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Extremists want a return to masculinity

The question of masculinity is at the core of extremists organisations such as white supremacy groups in USA and Islamic terrorists in Al Qaeda. They are all fighting to remasculinise themselves and restore masculinity to what they believe is its rightful place in society, according to leading American sociology professor Michael Kimmel. FORUM spoke to him during his recent visit to Denmark

FORUM/28.09.2005 If there is one thing that many Danes and Americans like to do, it's to sit in front of the TV and indulge in one of the many talkshows where no problem is too trivial or too important to deal with. What is more delightful that to get caught up in a world of provocative statements and sharp opinions?

If you are one of those people who enjoys watching the legendary Oprah Winfrey show, you may be familiar with Michael Kimmel: A white, American male, who specialises in studying other white, American males. The sociology professor at the State University of New York is one of the world’s leading gender researchers in the field of men and masculinity. Michael Kimmel is also a man who is not shy of going against the grain of white, middle class America when it comes to explanations for problems within American society like:
Why the black woman gets the job, which the white man thought was his. Or – more controversially – when he compares the unemployed sons of American skilled workers with the Taliban or with Mohammed Atta, the man behind the September 11th attacks in 2001.

Michael Kimmel's theory is, that for these frustrated young men in both the USA and Egypt, gender is at the root of their desire to change the world order.

Restoring masculinity is the answer
The project of these young men is to remasculinise themselves, because they feel that society is working against them. They are frustrated because they believe that their government is being ‘feminised’, that men have become soft, weak and dependent and they are tired of living in societies that promote values such as equality and respect for minorities whilst they are struggling to get work and to make ends meet. For them, the solution to chaos is to re-establish their own masculinity.

Kimmel's theory is based on research into so-called extreme rightwing groups such as neo-nazis, White Supremacy or the Aryan Movement.
- First of all, it is striking that the members of these groups are predominantly men. Usually they are young men in their twenties, belonging to the lower-middle class and sons of skilled workers, farmers or small business owners, says Michael Kimmel when FORUM met him at Roskilde University Centre, where he appeared as guest lecturer talking about his research.

- Their fathers may have lost their farm or shop, which has been the main source of income for the family for generations. Perhaps a supermarket opened up – or the steelworks closed down. So not only are all these young men finding themselves downwardly mobile, they are also experiencing a loss of something that has been in their family for generations – something that was their birthright. The farm, the shop or the sign saying ‘Kimmel and Son’ – all gone. And their rhetoric is characterised by an underlying sense of lost masculinity.

The anger among these young men about the loss of their birthright is directed against two main targets. Against the government – the Nanny State – and its various politicians, and against blacks, foreigners and immigrants who they believe are getting more than they deserve on the strength of these same policies.
- Their rhetoric is: The state has taken everything that rightfully belongs to me and given it to 'the others', explains Kimmel.

The state suffocating masculinity
These groups use masculinity to recruit others who may be also be disillusioned.
- They say ‘If you join us, you can get it all back’. If you join a White Supremacy group, your masculinity will be restored. Many of the images used by these groups show young, strong Aryan men carrying young, Aryan women off into the sunset with a waiting swastika on the horizon.

The rhetoric hits a chord because these men are tired of saying they are sorry, according to Kimmel.
- In the West, there is a feeling among many men that they are tired of apologising for being white, heterosexual and male. Men have to apologise for rape and violence and these groups of males have had enough of being on the defensive, says Kimmel.
- The emasculation of boys, the high percentage of female teachers and students is another discourse running parallel with this trend. Namely the government’s promotion of a social agenda, which is suppressing masculinity; an agenda that doesn’t appreciate masculinity, doesn’t let boys be boys and which turns masculinity into the problem – not the solution.

Masculinity and ‘others’
Islamic fundamentalists, believes Kimmel, also use masculinity as a personal means to restoring their identity.
- Under the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, the aim was not merely to take women and lock them away in their traditional gender role, refeminising them. The aim was also to remasculinise men – it is well known that the Taliban forbade men to shave their beards.

Kimmel also sees a striking similarity between Timothy McVeigh, responsible for the USA’s worst terror attack prior to September 11th [The Oklahoma bombing on April 19, 1995 where 168 people lost their lives, eds.], and Muhammed Atta, who was the mastermind and leader of the September 11th attacks.
- They were both downwardly mobile and unsuccesful in their careers. Timothy McVeigh wanted to join the military but was not accepted. Mohammed Atta was weak and small and a bit of a mama's boy. Both his elder sisters were doctors and his father would constantly tell him to pull himself together and become a real man. Atta studied to become an engineer but then couldn’t find a job. So he travelled to Hamburg to be an architect but could only find work as a labourer at a German construction company. Both Atta and McVeigh saw themselves as men who had been grossly humiliated. They had ideas and goals in life but they were humiliated and drifted into extremist ideology in order to deal with their sense of shame and to restore their masculinity.

According to Kimmel, negotiating one’s own masculinity and the masculinity of others is completely central to on-going debate in society, whether the debate concerns religion, politics or anything else.
- Masculinity is closely linked to public appearance. And public appearance is all about being evaluated and judged on how much of a man you are. It is about how big you are, how strong you are, how powerful you are, how rich you are, how many women you have, how big your car is, and so on, says Kimmel.

This is why criticism of the other man's masculinity is such an important element in the fight for power. As an example, Kimmel points to the American presidential election in 2004 in which George Bush and John Kerry locked horns in proving who was the real man.
- Kerry said: ‘I am a decorated war hero who did this and that…’ and George Bush answered: ‘Yes, but you look French’. That was enough to damage Kerry’s masculinity. So there is a lot going on about it means to be a real man. Also among the extreme right. They say that 'the others' – black men, Jews and gay men – aren’t real men. Either they are too masculine or not masculine enough. And this is the other way that these groups exploit masculinity, by questioning 'the other's' masculinity. Think about what racists say about black men: They are violent, brutish, uncontrollable and rapists. Or: they are irresponsible, lazy and economically dependent upon the state.

But isn't it far too easy to use gender as an explanation for terrorism, fundamentalism and extremism? Aren't these movements also an expression of the struggle against globalisation, social injustice, the international power balance and other issues?

- Yes, says Kimmel, stressing that gender is just one perspective among many – albeit a crucial one.
- Globalisation affects different groups of men in different ways. The groups, which I am talking about, are very anti-global. They love capitalism yet hate multinational companies. The project to resist globalisation, however is a gendered project, he ends.

Ulrikke Moustgaard is an award-winning freelance journalist and a regular contributor to FORUM

Translation: Andrew Bell
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More on Michael Kimmel

Read the article Gender, Class and Terrorism by Michael Kimmel

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