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Nebraska journalism professor investigates the lure of extremism
About five years ago, Nebraska journalism professor Joseph Weber became intrigued by news accounts of young Somali Americans in Minnesota accused in a plot to join ISIS.
“I have had a longstanding interest in the idea that people join cults – Why do they join them? What appeals to them that they would completely submerge their identities into a group?” said Weber, an associate professor who holds the Jerry and Karla Huse endowed professorship.
“Again the question arose for me: People all over the world at that point were joining ISIS. I couldn’t understand why people would join a murderous, horrific cult, a death cult.”
Weber previously authored “Transcendental Meditation in America: How a New Age Movement Remade a Small Town in Iowa,” which explored how followers of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi settled on a former college campus in Fairfield, Iowa. Before joining the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Weber worked 35 years in magazines and newspapers, including a 22-year stint for BusinessWeek in Dallas, Philadelphia, Toronto and Chicago. He also has taught journalism students in China and studied their attitudes on censorship and freedom of the press.
Weber’s curiosity about what was happening in Minneapolis grew to the point that he traveled there in May 2016 to attend the lengthy trial of three Somali-American men. That launched three years of research, including lengthy interviews with star witness Abdirahman Abdirashid Bashir, a 20-year-old diverted from the plot in the nick of time by his father and other relatives. Bashir became an FBI informant and avoided the harsh fates of some among a dozen who were once his friends: lengthy prison sentences or death in the Middle East.
As he traced the lure of extremism, Weber probed how the schools, courts, community organizations and others responded to ISIS recruitment. He looked at the role of the internet and researched how women and girls were persuaded to join in. He looked for patterns in a previous wave of Somali-American youth who were enticed to join Al-Shabab, the Somalia-based Islamic guerilla force.
Weber’s research, conducted independently and with support from his Huse professorship, resulted in a book, “Divided Loyalties: Young Somali Americans and the Lure of Extremism,” published in September by Michigan State University Press.
Following are Weber’s responses to some questions about his latest effort. They are edited for brevity and clarity.
What piqued your interest in Somali-American youth in Minneapolis being recruited by ISIS?
While “Divided Loyalties” is a far cry from my business journalism, it is a logical extension of my first book, about the Transcendental Meditation community in Iowa. I have an enduring interest in Utopian (or dystopian) groups that fall outside the mainstream.
The TM community is a Utopian group whose members follow the teachings of a now-deceased guru, including outside-the-norm teachings that arguably categorize the group as a religious sect. Members built their lives within the group and surrendered a big part of their identities to it.
Similarly, the Somali-Americans who joined, tried to join or supported terrorist groups such as Al-Shabab and ISIS did so with a fervor that mixed nationalism and ethnic identity with religion. ISIS in particular is a death cult. Its members sometimes yield their lives to it.
The common denominator was my core question: why would someone leave their ordinary workaday lives to join what others regard as a cult, surrendering their individual identities to the group? It’s an easier answer with a group pledged to peacefulness, such as the TM folks. It’s a tougher answer with people who join a murderous group such as ISIS. Still, the question can be asked of recruits in both groups.
How does “Divided Loyalties” relate to your previous body of work?
The connection is tangential though not too great a stretch.
In China, I explored the sentiments of journalism students who felt that journalists need to stand outside and take a critical look at another important group, the Chinese Communist Party. Similarly, I critically examined the TM movement and, of course, ISIS and Al-Shabab and like groups from the outside.
Journalists need to have critical distance when they report on religious groups, cults, political parties and the like. By looking at them dispassionately, we can help others understand them.
You quote others’ reporting in the book and a lengthy list of journalists is included in your acknowledgements. What did you decide to add a book to the existing reportage on this topic?
I don’t believe the reportage on these cases fully explored the complex motives that drove so many Somali-Americans to seek to join ISIS and Al-Shabab, nor did it examine in detail the motives that pushed the informant (and others) away from that desire. I believe that society needs to understand both the pathologies that make such groups appealing to some people — especially malleable young people — as well as the best techniques for prying them loose from such pathologies (if possible). In addition to my interviews, I was able to draw on a deep well of academic material on these points where it seemed relevant.
I do credit many journalists for their superb work, which I cite at various points in the book. Good journalists deserved mention and, as a former occupant of the daily and weekly journalism trenches, I was obliged to acknowledge their coverage. Journalism is the first draft of history, as it’s often said, and the work of daily journalists can be put into perspective by authors of books, even when such authors are journalists themselves.
As I read, I observed many sociological elements in your account, about family life, cultural tensions, religious influences, peer influences, adolescent development, courtroom/judicial system responses, etc. Why do you think this story is better told by a journalist than a sociologist?
Sociologists, political scientists, judicial experts and psychologists all could tell pieces of this story. Indeed, I cite and quote people from such fields on issues of poverty, crime, alienation and other maladies that afflict parts of the Somali-American community. My contribution was to put such insights into a narrative with quotes from and accounts of individuals in a way that I hope is readable and accessible to non-experts. That is what journalists typically bring to the party in any of their work and what often differentiates it from academic studies and such.
Also, it is helpful to readers to apply a critical eye to the work of experts, especially when their findings contradict one another or seem incomplete.
What do you hope results from this book? Have subsequent events in Minneapolis and in Washington, D.C., changed your perspective on the events you cover here? Will the anti-terrorism tactics adopted by the Minnesota court be useful as the country addresses alt right and white supremacy violence?
Islamist terrorism has deep roots and it’s not going away, despite the destruction of the so-called Islamic State. Such foreign terrorism has been largely absent from the U.S. in recent times, but it continues to plague Africa and Europe, and is likely to return to us in time. So we need to understand what drives people — mostly young people who haven’t found their way in American society — into the ranks of terrorists. What are the recruitment techniques groups use? Why do they work? How can we thwart them?
The appeal of a group such as ISIS, moreover, in many ways is similar to the appeal of white supremacist groups in the U.S. and elsewhere. Both groups appeal to people who feel alienated from the mainstream, often to people whose personal identities are ill-formed and incomplete and who seek to develop their sense of self from a group that is likewise outside the norm. Both sorts of groups embrace violence and are driven by a sense of mission, no matter how misplaced. Many people involved in them see themselves as heroes battling for righteousness. They are often driven by religious fervor or nationalism. Their convictions can often be sincere and heartfelt, no matter how bizarre they seem to outsiders.
I believe policymakers can learn techniques for combatting the appeals from all sorts of cults. I hope the book contributes to that understanding.