Today the media reported about Jake Bilardi, an Australian teenager who allegedly participated in an ISIS martyrdom operation in Iraq. It was reported that he also had plans to conduct similar terrorist activities closer to home. And as always, the immediate question many people ask is who to cast blame on. Was it his parents for not raising him properly? Was it his school for not realising he was being bullied? Was it our government?
The answer may vary depending on who you ask, but the reality is most of us only mull over these questions casually and draw our own conclusions without rigorous thought or research. None of us have the time or energy to read about every development of these events, yet we are quick to judge.
Reaction from people actually in his life (such as his work placement supervisor, classmates, neighbours) appeared to have been mixed, but the conclusion many of them came to was that he was a smart but precocious, awkward, quiet and strange kid. Many of them knew his mother died of cancer in 2012, which may have affected his mental state, yet didn't really step in to provide support for him in the past 3 years. They weren't there for him because he wasn't easy to work with, but they aren't to blame for his decision to radicalise either. Or are they?
We all have a few people in our lives that we have been acquainted with and have the ability to easily contact, but avoid doing so because they are a bit awkward or different from what you consider normal. These people are the Strangelings; the ones we meet at some large social event or randomly visits our church but doesn't give you a good vibe from the word "Hi". They probably have done nothing sinister, and aren't dangerous, but yet you don't want to be alone in a room with them.
Strangelings are the people who you've had very limited, non-personal, non-committal conversations with, and when you got home you realised they've already found and added you as a friend on Facebook, which creeps you out a bit. Out of politeness or carelessness, you accepted their friend request, but over the course of a couple of months you get notifications that this person has liked really old photos of yours, tried add a couple of your friends, messages you at arbitrary times, and often writes really strange comments on your posts that destroys whatever mood or idea your post was trying to get across.
You decide that you're uncomfortable further engaging with this Strangeling, so you quietly switch them to "Acquaintance" and stop replying to their messages. You never try to give them a real chance as a friend, or even confront them properly about what they do as being a bit creepy or strange. We just give them a silent treatment and hope they stay away. Who is classified as a Strangeling varies from person to person, but we have all come across Strangelings at some point. Heck, we ourselves may be Strangelings to some people around us.
Now what if I told you that a Strangeling you knew was the next person to join ISIS? What would your reaction be to hearing that someone you've met ending up being a terrorist that felt righteous in taking the lives of civilians? And most importantly, what if you had an opportunity to influence their thinking or behaviour at an earlier stage, even a little, to lead them away from this path?
Whether we want to admit it or not, we all do carry some of the blame individually and collectively when extremism pop up in the developed world. Lots of people around us are different, and what makes them different can make them difficult to be involved with as friends. But when you really think about it, most of them start off relatively harmless, and are just seeking a sense of belonging and support. Perhaps they express this desire in a way that makes us uncomfortable, but when we reject or ignore them, our behaviour towards them is perfectly clear and well received by them, and they get hurt.
Indeed our natural instinct and preference is to avoid having to step outside of our comfort zone to engage Strangelings. I mean, there is no benefit to further communicating with these people right? They're generally not an immediate family member, they're probably not someone we have to work with, and they're definitely not someone we would consider dating.
From our perspective, our single rejection of them doesn't feel like that big a deal, but if this response or reaction to them is one of tens, even hundreds, that they receive on a regular basis, it can really destroy their self-esteem and outlook on life as well as the world. That is when they transform their desire to be recognised as a person to a desire to simply be recognised in any manner possible. They want to matter, and since they don't matter to us by being who they are, they gain our attention through other, more destructive means.
Without grossly oversimplifying the psychology of Strangelings, I do understand what it's like to being rejected and outcasted. I've had a lot of that back in high school. It's not a fun experience, and while I cannot really pinpoint any individual person who caused me the most grief, the collective attitude of many classmates and other teenagers towards my nerdy personality and yellow skin was one of humiliation, aversion and apathy. But fortunately I did have a few good friends and eventually found people who accepted me. Because of that I didn't turn to the dark side, but I know of the temptation.
Some aren't as lucky. They don't have a support network. They are truly isolated socially and have made attempts to reach out, which often gets dismissed. That is where extremist groups can take advantage of them at their weakest state.
Stranglings are not part of any social cliques. My theory about cliques is that whoever we hang out with, they need to be able to see us become one of them. If we can't be influenced, we must be at least normalised to their activities, their culture, their beliefs so that they don't have to leave their comfort zone to hang out with us. Failure to be influenced or normalised into an established social clique will lead to gradual expulsion; you stop getting invitation to hangout, you won't get a surprise birthday party planned for you, and eventually they'll create a separate group chat on WhatsApp that excludes you without telling you (and no, not the one they use to plan for your surprise birthday).
For those of us who are, for lack of a better term, well-adjusted, we won't have too much trouble finding a clique eventually, but Strangelings may never acclimatise or naturally fit into any cliques.
This is the self-centred nature of social cliques in the developed world. We don't need each other for basic survival any more. We hang out purely because we are similar and we 'get' each other with minimal effort. So to preserve the quality of the clique, new members must satisfy an exhaustive and restrictive set of unspoken requirements that applies to the group, which evidently Strangelings would automatically be disqualified from.
It's rare to find social groups that are willing to lower their barriers to accept a genuinely wider range of individuals that might not share the same ethnic, religious, cultural, personality traits or interests as the core members. Every group has its conditions of membership, and more often than not, new members successfully joining a clique are either already close friends with an existing member, or they satisfied most of the aforementioned requirements, and assimilation is trivial.
Modern Social Networking technology amplifies this problem by populating our news feeds and recommendations with friends that are likely to be in our cliques, and obscuring or hiding the Strangelings altogether after a period of non-engagement from our part. We get a feedback loop of what posts matter and who matters in our social lives. Strangelings are substantially disadvantaged in these platforms without being directly discriminated against, and so every 'like' or comment reply or private message they receive is like gold to them. And guess who sends them the most private messages?
If we genuinely wish to be done with extremism, the solution isn't better government policies or updating the education system or lowering taxes. It begins with us as individuals. We need to recognise that people around us do exist on a spectrum, and the wider the range of people we are willing to socially engage with, the smaller the range of Strangelings will be left in the wild for extremist groups to pick up. We need to not only change our attitude about having Strangelings in our active social life, but also proactively encouraging them to continue to participate, even if it means the group hangouts might not be as chilled and relaxed. You yourself may also get expelled from a clique if you keep trying to include the Strangelings in your life, but that's not your problem, that's theirs. If anything, being expelled from a group for being too inclusive might be the best thing that happened to you!
It does sound sad that the only reason we might want to befriend Strangelings is to prevent them from transforming into the next suicide bomber, but to me that's the least we should be doing. We (residents of developed countries) have so few problems compared to developing and underdeveloped countries. We became too economically independent, leading to social complacency. And in our collective complacency we indirectly gave birth to modern terrorism, all because we didn't reply to a Strangeling's comment on our post.
Strangelings can be understood, maybe even influenced, if we put in a sincere and committed effort. Because if we as individuals don't befriend the Strangelings around us, the collective 'we' doesn't either, but the extermists will. They always will.