NEWS & commentary
By Erwin Lux [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
I've been carrying out research on the trajectories of those involved in historical overseas conflicts with colleague Mohammed Ali Amla and have started to present some of the early findings at a couple of conferences this Autumn. The research involves learning from interviews with former mujahideen to understand the biographical outcomes of conflict. Here's an idea of some of the preliminary outcomes of the study.
Combatants’ experience of historical conflict and its aftermath rarely feature in work on political violence. Alongside an emphasis on contemporary events, the terrorism studies literature is generally more concerned with organisation and strategy than lived experience. There has also been an emphasis on questions of mobilisation as opposed to disengagement and post-conflict experiences. Hence, although increasingly urgent questions are being asked about returnees from transnational conflicts, our knowledge about what informs the reintegration process is weak. Moreover, existing work on demobilisation and reintegration has tended to focus on those ‘background’ factors considered relevant to the move away from political violence. In the literature on large-scale conflict, attention is typically directed at socio-economic issues, while research on disengagement from clandestine radical groups focuses on small group processes or individual level features such as ideological commitment. While valuable, they overlook those ‘foreground’ emotional and experiential factors which inform meaning making. To deepen our knowledge of these features of reintegration, this paper explores the life history accounts of a small number of militant Islamists who took part in jihad over the last 30 years, from Afghanistan in the 1990s to Libya in 2011. Former combatants’ life histories offer a rich source of material by which to understand reintegration and the ongoing effect of involvement in conflict down the years. These subjective interpretations are central to understanding why people move away from violence, what involvement in conflict means to them, and how these experiences influence the pattern of their lives. In exploring these issues with a focus on individual processes of sense-making, the paper is less concerned with developing an ‘objective’ or ‘accurate’ account of people’s journey into and out of jihad. Instead it seeks to understand the biographical outcomes of involvement in conflict by interpreting accounts of narrative identity. In doing so, the paper looks at the meaning people give to their past in the context of wider cultural repertoires that inform the shape of potential futures, to understand how people make sense of their choices over the life course. Based on interviews with transnational activists involved in jihad this paper offers a rich, qualitative account of their memories of becoming involved, how disengagement and reintegration are subjectively experienced and recalled, what the longer-term biographical effects of involvement in political violence are, and how current selves interpret former selves.