“It’s because of his ADHD. It’s because of her ADD. It’s because of a difficult situation at home. It’s because he is highly intelligent: he is not challenged enough to study more thoroughly. It’s the teachers: they don’t explain things well enough, they’re boring. It’s because of the educators: they take aim at him and don’t give him any chances. It’s because of the break-up with her boyfriend. It’s because she hit puberty and goes through a difficult time. It’s because he is young and wants to experiment: that’s why he is not motivated to do school and that’s why he colors outside the lines sometimes. You have to understand. After all, it’s good that he’s somewhat a ‘rebel’ at school, isn’t it? It shows character and personality…”
We’re all victims, right? If not of our hormones, then of a certain affection, or of ‘circumstances’ and other people. Well, first of all, it’s a good thing that people are acknowledged as victims of whatever it is that makes their life difficult or hurtful. If you’re lucky, then mommy and daddy will find their way to the right institutions to help you. If you’re lucky, your parents can pay for psychologists, psychiatrists, tutors, medicines, and leave you in the hands of professional educators (perhaps at a boarding school) or provide you with a secure and satisfying future at the family firm. In short, if you’re lucky you’ll find your way to people who will help you to overcome an all too comfortable self-definition by what haunts or victimizes you.
If you’re not that lucky, you might fall into the hands of people who confirm and magnify your victimhood, allowing you to accuse whatever ‘scapegoat’ (see René Girard) you can find to deny personal freedom and responsibility. And let’s face it: today’s culture often is a victimhood culture, where everybody plays the ‘blame game’ in order to protect a narcissistic self-image. Indeed, a reasoning like the following is quite common: “If I’d work harder, I’d be able to graduate as a doctor – I do possess the intrinsic qualities -, but my ADD and the fact that teachers don’t pay attention to my particular problem, destroy my motivation and cause me to fail.” This kind of narcissism is supported sometimes by parents as well, for they often do not like to acknowledge that, maybe, their kid has other talents.
Every teacher or educator knows how difficult it can be to motivate certain students to work for school. Even in the best of circumstances, with every help possible, some students simply justify their negative attitude with every possible excuse. Rather than fully admit that their child acts as a ‘loon’ or a ‘brat’ in some cases, some parents even plead for a very soft treatment of their child’s misbehavior by pointing out that he or she is just ‘being young’ and ‘showing personality’. As if their child really is some kind of rebel hero. That’s why, in some classrooms, the brat can become a model that deserves imitation. Indeed, in some classrooms students feel ashamed, even guilty, of being a hardworking student. They would prefer making a laughing stock out of other hardworking students than admit being hardworking themselves. Self-denial and betraying (the relationship and affiliation with) others: the two sides of the coin that is the love for one’s self-image – a man-made, social ‘idol’, becoming the goal of one’s life.
Add to this cocktail of excuses the conviction that ‘society as a whole’ is ‘against you’, and you get the sort of victimhood mentality in places like Molenbeek, a district of Brussels known as a breeding ground for radical, young Muslims. Would you still study, as an adolescent in today’s distracting society, if you can convince yourself that ‘it doesn’t make any difference’, that you’re discriminated anyway (even if this isn’t true!)?
I often wonder about some of the students I teach: what would happen to those who are allowed to cultivate an attitude of victimhood, or worse, of heroism in not working for school if this was not happening in the best possible circumstances? What if they wouldn’t be ‘corrected’ by psychologists, tutors or educators (paid by the very parents who plead to go easy on their child’s misbehavior)? What if they would end up in unemployment without a graduation certificate, as a young Muslim? I’m sure they would continue the all too human narcissistic inclination to blame ‘others’ for their detrimental situation. And I’m also pretty sure that they could find comfort in the stories and propaganda of ISIS recruiters. After all, this propaganda confirms their idea of being victims, while it also provides them with a counter-culture that makes them heroic martyrs for God. This counter-culture is appealing to non-Muslims as well and attracts converts, as there are many people who no longer feel ‘at ease’ in today’s consumer and performance based society. All in all, considering the circumstances some young people grow up in, it may be a miracle that not more of them become Jihadists. There’s hope.
In any case, there is no real difference between one loon and the next. It just so happens that one is characterized as an ‘adventurous youth’, making ‘youthful mistakes’ that are eventually rectified, while the other is perceived as someone who should blame himself for blowing his chances on a good education and social future. Only narcissist hypocrites will maintain that there is a difference between ‘my kid’ and ‘that kid’. The dress may be different (secular or religious), but we’re all human after all, experiencing similar challenges and temptations.
As hinted at earlier, the victimhood mentality often not only affects those young Muslims or ‘converts’ who are unemployed and indeed find it difficult to assert themselves in society, but it can also poison the minds of young Muslims or ‘converts’ with a rather prosperous life. Like the hardworking student who starts feeling ashamed of being a hardworking student in front of a ‘brat mentality’, the prosperous young Muslim might start feeling guilty or responsible for his supposedly discriminated friends or ‘Muslim brothers and sisters’. Sometimes this discrimination will be real, but in other cases it will be imagined.
ISIS propaganda will try to magnify the story of ‘oppressed Muslims’ and ‘the oppression of Islam’ in order to justify further terrorist acts and atrocities. So the worst we can do, here in the West, is to start discriminating Muslims in general and limit their freedom to practice their religion as fellow citizens (bound by the same laws and rights in a democratic nation, based on the separation between “church/religion/culture” and “state”). Discriminating Muslims would only add to the propaganda of ISIS and confirm its story that ‘Muslims are generally oppressed victims’. ISIS has already poisoned enough vulnerable minds with their propaganda. Why should we too believe that they are the only ‘true representatives of Islam’? Moreover, if we would make it difficult for Muslims to practice their religion publicly, and make it even harder for Muslims to enter into a social and political dialogue where Islam can be a point of debate as well as inspiration, violent versions of it will continue to flourish on the internet. You don’t take porn away nor perverted forms of sexuality on the internet if you make sex taboo. Also, you don’t create a breeding ground for rape and perverted forms of sexuality/(religion) when you enjoy and even “promote” healthy forms of cultivated sexuality/(religion). On the contrary.
Of course Islam lends itself to an interpretation that confirms people in their ideas of victimhood and heroism. Of course Islam lends itself to an interpretation that allows people to ‘heroically purify’ the world through mass killings. But it’s only one of the many possible ideologies to justify a contagious narcissism and self-denial on the one hand, and the sacrifice of others on the other. As history shows, people who feel victimized or threatened, or who long for a ‘heroic’ life, will always find a utopian, romantic story to justify their actions, whether that story be a secular political totalitarianism, a religious totalitarianism, or an individual totalitarianism like “I’m the rebel hero who challenges the educational system that oppresses me and my fellow students.”
Islam can equally be a source of true spirituality, i.e. a spirituality that is not ‘easily comforting’ and confirming a story of narcissistic victimhood and heroism, but a spirituality that allows people to look at themselves more honestly and truthfully. Ideologies, like friends, become dangerous and bad when they only confirm your self-image. Good friends are the ones who confront you with your drug addiction if you have one, with your anorexia if you’re developing this eating disorder, or with the cheap excuses you use to protect untruthful ideas about yourself. This might hurt at first, but eventually the truth can set you free. It might free you from all sorts of addictions, whether it be material goods, habits or illusions. And this is the condition to lovingly – which is not the same as ‘gently’ or ‘comfortingly’ – approach others as well.
Instead of feeling ashamed of not participating in a so-called ‘heroic’ struggle against the so-called external ‘enemies of Islam’, the inner spiritual struggle – ‘the greater Jihad’ – allows Muslims to debunk romantic ideas of victimhood and to destroy the man-made idols of ‘violent, heroic martyrdom’. And when there is no such God, no such man-made idol or ideology, left to blame (as a justification), violent suicides and murders can be seen for what they are: as purely human actions for which humans carry responsibility. Only then can there be truly liberating tears of a different kind of shame and remorse: the regret one experiences for having sinned against the Love that connects people to themselves as well as others, contrary to the love for one’s socially constructed self-image which alienates people from themselves and others.
The transformation of the human heart… That would be the true miracle…