From ISIS to Boko Haram to Al-Shabab, the Islamic world faces 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 part of all Muslim communities.
But before we can devise a concrete plan to fight growing insurgent groups, Muslim leaders all over the world must make a pact to unite and put an end to sectarian violence within Islam. These internal strifes have been dividing us for centuries, fueling regional conflicts and paving the way for terrorism. They have become a source of subtle and subconscious belief-system that fuels 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 majority of the Muslims adhere to the Sunni branch, while 10 to 15 percent follow the Shiite sect. Theological differences between the two main sects have repeatedly resulted in rancor and bloodshed. In countries like Pakistan, another sect called the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community faces government-sanctioned persecution resulting in target killings and suppression of religious freedom. Even in countries like the Great Britain, Ahmadi Muslims are sometimes 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 by Colleen McCue and Kathryn Haahr. When youth see any type of violence being glorified instead of being condemned by religious scholars or even adults in their own families, the moral development is greatly hindered, claim the authors of the report.
The report mostly focuses on youth radicalization in the Arab world, but also warns European and other Western nations to guard against this growing metastasis. While citing other reasons such as prison radicalization, the report also says that youth in the Western nations are at an increased risk of becoming radicalized through “social and religious networks.” These networks can include so-called religious scholars or even family members that sometime sow the seeds of hatred against other sects of Islam, which could also normalize thoughts of violence against other groups. Unfortunately, this culture of darkness clouds the vision of some young people who end up joining militant groups.
A Shiite Muslim entrepreneur in Boston, Alina Mahdi, said she grew up fighting stereotypes against other minority groups in Pakistan. While living in Pakistan, Mahdi was constantly worried about her family’s safety because Shiite community is often targeted for discrimination. Although her immediate family was very 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 often cautioned them against associating with her, Mahdi said.
“They can attack your faith, or your faith is not safe with them,” is the perception some of them held, Mahdi said.
A Muslim student at the University of Texas at Austin, Sara Bawany, who grew up in a Sunni household, said she faced some backlash when she became friends with another Ahmadi Muslim.
“Stay away from them, they are different and you won’t be able to relate to them,” are few of the concerns raised by people close to her, Bawany said.
Kishwar Tahir, a psychiatrist specializing in children and adolescent psychiatry at the Averest Great Lakes Counseling in Detroit, Michigan, said conditioning a child’s mind to fear or resent other segments of the society can lead to two things: either they will develop a natural curiosity to find out more about a given topic, or they will become prejudiced and confine themselves to negative thinking.
Fortunately, Mahdi and Bawany sought to educate themselves about different branches of Islam. Today, they have friends belonging to various sects. Though their societies cautioned them against interacting with people from other sects, Mahdi and Bawany were able to form their own judgements because of independent mindsets. People like Mahdi and Bawany have an above average intelligence, Tahir said.
“They come from more secure backgrounds, they have had better upbringing, they have positive role models at home,” Tahir said.
But 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. Jake Bilardi, in his text messages to the reporter, disclosed an ‘ideological hatred’ for the Shiite community as one of the reasons for joining the extremist group. Today, the Australian government is investigating whether Bilardi is behind a deadly suicide attack in Iraq.
In third-world countries, causes of youth radicalization can range from poverty, lack of education to brainwashing by so-called Islamic “scholars.” While in the West it is most common among individuals who come from insecure backgrounds and don’t have the positive support they need at home to channel their potentials or frustrations, Tahir said. But regardless of where they live, combination of financial woes, socio-political factors and intra-religious prejudices can motivate some young, impressionable minds into joining extremist groups, she said.
While every case of youth radicalization may be different, intra-religious conflicts within Islam are undeniably in the backdrop of extremist ideologies—fueling and motivating individuals to not only kill other Muslims, but also non-Muslims. As long as the global Islamic community keeps bickering over differences, the youth will continue to either become disillusioned with their faith or take the dangerous path towards extremism. Today, it is incumbent upon all Muslim societies to strive for more tolerance and kindness towards each other and extend the same sentiments to the rest of the world. In order to prevent more youth from going down a dark alley, we must show them that we are capable of loving one another and we hold every life sacred.
ISIS may be able to recruit some lost souls, but all hope is certainly not lost. Muslim youth like Usama Malik, a government senior at UT-Austin, are trying to bridge the gap between different communities within Islam. Malik is an Ahmadi Muslim who not only serves as the president of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Student Association at UT, but also as the vice-president of the larger Muslim student body—the Muslim Student Association. Malik said the work Muslim youth are doing at UT sets a new bar and an example for the larger Muslim community to follow.
“What we have been doing here is minimizing the significance of our differences,” Malik said. “They are there, but that doesn’t mean we can’t work together.”
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