I had an epiphany the other day. I was watching ABC's 7.30 report on Mohammed Ali Baryalei, the Afghani-Australian man who is reputed to be the most senior Australian member of Islamic State. I had a profound moment of identification.
Baryalei is a man with a colourful history. He arrived in Australia in the early 1980s as an infant after his family fled Afghanistan, and grew up in Sydney in the home of his violent father. The trauma of his personal abuse was exacerbated by the World Trade Centre bombing (he would have been about 20 at the time) which made him feel like an outsider in Australia, and his young adulthood included bouts of depression, periodic drug abuse and possibly petty crime. On the brink of suicide, he turned back to Islam and within a short time became a fervent preacher, evangelising young men on the streets of Sydney.
The 7.30 story included some Youtube footage (which has been cut from the on-line version) of Baryalei talking with a shy, nervous young man about this young man's conversion to Islam. As I looked at the young man, the thought popped into my head: "That could have been me!"
I had a much happier childhood than Baryalei. My parents came to Australia from England when I was six, and I grew up in a peaceful, happy family. I did well at school, went on to university and launched quickly into a professional career.
Nevertheless like most young men, in my teens and early 20s I was struggling to work out my place in the world, and in the universe. I could see the world wasn't as it should be, and that I wasn't either. I was searching for something better. Despite my education, I lacked both the maturity and the intelligence to grasp the complexity of what I was seeing. I wanted a simple, pre-packaged answer that would fix it.
I turned to Christianity while I was still at high school. My early experiences were in mainstream churches, firstly in one of Brisbane's premier evangelical Anglican churches, and later in the Uniting Church. However, although I was solidly middle class myself I felt a little out of place in these churches because my budding career as a social worker was confronting me with aspects of social dysfunction and human misery which my peers at church were not encountering. I felt confused and disoriented. I flirted with various things, including declaring myself an anarchist (despite not having a very clear idea what that was) and hanging for a short time on the fringes of Brisbane's rag-tag bunch of International Socialists.
Then at 21, after I finished university, I moved to the regional Queensland town of Maryborough and joined an Open Brethren congregation. Now don't get me wrong - the Brethren are not extremists. Although they are a little bit on the fringes of the Christian church, they are essentially orthodox, mostly differing from other fundamentalist Protestant churches on matters of ecclesiology and perhaps a bit more interest in questions of prophecy. My local church's leadership were kind, peace-loving, conservative men committed to their faith.
However, there are a couple of aspects of the Brethren that make them more open to extreme views than other churches. They are perhaps the most unstructured of all the mainstream churches, a network of independent congregations bound together by some very loose cooperative arrangements and a set of collective norms. Unlike other congregational denominations like the Baptists and the Churches of Christ, they have no system for training or accrediting clergy and they have a strong anti-clerical ethos which can easily slide into anti-intellectualism. This means it can be easy for extreme views to find space within the Brethren, and there are often extremists of various sorts floating around the edges of these churches.
Maryborough was a place that suffered badly from the economic restructuring of the 1980s. At its economic peak it was the location of Walkers Engineering, a large engineering and ship-building business which employed over a thousand people, plus a number of sawmills, a large sugar mill and a range of associated service providers. However, by the time I got there a lot of this was gone. The shipyard was closed altogether and the rest of the engineering works was limping along on the back of government train-building contracts, employing less than 200 people. A number of the sawmills had closed. The sugar mill had automated much of its production and downsized its workforce, which was seasonal in any case. To make it worse the global sugar price had fallen through the floor and the surrounding cane farmers were struggling to pay the bills.
Unemployment was extremely high, particularly among labourers and tradies. Young men who had taken up apprenticeships at Walkers confident of a job for life found themselves laid off once they had finished their training, with few prospects elsewhere in the town and a specific set of skills which were hard to transfer. The town had a thriving drug scene and a lot of young people with time on their hands, feeling alienated from and abandoned by their wider society.
Quite a group of these young people were drawn to the Brethren, whose full time worker was a skilled evangelist with a huge amount of compassion and a gift for explaining the Gospel in clear terms that anyone could understand. Under his influence they gave up drugs, studied the King James Bible with great excitement despite its impenetrable English, attended prayer groups and bible studies and formed a tight-knit little religious community. This activity was supported by the congregation but often took place on its fringes, in people's homes or on informally organised weekend camping trips.
This was the group I joined when I moved to Maryborough. I visited other churches, but I was attracted by the lively enthusiasm and questing spirit and the strong sense of community, the way they supported one another and the fact that they were different to me and to the people I had grown up with and in whose company I was dissatisfied. It was a very good time in my life and I still have friends from there.
The worm in the apple here was that on the fringes of this group was a strong strain of extreme right-wing politics. I'm not sure now exactly where it came from, and it wasn't part of the "official" teaching of the church. My first encounter with it, as for many, was through the tracts of American cartoonist Jack Chick. Chick describes himself as an evangelist and many of his cartoons are proclamations of the gospel according to the most conservative of fundamentalists. However, he also does a virulent line in hate literature and far-right conspiracy-mongering. He was (presumably still is) a promoter of the idea that various secret social forces - the Freemasons, the finance industry (controlled by Jewish interests), the communists and their fellow-travellers, the United Nations - were plotting to establish a single world government which would enslave us all, as predicted in the Book of Revelation.
If you wanted to know more than you could find out from his simple cartoons, there were various books in circulation that expounded the idea more fully. There was Gary Allen and Larry Abraham's None Dare Call It Conspiracy which purported to reveal the secret machinations of these various forces in recent history. There was Australian revivalist preacher Don Stanton's Mystery 666 which related this version of current events to the story in the Book of Revelation about the coming of the Beast, which he interpreted as this same world government which would usher in the Great Tribulation. And of course there was Hal Lindsay's monumental best-seller The Late Great Planet Earth.
There was also an Australian called Peter Sawyer who had his fifteen minutes of fame about that time. Sawyer was a former clerk in the Department of Social Security in Western Australia. While on the job he systematically defrauded the Department of a substantial sum of money by claiming payments under false names, then publicly returned the money, claiming he had done it to demonstrate how open the system was to fraud. Not surprisingly he was sacked, but a magistrate refused to convict him of fraud on the basis that he was conducting a political crusade and had no intention of actually stealing the money.
Sawyer wrote a book about his experiences and briefly became a tabloid media darling and went on a national speaking tour. He also started editing a magazine called Inside News. This magazine was a vehicle for all sorts of right wing stuff including conspiracy theories about what was going on at Pine Gap, covert government surveillance of citizens and his own take on the World Government. A number of church members went to hear him speak, including one of the senior church leaders, and came back mightily impressed.
Personally, despite it appealing to my anti-government stance and general distrust of authority, I didn't end up buying it. My education came to my aid and I was able to see through the rather transparent flaws in the conspiratorial theories and the crude stereotypes of Chick's comics. The all-encompassing circularity of the conspiracy theorists fell apart at the slightest poke.
So I emerged intact. So did all of my friends, as far as I know. Some of them became missionaries of various sorts, at home and abroad, others continued to live normal lives at home. None of those I'm still in touch with became right wing political activists - they are all living peaceful lives as ordinary citizens, just like me. They may not have had university educations, (although some got them later) but they weren't stupid.
Of course there are differences. For one thing, our 1980s extremists preached fear and even hate, but did not advocate violence. If they had a political program at all it was to frighten their followers into the arms of the political right. The main beneficiaries were populists like Joh Bjelke-Petersen and later Pauline Hanson. Dangerous in many ways, but not literally deadly.
Yet there were also a lot of similarities with what we hear of the recruitment of our young Islamic extremists. Structurally, Islam has many similarities to the Brethren - although more clericalised, local Islamic congregations have a high level of independence, established and governed by local leaders. Like our little church group, they often have groups of people loosely attached to them, coming to Friday prayers but running their own show off-site and on the streets. Like our little group, which included street evangelism in its range of activities, Street Dawah aims to give new life and purpose to lost souls, just like Baryalei himself turned to Islam as a way out of addiction and depression.
Such groups, with uneducated new believers searching for answers, are prime targets for strong voices advocating radical solutions that have an air of certainty. It could be armed rebellion dressed up in Islamic clothes, or right wing extremism dressed up in Christian clothes The nature of the solutions proposed in both cases is transparently foolish, but they have an air of certainty and a promise of radical change which can be superficially appealing.
You might respond that none of us became terrorists, or even hard-line right-wingers, but this is not that different either. How many of the young people touched by Street Dawah around the country have joined IS or other Islamist groups? The government's statements are vague on the subject but somewhere around 50 or 60 people have headed overseas to fight, and the total number of supporters in Australia is not much more than that. Most of them are young - Baryalei himself is one of the oldest at 33, most of the others named are in their teens or early 20s. With a supportive community and access to good teaching, most will grow up and move on. The tragedy, and the one really important difference, is that the advocacy of violence within this movement means that some will never get that opportunity.
Why am I telling you all this? Well, Jesus says we should love our neighbour as ourselves, and that we should love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. I want to make the point than when we see the faces of these young men and women on our TV screens, we should resist the temptation to think of them as "other". They are not that different from you and me. They have the same needs, the same vulnerabilities, the same drives and motivations. Our first reaction on seeing the tragedy of their lives could appropriately be, "there but for the grace of God go I".
The second is that their existence presents a challenge to us. We have young people in our midst looking for meaning, purpose and acceptance. They are alienated from mainstream society, struggling to find a place for themselves and often drifting into mental illness and addiction. Should our first response be to criminalise them, to subject them to surveillance, questioning, and summary detention? Or should we be making room for them in our midst, finding ways to help them find work, kick their addictions, put their lives on track? Should we be trying to force them to change, or listening respectfully to their critique of our society? Although they will be naive, idealistic and often just plain wrong, it is also possible they may have something to teach us. We need to heed Jesus' lesson on driving out demons and find a way to fill the vacancy we create by driving out IS, otherwise we might just be creating space for an even worse devil.
I could have been a right-wing extremist. Alternatively, if I had stayed in Brisbane and immersed myself a little more deeply in International Socialism, I could have become a left-wing extremist. As it turned out I became neither. I'm still uneasy about our society and still looking for a place in it. I have become a lot more uneasy in the last year or two as our planet and country seem to lurch back to the right. Yet I am also a lot more wary of easy answers, of programs or theories which attempt to explain everything. I understand that the world is a lot more complex than that and have learned to live with it.
My prayer for our current young would-be extremists, and those in their orbit, is that they may live to do the same, and that as they do we will support them and help them to grow up.