Angry, disaffected young Muslim men make up the bulk of those accused of terrorism committed in the name of Islam. These men did not develop in a vacuum. They were a product of many things, sometimes a negative family environment, sometimes stress and depression, and other times a cult-like leader who successfully brainwashed them.
Muslim families must take the reins to stop this scourge and protect our youth. We must urgently address this issue with practical, hands- on steps we can implement daily with our spouses, children, and extended family.
Muslim families, not just parents, but grandparents, aunts, and uncles, as well, are the first line of defense against extremism. Here are nine ways to start the process insha Allah:
1. Practice and teach Islamic anger management early on
How we handle anger does not just affect our own stress-level and health. Our children are watching. If we are prone to cursing, throwing things, or abusing others when angry, today’s sons and daughters become tomorrow’s abusive spouses and parents. They also become the young, angry men we want to lead away from extremism.
When children see the wrong kind of anger management in their homes, they are most likely to respond in a similar manner.
If you have an anger problem, read more about how Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, handled it and start implementing the steps today. Not only did he advise a person three times, “do not become angry”, but he gave practical ways to calm down in the face of this emotion. These include saying, “I seek refuge in Allah from the accursed Shaytan” (in Arabic, aothooo billahi min ash shaytann ir rajeem), remaining silent until we’ve cooled down, as well as sitting down if we are standing and lying down if we are sitting when we become angry.
2. Spend “physical” time with them
As countless parenting and relationship books have pointed out, boys and men generally tend not to be “talkers”. Unlike girls and women, they do not bond with others or share feelings through conversation. Rather they do so with action, when they are engaged in some physical activity.
In practical terms, that means taking your son(s) fishing, playing basketball or another sport of choice with them, lifting weights or training for a race together. This physical activity cements your relationship with them, in the long term making them feel less alone and alienated. It also helps them let off steam when something is bothering them. Don’t be surprised if they express their feelings of anger or sadness during these times together.
3. Teach them “Sunnah” masculinity
Many boys and men today are confused about what it means to “be a man”. There was a time when it was clear cut. Today, in many cultures, including our own, it is not. It is not enough for a man to be physically strong. He has to be sensitive too, for example. Some men miss the old days when being “macho” defined being a “real man”. This included being a male chauvinist who treated women like objects or servants.
Violent aggression is the way some men respond to this crisis of masculinity. Many groups that “groom” young Muslim men to commit violence are, in fact, macho. They present themselves are “real men” on a mission of “Jihad”, one that takes the lives of innocent civilians and violates Islamic laws relating to conflict.
This is why Muslim families must instill a proper knowledge and understanding of the best model of masculinity: Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him. He was not a dour-faced, abusive, violent chauvinist. Rather, he was a calm, sensitive, loving man who cried in sympathy with others, all the while being able to physically defend his family and community with bravery and honor. He did not harm the innocent, lose his temper, or hit a woman, nor did he waver or cower in front of the enemy. He was the perfect balance of strong and sensitive. He was a real man. And young Muslim men need to strive to be like him.
4. Make them do chores around the house
Many children today, both boys and girls, have been absolved of any type of household responsibility. Parents or household help are required to keep the house clean and pick up after everyone. In other families, it is only women and girls who are expected to do so. This practice leads to laziness and a sense of entitlement that will only hurt our children. More significantly, it hinders creating a sense of family belonging, which all children need regardless of gender.
Starting today, assign every person in your household chores that are appropriate for their age. Begin with only one task and build up to more. Make sure no one is paid for completing their work. This is part of their responsibility as a member of the family.
How does this help young Muslim men, in particular? First, it teaches them to follow the Sunnah of the Prophet, who, despite how busy he was in the outside world, helped his family with household chores. He never thought such work was beneath him.
Second, it cements a boy’s sense of belonging to his family. When he does not receive this in the home, he will seek it outside in places like gangs and other unhealthy outlets.
Amazing what making your son scrub toilets can do for his future well-being.
5. Watch who they associate with and intervene if necessary
Young people are always on the lookout, consciously or not, for people to look up to. They often become enamored of a dynamic speaker, activist, or leader. This can be good. But it can be bad if the role model in question is spouting ideas that directly contradict Islamic teachings against violence and other issues.
If you notice your son saying things that justify violence and extremism in the name of Islam, address it immediately. Calmly, without showing alarm, ask your son where he heard that. If it is from a class or in a group he hangs out with, slowly begin to remove him from that context. Do this by purposely scheduling other healthy, fun activities with the family or a good group of friends.
Then, privately speak with the person who is teaching these ideas. If he is adamant about maintaining and spreading these ideas, notify your Imam or a Muslim leader you trust to address him. Also alert other parents of boys who are under his influence. Finally, try to do the next thing.
6. Set up a Young Muslim Men’s Group
If your Masjid or Islamic Center does not already have one, establish a Young Muslim Men’s Group that meets weekly. It can be similar to the Boy Scouts in terms of offering young men a place to learn new skills, bond with each other, and contribute to their communities. Initially, it can start off as simply a weekly game of basketball, followed by pizza, and ending with prayer and a short Islamic reminder. From that point, it can become more focused and organized. But the point is to start. Young Muslim men are searching for meaning and belonging, and if they don’t find that in healthy groups like these, they will seek it in those that have caused them and others so much harm and suffering.
7. Teach them how to express opposing views the right way
The Tsarnev brothers, like many Muslims, as well as many Americans, opposed the wars on Iraq and Afghanistan. However, they chose to express their disapproval the wrong way. Teach young men the right way to express their views about issues they care about. Encourage them to write letters to the editor, to their government representatives, as well as join peaceful marches and protests.
8. Help them build “Tawakkul muscles”
While we are encouraged to stand up against injustice, we cannot forget that in the end, all results are with Allah. This should offer young men peace of mind and trust in Allah, or Tawakkul. This is not a defeatist position at all. It is the Islamic position modeled by the Prophet himself.
Share an example from today that will resonate with them - that of former NBA champion Hakeem Olajuwon, who built his Tawakkul muscles on the basketball court with this belief: “"Before I started practicing my faith, I used to completely rely on myself. When I had done my best, I would be extremely frustrated if I didn't win. It would irritate and anger me. And that was causing me to be bad to others by fighting and swearing," he explained.
"But when I started practicing my faith, I learned that results are not my property. I started doing my best but then I left success and failure to my Creator. Now I was not irritated by failure and was not overinflated by success. That caused me to calm down and improve my behavior towards others on my team and we became a team."
9. Model and teach Islamic stress management
Stress is a part of everyone’s life, but how it is handled leads some to success, but many more to sickness and sadness. Young Muslims face stress due to the normal ups and downs of their life stage, but have the added burden of Islamophobia. Learn how to manage your stress Islamically, and help young men in your family do the same.