From ISIS to Boko Haram to Al-Shabab, the Islamic world is facing a multitude of challenges. And as more and more youth — primarily Muslim — flock to join ISIS, there is an unprecedented need for a collective action on the part of all Muslim communities.
1. Sectarian divisions
Before we can devise a concrete plan of action to fight these growing insurgent groups, Muslim leaders the world over must unite and put an end to sectarian violence within Islam. Internal strife has been dividing us for centuries, fueling regional conflicts and paving the way for terrorism.
Divisions have become a source of subtle and subconscious beliefs that fuel hatred towards the “others” in society — often providing fertile ground for extremist ideologies to take root in young minds.
There are more than 70 sects within Islam, and the majority of Muslims adhere to the Sunni branch, while 10-15 percent follow the Shiite sect. Theological differences between the two have repeatedly resulted in rancor and bloodshed.
2. Normalized violence
In countries like Pakistan, the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community (another sect) faces government-sanctioned persecution that has resulted in targeted killings and suppression of religious freedom. Even in countries like Great Britain, Ahmadi Muslims have been boycotted for their beliefs.
Essentially, direct exposure to sectarian violence within Islam has not only resulted in homegrown terrorism in certain parts of the world, it has also “normalized” violence according to a Combating Terrorism Center report.
When young people see any type of violence being glorified rather than condemned by religious scholars or even adults within their own families, the moral development is greatly hindered, the authors of the report claim. Unfortunately, a culture of darkness clouds the vision of some young people who end up joining militant groups.
3. Social and religious networks
Alina Mahdi, a Shiite Muslim entrepreneur in Boston, said she grew up in Pakistan fighting stereotypes about other minority groups. While living in Pakistan, Mahdi was constantly worried about her family’s safety because the Shiite community is often targeted for discrimination.
Although her immediate family was accepting of other faiths, she saw a lot of false information about Ahmadi Muslims and other sects in her society. Most of her friends were Sunni Muslims whose parents cautioned them against associating with her.
A Muslim student at the University of Texas at Austin, Sara Bawany, who grew up in a Sunni household, said she faced backlash when she became friends with another Ahmadi Muslim. People told her, “Stay away from them, they are different and you won’t be able to relate to them.”
Kishwar Tahir, a psychiatrist specializing in children and adolescent psychiatry at Averest Great Lakes Counseling in Detroit, said conditioning a child’s mind to fear or resent other segments of society leads to two things: either they develop a natural curiosity to find out more about a given topic, or they become prejudiced and resort to negative thinking.
Others are not so lucky. In a BBC interview, a reporter spoke to a young teenager from Australia who converted to Islam and later joined ISIS. In text messages to the reporter, Jake Bilardi cited “ideological hatred” for the Shiite community as one of his reasons for joining the extremist group. The Australian government is currently investigating whether Bilardi is behind a deadly suicide attack in Iraq.
Where do we go from here?
In third-world countries, youth radicalization stems from poverty to a lack of education to brainwashing by so-called Islamic “scholars.” However, in the West radicalization is most common among those who come from insecure backgrounds and lack positive support at home to channel their frustrations, Tahir said.
Regardless of where one lives, a combination of financial woes, socio-political factors, and intra-religious prejudices can motivate young, impressionable minds into joining extremist groups, she said.
While every case of youth radicalization may be different, intra-religious conflict within Islam is undeniably in the backdrop of extremist ideologies, fueling individuals to kill other Muslims and non-Muslims alike.
As long as the global Islamic community keeps bickering over differences, youth will continue to become disillusioned with the faith or take the path towards extremism.
All Muslim societies must strive for tolerance and kindness towards each other — and extend the same sentiments to the rest of the world. We must show our youth that we are capable of loving one another and that we view all life as sacred.
As Malik said, we have to minimize the significance of our differences. “They are there, but that doesn’t mean we can’t work together.”
The opinions expressed in this piece belong to the author.
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