If the testimony of his former contemporaries is anything to go by, Mohammed Emwazi (aka 'Jihadi John') appears to have mistaken the state of his social life for the state of the world. According to a former head teacher, Emwazi was bullied at school and did not have many friends. Meanwhile a man called Abu Ayman who met him in Syria described his as a “cold loner” who showed an unusual degree of taciturnity and “wouldn't join us in prayer”.
And so for all the arguments which put Islamist violence down as a ‘terrible indictment’ of this or that aspect of Western policy, London Mayor Boris Johnson was probably closer to the mark when he described Jihadists as “porn-obsessed losers who can’t get girlfriends”.
Put another way, bitter and socially awkward virgins are often drawn to ideologies which seek to police women’s chastity and reap violent revenge on the society that has shunned them. Ideological creeds like Isis, which seek to turn women into sex slaves and cling to a cartoonish masculinity festooned with heavy weaponry and ultra-violence, come ready-made for the Mohammed Emwazis of the world.
This is why the media’s obsession with Emwazi’s supposed ‘radicalisation’ is myopic. Based on no evidence at all it is inferred that if only we could locate Emwazi’s grievances (British foreign policy/the brutality of the security services etc) we might safely inoculate society against further outrages. ‘It is our fault,’ as the solipsistic argument has it; we just have to find out why the Jihadists are so angry with us.
Human beings have long been attracted by the promise of utopia (heavenly or earthly); and in Britain at least racism has undoubtedly helped to push young Muslims into the arms of proselytizing Islamists with their ready-made and all-encompassing explanations of us-versus-them. But another way of understanding the anger of a person like Mohammed Emwazi - and Jihadist fanatics more generally - is to locate it within the penumbra of male - and particularly adolescent male - insecurity.
The obsession throughout Jihadist politics with the behaviour of women ought to be the giveaway. Islamism’s original theorist Sayyid Qutb concocted his politicisation of Islam partly based on disgust at political repression in his own country, but as he documented in Milestones, he was also repulsed at the freedom afforded to American women. Similarly, the British-born Islamists who plotted in 2004 to murder clubbers in the Ministry of Sound nightclub in London did not cite Palestine or imperialism as their casus belli, but instead gleefully talked about murdering “those slags dancing around”.
In pictures: Anti-Isis protests in Jordan
In pictures: Anti-Isis protests in Jordan
1/15 Amman, Jordan
Members of Jordan's Al Assaf tribe burn a ''Wanted Dead'' poster of Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi at a rally
2/15 Amman, Jordan
Jordanian protesters carry an effigy of leader of the militant Islamic State Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, during a march after Friday prayers in downtown Amman
3/15 Amman, Jordan
Jordanian Queen Rania (C) holds a placard during a demonstration to express solidarity with the pilot murdered by the Islamic State
4/15 Amman, Jordan
A protester dressed in a Jordanian flag joins others as they hold up pictures of Jordanian King Abdullah and Jordanian pilot Muath al-Kasaesbeh, while chanting slogans during a march against Islamic State
5/15 Amman, Jordan
Jordanians hold banners shouting slogans during a demonstration to express their solidarity with the pilot murdered by the Islamic State
6/15 Amman, Jordan
Jordanians carry banners and pictures of executed Jordanian pilot Muath al-Kassasbeh while shouting slogans against the group calling themselves the Islamic State, during a march after noon pray in downtown Amman
7/15 Amman, Jordan
Protesters hold up pictures of Jordan's King Abdullah and pilot Muath al-Kasaesbeh as they chant slogans during a rally in Amman to show their loyalty to the King and against the Islamic State
8/15 Amman, Jordan
Jordanians chant slogans to show their support for the government against terror during a rally
9/15 Amman, Jordan
Jawdat al-Kaseasbeh, a brother of slain Jordanians pilot Muath al-Kaseasbeh, reacts to people gathering to show their support for the government against terror during a rally
10/15 Amman, Jordan
A Jordanian protester kisses a poster bearing the image of Jordanian pilot Muath al-Kasaesbeh during a rally to show their loyalty to King Abdullah and against the Islamic State
11/15 Amman, Jordan
A Jordanian shouts slogans during a rally against the Islamic state group and in reaction to the burning alive of Jordanian pilot Maaz al-Kassasbeh by the group's militants
12/15 Amman, Jordan
Jordanians carry pictures of pilot Maaz al-Kassasbeh at a protest against Islamic State
13/15 Amman, Jordan
Supporters and family members of Jordanian pilot Lt. Muath al-Kaseasbeh express their anger at his murder at the tribal gathering chamber in Amman, Jordan
14/15 Aye Village, Karak, Jordan
The King of Jordan, Abdullah II (L), embracing Safi al-Kassasbeh (R), the father of the recently executed Jordanian pilot
15/15 Aye Village, Karak, Jordan
Jordan's Queen Rania offers her condolences to the family of Jordanian pilot Muath al-Kasaesbeh, at their family home of Muath
REUTERS/Petra News Agency
Women ‘flaunting it’ are after all a constant and humiliating reminder of the budding terrorist’s own sexual inferiority.
This is a recurring theme within extremist politics: one man’s terrorist may sometimes be another man’s freedom fighter, but more often the contemporary Jihadist resembles a man hacking away at a tree with an axe because the apples are out of reach. They are the “jealous younger brothers in search of an abstract fraternity,” as Arthur Koestler described the Communist fanatics of the 1930s who were seduced by the promise of a utopia in which they would finally hold the whip hand.
Young men like Mohammed Emwazi are not born evil, but nor is it possible to insulate them from the bruising blows to the self-esteem which occur in adolescence and adulthood. As such, we may never find the spark of ‘radicalisation’ which turned ‘nice’ Mohammed Emwazi into a brutal killer nicknamed ‘Jihadi John’. As with so many middle class children who turn to revolution in all its various forms, the promise of a violent overthrow of civilised society may simply be another way of making up for slights suffered in the school playground.