Sunday, 5 October 2014

The psychological appeal of polarised views: adolescence, The Process, jihadism - ?

I had two good friends at school who became heavily inolved in what became a full-blown cult. This cult, originally called The Process, and later the Process Church of the Final Judgement, was why I lost touch with them both. At one point, I was quite interested in The Process myself. 

I realise now it was feeding on the common adolescent uncertainty about personal identity, and the longing to belong to Something - and of course in 1967 that Something had better be strange and exciting. It mustn't be part of what Processeans charmingly called "the Grey." (i.e. you and me.)

Well, that was a long time ago. Here's something more recent; from "The Spectator," 4th October, page 17. It's a woman describing how her stepson became a radical Islamist, and how he is now beginning to return to his family, leaving behind the influence of his frightening friends:

"He is maturing. He no longer needs the support of a tribe, which is what attractes Muslims from all backgrounds and nations to the idea of jihad. I've come to think that it is youth, not presecution or poverty, that these Islamic State groupies have in common, an embryonic sense of identity. For them, blaming America for the world's problems is the equivalent of shouting at their parents that they 'never asked to be born.'"

I think that my young friends back then in the mid-1960s felt that at last they had an identity that had nothing to do with their parents, that simplified their lives, gave them a new identity and a tribe. Thus were they pulled into the vortex of The Process.

It provided absolute and polarised answers to the frustrating complexities of life, it broke down their previous sense of who they were and where they belonged, it made them vulnerable to manipulative people. And as usual with such cults, guess what? There was, allegedly (!), sex and money in it for the leaders.

Would that Western jihadists had fallen for something so ultimately ludicrous and relatively harmless as the Process Church, rather than the terrifying simplicities of jihadism. The Process had its nasty side, in my opinion, but it didn't involve hacking people's heads off and it had no power base in regional religious sectarian conflict.

So when desperate parents tell us that they can't understand why their middle-class privileged children start to talk in scary slogans and attack everything their family stands for, I think that, unlikely though it may at first seem, there may be something in common with my two schoolfriends, both from comfortable, apparently stable middle-class backgrounds. 

They both became relatively suddenly alienated, energised, very strange, and figuratively and then literally, distanced from all they had known, all who knew them. They had a tribe. Than God it wasn't Charles Manson's tribe, or Jim Jones down in Guyana.

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