Hooligans of Islam: understanding the Sydney Muhammed video riots

On a normal Sunday in Sydney’s CBD people started to gather to protest against an offensive short YouTube clip that misrepresented Muhammed, the main Prophet of Islam, in a vulgar, a-historical and in most parts, ridiculous way. What was supposed to be a ‘peaceful’ protest (but the banners being waved were anything but peaceful), turned violent with protesters attacking the police, screaming abuse at Christians and smashing properties. After the Cronula riots, the Muslim communities in Sydney together with the rest of Australian society had worked hard to reestablish trust in multiculturalism as an Australian way of life. Last Sunday multiculturalism and Islam faced criticism again. Questions such as “is there something wrong with Islam?” resurfaced in forums and even in the mass media.We cannot compare (despite that the alleged reason behind the protest is the same) what happened in Sydney to other protests in the Middle East or other parts of the world since the relevant environmental, social-political and demographic realities are so different that any generalization would be extremely illogical.

Hence what I discuss here only concerns Sydney and what happened here (although I do not say that some points of my argument below cannot be extended to other protests, including those of a different nature).

Before I discuss anthropologically last week’s event, let me point to something extremely relevant. Recent statistics suggest that Muslims in New South Wales number 140,097, out of a total state population of 7.2 million.

Of the Muslims living in New South Wales, most of whom live in Sydney City and surrounding suburbs, only about 200 Muslims decided to take part in the protest, and of these the violent protesters numbered less than 30 men. In all, then, only 0.01% of the Muslim community of New South Wales and 0.007% of the entire Australian Muslim population (which is composed of 281,578 individuals) took part in the protest.

Now if we statistically look at the percentage of the violent protesters, we find that they were 15% of the Muslims present at the improvised march, 0.002% of Muslims living in New South Wales and 0.001% of the Muslims in Australia — a real micro presence, comparable to a sub-atomic particle.

Now let’s notice another statistically relevant fact before I start to discuss my understanding of the event in detail: as you can read here

The Muslim population in Australia is a relatively young group with 58.6 per cent aged 29 years and under (compared to 39.9 per cent of the total Australian population aged 29 years and under).This is largely due to the Australian-born Muslims, mostly second generation Australians, where 81.8 per cent are under 25 years.Overseas-born Muslims tend to be in the 25–44 year age group (45.6 per cent) which is consistent with their recent arrival in Australia.

I have written extensively elsewhere about how those communities with a high number of young people under the age of 30 have a statistically higher percent presence in criminal statistics (with assault and other similar crimes being the most represented). The Muslim communities in Australia have one of the highest percentages of youth under 30 years old that we can find in the West. Unsurprisingly, the majority of those whom have been arrested at the protest were minors (aged between 14-17 years old) and young adults (18-23).

Now that we have a clear statistical picture of those involved in the improvised protest and in its violence, I can start discussing my title and what I consider to be the real causes of such riots. As many of my readers know, I am not fond of ‘culture’ as an entity detached from a more complex environmental and biological reality.

As I have explained in many other posts and most of my anthropological work, for the purpose of analysis, I consider Islam (as any another religion) to be a label and not a ‘thing’ that can act or has a ‘mind’ of its own. Hence, according to my stance, any attempt to explain what happened through ‘texts’ (i.e. Qur’an, hadiths) or stereotypical representations of culture is wasted time at best, ideology at worst, and mistakes of logical typing for sure.

What Sydney saw (beyond the rhetoric) on its streets is something more common than many would assume: think about alcohol related violence (including absurd homicides), but in particular the phenomenon of sport hooliganism (for more recent events, see here and here): young people, rage and violence. Among hundreds whom may protest peacefully there are always those whom will use violence or act violently.

The micro-minority whom did so last Sunday can be defined as ‘hooligans of Islam’ since, as I discuss below, the in-depth (so in-depth to involve neurons, hormones and genes)   explanations for their acts are the same that recent studies of sport hooliganism have found.

Research has strongly linked impulsive behavior (including violent outbursts) to the brain chemical serotonin and its sister substance 5-hydroxyindoleacetic acid, or 5-HIAA. Serotonin and 5-HIAA act as a kind of brake to impulsiveness, so the lower the levels of these chemicals, the more prone a person would be to act without thinking. Researchers have discovered that a specific gene, called Pet-1, plays a critical role in the development and proper functioning of the brain’s serotonin system (see Hendricks TJ, Fyodorov, DV 2003)

Although serotonin is a major neuro-transmitter involved in aggression, it’s not the only element that can explain why some people react violently, in particular under certain circumstances and in some environments (e.g. protests). Hormones may also play a role, although Coccaro, for instance, has not be able to find a positive correlation between levels of the steroid hormone testosterone and aggression (contradicting much of popular science).

Yet bio-chemistry and genes are only part of the story and by themselves do not determine whether an individual is impulsive or aggressive. We need to look at the environmental factors, which means the quality of parenting, possible brain damage, diet and even, as we will see below, exposure to chemical and metal pollution. Very recent studies show that parenting has an impact on the development of the serotonin system, which develops during childhood. This is the reason for which kids who are severely punished or who witness aggression or parental dysfunction are more likely to exhibit aggressive behavior later in life.

Yet not all children with a difficult childhood, or with violent parents, become impulsive or violent. Indeed, the interaction between environment and genes is far more complicated. So, in a recent study, Caspi and colleagues studied a large sample of children from birth to adulthood to find out why some children who were mistreated did not develop anti-social behaviors or violent attitudes. They found that children with a genotype conferring high levels of MAOA (monoamine oxidase A, an enzyme which breaks down dopamine and norepinephrine which may provoke aggression) where less likely to act violently than those with a genetic profile that facilitate lower levels of MAOA.

It is not only the social environment (i.e. family problems, bad parenting, and so on) but also our natural environment and how we are destroying it through pollution that clearly has an impact. Studies have demonstrated that elevated bodily burdens of lead interferes with synapse formation, lowers serotonin levels, and increases dopamine sensitivity. Hence they have been able to show a strong link between the effects of lead and violent and anti-social behavior.

I was intrigued by the research, and as we know in Australia the level of violence in the street (for whatever reason) has increased in the last decade, so I decided to check the level of lead in the blood of younger generations of Australians. Interestingly enough, the correlation is again positive (and if you are Australian and you wish to know how much lead you have in your blood, read here).

Therefore, in the same way that hooliganism is not caused by football or soccer per-se, so too were last Sunday’s riots not caused by Islam or even Muslims as  a category, but rather by some individuals whom ‘feel to be Muslim’ and perhaps had genotypes conferring high levels of MAOA, together with the consequent low levels of serotonin and 5-HIAA, and perhaps also with a prefrontal cortex that is smaller or less active due to several social-environmental reasons, including the polluted air and land we have created ourselves in this otherwise peaceful, beautiful and multicultural country called Australia.

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