Militant group bonding more ‘Mean Girls’ than ideological, embedded researcher says

December 18, 2020

A Palestinian Fatah supporter covers his face during a celebration marking the 55th anniversary of the Fatah movement, in Gaza City, Wednesday, Jan. 1, 2020. (AP Photo/Adel Hana)

Scholars who analyze how militants cement group cohesion tend to fixate on formal declarations of their beliefs, but the reality is in fact much closer to the social dynamics seen in the 2004 film “Mean Girls,” according to a new, first-of-its-kind study focused on Palestinian militants in Lebanon. 

Like the cliques in the movie, militants rely on informal, everyday social interactions to share negative attitudes about outsiders, reinforce group loyalties and incentivize desired behavior, Sarah Parkinson, the Aronson assistant professor of political science and international relations at Johns Hopkins University, wrote in the study, which was published Dec. 7 in World Politics.

Parkinson’s research, which involved roughly two years of fieldwork, is the first to hone in on militants’ “practical ideologies,” or beliefs seemingly disconnected from a core doctrine. As part of her project, Parkinson conducted ethnographic research between 2007 and 2012 centered on Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon where a number of Palestinian militant groups operate, following University of Chicago Institutional Review Board protocols.

During that time, she interviewed both high-ranking members and street-level officers of the Palestinian militant group Fatah, as well as their affiliates and sympathizers, with a focus on interactions between female militants. Due to the nature of her research, Parkinson used pseudonyms to protect her sources.

In her findings, Parkinson argues that militant groups most often build cohesion and trust without invoking their formal ideologies, whether they’re rooted in religious fervor or a political doctrine.

That’s not to say ideological tenets are mere window dressing for groups. Rather, Parkinson argues that practical ideologies help make it “fun” to join and stay in one militant group over another.

“Practical ideology is a corrective for the over-emphasis on the doctrine of a group, doing all of the work in mobilizing people and keeping together in deciding what kind of violence they use and in keeping people interested being part of the group,” Parkinson said. 

“We shouldn’t assume that someone read a manifesto and stays all-in solely because of that manifesto,” she added. “The point is that they’re partially there because of the gossip that they’re engaging in, the jokes they’re telling, the clothes they’re wearing and the food they eat and how they talk about that food.”

Existing scholarship has already found that militant groups, regardless of their creed, are not purely made up of ideological fanatics. In fact, media coverage has shown so-called Marxist militants donning designer shoes at high-stakes negotiations and Islamist militants partaking in alcohol and pornography, Parkinson said.

Parkinson said she did not arrive in Lebanon with her latest paper in mind, intending initially to make general observations about militant dynamics. Then one day during one of her trips in 2010, a Fatah officer referred to as Sabah invited Parkinson to come along with her and her fellow militants to take part in Nakba Day, an annual commemoration of the displacement of Palestinians in 1948.

“Come on, we’re going!” Parkinson recalled Sabah telling her as they climbed into a crowded SUV. “You need to wear black and white tomorrow. It’s special for the Women’s Office” of Fatah, Sabah said.

To Parkinson, this demonstrated not only that these militants saw her as part of the group due to her efforts to build rapport with them, but also how that sense of belonging materializes through social rituals and personal decision-making processes.

Having shared experiences and taking part in group activities, such as celebrations and wearing uniforms, is far more important than formal ideologies in building militant cohesion, she said, the same way conventional soldiers form bonds through in-jokes and other off-the-cuff social settings.

Such activities, which include spreading rumors of rival militant groups or insulting the way they prepare a traditional dish, go beyond just maintaining friendly working relationships, as they also help define the lines between friend and foe in combat.

In another example, Parkinson recalled that members of Fatah would routinely comment on her “ugly” shoes, and once even bought her a “giant makeup eyeshadow palette” so that she could “look pretty.” This, she explained, was due in part to the community’s expectations that women should look attractive in order to marry out of their poor living conditions.

“I say this with a huge amount of love, that there were times it felt like I was hanging out with a militant sorority,” she said. “And the reason I say that is because there were a lot of expectations for women to look pretty, but it’s not just, ‘You need to look pretty.’ When everything’s precarious, that precarity is woven into everything you perform.”

Later that summer, the group’s seemingly innocent display of concern for Parkinson crystallized in dramatic fashion when Lebanese and Israeli forces traded rocket fire in the south of the country. Sabah had called Parkinson in the mid-morning, even before the fighting was reported on by the news media, urging her to pack a bag and take refuge in her home.

“And I don’t divorce that [from the fact],” Parkinson said. “She made that choice with someone who was a white American to bring that person into her home in a situation like potential political instability. But it was because I had performed loyalty to her,” referring to an action such as no longer visiting families unsympathetic to Sabah’s organization.

This loyalty is not unlike how sports teams make uniforms and take part in group social events to cement an us-against-them mentality, Parkinson added.

“But putting out those boundaries also had much, much deeper implications of who’s vouching for whom, who’s protecting whom and who’s sharing information with whom,” she said.

Though her work centers on interviews with female militants, Parkinson said her findings generally apply to the men in such groups, who tend to form bonds and boundaries through similar social settings. But how exactly that socialization took place varied by gender, such as through intergroup soccer leagues for men.

One such league actually became a major source of contention among rival groups, Parkinson observed, when a star player belonging to one group that paid for his education decided to accept a trade to another group’s team due to internal conflicts.

“It’s like he’s moving from Arsenal to Chelsea, but there are politics between the teams,” she explained. “They certain saw it as … sort of a critique of his faction by choosing to move to their biggest rival.”

Parkinson further posits that the role of practical ideologies would most likely be seen in other parts of the world such as the U.S., where a number of far-right militia groups have made headlines by engaging in street brawls and raucous rallies.

For example, she likened the decision by the Proud Boys, a far-right neo-fascist group in the U.S., to wear Fred Perry polo shirts as a uniform to a quote in “Mean Girls”: “On Wednesdays we wear pink.” Neither have direct ties to a formal ideology, yet they work to draw lines between the in-group and so-called “others.” 

“And that’s one of the lessons here: The fun of it actually matters quite a lot for holding these groups together,” Parkinson said. “But like we see with Fred Perry, it could literally be anything … It’s the coding and the boundaries and signalling commitment to this sort of thing.”

The study, titled “Practical Ideology in Militant Organizations,” was published Dec. 7 in World Politics: A Quarterly Journal of International Relations. It was authored by Sarah Parkinson, Johns Hopkins University. The research was conducted under University of Chicago Institutional Review Board protocols, according to Parkinson.

The research was funded by the Social Science Research Council’s International Dissertation Research Fellowship and Dissertation Proposal Development Fellowship, the Palestinian American Research Center and the National Science Foundation. 

This article has been updated to correct the time of day Sabah called to alert Parkinson about the rocket fire. 

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