Amarnath Amarasingam. Photo: Moira Donovan
Amarnath Amarasingam. Photo: Moira Donovan

“Out of 100 people, if three people blow up something we study the three to death,” says Amarnath Amarasingam. “Then we don’t ever ask what’s kept the 97 from doing similar things.”

For Amarasingam, a a Postdoctoral fellow with Dalhousie’s Resilience Research Centre, solving that equation is a matter of resilience.

Having completed his PhD at Wilfred Laurier University 2013, he was enticed by the possibility of pursuing a post-doc with the centre’s co-director, internationally-known scholar Michael Ungar, This interest, says Amarasingam, was born out of Ungar’s understanding of resilience “as a kind of relational thing, as a community-based thing as opposed to something that’s inside the individual.”

From Tamil Activism to Foreign Fighters

Amarasingam’s PhD was based on Sri Lankan Tamil activism in Canada. “People always ask me how did you make the jump from Tamil diaspora to foreign fighters but I think it’s quite related in a way because they’re all kind of youth in Canada who are involved in concerns and conflicts that are happening elsewhere.”

Amarasingam wanted to apply the resilience approach to his own work on youth radicalization to “ask a very different kind of question than what’s usually asked with a lot of the terrorism literature.”

Rather than focusing strictly on those who are already violent, Amarasingam looks at different groups and asks “how do people with the same kinds of community grievances, same kinds of community upbringings, not make a similar decision to engage in violence?”

Imagined Community

One of the concepts that Amarasingam has used in his research is that of ‘imagined community’, an idea first articulated by Benedict Anderson in 1983. It describes the process whereby people with little to connect them nonetheless feel themselves to be part of a collective.

The concept was initially developed to talk about nationalism. Canada is an example of this, Amarasingam says, pointing out that residents of PEI and Alberta feel themselves to be part of a community not just because they’re governed by some of the same laws, but because they share a notion of “Canada” as articulated through certain cultural symbols. From here, he says, it’s not hard to see how this would apply to his current work in youth radicalization.

“How does a Muslim youth in Toronto feel like they have an obligation to go defend Muslims in Syria or Iraq?” he asks. In many ways, through the same process by which people feel themselves to be member of a national collective.

“They see themselves as part of a global Muslim community,” he says. “They could come from very different ethnic backgrounds, they could have very few cultural ties, they may not even share a language but at the same time they feel like they’re one and the same and the community is one and the same and it should be defended.”

Digital Community

For Anderson, Amarasingam says, newspapers played an important role in this identification. In the digital era, the Internet, and particularly social media, have assumed that role.

Without platforms such as Twitter, trying to communicate plans with existing and potential fighters dispersed both within and between countries would be impossible for groups like ISIS, says Amarasingam. “It does create a kind of sense of oneness, sense of a common cause and common purpose where without these kinds of platforms it would be very hard to maintain.”

ISIS also uses Twitter for the dissemination of religious concepts, says Amarasingam, noting that Twitter provides ISIS an opportunity to fulfill the religious duty of Da’wah, or proselytizing, spreading the truth of the Islamic State as they see it. For sympathetic onlookers, “the importance of this kind of communication is making them feel like they’re part of something bigger”.

Confirmation Bias

The wealth of information in digital spaces can have a paradoxically narrowing effect. In the presence of endless avenues for communication, people are free to follow the one that best suits their own interests, a version of the psychological phenomenon known as confirmation bias.

“You create in very real ways a kind of echo chamber for yourself and your ideas where you just hear those messages and nothing more, so that tends to increase individual polarization,” says Amarasingam.

In the case of ISIS, the Internet allows young people to connect with an ideology that advertises itself as a more “pure” version of Islam.

Determining the Ideological Identity of ISIS

The question of whether or not ISIS is Islamic is a difficult one, says Amarasingam, and “the answer probably depends on who you ask.”

On the one hand, he says, respected scholars and mainstream Sunni scholarship the world over have rejected ISIS’ brand of Islam, saying that it doesn’t follow the accepted ways in which religious authority is established. On the other hand, “what they’re after is an Islamic Caliphate, an Islamic end times narrative, so it’s very hard to say that they’re not rooted in Islam.”

It’s the centrality of the idea of the Caliphate – and their apparent success thus far in establishing it – that set ISIS apart from other jihadi groups, says Amarasingam.

Appealing to Young People

It’s also at least in part what makes the group appealing to young people. By presenting itself as a pure, transnational community, says Amarasingam, ISIS appeals to young people grappling with the confines of their own culture.

“For youth who are struggling with those questions of ‘where do I fit in and what do these things mean?’, the jihadi worldview in a way presents kind of a neat story that they can follow.”

This narrative has the added benefit of offering youth, particularly youth from the diaspora, an outlet for the potentially difficult debates they’re having with their parents.

“[ISIS] are pretty good at telling youth that all of the cultural things they’re struggling with, all of the debates that they’re having with their parents about marriage and all of those tricky things that youth go through is actually all sinful, all misguided, all tainted by the stain of culture and it’s not really pure Islam.”

Resilience in the Face of Violence

So how do communities prevent youth experiencing these challenges from interpreting ISIS’s message as a call to violence? Amarasingam says it won’t happen by taking away their passports. “Re-establishing a kind of sense of belonging in the communities and cultures is important.”

It’s a substantial challenge, he says, in part because it isn’t responsibility of the culture of their upbringing alone, but belongs to the broader community as a whole. ”It’s going to be quite a difficult uphill battle in that sense because I think what needs to happen is a sense of belonging in the community and a sense of belonging to Canada.”

Part of this requires providing young people who feel marginalized with avenues to articulate their concerns, satisfying their need to be engaged in local, national and international affairs.

“I think they need to be rooted somewhere and at the same time address their grievances — whether that’s the political grievances they have, whether it’s about Palestine or whether it’s about Syria — in a legitimate way and not to turn to violence and most certainly don’ t have to leave the country to go fight.”

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