While leading and mentoring Muslim youth in a Toronto suburb pre-and-post-9/11, I could understand how easy it was to fall prey to extremist rhetoric and radical ideology - especially for the young and unschooled in basic Islamic teachings.
I remember the urgent, passionate calls to do “something” about the wars being waged by some Western countries in the name of “liberation” and “democracy” in Muslim countries.
I recall the logical arguments being presented for the revival of Khilafa, a central legitimate Muslim leadership, to fix the mess in the Muslim world.
I can still vividly remember the images of a utopian Muslim society depicted by these speakers - a blissful state free of anxieties, immorality, and the social ills of the West.
It all seemed real, achievable, attractive, and fair from the perspective of a concerned, idealistic young Muslim growing up in an increasingly polarized world.
As I was helping young Muslims navigate the tumultuous debates and the cacophony of calls to action, I was struggling to make sense of it all myself. These were indeed trying times. Times of Fitnah.
But the solution was not violence and extremism being aroused by these misguided “leaders”. Change took wisdom, time, and patience - something these preachers never discussed - something Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, routinely taught and practiced.
Thank God, I was blessed with wise parents and incredible mentors and teachers, whose intellectual depth and visionary leadership helped me shape an independent response to such divisive rhetoric. As I witnessed some younger Muslims being torn between the ideals of their faith and loyalty to their citizenship, I was spared such anxiety.
I was confident in declaring to myself and to others that I am Muslim first and I am Canadian first. There is no need for a superficial dichotomy over terms that refer to two distinct aspects of my life as a Canadian Muslim. Religious and secular extremists love to play on these terms and confuse vulnerable youth with the language of “loyalty”, “fidelity”, and “priority”.
I was deeply grounded in and faithful to my Islamic tradition, as well as to the civic duties of my country, Canada. I realized that to be faithful to my Deen and Islamic lifestyle, I did not have to disconnect myself from serving my country and humanity. In fact, the opposite was true. Similarly, a genuine concern for Canada didn’t mean we couldn’t be critical of the government’s domestic politics and foreign policies.
I was able to liberate myself in my early teens from the street theology of “Islam vs. West”, “Muslims vs. America”, and “Khilafah vs. Secular Liberal Democracy”. I was able to free myself from the shackles of both the soft extremism and the violent extremism that are plaguing some young Muslims around the world.
Moreover, I was able to help other struggling young Muslims see the bigger, colourful picture, past the binary vision of the world, a black and white one of constant conflict, wars, and hate painted by extremists in our communities and outside.
Looking back, as I have focused my work on community development and youth leadership, I have contemplated the real sources of radicalization.
Numerous so-called anti-terrorism pundits and experts have debated and proposed potential causes of violent extremism by young Muslims and convert Muslims from the U.S., Canada, and Europe. However, most analyses fail to address the real, at times basic, roots that we can control at the grassroots level.
13 Sources of Radicalization to Consider
1. Lack of courage to admit that extremism of all forms exists in the Muslim community. The idea that by condemning Muslim extremists and terrorists, we are somehow downplaying the pain and atrocities inflicted upon the war-torn Muslim countries, is very disturbing. Many in our community are still in a state of denial that some Muslims would ever commit crimes against humanity. We can’t tackle an issue if it’s not identified as a problem to begin with.
2. Lack of understanding of what a sound “Muslim identity” means. The gross misunderstanding around the issue of loyalty to one’s faith versus loyalty to one’s country is perhaps the stepping stone to extremism.
3. Lack of clarity on terminologies that are hijacked by extremists on all sides, dressed with their own particular nuances: “extremist Muslim”, “moderate Muslim”, “Wahabi Muslim”, “secular Muslim”, “fundamentalist”, “Islamist”, “Sufi”, “Salafi”, “Khilafah”, “Jihad”, “Wilayah”, and the list is endless. One of the basic rules of logic is to have clearly defined terms for an argument to be valid. With confusion surrounding these words that are thrown around so conveniently, often with the help of media, some misguided young Muslims get caught up in one side of the argument - without an in-depth study of the implications of these terms historically and in the contemporary context.
4. Inadequate legitimate, qualified scholarship nurtured and cultured in the North American context that is able to confidently articulate the Islamic position on contemporary crises. Lack of genuine Islamic authority that is firmly rooted in authentic Islamic tradition and is fully aware of its civic duties to its home country, gives opportunity to voices that are on the edge, and often louder and more tech-savvy.
5. Lack of balanced discourse on social justice in the Muslim community. While traditionally, Muslims have a strong, pragmatic social justice narrative, Muslim leaders and Imams have failed to address the issue of social justice in a wholesome manner that reflects the reality of a multicultural neighborhood and an increasingly globalized, interconnected world. Our conversation has to go beyond simply condemning wars in Muslim lands or condemning a terrorist attack by radicals in the name of Islam. It has to condemn the evil trio: War-Terrorism-Islamophobia. All three need to be condemned simultaneously and unequivocally. Our narrative has to offer real solutions for this global crisis, beyond theory. In the absence of such balanced, scholarly discourse, young Muslims are bound to pick sides in the “war on Islam”.
6. Lack of avenues for positive engagement for young Muslims. Due to insufficient quality programs and services that are engaging, inspiring, and relevant, offered by legitimate Muslim institutions, Muslim youth are prone to be attracted to shady “Shaykhs” and YouTube videos that offer a concrete “plan of action NOW”. Art, cultural enrichment, and creative expression are proven tools for keeping youth off the streets and for channeling their energies in a constructive way.
7. Genuine grievances of young Muslims unacknowledged and ignored by media, parents, teachers, Imams, youth leaders, and social service providers in the Muslim community. If we don’t listen to and address the sincere concerns and anxieties of our youth regarding the ongoing atrocities, destruction, and war crimes being committed against their Muslim brothers and sisters around the world, they will naturally gravitate toward those who not only acknowledge their grievances, but also offer “solutions” to the dilemmas of the Ummah.
8. Genuine zeal to practice Islam, which often leads mature, thinking Muslims to limits that are deemed unacceptable by the Prophetic tradition. Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, warned his Companions against any form of extremism in religious practices and rituals whenever he found an opportunity. Numerous traditions of the Prophet exhort us to avoid extremes in prolonged fasting, Quran recitation, the night prayer, and abstinence from physical relations with one’s spouse. He feared that such extreme ritual practice would eventually lead to exhaustion, boredom, and harm to one’s own spirituality, as well as to the rights of others.
9. Natural need for a sense of belonging. Many disenfranchised young Muslims and recently converted Muslims fall prey to the strong affiliation, fraternity, and empowerment that extremist cults offer. The idea that you belong to an exclusive, secretive gang with a peculiar uniform or outlook, and a lofty mission against the evil forces of the world, can be enticing.
10. Inadequate positive role models for Muslim youth who are achievers in this world and the Next. There is a dire need for young professionals and leaders who are caring, compassionate, and sincere in their concern for the success of Muslim youth to mentor and guide them through the most critical phases of their cognitive, social, and spiritual development.
11. Tolerance for intolerance in the Muslim community. While I don’t see this being a rampant problem, extremist ideologies and voices do exist in our community that brainwash and disenfranchise young Muslims. It may not be the violent form of extremism, but the soft version that promotes intolerance toward variant ideological paradigms in Islam, as well as other faith communities. It could be intolerance toward women’s participation in Masjids, leadership, or in the public sphere. It could be intolerance toward authorities, including parents, teachers, Imams, law enforcement agencies, or the government. All of these are symptomatic of radical thinking and behavior. Note: Intolerance is not the same thing as disagreement or protest in a civil manner.
12. The lone wolf phenomenon. A high percentage of acts of terrorism in Canada and the USA are committed by deranged lunatics with known mental health issues and a history of drugs and sex crimes. Such individuals, usually recent young converts to Islam, live in isolation; if they do at all attend a mosque, they are quickly ostracized by the institutions and the community at large. As a community, we need to first acknowledge that mental health problems are on a sharp rise among young Muslims and we need to effectively identify, assess, and refer such cases early on to social service providers and psychiatrists.
Secondly, we need to embrace, accommodate, and integrate young Muslims and converts in our community centres and mosques so they can become full members of the Muslim community. However, at the same time, we need to be vigilant over their activities if they have a history of mental illness and/or crimes. Any expressions of soft extremism or violent radicalization should be noted and reported immediately to law enforcement authorities.
13. Entrapment by government agencies. While the FBI and CSIS must protect their countries, governments, and citizens, they have at times crossed the legal limits of information-seeking. They have instead entrapped naive youth into terrorist activities. This is no secret. Such abuses of power happen everywhere and they need to acknowledged and addressed.
As long as the deadly trio of War-Terrorism-Islamophobia is alive and thriving, we can expect more of the ISIS, Al-Qaeda, and Taliban-style of extremism to flourish. While we cannot control such “external” sources of youth radicalization, we can minimize the damage by managing and monitoring the “internal” sources that we have control over as listed above.
I am thankful to God, our Guide, Nourisher, and Protector, for guiding me at a young age, to a sound, balanced understanding of my faith and of my role in this ever chaotic and violent world.
However, I hope that as stakeholders in the development of young Muslims growing up in North America, we take our responsibility to raise confident, caring, and contributing young adults, more seriously. I truly believe, with concerted effort on the part of our families and Islamic institutions, we will be able to empower and equip young Muslims with a balanced understanding of Islam, a strong faith that is rooted in Islamic tradition, a sincere commitment to their civic duties to their country, and a desire to serve God and His creation.For more practical tips on fighting extremism in the Muslim community, please refer to:
Taha Ghayyur is a writer, public speaker, community organizer, and marketing consultant in Toronto, Canada.. He works as the Director of Communications with Sound Vision, a pioneer in Islamic media and public relations in North America. He writes and speaks extensively on issues related to Muslim youth engagement, leadership, communication, personal development and community development.