* This post is part of a series based on talks given at the Trajectories of Radicalisation and De-radicalisation Conference held at the University of Queensland in 2018.
In the lead up to the Pathways to Radicalisation and Deradicalisation Conference, Greta Nabbs-Keller and I organised a panel on gender and radicalisation in the Indonesian context. At the event, we spoke about the important but often overlooked link between gender and violent extremism (VE) in Indonesia. Here I would take the opportunity to outline my contribution to the panel, regarding masculinity and Indonesian jihadi groups.
I have been researching men’s pathways out of jihadi foreign fighter networks with Noor Huda Ismail, from Yayasan Prasasti Perdamaian, with the hope of better understanding the link between masculinity and what it means to be a jihadi in Indonesia.
While this research is ongoing, we have three core findings on the role that masculinity plays in Indonesian jihadi groups:
1) That everyday aspects of masculinity Indonesian are often as important as the ideology in recruitment.
2) That jihadi masculinities reflected complex relationships with other groups of men.
3) That disengagement from the network entailed a difficult process of building attachments to civilian masculinity.
The role of mainstream masculine ideals
The first finding was the fighters’ pathways into jihadi networks were shaped by a desire to live up to mainstream masculine ideas. For some of the fighters we interviewed, this included a peer pressure to protect the weak. Recruits often told us that they were told that a real man would not let the weak suffer and that they had to join the group to prove they weren’t cowards. For others, it was more closely associated with risk-seeking behaviour. In this instance, we found that recruits were often involved in bike gangs and other risk-taking forms of male-bonding, which were quickly transferred to the jihadi network as a more respectable form of adventure. In all the cases, it was not extreme or fringe forms of masculinity at play, but mainstream notions of what it means to be a man.
Complex relationships to masculinity
The second finding was fighters had complicated relationships with other forms of masculinity. In our interviews, men would often focus on the perceived failures of men who were unwilling to fight, the failure of Indonesian masculinity (often referring to politicians or businessmen), or the risk that of western forms of masculinity were corrupting the youth. What was more surprising was their difficult feelings towards the performance of masculinity seen in their Arab peers, whom some felt were excessively violent, or too quick to act. They tried to navigate what it meant to be a good man in the face of competing understandings and focused their efforts on legitimising their method as the ideal.
Rejection of common norms of masculinity
Finally, we found that many fighters found adjusting to civilian notions of masculinity profoundly difficult. Particularly for long-term members of the network, the idea of prioritising formal employment or membership to their local community was equivalent to giving in and becoming the kind of cowardly men they had spent a life opposing. Those who succeeded in disengaging from the network did so by finding new ways to ground the gender identity in religious teaching, fatherhood or education. These roles gave them a sense of status and authority even after they left could no longer fight.
While we are still trying to understand how masculinity relates to violent extremism, our research has confirmed that masculinity matters. We believe that to respond to violent extremism, it is not enough to understand the divisive effect of ideology. We must appreciate how harmful notions of masculinity can prime men to become recruits for violent extremist groups.
Guest post by Dr. David Duriesmith, University of Queensland
All researchers in the Social Change Lab contribute to the "Do Good" blog. Click the author's name at the bottom of any post to learn more about their research or get in touch.
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