that the Muslim youth will become so passive to these indoctrinated concepts that they will no longer fit into social, cultural, and racial norms established by western society, forcing them to revisit the battles of Frantz Fanon and Amié Cesaire in a not-so-distant future.
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The shock death of Numan Haider, a radicalized Afghan Australian teenager, was a coup de grâce that ruined the fantasy of fighting overseas for this generation. The marginalized Muslim youth have almost fully accepted and adopted the identity of the terrorist, but not necessarily the role. Things are now very real. The homes of families, and friends have been raided, passports are being cancelled and citizenship is being revoked. They've cut the flower at the stem. But this increased pressure is creating a dangerous turbulence. The war is no longer foreign, it's here.
The death of Sharrouf and Elomar was a nail in the coffin for the dwindling allure of that black flag and the Syrian war. The problem now is that the radicals are stuck here with that villainous label bombarding them on television and members of parliament assuring everyone that they would "sleep soundly at night" if people like them were "out of the country."
The only way we can minimize the risk of more kids fighting for ISIL or the more imminent threat of preventing attacks on Australian soil is to minimize the dualities and challenge the stereotypes. We need to give our youth the confidence and assurance that we aren't different from one another and that our complexities make us human.
Van Damme's characters were often anti-heroes. He was a good guy that did bad things for reasons we could sometimes understand and sometimes couldn't. He was, in the broadest strokes possible, good and bad. The only way to help each other move forward is to be critical of labels. Because who cares about east and west, black or white, good and bad, us or them, if there's a bit of both in all of us? We just need to negotiate that balance and have the courage to admit it.
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