Why young people become radicalised in the west

In a world dominated by self-proclaimed specialists and intellectuals, the potency of judgemental verdicts, private attitudes and predisposed notions tend to outweigh the strength of facts, statistics and empirical knowledge. This feature of the human mind is especially visible when it comes to core modern-day global concerns such as terrorism or environmental protection. One should undeniably have a set of core values, ideologies and beliefs, but at the same time, one should also be able to look at facts for what they are, and if proven wrong, have the courage to adapt. In such a scenario, and ironically in an opinion piece, let us look at the statistics behind a fundamental issue which is seemingly dividing families, friends and colleagues. Youth radicalisation, especially in Muslim households in the western world, is a contentious and sensitive topic of discussion for most in Bangladesh, and indeed around the world. Let us try, for once, to observe such from a purely objective lens. 

Nations such as Canada, the US, the UK, Germany and France, amongst others, have recently seen a surge in national assets being directed towards preventing radicalisation. As the facts stand, a very low proportion of terrorist attacks are carried out by the Syrian or Libyan immigrants whom the American President feels so threatened by, but rather by members of the domestic population or second-generation immigrants. It is a similar trend across almost the entire western world. Our core concern, especially given the assumption of many that Islam is the source of all evil in this world, is those second-generation immigrants. What motivates this very small, yet disturbingly growing, number of young people to be attracted towards Daesh or Al-Qaeda?

According to Professor Rex Brynen of McGill University, in Montreal, people, especially the youth, attracted to this so-called brand of religious terrorism, tend to be alienated hermits with a mark on their shoulder against society. Essentially, radicalism as proposed by the literature or pervasive ideology of Daesh fills a much-needed psychological hole in the lives of young teenagers with unaddressed mental health concerns such as depression, anxiety or loneliness. Why are such cases prevalent in youngsters from Muslim-majority backgrounds? Firstly, in all honesty, it is not. Mental health is an unaddressed concern in all types of households, whether it is Hispanic, White or Arab. But in the case of the Muslim-majority households, statistics again suggest that the issue of mental health is completely ignored by many families. This is primarily because, parents emigrating to the west from the Middle-East or a South-Asian background, themselves do not get a basic introduction to mental health. Imagine a Bangladeshi household and ascertain how far we ourselves consider depression to be a serious concern. The answer is right in front of us. 

The depression and anxiety is further accentuated when society tells you that you do not belong. A second-generation Pakistani immigrant living in say a conservative part of Texas may very well feel a sense of identity loss, if those around him, treat him in a different way or look at him differently. The teen feels neither Pakistani nor American. Then who is he? It is here where the marketing outreach of groups such as Daesh comes through. Saving the world, saving your soul, finding peace through Jihad — these are all marketing schemes used by a highly-sophisticated network of cyber terrorists. The market for such, are niche groups, especially those teens who struggle in their childhoods or are fed-up with society. Radicalisation literature fills that much needed sense of identity, it gives an immature mind a vicinity to feel belonged. 

Why then is youth radicalisation comparatively more prominent in the west than in countries such as Bangladesh? For one, countries such as Canada operate on a level of openness which allows people of all kinds, starting from civil rights activists to right-wing preachers, to express all kinds of opinions. One of the drawbacks of total freedom of speech and expression is the exposure to any and all kinds of speeches, literature and information. Statistics suggest that most radicalised youths are not necessarily from a deeply conservative background. In fact, the youths tend to be recent entrants into the world of Islam, as seen with the Brussels attacker in 2016. Amateurs when it comes to understanding a very interpretative faith, these youths are susceptible to whatever is fed to them. Because of the identity crisis, they receive Islam as a tool rather than a philosophy for personal betterment. In a Muslim-majority nation, one is exposed to traditional Islamic norms intertwined with the cultural psyche of the state in question. However, in countries such as Canada or France, the exposure to religion is not from society or observance, rather by biased, dogmatic and marketed texts. If those texts for whatever reason tend to come from an unfortunate source, then more religion, may become bad religion. Mind you, by more religion, it is not being referred to as Islam in its whole. It is political Islam or the pervasive interpretation of Islam preached by Daesh which seeps into the ideologies of these youths, which then becomes a cause of concern, especially because these teenagers do not have the academic, mental or societal capacity to determine what is religious and what is not.

Lastly, the usage of the internet is a necessity in the west, rather than an economic want. Whilst countries such as Bangladesh are moving in that direction, the internet with all its perks, has its drawbacks. The biggest avenue to market radicalism is not the Madrassas or the Mosques, it is the cyber economy. The liberalisation of the ICT industry in the west has created a forum for tech-savvy teenagers, whether it is a Muslim girl raised in Vancouver or an atheist boy from Manhattan, to be allowed to access information from whichever source they feel would fill a void in their lives. Unfortunately, a combination of mental health concerns, identity crisis heightened by loneliness and broader mental health worries, and paradoxically, a free and open society, has stemmed onto many youths with Muslim-backgrounds adopting an ideology of hate, terror and radicalism. This connection between mental health and youth radicalism, is supported by a strong proportion of academics in the west. 

It is true that by the basic definition of terrorism or radicalism, a majority of crimes are not committed by so-called Islamist terrorists, but by home-grown individuals. It is also true that Islam as a religion cannot and must not be blamed for creating this modern-day crisis, because under all circumstances this is a politically motivated and people-made predicament, wholeheartedly based on a sophisticated business-model, developed by groups such as Daesh. However, what is also true is that it is teenagers from families like mine and yours who are disappearing into the pits of radicalisation. As such, rather than making baseless calls of blaming parents or suggesting that because someone prays five times a day at an American mosque, he or she is a radicalised youth, let us observe the facts as they are. The biggest cause of youth radicalisation in the west is a severe lack of attention towards mental health. The sooner we realise this, the sooner we can find a solution. 

The writer is a fourth year undergraduate student of Economics and International Relations, University of Toronto. E-mail: [email protected]


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