Dec 17, 2013

Converting alone

In the second half of the 20th century, Americans stopped joining things. Where Americans had previously been enmeshed in numerous social networks and had, further, shown an affinity for affiliation, that ended. Now Americans disengaged. Now they hesitated before signing on to anything or joining up.

Now, increasingly, people chose isolation.

Whether it was a lodge or a union, a social club or a political organization, in the '70s, '80s and '90s, group membership and participation dropped off sharply.

Robert D. Putnam writes,
Somehow in the last several decades of the twentieth century all these community groups and tends of thousands like them across American began to fade. 
It wasn't so much that old members dropped out -- at least not any more rapidly than age and the accidents of life had always meant. But community organizations were no longer continuously revitalized, as they had been in the past, by freshets of new members. 
Those would-not-be members were, increasingly, as Putnam's title famously put it, Bowling Alone.

This is true of religion, too. Part of this social shift and this trend was and is the increasing number of those who don't identify with any religious organization, the "nones." Part of this change is Christians who don't want to identify with any denomination. There was 400 percent growth of non-denominational Christians between the 1970s and the 2010s. Part of this shift is the emergence of the category of people who said they were spiritual, but disliked "organized religion." People are still religious in America, but they're more likely to forgo the communal aspects of being religious. They avoid the social networks, the enmeshing.

There are even cases where people "join" a religion, undergo a conversion in their own minds, and yet remain in isolation. Their religious identity is detached from the "denser personal relationships" that, in Putnam's research, seem to matter so much. Their new-found faith is, so to speak, all personal belief and no church suppers.

People bowl alone. People convert alone.

One notable case of this is Terry Lee Loewen.

Loewen is 58 years old, a Kansas native who lives in Wichita. He is white, divorced and remarried, and has a son. He takes blood-thinner for his heart. He has a career as an avionics technician, working for a contractor at the Wichita Mid-Continent Airport.

He is also a Muslim convert.

As a convert, Loewen is inspired by the idea of "my Muslim brothers + sisters." He is inspired by the idea of "Ummah," an Arabic word he learned online that means "nation" or "community." He feels a great love and compassion for his fellow religionists, even though he actually doesn't know any of them.

In fact, it would appear that the only Muslim Loewen deeply engaged with was an undercover FBI agent pretending to be a radical Islamic jihadist online.

Terry Lee Loewen
Loewen was arrested on Friday on terrorism charges.

According to the US government, he planned to blow himself up at the airport where he worked, crippling the nation's aviation transportation system during the Christmas rush. It was an elaborate sting operation, allegedly: his terrorist contacts where really FBI, the explosives in his vehicle were inert, he got the "bomb" from them, helped them when they assembled it, and planned the attack with his undercover handlers.

As the AP notes, such "FBI sting operations have prompted controversy over whether the law enforcement tactics involved entrapment of suspects and intruded on civil liberties." There have been more than 150 of these sting operations. Juries have been unsympathetic to claims of entrapment, but the practice has been criticized by civil liberties advocates on the left and right.

Islam itself has also been controversial, and there are of course those on the right claiming Loewen is another example of the danger of Muslims and the complacent complicity of liberals and the media.

Federal law enforcement officials attempted to head-off any backlash against Wichita Muslims, however. They noted that Loewen was entirely isolated from actual Muslims, and didn't affiliate or even associate with any believers.

FBI Special Agent in Charge Mike Kaste said there was no connection between Loewen and a religious community. He stressed that point, according to the Kansas City Star, and emphasized that Loewen's "alleged actions in no way should reflect on any religious group."

The paper also checked this with a spokesman for the Islamic Society of Wichita, who checked at each of the city's mosques. There are three mosques in Wichita, if you count the one near the airport that was burned down in 2011 in an arsonist attack. The spokesman said Loewen was not a part of any of these Muslim communities.

"We don't even know who he is at all," Hussam Madi told the newspaper. "We haven't seen him here. This is the first time we've heard of him."

He was, in this sense, a Muslim "none."

Loewen's correspondence with the FBI during the extended sting operation, excerpted at length in the Bureau's criminal complaint, says the same thing. He was a new convert, but did not affiliate with any religious group. He was not a part of a mosque, not talking to an imam. He learned about his new-found faith from the Internet. He prayed, when he prayed, alone.

The FBI investigation shows that Loewen had two sources for what he knew about being a Muslim: what he read on the Internet, and what those targeting him in a sting told him. "I have downloaded tens of thousands of pages on the subjects I mentioned earlier," Loewen allegedly wrote, referring to jihad, Sharia, martyrdom, and the works of Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-born cleric who lead Al Qaeda's internet outreach until he was killed in a drone strike in 2011.

He asked the FBI agent to correct him if he was wrong in his interpretation of Islam.

That isolation was not incidental to Loewen's radicalization. The disconnection from any community seems to have been critical to his conversion. No one around him seemed to know he'd converted except his son, who didn't know any details. Distance and alienation from fellow-believers, combined with idealization of a fantasy community, come up repeatedly in his alleged correspondence with the FBI.

Loewen reportedly wrote:
  • I love my Muslim brothers and sisters, whether they agree with me or not, it's just hard to deal with the denial that some of them appear to be going through. I was texting a sister on line a week or two ago, and she insisted that jihad was wrong, that any pain Muslims were suffering was their own fault.
  • I trust you but part of me wants to trust ANYBODY who says they believe what I do because those kind of people are SO rare, and I thirst for that ... I hate this government so much for what they have done to our brothers and sisters, that to spent (sic) the rest of my life in prison without having taken a good slice out of the serpents head is unacceptable to me. If there is anyway of reassuring me, please do. As I said, I pray for guidance but God doesn't speak to me like He does others.
  • Aiding the mujahdeen [sic] is pretty low stress for me ; it's always something l've wanted to do but you just can't walk up to any Muslim and ask - I don't know that even they would't [sic] turn me in.
  • I MUST be active in some kind of (dare I say it) jihad to feel I'm doing something proactive for the Ummah.
The FBI says Loewen left similar information in a note for his family, when he left for work on Friday. "My only explanation is that I believe in jihad for the sake of Allah + for the sake of my Muslim brothers + sisters," he wrote. "Fact is, most Muslims in this country will condemn what I have done."

They did. They do.

The fact is, too, that Loewen did not know the Muslims in America, or anywhere else, really. He was a Muslim by himself. He converted alone and radicalized, apparently, under the supervision of the FBI. It is common, when someone converts, to say casually that that person has "joined" a new religion. Here, that would clearly be a misnomer. Loewen was isolated, detached from any religious social networks, free from that "enmeshing."

In this, he's a prime case of the kind of thing Putnam was talking about. A peculiar case, to be sure, but a prime one nonetheless.

Most of those who bowl alone are less committed to the game than they would have been with social support, peer pressure. A few are obsessive, though, and commit with a passion that would have been regulated or moderated by a community. The same is true of those who convert alone.

For many Americans, that social detachment Putnam described is pretty normal now. For straight white men, this is especially true. In the first decades of the 21st century, Americans aren't joiners. They hesitate to commit to groups. They tend increasingly to develop their own creeds and their own interpretations of creeds. Terry Lee Loewen, the 58-year-old Kansas man allegedly planning a suicide bombing in the name of "brothers and sisters" he'd only made up in his mind, is one example of this.