Uncertainty and the Rise of Violent Extremists

Uncertainty and the Rise of Violent Extremists

Threats of terrorism originating from youth within Western countries have increased in the recent past. This article seeks to understand the growing phenomenon of extremism among youth born and raised in Western countries. It specifically attempts to synthesize various studies within the framework of Uncertainty-Identity Theory to provide a general assessment on why and how young people born and living in prosperous and relatively peaceful Western countries elect to join or associate with extremist groups, such as Al-Qaida and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). I argue that the roots of radicalization and terrorism do not lie in the individual but in the macrosocial environment that shapes the Western countries in which these young people live.

Introduction

On July 7, 2005, Khaled Kelkal, a British national, planned and coordinated a series of terrorist attacks in central London targeting civilians using the public transport system. On April 15, 2013, two brothers, Tsarnaev and Dzhokhar, who were permanent residents in the U.S., bombed civilians at the Boston Marathon. On January 7, 2015, the Kouachi brothers, French citizens, committed terror attacks at the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris (Lynch, 2013). Unlike other terror attacks committed by transnational extremists, who plan and travel to Western countries to carry out the attacks, these special cases involved youth born and raised in the Western countries they targeted.

Studies by Hafez and Mullins (2015) show that threats of terrorism originating from the youth within Western countries have increased in the recent past. There have been nearly 200 known cases of homegrown jihadists in the U.S. alone in the last decade and many more in other Western countries. Furthermore, a report by the Center for Counterterrorism research estimates that more than five thousand people from Western countries traveled to Syria and Iraq to fight for the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Scholars have made attempts to understand why young people born and living in prosperous and relatively peaceful Western countries join or associate with extremist groups like the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.

Earlier research on terrorism focused on international terrorists and the groups they identify with (Bizina and Gray, 2014). The studies also sought to understand the individual dynamics that influence one into becoming an extremist—this type of research hinged on the premise that people turned to terrorism because of some personal predisposition. The assumption underlying much of this research was that most terrorists had some common characteristics that can be figured out through psychometric analysis of large quantities of biographical data on terrorists (Hudson, 2010). Thus, this kind of research aimed to find the standard profile of a terrorist.  For instance, Russel and Miller (1977) carried the earliest research that attempted to sketch a terrorist profile. Using data compiled on over three hundred known terrorists from eighteen Middle Eastern, Latin American, West European, and Japanese groups, they presented the profile of a terrorist as a single male, aged 22 to 24, with at least some university education, most often in the humanities. Additionally, other researchers reported personality pathology findings, claims that did not stand up to empirical scrutiny (Segeman, 2014). These attempts to reveal the terrorists’ personality and draw conclusions from their demographic makeup failed resoundingly and were abandoned.

The realization that there was no standard profile of a terrorist prompted a shift in terrorism research from the ‘why’ question to ‘how’ people join or come to identify with a terrorist organization (see Taylor, 1988; Reich, 1990; Silke, 2003; Horgan, 2005).  Nevertheless, the focus was still on the transnational terrorist networks, which constituted a clear majority of extremists’ threats to Western countries (Wilner and Bubouloz, 2013).  However, with the rising threat of terror attacks by youth born and raised in Western countries, the depiction of a terrorist as a transnational striking at the Western values from abroad is slowly fading. Unfortunately, we know little about the factors that drive young people to become jihadists. I argue that the roots of radicalization and terrorism do not lie in the individual but in the macrosocial environment that shapes Western countries in which these young people live. Therefore, this study seeks to understand this growing phenomenon of extremism among the youth born and raised in prosperous Western countries. It specifically attempts to synthesize studies within the theoretical framework of Uncertainty-Identity Theory to provide a general rubric on why the youth join or identify with extremist groups such as ISIS. I begin by examining the tenets of the uncertainty-identity theory and then discuss the process of radicalization with ISIS as a case study.

Life conditions and the production of uncertainty

Uncertainty-identity theory posits that reduction of self-uncertainty is the primary motivation for social identity processes and group behaviors. The theory ascribes specific forms of group attachment, self-definition, and group structure to individuals striving to reduce feelings of uncertainty through group identification, self-categorization, and prototype-based depersonalization (Hogg, 2006). It builds on the premise that individuals have an overwhelming need to locate their self-concept within a social context in order to gain a firm grasp of their identity. For instance, Hogg (2006) points out that when individuals are uncertain about who they are and do not know what to think, feel or do, they are more likely to identify with groups with prototypical attributes that can reduce their uncertainty.

According to Hogg (2007), the uncertainty-identity theory has three premises: (1) People are motivated to reduce feelings of uncertainty about or related to themselves; (2) identifying with a group reduces self-uncertainty because the group’s attributes are cognitively internalized as a prototype that describes and prescribes one’s own attitudes, feelings, and behavior, and fellow group members consensually validate these attributes; (3) Highly entitative groups that are distinctive and clearly defined are most effective at reducing self-uncertainty.

Studies show that homegrown terrorists (a term used to refer to terrorists who attack their country of citizenship) are mostly second and third-generation immigrants and new converts to Islam.  Although these young people are often well educated, are native speakers of languages in the Western countries where they live, have no prior affiliation with radical Islam, and in most cases, were not necessarily brought up observing or practicing religion (Belarouci, 2009), studies have shown that they are a vulnerable demographic (Lyons-Padila, 2015). Some of the reasons that induce uncertainty include marginalization, economic deprivation, and weak religion.

Writing about the marginalization of immigrants in various western countries, Vidino (2007) pointed out that although first-and second-generation immigrants may appear to have integrated well compared to their parents or grandparents, they harbor deep-seated feelings of marginalization and resentment. Marginalized people experience feelings of significant loss and may be looking for opportunities to affirm a sense of identity and self-worth. Buuiis (2009) noted that most of the first-and second-generation immigrants in Britain want to be active participants in society, and it is precisely for this reason that they are more sensitive to exclusion. Therefore, marginalized immigrants are more likely to be attracted to groups that offer a clear sense of inclusion and purpose and the opportunity to restore a sense of self-worth. ISIS recruitment documents such as Dabiq magazine often highlight this marginalization. They invoke the humiliation and suffering of Muslims living in Western countries and the need for Muslims to live in a Caliphate (in this case, a place of protection), which resonates with young people experiencing uncertainty.

Studies have shown that first and second-generation Muslim immigrants, despite their education, have lower labor force participation, employment, and occupational attainment (Cheung, 2014). Gurr’s (1970) theory of relative deprivation, which defines deprivation as a person’s belief that he or she is receiving less than deserved, shows that economic deprivation can lead to frustration and contribute to violence. Freytag and colleagues’ (2011) tests on this theory found out that indeed poor socio-economic development can lead one to join a terrorist organization. First and second-generation Muslim immigrants feel that they do not have equal access to employment opportunities compared to other citizens.  It appears that these feelings increase their uncertainty and make them susceptible to recruitment by terrorist groups such as ISIS and Al-Qaeda.

Although studies indicate that religion is not the primary motivator for joining violent extremist groups like ISIS and Al-Qaeda (Roy, 2015), there is evidence that weak religion among the new converts and the first- and second-generation immigrants not raised to observe Islam contributes to the sense of uncertainty in their lives. I use weak religion in its literal manifestation, distinguished from Scott Appleby’s idea of weak religion, which describes “works that presents religion as a dependent variable in deadly violence, the primary source of which is secular in origin” (Appleby 2015: 34). If anything, home grown terrorists are more likely to gravitate towards stronger interpretations of religion, particularly those that seek to bind them into a community of practice. Thus, the link between weak religion and extremism is a significant strand in the study of terrorism as young people with a shallow understanding of their religion become targets of terrorist recruiters. For instance, ISIS recruiters target the newly converted and the first- and second-generation Muslim immigrants in the West because they are aware most of these people do not have a theologically grounded understanding of Islam. As noted above, ISIS promises them a home in the caliphate to experience a more fulfilling practice of Islam.

Writing about Western jihadists who have converted to Islam, Wood (2017) noted that uncertainty about life could be triggered by how the social environment reacts to these young people in the event of a tragedy or crisis in personal life, such as the loss of parents or the inability to attain success in the fields chosen or glorified by one’s parents or authority figures. Of course, many people in life face personal tragedies every day, but they do not necessarily join extremist groups. However, what matters here is not the personal tragedy, but the kind of support one receives from society. Feelings of isolation, neglect, and rejection heighten one’s uncertainty about their position in society.

Feelings of uncertainty persist if the inducing context remains. Those who are less tolerant of uncertainty are motivated to lessen the feelings (Rokeach, 1960) to render their world predictable and be in control of their own behavior by identifying with a group.  For instance, one can argue that radical Islamist ideology conferred the Tsarnaev brothers (involved in the Boston bombing) an avenue for reducing the uncertainty induced by the confusion they felt when their parents divorced, and the subsequent abandonment of the teenagers in America, and the rejection from the community (Reitman, 2013).

Reducing self-uncertainty through group identification

Uncertainty-identity theory posits that feelings of uncertainty are solved by identifying with a group (Hogg, 2007; Hogg, 2012) through self-categorization (Hogg, 2006). This identification allows individuals to confer the characteristics of a social group to themselves; in other words, the group provides them with a social identity—a shared reality and definition of who one is, how one is located in the social world, what one should think, do, and feel, and how one will be perceived and treated by others. The significance of this social identity stems from the fact that human beings organize their lives into various kinds of social groups with prototypical attributes that “describe members’ perceptions, beliefs, attitudes, values, feelings, and behaviors” (Hogg, 2007: 79). Categorizing individuals as group members changes how other people view them. In other words, other people will potentially view them not as unique individuals possessing their own attributes but rather as prototypical group members.  This categorization reduces uncertainty because it confers a person with a group identity that directs him on how to behave and socialize with others.

Uncertainty does not motivate people in the same way as feelings of uncertainty are not uniform to every individual; some variations determine a person’s relative position to uncertainty and the reduction of uncertainty (Hogg, 2007). For instance, an individual can experience more uncertainty for losing a job as opposed to breaking up with a friend, while another will experience more uncertainty after breaking up with a friend than for losing a job. (Hogg, 2007) argued that feelings of uncertainty about or related to self are likely to have the most significant motivational force “because the self is the critical organizing principle, referent point, or integrative framework for perceptions, feelings, and behaviors.” Therefore, if uncertainty matters to an individual, it will motivate his or her behavior.

If the uncertainty is extreme, the individual will be motivated to identify or join a totalistic group with ideological orthodoxy, intolerance, violence, and extremism (Hogg, 2005, Hogg, Adelman and Blagg, 2010). We will now examine how they identify with these groups.

Why Extremist Groups Appeal to Western Jihadists

Not every group is best equipped to reduce uncertainty through identification (Hogg, 2005). Only entitative and groups that are relevant to self-definition can.  Hogg (2007) defines an entitative group as one with some clearly defined boundaries, uniform structure, unquestionable membership criteria, common goals, and shared fate, which makes it “groupy.” Under uncertainty-identity, when individuals experience uncertainty, especially self-uncertainty, they are likely to identify more strongly with high entitative groups (Hogg and Blaylock, 2012) because they view these groups’ attributes inalterable. Therefore, such groups provide them with prescriptive social identity and a sense of self.

Totalistic groups are highly entitative, and they include terrorist organizations such as ISIS, which has a rigid and hierarchical structure with a clearly delineated chain of legitimate influence and command, and substantial intolerance of internal dissent and criticism. The group is also ethnocentric, and it seeks to fight out-groups (Hogg, 2007). Lifton (1989) identified eight characteristics of such groups, namely: milieu control (control of communication), mystical manipulation, demand for purity, cult of confession, sacred science, loaded language, humans subordinate to doctrine, and dispensing of existence. Studies by Barron and Maye (2017) show that the ideology of ISIS is consistent with the above characteristics.

When self-uncertainty is strong, individuals are more likely to identify strongly with extreme or totalistic groups. Other related groups like the militaries in the Western countries do not meet the above-described characteristics. Furthermore, the young people who join those groups are merely running from the Western environment where the militaries are apart. To be a soldier is to fight for people one can identify with and have faith in them. Arguably, those who join ISIS feel that they can identify more with the extremist organization than their birth countries. ISIS provides them with an immutable social identity and a sense of self. Therefore, totalistic groups do a better job at reducing or fending off persistent and intense or extreme uncertainty induced by factors such as marginalization, economic deprivation, civil conflicts, unemployment, and relocation, among others.

Uncertainty and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS)

There is no universally agreed-upon definition of terrorism or terrorist groups. Every country has its criteria of designating groups as terrorist organizations. This article follows (Gibbs, 1989) definition, which describes terrorism as illegal violence or threatened violence directed against human or nonhuman objects provided that it: (1) was undertaken or ordered to alter or maintain at least one punitive norm in at least one particular territorial unit or population; (2) had clandestine features that were expected by the participants to conceal their personal identity; (3) was not conventional warfare; (4) was not undertaken or ordered to further the permanent defense of some area. The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria is a classic example of a group perpetuating the kind of terror Gibbs (1989) describes.  

ISIS is perhaps the most successful extremist group with supporters in different parts of the world. It seized vast chunks of Iraq and Syria, declaring itself a state and governing territory for several years and counting. The group began in 2004 as al Qaeda in Iraq, before rebranding as ISIS two years later. In 2014, ISIS declared a caliphate—a state governed by an absolute Islamic leader.  Besides the territory ISIS controls in the Middle East, the group also directs and inspires acts of terrorism worldwide. CNN’s running count indicates that ISIS has carried out 143 attacks in 29 countries, excluding Iraq and Syria, and has killed at least 2,043 people.  Despite this, tens of thousands of men, women, and children from the U.S., Canada, and Western Europe immigrated to Iraq and Syria to join ISIS (Wood, 2017). Why would people with seemingly comfortable lives choose to identify with a group that has killed civilians around the world? As noted earlier, these people join ISIS because of the uncertainty they experience in western countries. Therefore, they identify with ISIS, a totalistic group, to reduce the uncertainty (Hogg, 2007). ISIS furnishes them with a sense of identity; for instance, the men become Mujahedeen (fighters) with a prescribed behavior on what to think, feel, or do, thus providing a moral compass and rules for living that pervade an individual’s life (Hogg, Adelman and Blagg, 2010).

Consistent with the observation that the majority of homegrown terrorists are second and third-generation immigrants and new converts to Islam, studies have revealed aspects of these populations lived experience that induces uncertainty, for instance, economic deprivation (Lyons-Padila, 2015), marginalization (Wilner and Dubouloz, 2010), weak religion (Appleby, 2000), and identity crisis (Roy, 2015).  These young people are the most disadvantaged as they have a higher rate of unemployment, poor health, poor educational attainment, poor relationships with police, high incidences of imprisonment, and poor prospects all around (Samad, 2004). Studies show that they are at a stage of life where they are seeking an identity while looking for approval and validation. They are searching for causes that can be religiously and culturally justified, that provide them a way to identify who they are, and that provide a clear call for action” (Baker et al. 2007). The uncertainty in their lives coupled with ISIS’s high machinery for propaganda and recruitment leads them to identify with ISIS in order to reduce the uncertainty. ISIS is a high entitative group with specific attributes, which provide group identity that clearly defines self from uncertainty.

ISIS is a well-defined group with an extremist ideology, that is, to form an Islamic state on the prophetic model that acknowledges no (physical) boundaries (Bunzel, 2013). This ideology is rooted in a particular interpretation of Islam. Consistent with research that religion and religious ideas provide complete and generally accepted ideas that address both daily uncertainties and existential uncertainties, ISIS’s declaration of a caliphate (an Islamic state headed by an absolute leader) tightened its boundaries, affirming its identity as an extremist group (McGregor, Haji, Nash, and Teper, 2008).

The Sharia law, which is applied throughout the caliphate, prescribes what members can or cannot do. It further serves as a reference for prototypical group attributes. One’s behavior is determined or mediated by Sharia law. Although this can limit one’s freedom, individual freedom does not matter a lot to those seeking to identify with a group to reduce uncertainty. The group is intolerant and violent to out-groups, and its moral absolutism is grounded in the literal interpretation of Islam. It embraces ideological orthodoxy, which serves as a powerful motivation for dehumanizing out-group members.

Of course, not every youth who experiences feelings of uncertainty identifies or joins ISIS. A lot depends on the context inducing uncertainty, and no two contexts are alike. For instance, Muslims from France to Germany to Belgium, and Netherland created what is often referred to as “parallel societies” in European countries (Baker et al., 2007) because policies that encouraged multiculturalism allowed for numerous Diasporas to be created along with ethnic considerations, thus religious communities did not have to intermingle (Kepel, 2010). On the other hand, France encouraged a policy of assimilation anchored on secular values, which alienated communities keen on observing and practicing their religion. Although both contexts create uncertainty, they do not motivate a person’s behavior in the same way.  Whether one decides to join or identify with ISIS depends on additional factors such as being recruited and the need for cognitive closure, among others. Cognitive closure is a need for a sense of shared reality (Kruglanksi, Pirro, Manneti, and De Grada, 2006). In times of uncertainty, people get attracted to groups with a solid sense of shared reality.  Newly converts to Islam who have little knowledge about the Islamic religion may be high on the need for cognitive closure, and this amplified need for closure can quickly endear them to groups such as ISIS that confer members with a firmly rooted sense of shared reality. When ISIS declared a caliphate, many groups and people affiliated with al Qaeda shifted their allegiance to ISIS because it is a more homogenous group in terms of attitudes, conservativism, and group norms. These attributes are highly preferred by individuals high on the need for cognitive closure (Kruglanski et al., 2006).

Conclusion

Whereas earlier research on terrorism was mainly conducted in psychology and focused on the perpetrators’ personality, the social psychological research on terrorism discussed in this study looks at how groups have a profound impact on an individual’s identity.  The study has attempted to synthesize results of uncertainty-identity theory research and examined the process of radicalization. It has explored the “group centrism” of ISIS as an extremist group and attempted to understand why the second and third immigrant youth identify with this group. We found out that the environment in which individuals live induces uncertainty. Under uncertainty-identity theory, people experiencing feelings of uncertainty are likely to identify with a group because groups provide them with a sense of identity – gives them a sense of who they are, what they should think, feel or do.

This study acknowledges that uncertainty alone may not lead one to identify with ISIS. Often, uncertainty creates ripe conditions, making the first and second-generation Muslim immigrants vulnerable to the ISIS recruitment machinery.  This study’s main limitation is perhaps the lack of comprehensive and reliable data on terrorism to test the theory. Most of the data sets available to scholars are secondary, mostly from journalists and Jihadi websites. Journalists describe the perpetrators’ identities, focusing primarily on the leaders of the terrorist groups and the organizations that conduct these attacks. These stories, however informative, are not designed to be analytical in a manner that advances our understanding of how people identify with groups like ISIS.  Although policy think tanks compile biographical databases on terrorists, they are not large enough for a comprehensive study. Furthermore, most governments classify such information making it quite difficult to obtain unless one has unique access to police or intelligence files on terrorists around the world. Perhaps, researchers can attempt to test the theory in a laboratory using other totalistic groups that are not necessarily violent. Although the ISIS case discussed in this paper is hardly sufficient to qualify as scientifically representative of religious terrorist groups, the study enables us to understand how extreme uncertainty can drive young people to identify with extremist groups. This study encourages us to look at people’s lived experiences in order to understand what motivates them to join extremist groups.

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Of earthquakes and Tsunamis

Of earthquakes and Tsunamis

Waited.

perched high ‘ver moon

Twirled fingers eyes horizon

splashing shadows ‘ver cast.

Spectacle for our generation

Cast dream ‘ver yonder

Sun reach out yon

Make us nation and

out this long night

for knights mighty stand

wheedling future pasts.

T’s our testimony:

arrived too soon

bayed destiny ‘ver deaf pasts

hand me sun

future past ink must dry.

Breath t’s pages the wry

Testament—ancestors grey in wisdom

masters of temporality decry

eternal kingdoms,

monuments,

mound ‘ternity chains,

our kins and the ring of fate

T’s circle must stand unto faith

seals future moments.

Of Pirates and Violence

In this essay, I argue that pirates are space traitors who trespass legal and economic boundaries to achieve individual or collective gains and destabilize a society. The popularity of the concept of piracy in cultural representations such as films, fashion, comics, and literature highlights changes in society that mirror the legal-economic happenings during the Golden Age of Piracy. At the core of the pirate culture is the concept of neoliberalism, which is understood as the promotion of ideas of individual freedom that favor market-based initiatives and limited governmental role in social welfare.[1] Neoliberalism removes business barriers and seeks to privatize and monetize sectors of the economy, such as education and healthcare, that are ordinarily the preserve of governments. Piracy is, “a form of morally ambiguous property seizure committed by an organized group which can include thievery, hijacking, smuggling, counterfeiting, or kidnapping.”[2] Although the definitions of pirate culture and neoliberalism appear pejorative, these concepts have rekindled discourse on contemporary pirate culture in two ways: (1) They have created conditions that mirror the high seas, which was the primary arena of piracy, and (2) They have led to the emergence of a class of “traitors,” or people who are bent on undermining the neoliberal order. This essay examines some of the neoliberal practices that have sustained piracy in our contemporary culture.

Both piracy and neoliberalism occupy ambiguous positions within capitalism. David Harvey shows that from the late 1960s and through the 1970s, world economies stagnated, unemployment and inflation skyrocketed, and governments such as Britain borrowed from international bodies such as IMF to take care of rising welfare expenditures. The United States of America’s inability to control the flooding of the dollar led to the abandonment of fixed exchange rates. Moreover, the oil crisis of 1973 shattered many economies and marked the beginning of a rapid economic decline in both developed and developing countries. The welfare state that was the hallmark of European and African countries could no longer be sustained in a world that was shifting emphasis from Keynesian policies that privileged society, to neoliberal policies that put individuals at the center of economic planning.

People have adopted pirate culture as a response to nonemployment, low welfare, and high cost of living. It is arguable that the pirate culture inspired the Occupy Wall Street movement. It was a movement attempting to destabilize capital while calling for an end to economic inequality. The pirates of the Caribbean directly opposed the violent control of labor and merchandise by nationalist mercantile companies and what they viewed as “tyrannical” inequalities.[3] Thus, protests or initiatives such as Occupy Wall Street are organized around the idea of opposing monopolies, colossal capital, and corporate practices that have shrunk the labor market. Pirates reduced the profits of privateer companies, including slave ships. Similarly, in our contemporary world, pirates devastate governments and businesses through attacking websites, hacking banks, and calling for boycotts.

Interestingly, even though neoliberalism purports to lift trade barriers, the age of intellectual property protection has enacted many laws that punish people for attempting to access knowledge from an unauthorized avenue. Modern companies, similar to the privateer companies during the Golden Age of piracy, are increasingly becoming monopolies that control patents for innovations. Furthermore, corporations such as big pharmaceutical companies are involved in biopiracy, which is the act of extracting indigenous medical or science innovations without compensation. Piracy has become the contemporary moral response to these inequalities.

We can draw parallels between the internet and the high seas. The high seas were the arena for the Golden Age of piracy, but in our contemporary world the internet has created “nationless” pirates. Businesses are increasingly shifting their operations from brick-and-mortar buildings to virtual spaces. Some of these businesses have considerable advantages that have enabled them to create monopolies that offer commodities without competition. An example of this type of company is a record label. These businesses own all forms of artistic works and attempt to have exclusive rights to specific spaces of art performances to gain complete control of capital flow within the art industry. Additional examples include online retailers, movie streaming services, and book publishing industries. Pirate culture in these sectors has become a form of redistributing commodities that people can no longer afford. Scholars have pointed out that the core values of pirates were “collectivism, anti-authoritarianism, and egalitarianism.”[4] It seems that the Golden Age of piracy was conceived as a socialist utopia where people distributed property equitably. Whether they achieved this goal is debatable. However, what is important is the notion that pirate culture in the contemporary world operates on the same principles.

Pirate culture in the contemporary world, like that of the Golden Age of piracy, is becoming more organized and highly coordinated. The internet allows pirates to create a sense of brotherhood. There are aspects of the pirate culture that are less known in scholarship communities because historians and cultural analysts are yet to reconcile their research with the idea that pirates create unique work culture, complete with language, music, rituals, and a sense of brotherhood. Pirate culture is organizing as a social order with rules of governance.[5] The Disney World frenzy and the rise of the video games industry have broadened the platform for this culture to flourish.


[1] Harvey, “Neoliberalism as Creative Destruction.”

[2] Dawdy and Bonni, “Towards a General Theory of Piracy,” 675.

[3] Dawdy and Bonni, 667.

[4] Dawdy and Bonni, 680.

[5] Dawdy and Bonni, “Towards a General Theory of Piracy.”

Jonny Steinberg’s Little Liberia: An African Odyssey in New York City

How does one tell stories of people whose lives bear scars and wounds of trauma and violence? Jonny Steinberg’s book, Little Liberia (2011), is a testament to the complexities of representing the life of the Other. Steinberg’s book shows the challenges of negotiating the self, the other, and disciplinary norms to craft a story that honors the wishes of the informant without compromising the ethos of scholarly work, which in the case of literary ethnography may include, inter alia, commitment to greater good, taking responsibility for the freedom and the well-being of the other, being open and transparent, and being cognizant of bias. Steinberg’s Little Liberia like his other works – Midlands (2002), The Number (2004), Three-Letter Plague (2008), and A Man of Good Hope (2015) – blends ethnography and biography to tell the stories of Jacob and Rufus whose lives are intertwined in many ways.

I chose Little Liberia for review because Steinberg’s works exemplify what it means to push the boundaries of disciplinary focus to craft narratives that straddle the lived experience of people while remaining anchored in the systematic way of producing knowledge. Steinberg traces Jacob and Rufus’ lives from the present-day streets of Staten Island in New York to Liberia, their country of origin, and back to New York. At the core of the story is the quest for relevance on the part of Rufus and Jacob. They are children of war; born into a tumultuous and chaotic country with a deeply entrenched system of structural violence that limits any form of personal development or fulfillment. They both fight this system, albeit differently. Rufus is the older of the two; a trained tailor with a passion for improving the lives of the youth in Liberia through soccer. Jacob was a student at a university who was keen on taking an active role in liberating his country from the warlords who were tearing it apart. They both fled the conflict, at different times, but ended up in Park Hill in Staten Island – a place where the majority of Liberian refugees in the United States have come to regard as the “Little Liberia.”

Steinberg follows these men as they go about their business of community building in Park Hill. They both work with a large community of Liberian immigrants living in Staten Island, particularly in Park Hill, which has become a microcosm of the country the refugees fled. Here, refugees reenact the very politics that led to their exile and homelessness. Steinberg quickly learns that Jacob and Rufus do not like each other. Even though they share a similar heritage, their trajectories are marred by controversy and back-biting as they compete for attention, influence, and grant money. Steinberg is not a stranger to these kinds of stories. He has remarked in several interviews that his works explore stories of people and communities in transition; that is, he investigates how political transition changes the filigrees of unwritten rules through which people come to understand themselves and the other. 

In Little Liberia, Steinberg maps the landscape of Park Hill like a linguistics landscape ethnographer. For instance, as the story unfolds, he lets us into a long shot of the Park Hill neighborhood. The place was quiet. He comments, “perhaps I was on the streets of some abandoned utopia, that this place had once been crowded, but that nobody lived here anymore” (1). He then zooms in to let us see an “ABC Eyewitness News” pitch-black van parked on the side of the road, which lets us into the soundscape, “a disembodied voice, a reply, then another – a veritable commentary tossed from one window to the next.” For several pages, Steinberg does not let us see living bodies; he wants us to take in the landscape and understand its contours. Later in the story, I began to understand that Park Hill neighborhood is as much a character as is Jacob or Rufus. The landscape demands the same attention as do human characters. It is through its description and documentation that we begin to understand how Liberian refugees reenact their lives in the US. Steinberg unravels this landscape in ways that allow us to smell, see, hear, and experience the lives and of people in the neighborhood. 

His extraordinary reflective practice draws us into his writing process. He places himself in the story and lets us know of his thoughts. Furthermore, he actively questions his conclusions and even engages his interlocutors to reach a better understanding. For instance, at one point while walking home with Jacob, he says:

I brooded over his (Jacob) last comment: Remember where you are from. The Kids in the room all had American accents and dressed like gang bangers in their low-slung pants, their exposed underwear, and their converse shoes.

‘Was every kid in that workshop African? I asked.

‘They were all Liberian.”

‘Why were there no-African-American there?

He said nothing, and we walked in silence for a long time. 

Here, Steinberg honors silence. He wants to understand an issue, but his informant is not willing to diverge any information. He waits for another time to pose the question. This practice is an excellent lesson in literary ethnography – the ability to understand that often, informants do not have a language to articulate their story or even to answer your questions. Steinberg’s practice resists imposing his interpretation on silences. Instead, he waits patiently to reframe the question.

In addition to observation and interviews, Steinberg travels to Liberia to talk with people who knew Rufus and Jacob’s lives before they fled to the US. The visit allows him to present a well-developed story about his informants. It also allows him to ground his interpretation on much wider evidence. His earlier work as a journalist in South Africa plays a role here – he wants evidence, and he goes looking for it. Although this step does not seem necessary, especially if one acknowledges that the value of a literary ethnography does not lie in how well it represents the “objective truth,” it does serve a function in this particular story. Rufus and Jacob make claims about a violent conflict in Liberia that can potentially affect the lives of many families. Thus, it pays to countercheck their claims and the contradictions in their stories. 

After spending a year and ten months shadowing Rufus and Jacob around New York, Steinberg completed his manuscript and gave copies to both Jacob and Rufus to comment, clarify, or contest any issue in the manuscript. He told Rufus, “if there are things you disagree with, not just matters of fact, but of perspective, about your fight with Jacob, about your vision for Rosa, about your trip to Monrovia, please share with me” (259). He lets us into his mind to peek on his reason for letting his informants shape the story he will finally publish. “My mind drifted, I felt anxious. I found myself wondering whether I could ever know much about this man’s experiences without being there, next to him, as they unfolded” (259). Here lies Steinberg’s gift as a literary ethnographer – the capacity to understand the limits of your craft. Ethnographers can learn a lot from his practice, that is, allowing the informant to challenge your conclusion and interpretation of their lives. 

Later, Jacob called him to complain about problems in the manuscript. Problems that might affect families in the Park Hill neighborhood and even back home in Liberia. How did Steinberg address Jacob’s concerns? He reflects on the role of an ethnographer and the imagination of the informant. I share his reflections here to underscore the complexity of representing the life of the other and how ethnographers can exercise empathy without compromising their ‘agency to represent.’

Reading a book-length depiction of yourself for the first time is shocking, always, for everybody who has had the experience. You have spoken into a voice recorder for months, years. As you talked, you’re censored here and embellished there; you felt increasingly comfortable and in control; you were, in fact, writing a persona into the pages of the book that was still to be written. When you finally open the manuscript, you discover that you never were the one with the pen. The person, the writer, has contrived is recognizably you in detail. But in the spirit, something is awry. The writer has cheated. He has written a you that is not you: certainly not a you that you would care to present. You have given him material that you ought to have kept to yourself, that only you should have the right to clothe and display (260).

This quote underscores the major challenge of literary ethnography: the ethnographer takes the informant’s words (words that may have been carefully selected to build a specific persona), his interpretation of those words, and weaves a story of a persona the informant would rather keep hidden. Steinberg sat with Jacob and tried to understand his complaints. In the end, he managed to change a few passages in the story, but mostly let the story be. He remarks that while a writer of fiction is a master of his house with the freedom to do whatever he wishes; the writer of nonfiction is a renter who must obey the conditions of the lease. It seems then that a literary ethnographer – in this case, a writer who blends ethnography and biography to represent the other has the freedom to use the creative techniques of fiction but must always remember his duty to ethnographic truth (whatever that may be).

Thoughts on Recent Trends in Book Publishing in Africa

Thoughts on Recent Trends in Book Publishing in Africa

The just-concluded 21st Nairobi International Book Fair allows us to reflect on the trends in book publishing in Africa. In a way, international book fairs are a microcosm of the state of publishing in the continent. At the Nairobi International Book Fair, many publishers showcased school textbooks and a few creative or trade books. Save for a few university presses that had tertiary books, it appears that local publishers are not keen on producing knowledge for higher education or for general reading.

In the early 1990s, Philip Altbach argued in his essay, Perspectives on Publishing in Africa, that books were fundamentally significant to the development of African countries.  Altbach pointed out that developing local publishing houses will allow African countries to not only create an infrastructure for intellectual culture but also resolve the challenge of sustaining an intellectual life with returns from sharing ideas. His argument underscores the fact that publishing is perhaps the best platform for creating a livelihood for the many Africans who work with ideas.

Altbach wrote his essay in the wake of multiparty democracy campaigns in most of Sub-saharan Africa. He envisioned that in the absence of credible media houses and constant government censorship, publishing houses were well suited to upholding free expression.

Though Altbach was cognizant of the neoliberal forces that privileged international publishing houses to the local ones, he was optimistic that African countries could still build and develop their own knowledge production infrastructure.  In addition to South Africa, which had a thriving publishing industry, he singled out Kenya, Nigeria, and Zimbabwe as countries that had made significant progress in developing local publishing industries. He further observed that Tanzania, Ghana, Senegal, and Cote d’Ivoire could build a thriving publishing culture.

Although there are some research and a lot of policy reports that explore ways of developing new reading publics in Africa, most of these studies are either written from a neoliberal perspective that privileges books as commercial entities and authors as self-entrepreneurs or from a western perspective of knowledge production. While there is nothing wrong with publishers getting returns on their investments or authors earning a livelihood from their works, it is troubling when publishers limit themselves to producing school textbooks for basic education because they are more likely to be bought by parents or governments.

In my view, publishers who rely on government tenders undermine their ability to shape a reading public. Instead of producing books that engage society and issues that affect it, these publishers wonder in corridors of hotel conferences conducting workshops on how to write for governments. They are forever chasing government tenders and have no time to innovate or shape the educational agenda. Of course, there is nothing wrong with the act of gaining government tenders, after all, are governments not the major funders of basic education in most African countries?  What is wrong are the models of publishing that are specifically geared in meeting government book demand.

If publishing houses are to develop into meaningful knowledge producing platforms, they must redefine their business models. They need to think beyond producing for basic education because most research is conducted at the university level. Since it is already established that few governments are keen on promoting local publishing industries beyond buying textbooks, publishers must devise ways of getting ahead of governments in shaping the reading public. Investments made in tertiary, trade books, and creative books publishing while may seem unprofitable in the short-term, have the potential of shaping the public psyche and developing new reading publics in the long-term, a situation that would be both beneficial to the business interests of publishers and authors, and the development of a nation.

Most publishers are quick to complain that the public does not read books, and therefore, they cannot waste their resources publishing books that will never sell. However, the reality is that many readers face challenges accessing books from the continent because of poor distribution. Many publishers are stuck with orthodox means of publishing that do not match the reading habits of the modern world. Whereas most of the world is doubling their efforts to have books on multiple platforms, most publishers in Africa restrict themselves to print publishing. It appears then that what is mostly construed as a lack of market for books can be addressed by developing better distribution channels.

In most African countries, publishing industries enjoy low entry requirement and have the privilege of autonomy and lack of constant government interference or regulation. This is the kind of freedom that enables innovation and allows creativity to flourish. It then seems to me that there are many opportunities for publishers to build the much-needed infrastructure for knowledge production in Africa. But if publishers participate in promoting neoliberalism, they risk being its first casualty.

Going Back to the Basics?

Carol Cohn’s Women and War has challenged me to reflect on the following questions: With all the legislation and resolutions calling for a more participatory role for women in peacebuilding, how come peace negotiation tables or peace processes are dominated by men? Will peace agreements be effective if more women were involved? During the 2008 peace negotiations in Kenya, there was a 33% women representation in the mediation team and 25% representation at the negotiation table. The peace agreement signed resulted in a new constitution that gave a very critical treatment to gender. It rejected the historical exclusion of women from the mainstream society and struck at the socio-legal barriers that Kenyan women have faced over history. The new constitution created space for women to maneuver their way in the private and public sphere on an equal footing with men, but also institutionalized direct gender-specific measures that sought to correct the consequences of women’s historical exclusion from the society. Such measures included affirmative actions that sought to elevate women to a pedestal that had hitherto been the preserve of men.

Whether the women negotiators made all this possible is hard to tell, but we can clearly deduce that women did gain a lot from this new constitution. However, the implementation process was clearly designed in a way that involves both genders, that is, no state department or commission can be headed and deputized by people of the same gender. Has this solved the problem of gender imbalance in my country? No. Unfortunately, most agencies headed by women have been criticized in the recent past for underperforming. The public, which does not take into account the fact that the women who were appointed into the offices were either politicians or friends of politicians and that their performance does not in any way reflect the ability of women to hold higher offices, have already expressed their stereotypes that women cannot do certain jobs.

Some initiatives such as affirmative actions have backfired. For instance, when you lower university points for female students, you give them an opportunity to join university but force them to compete with male students for certain majors considered “good” e.g. Medicine, Law and Engineering etc., you haven’t improved their future as much.

I think the best way of involving women in peace processes is to go back to the basics. We first have to educate the society on the critical position a woman occupies.  It is not enough that individual women know their rights, the whole society must be educated in this to the extent that they cease from making gender distinctions consciously or unconsciously. When this is done, people will remember to involve women in pre-negotiations, which mostly determines who gets a seat at the table, which in turn determines the affairs of a post-conflict society.

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