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Elisa Impara

Youth Voice Journal
http://youthvoicejournal.com/

“Radicalisation and Subcultures: a Theoretical Analysis”
by Elisa Impara
Youth Voice Journal 2016 – Online
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“Radicalisation and Subcultures: a Theoretical Analysis”
Published in the Youth Voice Journal, January 2016
http://youthvoicejournal.com/
© IARS 2016
ISSN (online): 2056 – 2969

Elisa Impara

Abstract
This article will ask whether we could talk about radicalised subcultures in relation to recent cases of
young people deliberately flee to Syria. To achieve this it will: 1. Overview the concept of
subcultures and identify which elements can be linked to the experience of young people engaging
with extremis; 2. Suggest how the philosophical concept of transgression can cast a different
perspective on the reasons why young people engage with radical practices.

Keywords: subcultures, radicalisation, transgression, excitement, tribe.

Corresponding Author: Elisa Impara, Kingston University, email: E.Impara@kingston.ac.uk

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Introduction

Increasingly politicians, scholars and the media in general have all been focused on the triple
issues of extremism, terrorism and threat. Indeed, the past few years have witnessed a series of
events that have shaken the world. The credit crunch in 2007/8 brought to the surface and exposed
the fragile instability of the Western economic model. Poverty has become part of our social reality,
with the accompanying unemployment rates rising to record heights in various parts of Europe. In
addition, Greece’s economic plan has crumbled and its citizens face an uncertain future.
Furthermore, Europe has suffered many terrorist attacks in the last decade. The situation in Syria,
Iraq, Libya and Yemen also does not produce a reassuring picture. In this fragile context, the Islamic
State has flourished, securing financial means that consolidate the strength of its attacks on Western
and non-Western nations alike. In this unprecedented scenario, domestic and international news
agencies have increasingly reported of Western-born young people engaging with a ‘radicalised’
rhetoric (Buchanan, 2015; Cobain and Ramesh, 2015; The Economist, 2014; Mendick, Verkaik and
Ross, 2014; Norfolk and Sweriling, 2015; Simpson, 2014; Wood, 2014).
Although the combination of the particular political/economic situation in the West today with
this increase in ‘European jihad’ may be a coincidence, this interaction should be nonetheless
acknowledged. In relation to this, links between economic conditions, political instability and
terrorism have received attention and produced conflicting results (Kavanagh, 2011): Abadie (2006)
failed to find a significant association between terrorism and economic variables; Bravo and Dias
(2006) found that illiteracy, democracy and access to natural resources were some main determinants
in international terrorism. Furthermore, research has demonstrated that domestic political instability
has an impact on on terrorism (Campos and Gassebner, 2009) and that the emergence of radical
attitudes comes forth as secondary consequences of important historic changes (Botsch, 2012).
According to data gathered by Cable News Network (CNN) in February 2015 (Berlinger,
2015), approximately 3,400 people have left Western countries to join the Islamic State in Syria and
Iraq. Among these, 600 are believed to be British nationals. Aqsa Mahmood from Scotland went
missing in November 2013; she had been promoting terrorist values via social media prior to her
disappearance (BBC, 2014). As recent as June 2015 she has been reported praising the shooting of
British nationals in Tunisia (BBC, 2015). In a similar vein, in February 2015 three teenage
schoolgirls from Bethnal Green, London, left their families to travel to Syria. It is believed that two
of them are now married to Islamic State men in Syria (Dodd and Khomami, 2015).
But why do young people find radical discourses so compelling? Why do they feel the need to
embrace radicalisation and extremism? These questions are complex and require a deep empirical
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investigation; however, the aim of this work is to tackle the problem from a more theoretical
perspective. The main research question is:

To what extent can we associate the experience of young people joining the Syrian
‘front’ and the Islamic State to the notion of ‘subcultures’?

This paper will look at some of the elements of subcultural theory that can be used to discuss
young people’s fascination with radicalisation (eg. sense of otherness, excitement). In particular, the
essay will focus on Muslim youth. Drawing on Hamm’s notion of terrorist subculture (2004), it will
explore whether the way young people embrace radicalisation is similar to the experience connected
to subcultural affiliation. For the purpose of this work, this subcultural connection will be defined as
‘radicalised tribe’. This article will ask whether there is a deviant element in this fascination.
Following this, the paper will argue how the philosophical notion of transgression can help us bring
to the surface certain elements that are not considered by the sociological concept of deviance. In the
conclusion, I hope to cast some more light on the reasons why Western-born young people may
engage with what is understood with terrorist practices.

Young people and radicalisation
Since the New York attacks in 2001, a good portion of scholarly research has been dedicated
to the analysis of terrorist practices (e.g. Rapoport, 2004; Silke, 2004; Ranstorp, 2006; Abrahms,
2008). Due to the nature of the topic, most research focused on secondary data (Bakker, 2006) and/or
small case studies (Nesser, 2006). When facing the question of why people engage with violent
practices, the first tendency is to seek answers within the fields of psychiatry and psychology.
Psychological abnormality is perhaps an aspect that most people can easily engage with and
comprehend. In this respect, Furedi (2004) highlights how social and cultural issues are frequently
understood and analysed in connection with people’s emotions. Furedi suggests that in the past few
years every single aspect of our life has been subject to a new emotional culture. This favours the
rise of a new conformity, monitored through the management of people’s feelings. Furedi’s approach
encouraged me to reflect upon whether this emotional culture partially influences the way terrorist
behaviour is regarded. The psychological response is, in fact, the first approach that is presented
when crime is discussed outside the academic ring of criminology and sociology.
Silke (2008) points out that most terrorists do not present with any affliction of the mind.
Their radicalisation process is, on the contrary, a gradual process. The author argues that most
radicalised individuals become entwined with a small group of like-minded people. This means that
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social networks and personal attitudes can play a central role. In the course of this section, I will
present different lines of investigation to radicalisation (historical, political, ‘multicultural’) that will
favour a discussion on whether psychology and social networks are sufficient to explain and
understand young radicalisation.
The first approach to the issue of violent radicalisation should be historical. Writing about
rites of passage, Van Gennep (1909/2011) emphasised how rites and ceremonies are not only
important in marking transitions of individuals or groups, but they also resolve life crises and
negotiate an individual’s management of important life occasions (e.g. puberty, marriage, death).
Throughout history, violent discourses have captured the imagination of young people where
violence has frequently been regarded as a rite of passage, an expression of camaraderie among
young males. For example, Muchembled (2012) provides us with an overview of different violent
festivities and brutal games that constituted the ‘making of’ young people in the Middle Ages. An
example of this is the Feast of Fools (in France, Spain and Germanic countries) or the Festival of the
Boy Bishop (in England) on the 28th December; this was a parodic celebration performed by young
clerics who went around the streets and beat up any women they met. This ‘rite’ was supposed to be
a good omen of fertility for both women and fields.
Painful or violent rites of passage are still practised today. For example, the ritualistic
envenomation among Sateré-Mawé peoples in Brazil is a ritual that initiates young males into
adulthood (Bosnia, et al., 2015). The ritual subjects young men to the poisonous stings of
Paraponera Clavata, a very venomous ant. Ants are woven in a glove that each participant has to
wear for about 10 minutes and repeat the ritual 20 times. The stings effectively make a person sick.
What these practices demonstrate is how violence can be a culturally legitimate act of identity
demarcation. Furthermore, examples above show that youth participation in actions that are deemed
radical seems to be a constant history.
A second approach to radicalisation should be political. Feeling part of a bigger plan or
actively contributing to a cause seems to be an important aspect in young people’s lives. In a
contemporary Western world, where young people seem interested in protesting but not so much in
exercising their right to vote, Soler-I-Marti (2015) identified an increase in young people’s direct
interest in political issues and causes, proving that young people are fundamentally political and
interested in various issues like immigration, inequality, rights of homosexuals, the environment and
social policies. The author investigated the psychological dimension of young people’s political
involvement: this research demonstrates a correlation between activism and both cause-oriented and
institutional political interest. It is extremely useful in showing that young people are active in their
engagement with causes.
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In terms of Islamic radicalisation, a political aspect cannot be excluded: that young people’s
interests in political change may be partly reflected in their appreciation of the Islamic State’s
political discourses. In an interview with BBC Radio 1, Omar, a British Muslim who is currently in
Syria, claims that “unjust Western foreign policy” partly motivated his involvement with the Islamic
State (BBC Newsbeat, 2015). Furthermore, a document obtained by the Guardian recently reveals
the Islamic State’s plans for building a state comprising a treasury, various government departments
(including health and education), and an economic programme for self-sufficiency (Shiv, 2015). This
confirms that the Islamic State ‘project’ goes beyond religious fanaticism and, for the purpose of the
ideas presented in this theoretical essay, this constitutes an element that should be considered.
When reflecting upon the political side of youth radicalisation, reference to the current global
landscape cannot be omitted: high unemployment levels, a general Euroscepticism, civic dissent in
various geographical areas (eg. riots in London in 2010/11; tumults and violence in Greece, Brazil,
Turkey and Syria), rise of populist political discourses and far-right attitudes, like neo-fascist Golden
Dawn in Greece and those enounced by the Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West
(Pegida) (Dolstal, 2015) are all contributing to the makeup of a fragile social/political tapestry.
Krugman (2011) alerts that a revival of far-right parties may push Europe to interstate conflict and
breakdown. At the same time, frictions in the West may impact on recruitment by the Islamic State.
Former Islamic State hostage Nicolas Hénin suggested how central to radical views of the Islamic
State is the belief that Muslims and non-Muslims cannot live together (Hénin, 2015): thriving on
division, radicalisation can blossom, attracting more Western-born youth.
The third line of discussion I want to propose relates to the notions of identity,
multiculturalism and sense of belonging. Ryan (2014) explores the Islamic narratives of young
people in London and writes how religion may contribute to the formation of young people and how
Islamic identity functions between the ‘host’ society and parental authority. Young Muslims
prioritise their Islamic identity over the traditional cultural identification of the older generations
(Ryan, 2014: 446). In Ryan’s work, religion emerges as a primary marker of identity, stronger than
ethnicity. This is an extremely interesting point because if religion constitutes a fundamental aspect
of youth identity, what happens to this identity when it is located in a secular state? Roy (2008)
discusses the British multicultural approach (Muslims are defined by their distinctive ethno-cultural
identity) and the French assimilation approach (Muslims perceived as having a different religion,
rather than a distinctive identity) and notes how radicalisation has little to do with national policies.
Coppock and McGovern (2014) suggest that current counter-radicalisation strategies aimed at
protecting young people from extremism only contribute to a racially informed construction of
childhood vulnerability. It is possible to argue that perhaps this excessive need to pin down the
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ethno-cultural background of young people may result in alienation from the society they live in.
Excessive use of multicultural narratives and normalisation may have a counter-productive effect in
that by emphasising inclusion, young people may perceive themselves as outsiders and in need of an
identity.

Youth identity and subcultures
Subcultural theory has traditionally explained the opposition between young people and
society in terms of conflict. The combination of young people and eccentric styles has traditionally
raised suspicion in society which has led to ideas linking youth to both danger and crime (Goodlad
and Bibby, 2007). Society seems to associate large gatherings of youth with boredom and,
eventually, trouble making (Hodkinson and Deicke, 2007). Academia has always attempted to
investigate the characteristics of subcultures and their location within society (Cohen, 1955;
Hebdige, 1979; McRobbie, 1994).
Central to the understanding of subcultural discourses has been the work of the Birmingham
Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS). Traditional CCCS subcultural approaches,
similar to previous post-war approaches on juvenile deviance, regarded the notion of subculture as
affiliated to some cardinal social factors such as class status, geographic environment, ethnic
background or religious influence (Gordon, 1947 in Gelder and Thornton, 1997: 40-41). Everything
individuals do can be located and discussed within the spectrum of those social frameworks. These
elements are used to explain the deviant behaviour of youth cultures and how these become a tool of
collective resistance and a response to social and economic conflicts between classes (Hall and
Jefferson, 1976).
In this context, we can assume that excessive focus on inclusion of ethnic minorities may
have a double-edged effect: by focusing on inclusion, we paradoxically compose a narrative of
exclusion and alienation. Identity is a problematic matter, especially in our contemporary society:
people are born in one country and raised in another; children have nationalities different from their
parents and parents may come from different backgrounds. In a ‘post postmodern’ world that
constantly asks us to define ourselves, definitions have become more and more problematic. In our
society, both institutions and people may experience some pressures that lead to alienation and to
people’s inability to describe themselves (Drămnescu, 2013). The class resistance that Hall and
Jefferson discuss has become an identity resistance. In this context, we can assume that radical
discourses can be appealing for those who struggle to fit in. The identification of a common enemy
reinforces the sense of belonging.

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Mainly a youth subculture is considered as a subculture (Thornton, 1995), where taste, style
and aesthetics are central to an understanding of the dynamics of the group. Recently, media
attention has been paid to Muslim women’s re-appropriation of the hijab as a fashion item and a
symbol of elegance (Naib, 2015). A Hennes and Mauritz (H&M) television advertisement, featuring
a veiled young woman, received both positive and negative reactions, instigating a debate on
Islamophobia. Swedish-born fashion designer Iman Aldebe has regarded the veil not only as an
important part of Islamist culture, but also as a fashion item that Muslim women can enjoy (Naib,
2015). Looked at from this perspective, the veil goes beyond its usual valence, and it also becomes a
form of resistance to dominant culture and a re-appropriation of an identity that society has distorted.
According to CCCS, the group becomes a social world with its own life, characteristics,
meanings and styles, a world that is parallel to and independent from ‘the world’ of outsiders,
untouched by the ‘parent’ culture (Clarke, et al, 1975). In the case of young Muslims, this could be
translated into a conflict between family culture/traditions and the culture of the country they live in:
their Muslim identity and values – along with the country’s focus on multiculturalism and inclusion
– may paradoxically result in alienation (as previously seen). Hypothesising that radicalisation may
be triggered by the desire to belong to a group (independent of its nature, be it peaceful or violent)
may not be as daring. When I suggest a group, I imply a group that is not attached to parental or
community values.
Cohen (1955) discussed the concept of subculture as the interaction of individuals who share
the same problems of adjustment. Their stylistic and cultural choices are a response to a determined
condition. The need to aggregate and interact with others becomes a phenomenon of cultural growth
in which identities can be affirmed by withdrawing from a society that rejects the diverse. In Cohen’s
view, the relationship of the group with outsiders is one of necessity and demands: members of the
subculture establish relations with others in order to preserve their identity. At the same time,
belonging to a group emphasises the necessity to break free from the way dominant society sees the
individual: the Self can happily survive surrounded by those who share its need to go beyond the
limits of the parent culture.
In this regard, Tajfel (1981) argued that the central element in the definition of a group is an
individual’s knowledge that he or she belongs to that specific group. As social animals, we humans
need to aggregate with our peers in order to develop what Aristotle defined as the rational capability
of thinking (Aristotle, td. Mazzarelli, 2000). We want to ‘legitimate’ emotions and the way we act
upon them: humankind needs the Other to validate our desires, love, perception, pride, hatred, anger,
judgement, needs, understanding and choices. The feeling of sharing habits, values and views within
a group makes an individual more at ease and allows people’s natural instincts to be explored more
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freely: individuals will lower their guard, feel less inhibited and even less rational. This can be
particularly applicable in the case of a youth subculture where the young age of the members means
they may not be confident enough to express divergent views. In the case of young people engaging
with radicalisation, the sense of belonging to a religious structure, which ‘welcomes’ them without
making them feel different, may be an appealing prospect. It could also be suggested that radical
discourses may be perceived as a re-appropriation of religious symbols and identity.

Radicalised subcultures: common traits between radicalised groups and youth subculture

This discussion on youth identity and subculture may raise the question of how and how far
young people’s radicalisation can constitute ‘subcultural’ behaviour. A traditional understanding of
subcultures may prevent the association of this concept to terrorism. Gang, network and organisation
are usually the preferred terms to indicate the dynamics of a group of people engaging in
international crime. However, known information regarding Western-born terrorists induced me to
reflect upon the possibility that their involvement in radical rhetoric shares some common traits with
involvement in a subculture.
Adopting the style of the chosen subculture is the first aspect that allowed me to connect
more ‘traditional’ subcultures to radicalised youth. The relationship between subcultural affiliation,
sartorial styles, rituals and identity construction has received much scholarly attention (Borgerson,
2013; Newholm and Hopkinson, 2009). Chaney and Goulding (2016) explored the role of dressing as
a form of collective disguise and a ritual experience: the sartorial transformation reinforces the sense
of belonging to the community. This is also visible in ‘radicalised subcultures’: Hasna Aït
Boulahcen, a suspect of terrorism who died during police operations in St Denis following the Paris
massacre in November 2015, abruptly changed her way of dressing, going from a Western style to a
traditional Islamic style (Willsher, 2015).
In the aftermath of the November 2015 attacks in Paris, details on the identity of each
attacker emerged. All the perpetrators displayed a behavioural change accompanied by a sudden
embrace of radical Islamic views (BBC, 2015a; Vaudano, 2015). As the previously-discussed
subcultural theories debate, individuals entering a group will also adopt affine behaviours. In this,
they are similar to young people engaging with radical ideas.
Results of mathematical models, used to assess communities and social groups (including
terrorists), elaborated by Camacho (2013), highlight how building a critical mass of individuals
committed to a fanatic ideology is fundamental for the success of the group. The study suggests the
more efforts a group invests in recruiting and keeping its members, the more successfully the group’s
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ideology will be passed on vulnerable individuals (which, in turn, will become believers). Members’
identification with and commitment to the group’s values fortifies the group: absence of competitive
ability, defined by Camacho (2013) as being able to share prospective members, results in the
survival of an extreme ideology. Looking at longevity among terrorist organisations, Phillips (2014)
shows how terrorist groups seem to acquire durability by interaction and confrontation with other
groups, resulting at times in violent rivalries (Phillips, 2015).
Mathematical approaches have also been adopted to understand how subcultures develop.
Holme and Grönlund (2005) explore the forces behind youth subcultures by employing a dynamical
model: the study demonstrates subcultural groups have a growth stage, a quasi-stationary stage and a
final decline; subcultures with a long life are those whose members do not share any values from
other subcultures. This sense of exclusivity is a common feature between the manner by which both
terrorist organisations and subcultures operate. All this seem to indicate that people involved with
distinctive groups experience a sense of ‘othering’, a contraposition between insiders and outsider,
authentic and unauthentic.

Radicalised tribes?
The life that is created within the subculture can be varied. This is what Irwin (1970) defines
as subcultural pluralism and relativism. Individuals’ identities and sense of belonging can be
reflected in different social worlds that enrich their existential experience by choosing to adopt
various meanings and styles and different ideologies. Those elements become core benchmarks that
delineate the sense of belonging to a specific cultural sphere. Comparisons could be drawn between
this subcultural approach and Lacan’s concept of manque á être, lack of being (1966). This lack of
being articulates, in Lacan’s words, the metonymy of human desire (Siboni, 2006). In other words,
belonging to a group alleviates the individual’s fragmented identity. The fact of being in a group
makes its members more prepared to approach life in a non-standardised way. This discussion can be
related to the concept of entitativity(Campbell, 1958). With this term, Campbell (1958) identified the
process by which people recognise group members as a homogeneous entity. With this recognition,
the group achieves credibility and legitimacy.
From the prehistoric age to contemporary society, aggregation has been essential for the
individual’s survival. When we are born, we are not socially complete. In order to develop as
thinking human beings and to establish profitable relations within society, we need to be part of a
community. For young people, this aggregation can be perceived in terms of exclusivity: I am part of
a non-dominant group, so, paradoxically, I feel I belong more. In this respect, Elias (1986) suggested
that groups can be understood in terms of social development. Being part of a subculture, in fact,
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encourages experimentation with new ideas and strengthens identities. For instance, Ryan (2014)
suggests that new generations of Western-born Muslims seem to have stronger beliefs than their
parents.
This brief overview of subcultural aggregation and its application to the problem of youth
radicalisation must now mention some of the issues relating to the term ‘subculture’. In recent years,
the study of subcultures has highlighted a certain degree of disagreement in the meanings given to
the term:
the term subculture survives in such counter-analytical discourse. Indeed, such is the variety of
analytical perspectives in which subculture is now used as a theoretical underpinning, that it has
arguably become little more than a convenient ‘catch-all’ term for any aspect of social life in which
young people, style and music intersect. (Bennett, 1999: 59)

Criticisms have been made about the semantic use of the term ‘subculture’. Implementing
Maffesoli’s notion of tribus (tribes) (Maffesoli, 1996), Bennett (1999) suggests the expression ‘neotribes’ in order to better explain the idea of youth subculture. According to Maffesoli the tribe is
“without the rigidity of the forms of organization with which we are familiar, it refers more to a
certain ambience, a state of mind, and is preferably to be expressed through lifestyles that favour
appearance and form” (1996: 98). Unlike traditional studies of youth, Bennett considers aggregations
of young people to be unstable, with shifting cultural affiliations (Bennett, 1999: 65).
A traditional sociological approach to the study of youth subculture would metaphorically
‘amputate’ the very essence of subculture; its human fluidity is an essence made of transgression,
pleasure and taste. In this respect, the term ‘tribes’ or ‘neo-tribes’ would overcome the limitations
imposed by subcultural theory, allowing the very nature of subculture to be better expressed in terms
of cultural identity. Recently, Nwalozie (2015) argued for a rethink of the concept of subculture and
subcultural theory, suggesting that as it was too much dictated by Anglo-American cultural
identities, subcultural theory should explore more deeply the dynamics of opposition to mainstream
culture or, as in the case of young Muslims, to the country they were born in.
The cultural development of a youth group goes through what Clarke, et al. (1975) define as
an appropriation of the territory, the conquering of the social space. Thornton (1995) highlights how,
in their spare time, young people like ‘hanging out’ together. Today, hanging out has moved from a
physical space to the virtual space via social media. In recent years, the rise in the use of social
networks like Facebook, YouTube or Twitter has increased the aggregation of young people coming
from different localities. Berger and Morgan (2015) suggest how the Islamic State has heavily
exploited Twitter in order to divulge its propaganda and attract vulnerable people to radicalisation
narratives. They found out that between September and December 2014, approximately 46,000

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Twitter accounts were used by supporters of the Islamic State (not all active at the same time); each
account had an average of 1000 followers. As social media represents a way to construct a
glamorised identity par excellence (see the proliferation of social media celebrities), it is easy to
imagine the attractiveness that radicalised Twitter accounts may instigate. Every single piece of
information on sites like Twitter, Instagram and Facebook is carefully selected and crafted to project
successful constructions of the Self.
Hamm (2004) explores the notion of terrorist subcultures and their seduction. In his analysis
of the social histories of 40 neo-Nazi males, Hamm discusses the subcultural elements that make
terrorism possible. Hamm locates social deprivation as a possible starting point for the formulation
of terrorist subcultures. In his work, he identifies the pathway to terrorism as a series of ‘tiles’,
engraved in exclusion, that lead young people to a specific ideology (in the case of neo-Nazi, a
white supremacy) and a specific style (e.g. shaved hair). Each component of this subculture
becomes part of a collective practice: “understanding terrorism requires more than an appreciation
of individuals bound together by a common hatred of social out-groups. It requires, instead, a
nuanced understanding of the network of symbols, language and knowledge that gives meaning to
terrorist subcultures” (Hamm, 2004: 327).
In his Seductions of Crime, Katz (1988) discusses the thrills and sensuality that criminality
may cause in certain individuals. Some may have an emotional investment in the deviant act, which
may be regarded as a source of excitement. The criminal is almost perceived as a glamour entity, a
celebrity. For example, in an interview with the journalist Enzo Biagi, Roberto Saviano (the author
of Gomorrah, a book that portrays a candid image of the Mafia in Italy) discusses the glamorisation
of a ‘boss Mafioso’ (Rotocalco Televisivo, 22nd April 2007). Saviano points out that a ‘boss
Mafioso’ is like a Hollywood star, a divo. He takes Cosimo Di Lauro1 as an example: when arrested,
Di Lauro posed in front of cameras and photographers, looking at each of them like he was a
celebrity. His posture was the posture of a winner and a divo, rather than a criminal. He was dressed
like Brandon Lee in the film The Crow. Local children who witnessed the arrest were shouting ‘The
Crow! The Crow!’ Shortly after his arrest, his image was passed around via mobile phones and
many local teenagers used it as screensaver for their phones. Saviano suggests that the ‘boss
Mafioso’ must have the appearance of a ‘winner’ and this comes from cinema and TV (Rotocalco
Televisivo, 22nd April 2007).

1

Cosimo Di Lauro is one of the youngest heads of Mafia organisations in Italy. He was arrested in 2005 and was
accused of a massacre in Secondigliano (near Naples): about 80 dead people were found within a few days. The
Di Lauro family is fighting against other local criminal families in order to control the drug market.

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The way extremists are perceived in their communities may not be too different from the way
Di Lauro was perceived: he had money and the looks appealing to youth culture in Naples.
Extremists have weapons, perceived power and followers. Images from Syria and Northern Iraq
show us children and teenagers being indoctrinated/trained to become militants by the Islamic State
(Karam and Janssen, 2015). Interviews conducted by the Associated Press reveal that children are
given a sword and trained in the arts of warfare (Ibid). Much has been written about the role of
video games, films and television series in glamorising violence, but it could be suggested that
images coming from conflict zones can appeal to Western-born youths, who have never had direct
contact with real violence. Violence is divulged by the Islamic State as a product to be consumed, a
form of propaganda that appeals to estranged young people. A general desensitisation of violence
means that violence can be perceived as something exciting.

Radicalised tribes and transgressive excitement
The phenomenon of ‘othering’ is a way to explore the ‘other’ side of experiences, but also the
process by which people become insiders or outsiders, normal or deviant. I regard this contraposition
as extremely important when discussing radicalised tribes. Deviance has always been entwined with
the phenomenon of othering: the ‘other’ side of experience, what we do not see because, as George
Bataille (2005) shows, the human eye selects what it wants to see. Young (2007) defines this process
as marking the difference between the deviant ‘them’ and the obedient ‘us’. Historically, othering
has fed the process of social exclusion as the boundaries between obedience and disobedience,
insider and outsider are constructed. Becker argues that “social groups create deviance by making
the rules whose infraction constitutes deviance, and by applying those rules to particular people and
labelling them as outsiders” (Becker, 1963: 9). He regards deviance not as a quality to be attributed
to the perpetrator of an action, but the consequence of a sanctioning process. For example, Islamic
State militants give children dolls so they can practise killing the infidels. In this way, they create a
villain other, the infidel, the enemy, the oppressor who should be destroyed and punished. Radical
values become culturalised: they are an integral part of the culture of the group.
As a possible cultural artefact, radicalisation should be explored from a cultural
criminological perspective. Cultural criminology investigates criminal behaviour and the bodies
involved with the criminal justice system in terms of culture (Ferrell, 1995; Presdee, 2000). Violent
practices can be culturalised and culture can be criminalised. A violent narrative can be perceived as
a necessary tool to deliver a cultural or religious message. Traditional criminological discourses
would look at this in terms of personal and economic histories, with young radicalised youth coming
from particular family or social backgrounds. Whereas this could be true for some of them, a more
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cultural or emotional element could also cast some light on young people’s involvement. Summer
(1994) discusses how sociology has dropped the element of culture in the analysis of deviant
behaviours. In doing so, it has effectively forgotten the experience of othering. Cultural criminology
steps in and tackles this problem by trying to introduce a different perspective on deviance. The
physical excitement that breaking norms may trigger in an individual should also be taken into
account.
Consideration of ‘transgressive excitement’ is what I propose in order to explore the complex
problem of Muslim radicalisation. In the course of police interviews, Mohammed Rehman, who
plotted an Islamic State-inspired attack in London for the 7/7 anniversary, made frequent references
to excitement as a trigger for his engagement with radicalisation and terrorist practices: “[..] I just
wanted a bit of excitement in my life.” (Cockfort and Gardham, 2015). On following Islamic state
videos on YouTube and Twitter, he added:
“[it] seemed like an exciting life you know and that's all I could really see. (Ibid)
“The idea of having all this, you know, weaponry and being able to make all these explosives and causing a big
stir around the world, this is the only thing that really excited me, to be honest with you, because of that I was
inspired, but not inspired to the point where I actually wanted to go out and do something for their cause.” (Ibid)

Interestingly, Rehman’s last comment emphasises how the Islamic cause is not an inspiration
for his action, but the thrill of having guns and committing violence is. Exploring reasons for
skinheads to be attracted to racist ideologies, Coolseat (2013: 282) suggested that attraction to these
emerges from the need to fulfil a series of social and psychological needs among which excitement.
Alexander (2001) suggests how social sciences have not sufficiently tackled the ‘emotional’
connotation of doing evil, but have relied on reporting good and evil according to a general common
sense. Similarly, deviance has been confined to what Alexander (2001) calls an ‘it-goes-withoutsaying’ explanation: we have our notion of what deviant and proper are and we do not feel the urge
to explore them any further.
As the deviant is medicalised, we attempt to demarcate and ‘scientise’ the breach of taboos, a
process eventually completed by the creation of a science of crime (criminology). In this respect, we
could suggest that the attraction to the transgressions of radical narratives has been suppressed by a
criminological analysis that, perhaps, does not focus sufficiently on important aspects like passion,
emotion, culture and, ultimately, excitement. Behaviours that deviate from norms have been reduced
to no more than an aborted relationship between penal codes and psychological problems.

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Transgression and violence may be perceived as an exciting and glamorised experience. So may
radicalisation. Radicalised tribes, in this respect, can be strictly associated to transgression.

Conclusion
Assessing whether every single young person becoming radicalised enters the same
subcultural process is a complex task: mathematical models and qualitative research can only
identify certain patterns of social aggregation and function as a starting point for discussion on these
matters. Traditional subcultural theories provide a wide background where to further our exploration
of radicalised rhetoric and youth’s involvement: from subcultures as the product of collective
resistance (Clarcke et al., 1975) to the notion of boredom (Hodkinson and Deike, 2007); from
Cohen’s problems of adjustment (Cohen, 1955) to Katz’s thrill crime (Katz, 1988) and Hamm’s
terrorist subcultres (Hamm, 2004), this robust body of research can favour the development of the
notion of a radicalised tribe, a group of youth who flirt with radical rhetoric, not only as a
consequence of religious or political attitudes, but also as the product of what I refer to as
‘transgressive excitement’.
History tells us that rules and laws get re-affirmed in festive periods through excess and the
transgression of what is forbidden (Caillois, 1959). During the period of a festivity, people are
allowed to infringe social conventions and rules. For example, the exuberance of carnival and Mardi
Gras comes before the restraints of Lent. From a philosophical perspective, transgression is a concept
that encapsulates not only the infringement of norms, but also the thrill that comes with it. Bataille
(1957/2001) and Foucault (1994) regard transgression as a necessary experience that allows
individuals to engage with everything that has been imposed as a ban. The philosophical concept of
transgression can help us to understand radicalisation. Transgression brings to the surface a variety
of experiences that do not conform to social order. For radicalised tribes, violent discourses or
extreme dogmas may represent a form of excitement.
Certain events and activities are labelled as transgressive and criminal. The search for
excitement symbolises the seduction of transgression. Transgression embodies an ‘othering’: those
emotions that are socially challenging but pleasant for those who experience them. Thus, the
consideration of the ‘other’ is relevant to criminological discourses regarding subcultures. ‘Hanging
around’ together in the virtual space may also contribute to the growth of an othering that
transgresses the parameters of social order and religion.
Bataille (1957/2001), Caillois (1959) and Foucault (1994) suggest the inner Self rebels
against limits and restrictions created to preserve social order. In the act of breaching those limits, the
Self rediscovers its totality. Totality indicates that state of wildness and nature that has been
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repressed. The Self desperately seeks that physical, almost visceral, sense of happiness that only the
violation of the conventional can give rise to (Bataille, 2001). Kristeva (1982) associates the idea of
the body expelling waste with the need for human beings to detox from society’s impositions. We
are forced into sacredness of order where our freedom is controlled by regulations imposed by
society; this produces a sense of frustration that some of us challenge by fighting and desecrating
rules. In the case of young people being fascinated by radical narratives, entering the structured
world of radicalisation – where they can set free from the constructed identities their society attempts
to give them – may represent this detoxification..
Talking about radicalisation and violent acts in terms of excitement is extremely problematic.
First of all, the fear is that we may disrespect the victims and survivors of these acts; discussing the
excitement component in violence from a neutral, emotionless perspective may prove a difficult task.
Furthermore, testing ‘radicalisation excitement’ in a scientific manner constitutes a challenge. We
can use that tools social sciences and humanities offer us in order to elaborate on ‘informed’,
intellectual ideas, but unless we speak to those involved with radicalisation (or we measure their
adrenaline levels), then our assumptions may not have the same level of confidence. Furthermore,
‘clean’ data regarding both subcultures and terrorist organisations are difficult to assemble: for
example, the information relating to attackers I could access was what media have decided to
divulge; consequently, information comes with a degree of filtered manipulation.
Finally, suggesting exploring youth radicalisation in terms of excitement may encourage
deeper investigation. Acknowledging that young people may be infatuated by radical discourses
because they represent a way to rebel or because they regard extreme practices as exciting may
encourage scholars and policy makers to better tackle the problem.
Ultimately, this work is a work of synthesis, where I reviewed studies conducted by other
scholars. With it, I aim to trigger a discussion about some of the reasons that encourage young
people to join violent militant groups in the name of violence. A collection of empirical data is
strongly recommended in order to consolidate the ideas discussed in this essay.

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