The New York Times Magazine has a long profile of an American from Alabama, Omar Hammami, who is now fighting for the Islamists in Somalia, The Jihadist Next Door. The optics of his family background seem tailor-made for a compelling narrative (or a TV-movie). A father who is a Syrian immigrant, a standard-issue American Muslim and professional. A mother who is a Southern Baptist and native Alabaman. The childhood is framed as “torn-between-two-worlds.” Both his parents were members of exclusive religious traditions. Apparently Omar’s was raised in both his parents’ religions, and both sides of the family held views whereby unbelievers would be consigned to hell. This is what you might term an unstable equilibrium.
Omar’s sister, who faced additional pressures of being an American teenage girl who was constrained by her father’s Syrian expectations of how a young woman should behave, resolved the contradictions by leaving home and becoming a hippie. Omar resolved the contradictions and by leaving home and becoming a jihadist. At the end of the piece Omar asserts:
“They can’t blame it on poverty or any of that stuff,” he continued. “They will have to realize that it’s an ideology and it’s a way of life that makes people change. They will also have to realize that their political agendas need to be fixed.”
Humans seem to have an orientation whereby the choices they made are not conditioned upon situational factors. But even earlier in the piece you see another factor at work:
A trip to Damascus the summer before Hammami’s sophomore year would make a lasting impression on him. He loved the order of things: how his aunts waited on him, how his male cousins shared a “cohesiveness of brotherhood,” Stevenson, his high-school girlfriend, recalled. In photos of the trip, Hammami had traded in his khakis and polo shirts for a long cotton tunic and a prayer cap. A family video shows him bowing to Mecca in prayer one evening.
We are individuals, and as individuals we take responsibility for the choices we make, and society holds us accountable for those choices. But the reality is that humans are a deeply social organism. Most of our “choices” are constrained by the options available in our social milieu, and our opinions on various topics rely strongly on the cues we receive as to the state of the world from our peer-group. This principle operates even when it comes to deeply held beliefs which would seem to drill-down to our ultimate core values.
For example, in Catholicism and American Freedom: A History, John T. McGreevy recounts the reality that evangelical Protestants did not react very strongly to Roe. vs. Wade. In fact in the late 1960s the evangelical magazine Christianity Today published editorials which looked positively upon the decriminalization of abortion, such as occurred in California under Ronald Reagan. By the early 1980s a pro-life stance had become a litmus test on the Right, prompting George H. W. Bush’s flip from being pro-choice to pro-life before he could receive the VP nomination in 1980. How did this happen? Randall Balmer has an explanation in Thy Kingdom Come, but the causal drive is less important I think than the general principle: social groups condition opinions, and positive feedback loops can result in rapid consensus generation. When people change identities they often change a whole suite of opinions. Often they maintain the pretense that decisions were matters of individual conscience, and not conditioned upon group expectations. But the chronology often does not seem to fit well with this narrative. Consider for example how the conservative writer Rod Dreher found Eastern Orthodox objections to papal infallibility plausible after he was clearly considering leaving Roman Catholicism for Orthodoxy.
This dynamic is general. There are many American atheists who assume that what we consider a broadly Leftish cultural worldview necessarily follows from a rejection of religion, but if you poke around the World Values Survey you see that secular societies such as Japan and China are rather conservative on many issues (e.g., gender-relations). Similarly, Communist attitudes toward “bourgeois decadence” would not have seemed out of place on the American New Right.
Humans are an incredibly social creature. We have a strong innate ability to model social relations, and some researchers have placed the phenomenon at the root of many species-unique traits. In many pre-modern cultures it seems to me that this is more explicitly acknowledged, eternal truths are truths which a society has always accepted, it is as it has always been. But with the rise of modern civilization, with its welter of economic dynamism, and rapid cultural change, humans are faced with the reality of change. How does this change happen? Individualist assumptions lead to one assume that this change occurs through our own free will, but the reality is more complex than that. Even people who are focused on a specific topic professionally and have a formal framework to dampen subjectivity can be persuaded by group level consensus; I’m talking about economists here. And yet you have average people who are asked to harbor opinions on a wide range of issues which they are not even cursorily familiar with. How do they come to their opinions? Naturally they take cues from what their identity-group peers who have more knowledge in that particular domain believe.
Omar Hammami is a normal human insofar as he would prefer that the choices he made were through rational reflection. That his, he read the Koran, reviewed the Hadiths, examined the evidence, etc. I’m sure he did all the above, but he did so in a particular social context, and quite certainly the social context drove him to examine particular issues and constrained the set of plausible choices. Though Omar Hammami is not technically a pure convert, he was raised in a partly Islamic home, it is clear that his personal story resembles that of converts. In particular, he seems to be similar to white converts in the West (John Walker Lindh is naturally referenced). I stipulate white converts, because a white person converting to Islam in the West is engaging in a much more transgressive act in relation to their broader social-cultural frame than a black person (this is evident in the reduced hostility toward Islam from blacks as opposed to whites when you control for religious conservatism).
Similarly, a white American who converts to the Hare Krishna movement is also engaged in a transgressive act. Unlike other Eastern religious traditions which have attracted converts, such as Zen Buddhism, adherence to Krishna Consciousness tends to entail a closing off of one’s social boundaries, as well as a somewhat adversarial stance to the society at large (i.e., society must be saved and brought over to Truth). Scholars who study culture in a scientific and naturalistic framework emphasize the importance of between-group differences, and sharp boundaries which demarcate identity-groups. The nature of the boundaries often are less relevant than the fact that they separate the group from the Other. Many socially marginal religious movements have distinctive dietary restrictions which minimize the possibility of socialization with outsiders. Once I was visiting a house where a group of Hare Krishnas lived, and I was told to drink something fruity because I’d just eaten a hot dog, and it would be best to cover up the smell of meat on my breath.
In regards to the Hare Krishna movement one salient aspect is that large numbers of non-South Asians have now been raised within a Hindu religious tradition from childhood. These individuals are often far more well versed in the details of Hindu tradition, or at least their particular tradition within Hinduism, than South Asians who were born and raised as Hindus. Part of this is a function of their liminal identity by their race. Since they do not “look Hindu,” there is surely some pressure to be above reproach.
I point to Hare Krishna to pull the issues of identity-groups and their affect on cognition out of an Islamic context because of the geo-political complications which ensue from the latter. But what group you are a member of does not simply influence your opinions, it also influences who you care about. Or at least, the issues to you allocate time & energy toward expressing concern about. Both American Buddhists and evangelical Christians are more aware of religious persecution in China than are other segments of the American population. This is not due to some necessarily strong fixation upon human rights among these two particular groups, it is because members of their identity-group are under attack by the Chinese government. In the abstract most people might avow that religious freedom should be protected, but it requires a higher threshold of awareness and concern to become concrete activists.
What this means for a white American who converts to Islam is rather straightforward. While a white American who converts to Buddhism may take a special interest in the persecution of Buddhists in China, there are nearly sixty members of the Organisation of Islamic Conference. The Islamic world is centrally placed on the World Island. Its spatial organization is not compact. There is Israel. An outsized proportion of the world’s oil reserves are in the Islamic world. I could go on.
Some religions, such as evangelical Christianity, focus on the importance of a personal and individual relationship with God. Others, such as Judaism, are quite explicit about the notion of group identity as essential in their faith and practice. Being a conservative Republican or a liberal Democrat are not religions. Rather, they’re political orientations, and purportedly represent individual political values and self-interest. But a conservative Republican who drives a Prius and a liberal Democrat who drives a Hummer will attract notice. Ecology matters, and social systems exhibit their own endogenous dynamics. A personal journey is an attractive explanatory model because the causal factors are often easy to pick out. Additionally, the person in question will often assert the preeminence of their own choices in making them who they are. But quite often it isn’t a matter of self-interest, ratiocination, or even what is right or wrong. It is more often my nation right or wrong