Note: This is the second in our Sunday Stew Essay Series by notable South End area essayists, touching on a diverse array of topics. The first can be read here.
by Paul Kiefer
Damian Clairmont, in the eyes of many Americans, was evil. In January of 2014, Damian was killed by the Free Syrian Army in Aleppo while fighting for Jabhat al-Nusra, an al-Qaeda affiliate involved in the ongoing Syrian Civil War. His death fuels the all-too-frequently held belief held in the West that Islam is a cancerous infection in the lives of young men like Damian.
Damian’s teenage years were marked by a series of identity crises. Struggling with crippling depression, Damian dropped out of high school. He isolated himself, growing agitated and frustrated with his situation and the world that placed him in it. The day after his 17th birthday, Damian Clairmont drank antifreeze in an attempt to take his own life.
Within months of his suicide attempt, Damian converted to Islam.
In the first few years after his conversion, Damian’s mother noticed positive changes in his behavior. Islam had given her son stability and structure, and he seemed to be healing. Damian began to involve himself in the local Muslim community, taking part in hikes and prayer groups that seemed to give him peace.
Unfortunately, Damian’s angst returned as time went on. He once again became frustrated with his world, growing increasingly resentful of non-Muslim life. According to his mother, Damian grew more political, ranting about 9/11 conspiracy theories and the killings of Muslims by Western militaries. Damian’s instability had resurfaced, and the signs of radicalization became apparent. In November of 2012, he told his mother that he planned to move to Egypt to study linguistics. Soon thereafter, Damian Clairmont made his way to Aleppo.
Damian was one of an estimated 7,000 foreign fighters who have joined the fight in Syria. More notably, Damian was a part of the increasing number of radicalized converts involved in the Syrian Civil War.
Damian and I followed similar paths during at least a part of our lives. I, too, suffered from severe depression. I, too, was a social outcast who struggled to find an identity. I, too, am a teenage convert to Islam.
In many ways, I can relate to this kid. Damian was not evil. Unfortunately, some differences between our stories led Damian to his death in a faraway city while I stayed in school and began to discover my interests in cooking and social justice. It seems important to understand the fork in our road, if only to humanize the journey of a young convert into extremism. Rather than treating radical Islam as a barbaric disease, as it is so often depicted, it is imperative that radicalism be understood as a symptom of social factors.
Damian and I are among the many young converts to Islam who sought community, structure, and escape from our demons in the religion. We are among the converts who suffered from mental and social troubles prior to our conversions, and these experiences scarred us with angst. Damian’s suicide attempt and my two-year-long bout with anorexia were both the result of years of feeling socially incompetent and excluded. Islam somehow entered our lives and gave us a chance to heal. Unfortunately, the angst we carried with us into Islam was magnified. It was magnified by our decision to convert to a religion regarded by a significant number of Westerners as backwards and brutal. These circumstances left us bitterer towards the lives we abandoned. Our resentment towards the world from which we felt alienated stood in the way of our healing.
It is here that our paths diverge.
While we both dealt with frustration over our frayed social lives and political injustices, I was given a space to keep my angst separate from my practice of Islam. Damian was not.
I did not abandon my non-Muslim life after my conversion. I continued to go to school, and the confidence that I found in Islam gave me an opportunity to sort out my social life. I was involved in social justice organizations in school, and my thoughts were often dominated by issues of race and an all-consuming rage towards society. Soon after my conversion, the others students involved in the organizations became my closest friends. As I began to work out my new life as a Muslim, this community gave me the much-needed sense of inclusion. With these friends, I talked through the all-consuming rage until it no longer consumed me. They gave me a space to develop an understanding of my religion without corrupting Islam with my disillusionment.
Damian, on the other hand, was more or less alone after his conversion. Without school or a consistent job, Damian found himself with very little support and few relationships to give him stability. He entered the Muslim community as an outsider. In my experience, the first experiences of a convert in a Mosque only enhance a sense of isolation. A convert is a novelty, and most of the first conversations come with an uneasy curiosity from both sides. I imagine Damian seeking any possible opportunity for a sincere connection with another Muslim. In the meantime, Damian carried the burdens of sorting out his religion and his social frustrations without much support or guidance, leaving him extremely vulnerable.
At this point, Damian’s recruitment into an extremist organization should not have come as a surprise. His unaddressed social resentment became a part of his practice of Islam, and his vulnerability made him an easy target for extremist propaganda. Extremism offered an outlet for his frustrations and, most importantly, inclusion in a community. Damian needed direction, and in his situation, extremism seemed like a logical path to take.
Damian’ adoption of extremism follows the same pattern of many other converts who have been misled to their deaths. Though I cannot justify their decisions, I also cannot condemn them for the experiences that led them to the decision. In fact, to condemn them would be to treat their vulnerability as evil and their mistakes as intentional. Damian Clairmont was not evil; he was fragile.
photograph courtesy of Media Handout