“Masculinities” are those behaviors, languages, and practices—existing in specific socio-cultural and organizational locations—which are commonly associated with men. “Toxic masculinity” is a scholarly term, increasingly mainstreamed in popular culture, that is used describe the negative aspects of exaggerated masculine traits. When toxic masculinities receive legitimization from a broader ideological radical framework, we can talk about “radical masculinities”.
European Eye on Radicalization (EER) hosted a webinar panel examining this issue of radical masculinities—the similarities, differences, and common trends in the way different extreme ideologies narrate and experience masculinity and contemporary gender roles.
The panelists were:
Joshua Roose, a political sociologist and Senior Research Fellow in Politics and Religion at the Institute for Citizenship and Globalization at Deakin University in Melbourne, Australia. His research focuses on the intersection of masculinities, radicalization, and political and religious violent extremism and terrorism. He is the author of the book, Political Islam and Masculinity.
Sara Brzuszkiewicz, EER’s Editor-in-Chief, focuses her research on radicalization and de-radicalization, jihadism in Europe, and involuntary celibate (“incel”) violence. She recently authored the paper, ‘Incel Radical Milieu and External Locus of Control’, which was included in the special edition of the Institute Centre for Counter-Terrorism (ICCT) Journal, Evolutions in Counter-Terrorism.
Blyth Crawford, a Research Fellow at International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR) is pursuing her PhD at King’s College London. Her research specializes in the far-Right, alt-Right, and online radicalization.
Dr. Roose spoke to “Radical Masculinity and Political Islam: Features and Patterns”.
Roose begins by noting that his contribution draws on his work on the Islamic State movement, particularly the young Muslim men from the West who went to join the caliphate project, which he says is one of the most significant events within Islam for the last thousand years. Islamic State (ISIS) was a profoundly modern, yet intensely reactionary, phenomenon, which became synonymous with extreme violence, where Western foreign fighters were playing a key role.
Australia was a particular hotspot for ISIS, Roose explains: 230 citizens left to join the caliphate, 250 more had their passports revoked when they tried to leave to join the jihadists, and there were nine ISIS-linked terrorist attacks. Most of these people came from the major cities, Melbourne and Sydney. The men who left generally had lived “empowered” lives, says Roose; they were not the downtrodden and dispossessed. “We’ve got to take masculinity seriously in seeking to understand the challenge”, said Roose.
If “masculinity” is the “social construction of what it is to be a man”, Roose focused on the “social trajectory” and noted the “intersection of religion, race, and youth”. Muslim masculinity in the West has been formulated in part as “a resistance to whiteness”, Roose went on, and for people trying to make their way against the intersecting adversity of race, gender, and generation. In these circumstances, men adopt a “protest masculinity”, recovering dignity and worth through stereotypically and exaggerated displays of manliness. This is often channeled through Islam, since religion is a familiar touchstone for young Muslims and is an alternate structure for identity to the one that they feel is oppressing them.
Demographic factors feed into this, with Muslims being far younger, far more likely to be unemployed, and more likely to be unmarried than the average of Australian society. And this has combined with the sense of “a war on Islam” because of the security responses included within the War on Terror. ISIS feeds on this to seed narratives wherein it is the answer to this humiliation and alienation, Roose explains, documenting through a content analysis how dominant these themes have been in ISIS propaganda, with ISIS then promising that jihad will bring “honour”.
Roose concludes that while attention has been—justifiably—on the far-Right of late, the underlying issues of structural alienation that underpinned the ISIS movement will persist and must not be ignored. More work needs to be done to assist young men manage their emotions.
Dr. Brzuszkiewicz’s topic was: “The Incel Milieu and the External Locus of Control”.
The incel ecosystem is one of the main bastions of radical masculinities at the present time, says Brzuszkiewicz. “Incel”, a word dating back to 1993, means simply someone who cannot find a (usually female) sexual partner despite wanting to; it is “not a unitary ideology” or movement, but “more like a state of being that applies to a diverse array of people”, albeit, says Brzuszkiewicz, there are now multiple online communities that show some common features.
The online incel presence, explains Brzuszkiewicz, is on incel-created sites, as well as other popular social media sites like Telegram. It is only a small number of incels who have graduated to violence, but these online gathering places can serve as breeding grounds, says Brzuszkiewicz.
Incel misogyny might have overlaps with more “normal” forms of toxic masculinity, including a nostalgia for “pre-feminist” family structures, yet, says Brzuszkiewicz, it is unique in that it is not based on a sense of superiority; it comes from a “position of perceived inferiority” that is advertised—it is not sublimated. This weaponized victimhood is directly expressed and, indeed, is the core.
Hostility to women in general is the most notable feature of these incel environments, says Brzuszkiewicz, and probably the most dangerous idea—the one that most easily makes the jump from ideology to violence—is that there is no reason to treat women well because they are incapable of understanding such things, hence women being referred to by the dehumanizing term “female humanoid organism” (FOID).
The unique aspects of incel ideas are part of the reason that incel vocabulary has proven to be so adaptable and various. The anti-incel, the desirable male, is known as a “Chad”, regarded with a mix of hatred and envy. The female equivalent of a Chad is a “Stacy”.
Brzuszkiewicz points to incels having an external locus of control—believing that their lives are controlled by outside forces (women, genetic bad luck)—as opposed to an internal locus, which would mean they were able to control matters themselves.
In terms of the coronavirus pandemic, which has been a boon to so many radical movements, the incel community has at its most extreme fringes welcomed the virus itself “as a blessing, because it increases the chances ‘normies’ will die”, Brzuszkiewicz explains, and in its more “moderate” form has welcomed the lockdowns since that means Chads and Staceys can no longer have physical relations that they want and cannot get.
For these and other reasons, it makes sense to see these incel online gathering places as a “radical milieu”, concludes Brzuszkiewicz. These forums provide justifications, implicitly and sometimes explicitly, for violence, and there have been terrorist attacks emanating from them, most obviously Elliot Rodger, who has been considered a hero and a model by subsequent attackers of this kind.
Again, the vast majority of incels are not violent and never will be, but the most active and influential members on these forums do celebrate violence by people like Rodger, providing encouragement to others to follow his example. In tackling this phenomenon, Brzuszkiewicz notes that the wheel need not be reinvented—neighbouring disciplines will have insights, especially in disseminating counter-narratives—and the issue of mental health and reducing the stigma around getting it treated cannot be avoided, since users of these forums are disproportionately afflicted in this way.
Blyth Crawford spoke about: “Radical Right and Gender Roles”.
Crawford says that the far-Right hold to the idea of “familialism”, which in simple terms means believing families are the “primary unit of continuing on the nation”, and within that the racialist groups can slot in the idea of the family as the vanguard of “white culture and white family”. In this way, we see men and women being defined by their biological traits.
The “extreme Right” sees a creeping “degeneracy” in modern society and has identified feminism, in collusion with the Left, as a chief culprit, says Crawford. By promoting abortion as a form of empowerment, so the extreme Right believes, feminists destroy the possibility of families and the chances for continuing on the white race. Around this various other extreme ideas and conspiracy theories are attached, including that this destruction of the indigenous family by feminists provides the pretext for mass immigration and that the Jews are at the root of all these problems.
Crawford explains that the extreme Right sees feminism as promoting the sexualization of women and society, encouraging women to “seek hollow ideals, rather than the ideals of family”. Feminism is also blamed for feminizing men, and this links to a strong hostility to homosexuals, perceived as contributing to the degeneracy by flaunting their deviation from gender norms, either as feminine men or masculine women.
Transphobia is particularly widespread and virulent among the extreme Right, says Crawford, and it mobilizes around impacts on children.
The extreme Right offers as responses to this “degeneracy”, a restoration of traditional gender roles, a “benevolent sexism” towards women and a embracing tradition for men—protecting their families, self-discipline, and so on. In this view, both men and women are victims of a societal rot. But there is another view, Crawford explains, a “hostile sexism”, wherein women are seen as having power over men and being complicit in imposing this degeneracy on powerless men.
“Hostile sexism” lends itself easier to violence as a proof of masculinity, and to things like regarding women as spoils of “war” against this degeneracy—memes show, for instance, killers rewarded in the afterlife with cat-women—but the “benevolent” form can lead the same way, and indeed, explains Crawford, the two types usually run together to create hybrid masculinities.
Aditi Bhaduri spoke to: “Radical Masculinities and Hindu Extremism”.
In the Indian context, Bhaduri notes, the term “toxic masculinity” is not well understood at any level of society. This does not make it any less real, of course—nor any less specific. The constructed or performative aspects of masculinity take different forms in different places where different creeds and political regimes predominate, but present they always are.
Bhaduri adumbrates the man’s role as seen through these masculinities in India, namely as both the protector of women and the enforcer of their role, which is in turn seen as upholding the entire social order. In recent days, this took the form of a young man being shot dead after he proposed to marry a woman whose family objected to the match.
If that is the form radical masculinity takes, what, then, is a “Hindu extremist”? Hinduism is a “very fluid belief system … there is no centralized authority”, says Bhaduri, and it is “not looking for global domination” or to “propagate or expand” the dominion of the faith, not least because it is not one faith. Hindu extremism is entwined with Indian nationalism, says Bhaduri; the basic idea is to “reclaim India for Hindus”. This Hindu nationalism or Hindutva has risen over recent decades, especially the last decade with the rise of social media, making these extreme ideas more accessible.
Hindu extremism takes many forms, and Bhaduri sketches out some of them. Women being killed by husbands for not bringing the right dowry price with them to the new marriage home is an ongoing problem. The shock of women’s advancement in public life in India, particularly when experienced by the newly urban, has led to numerous cases of gendered and sexual violence. Then there are “communal” reactions, such as ransacking card shops around Valentine’s Day, seen as protecting women against a Western import that corrupts the society.
Hindu extremism’s radical masculinities are most acute where it fuses with a religious sectarianism, when women enter the “forbidden space” of marrying into another community, particularly Muslims but also Christians. For the Hindu nationalists, this is seen as women helping these proselytizing religions replace them, not unlike fears outlined above of white nationalists that they will be replaced by immigrants.
A related but distinct expression of toxic masculinity from Hindu extremism, says Bhaduri, is the lynching of Muslims, and sometimes Christians, for alleged “crimes”—usually fabricated—against Hinduism, such as “smuggling cattle or hording beef, because the cow is a sacred animal in Hinduism”. The rumor that the meet in a man’s refrigerator was beef led to a lynching in India not so long ago, showing the will of Hindu extremists to try to dominate even the private lives of citizens—to show that Hindus, Hindu men specifically, have the upper-hand and are ruling the society.