Forgive the jargon words of the title of this post. In the face of all the hand-wringing about the ‘radicalisation’ of Muslim young men, I want to reflect on what happened to the British youth scene from the 1960’s: its subversion over fifty years has brought us where we are today.
Until the 1950’s there really was no such thing as a teenager. When you left school at 14 you went to work, and your aim was to grow up as quickly as possible. You wanted to fit in with your dad and his mates, to be an adult and not a child. From the end of the 50’s young people had employment and money – and time of their own as home and working conditions improved rapidly. Recently one of our 59 Motorcycle Club members wrote a reminiscence of the Rocker era of the ’60’s. It was full of meeting his mates at the Ace Cafe, hurtling down the A40, riding past the Dorchester Hotel where the trick was to see who could get his motorcycle close enough to the doorman to knock his top-hat off, and then on to Chelsea Bridge. But his story ended when he left his friends (who were going on to the Busy Bee) because he needed an early night. ‘It wasn’t that at all,’ he wrote, ‘but because my mum had said I had to be in by 11 pm.’ Yes, it’s easy to see this period through rose-tinted spectacles, but it was still pretty innocent – until, of course, the money-makers saw how it could be exploited.
Young people are often spoken of as ‘alienated’. What, or who, has alienated them? British teenagers were becoming distanced as the 60’s wore on, from sources of ‘authority’ – their parents, schools, the Church, the police … yet I believe that here was nothing particularly inevitable or even natural about this process. Most teenagers had (and many still have, let’s be honest) a loving, supportive relationship with their parents. But for the press and the media there was something exciting about the ‘alienated’ youngster, moody, bitter and angry. It’s perfectly portrayed in the film ‘Quadrophenia’ with its bleak and nihilistic ending in the suicide of the main character. This was ‘cutting edge’ – but it also made young people vulnerable to exploitation.
It was both sad and fascinating to watch the process being repeated, a generation later, among black youngsters of Caribbean heritage. Their parents were first generation immigrants, many of them bringing with them the values and behaviour of the pre-war Empire. In the face of their financial and housing struggles, and the racism of parts of the host community, that first generation had remained largely united around a shared culture, hard work, strong religious belief and moral code. It was not to last. The process of alienating the young took hold, and fashion and music were peddled as part of a new identity for a new generation. Inevitably it was the poor, those who had benefitted least from their education, who were most vulnerable. Unemployment and the benefit culture left the young with time on their hands, drugs addled their brains, ever more children grew up without their fathers – and without the support and strength of the extended family that a previous generation had known. And their parents and grandparents were utterly at a loss to know what to do.
Middle class Britain was able, by and large, to ignore these problems. They did not live in Tottenham or Notting Hill; the shut-down of major industries and the subsequent demoralisation of working-class life was happening ‘up-north’; and any way, their children were at ‘good schools’ and heading for ‘good jobs’, and looking forward to living in a ‘good area’. And there were many among the middle classes, who now formed the opinionated establishment, who were only too glad to throw off the authority of Church, moral codes, and the stuffy culture of the past. It was as if ‘de-regulation’, so popular in the financial world, was now being applied to British life itself. But some people began to wonder if it they would have to ‘reap the whirlwind’ somewhere in the future.
As we look back at these years, and at the series of financial ‘crashes’ and the boom and bust of the property market – whether we have yet learnt anything is debatable. As house price inflation in London is now reported to be running at 20%, it would seem not. But the signs of a moral/spiritual/cultural crash are all around us, and the public killing of the American journalist by – in all likelihood a young Briton – is the most deadly sign to date.
The liberal establishment had reckoned that the next generation of immigrants, from the Asian sub-continent would integrate in the same way as those from the Caribbean. In other words, they were confident that the first generation would maintain their beliefs, religion and life-style; but their children and grandchildren would be swept into the materialist culture and hedonistic life-style of the host community. The promotion of the ‘multi-cultural/multifaith’ society had been useful for putting down Christianity, and especially for reminding the Church of England that it now only occupied a place on the margins. But beneath this façade the liberal culture viewed Islam with aversion. Whereas it thought it understood Christianity (having been given the watered-down, public school, version in the 50’s, it had laughed at the lampooning of the Church in the 60’s) it feared Islam. Yet it remained confident that secular culture working on the young would do its job.
The rise of ‘fundamentalism’ has affected Christianity as well as Islam: it has a number of common factors. It represents a revulsion against the materialism and decadence of western society. It is authoritarian, with high regard for the written scriptures, and, in the case of Catholics, the Magisterium of the Church. It is evangelistic, seeking to convert from – and not to accommodate with – the surrounding society. There is evidence that some young people find this a credible and exciting alternative to what has been peddled as ‘youth culture’ for half a century in the west.
I have been struck recently by the young age of so many of the saints of the Catholic Renewal of the 16th and 17th centuries (sometimes called the Counter-Reformation). In the Oxford Movement in the 19th century it was young men and women who challenged establishment thinking, embraced a deeply counter-cultural way of life, and rediscovered the roots of their faith – true ‘radicals’ they were.
In turning away from the values of their contemporaries young Muslims, and young Christians, are looking for a renewed and challenging faith by which to live. The ‘jihadis’ have entered into a way of life which is cruel and perverted. The sight of heavily armed youngsters, with their sinister masks and their wicked boasting about their exploits, is chilling.
Young Catholics have two great advantages as they work to discover a Faith which is radical but not fundamentalist. First, is the knowledge of God who takes to himself the life of a humble carpenter, and offers this life on the Cross while praying for his enemies. Second, is the living authority of the Church presenting the Faith once delivered, new and fresh for each changing generation, under the power of God the Holy Spirit. The first calls every Christian to a life of humble service, even of enemies; the second enables Christians to know what is right belief – and what is a blasphemous perversion of it.