The New York Times published an interesting piece on Monday about Jesse Morton, “one of the most prolific recruiters for Al Qaeda.” After his arrest, Morton followed “a long, gradual path out of radicalization,” became an FBI informant, and was Hired by George Washington University as a fellow in its Program on Extremism. He now researches the terrorist ideology he embraced, promoted and then rejected. In Morton’s story we can gain insight into ourselves.
Morton explains that his path to violent extremism began in his childhood. Not with the indoctrination of ideology, however, but with a perceived betrayal by his community unrelated to faith. Morton’s mother beat, scratched and bit him regularly. He mustered the courage to seek help from his school guidance counselor, the school met with Morton’s mother, and she denied abusing him.
Then she took him home and beat him again. As the Times reported, “’It was not just my dysfunctional family that I couldn’t trust, it was society at large,’ he said. ‘That’s where the whole us-versus-them personality comes in, with the perception that society — American society — is not protecting me.’”
Morton grew up, inadvertently encountered radical Islamic ideology, and embraced it as the explanation for his perceived betrayal by American society. He first “found Islam” hiding from the police in an abandoned warehouse. He had run away from home and was selling drugs. With the police closing in, his partner in crime told him to repeat Some Arabic words. He did. The police retreated. Morton later learned he had unknowingly declared his Muslim faith in that climactic moment, took the police retreat as a divine sign, and converted to Islam—in his mind, that is.
Unsurprisingly, Morton was arrested on drug charges shortly thereafter. His divine immunity revoked, he was sent to prison, where “An older Moroccan Muslim who shared [a] 40-man cell with [him] befriended him, and became his first imam.” His new spiritual leader “gave [Morton] a Muslim name: Younus, after a prophet who was swallowed by a whale and from inside its stomach called others to Islam.” He also gave Morton a crash course in violent extremism, including “prophecies of the destruction that was going to befall” nonbelievers.
“’You are in the belly of the beast right now,’ the man told [Morton].” This “us versus them” narrative was the irresistible lure, and Morton was hooked. “’This is perfect for me, because now the world is black and white,’ [he] said. ‘And I am immediately motivated to contribute to this cause. I get out, and I completely transform my life.’”
Transform he did. After prison Morton graduated college as valedictorian of his class and then earned a master’s degree in international studies from Columbia University. Still entranced by the perfect, black and white false reality of us versus them That masqueraded as religious faith in his mind, he used this academic success to “contribute to [his] cause.”
Morton befriended several likeminded radicals and together they started Revolution Muslim,” a website they “used to bring in those who were flirting with extremism.” He was very good at it. According to an NYPD intelligence officer, Morton created “a bug light [that] attracted aspiring jihadists.” The website “became a relay station for Al Qaeda’s broader message. In its orbit, you could find many of the American citizens who either attempted to join the group or else plotted murder in its name.”
How did Morton do it? He learned from his own experience, employing tactics he understood well. He explained to the New York Times: “What you have to do is frame [recruits’] personal grievance, . . . making them think that they can contribute to a broader cause.”
The process began by “instilling an unbendingly literal brand of Islam” that taught that anything less than complete adherence amounted to heresy and countenanced rebellion against heretics. This cut the recruits off from friends, family, and from all Muslims who didn’t follow the “true,” absolute faith. “Once those principles were embedded, [Morton] said, ‘you could essentially do anything you wanted with them.’”
Morton’s story offers a compelling example how our fears, frustrations, anger and pain can be exploited by fanatics to recruit, to indoctrinate, to brainwash. Its relevance, however, extends far beyond the realm of terrorism. These tactics are employed all the time by those around us—to influence, persuade, lobby, conspire, collude. Whether purposeful or not, malicious or not, effective or not, it is in our nature to create and reinforce factions, to win allies, to shade away the nuance of the full truth. Intended or not, conflict is often an inevitable consequence.
This tendency is most problematic when we do it to ourselves. In our own minds, we’re prone to these pernicious modes of thought. When we’re not careful they do us great harm.
Have you ever had a bad day and felt that the world was against you? Interaction after interaction you suffer slights and insults. Your colleagues at work, the clerk in the grocery store, your roommates or spouse at home—everyone seems to provoke you.
Why? It’s simple. It’s them. They underappreciate you, misunderstand you, take advantage of you, take you for granted, treat you unfairly—whatever the specific reason, it’s obvious. There’s something about you—who you are or what you’ve done—that separates you from them. It’s why they do you wrong. It is the consistent cause of your rightful grievances.
Maybe not. Usually not. Almost always not. It’s far more likely that you’re in the belly of the beast, listening to a misguided voice in your mind that is leading you astray. It’s likely you’re unwittingly living a me-versus-them narrative of your own making.
How does this happen? As Morton’s physical abuse by his mother was channeled into religious fanaticism, we are often provoked into assuming a war footing in our minds by events or circumstances unrelated to the conflicts and tensions we then misperceive as a result. This is how problems at work turn a discussion with your spouse about where to go for dinner into a fight about money. It’s how frustrations with your diet color your friend’s benign comment with cruel judgment. It’s why you see demands and impositions everywhere, overlooking the help available to you, when you feel overwhelmed and incapable.
When we are afraid, angry, in pain, or desperate, our “defense” mechanisms are triggered and we are prone to project onto others that which we seek to escape. Internal challenges manifest external conflict. We create the reality we mean to defend against. We tilt at windmills, fight straw men.
Despite the unnecessary and unfortunate damage it engenders, your me-versus-them narrative can feel “perfect” because it makes your world black and white. It makes things simple, easy. The real truth is nuanced and complex. It is unknowable to its full extent. At best, with effort and thought and communication and understanding we can work with others to approximate a shared truth. That shared truth will demand constant and cooperative tending.
Careful and cooperative tending of an approximated shared truth isn’t an option when you feel you’re at war. Hackles raised, the threatened animal prepares to strike, not investigate. In this way our us-versus-them narratives are self-perpetuating. We counter the aggression we perceive and unknowingly provoke aggression. The narrative is reinforced. It grows more compelling in our minds.
What is the path out of this radical view of the world? In Chapter 4 of Eyes Wide Open I write extensively about taking control of your perceptions of others’ perceptions of yourself. In Chapter 7 I write about effective communication. There’s a lot to these critical and difficult endeavors. In the specific context we’re exploring here, though, one step is indispensable: Reject the premise. Insist that there is no us and them, there’s just us. Seek to understand, embrace nuance, remember that you are creating your conflicts with others, not merely perceiving them.
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