Young people are binary, believing in good and evil, authority and rebellion, says Chloe Combi
Some join ISIS because they believe it is the right thing to do and it's daring, Combi says
She says disenfranchisement, rebellion and peer pressure are some of the factors involved
Editor’s Note: Chloe Combi is a former teacher who is now a columnist and consultant on youth issues for the Mayor of London. For her book “Generation Z: Their voices, Their Lives” she interviewed hundreds of teenagers and children born between 1994 and 2005. The names of those quoted in this article have been changed. The views expressed in this commentary are entirely those of the author.
“Harry Potter” is one of the most popular book series of the last decade. At its heart lies a duel between good and evil. A duel between light and dark … young and old … reason and madness … authority and rebellion.
Young people are binary creatures – things are always this or that, and never in the middle – which is one reason they all relate to the bespectacled apprentice wizard.
Similarly the young are passionate creatures, believing in things with ardor and conviction – which is why in literature they are sent at personal risk to fight Voldemort. And why in real life they are sent to fight, say, communism.
Central also to “Harry Potter” – and strangely war too – is friendship. Both are about going off with your buddies and peers and hopefully all making it back together.
So it surprises me the amount of head scratching that goes on when the media/politicians/people in general discuss the issue of young Muslims flying off to be more ardent Muslims.
“It’s the West!” they cry – the bad West is smothering this fragile religion – which behaves anything like a butterfly likely to be broken on a wheel of McDonald’s, porn and Apple.
“It’s social media!” they cry. Adults seem to think kids berate Zayn Malik on Twitter for leaving One Direction one day, and the next, they are at Heathrow, bound for Syria.
“It’s Islam!” they cry, discounting the million or so young Muslims who stay firmly put in the UK.
’Young people problem’
I’m not saying these things don’t figure at all in young people’s minds, but if we want to understand this problem, we should treat it less as a “young Muslim” problem and more as a “young people” problem.
Young Muslims are going to far away countries in the name of their faith for the same reasons Harry goes to fight Voldemort or the 18-year-old American went to Vietnam – despite the possibility of dying for this “honor.”
Because they believe it’s the right thing to do.
Because it’s daring.
Because it’s what all their pals are doing.
Because it’s romantic and will make them sexier to the opposite sex.
Because it sounds like a laugh – hey man, you get a great big gun in the desert – just like “Call of Duty!”
Because it’s their duty.
Because it’s an honor – and they believe they can return to a changed world, that they helped to change – heroes.
Brainwashed and crazy?
I know this to be true because I have spent the last two years interviewing teenagers about their lives, beliefs and ambitions.
Aarrif, 16, who is studying for his GCSE exams this summer told me: “There is a lot of quite serious chat about ISIS and going to do your part in the war for your brothers and Allah and all that. I’m not gonna lie. You can’t ignore it or say you’re not interested, because you get enough s***. It’s like a way to prove not just that you’re a proper Muslim, but a proper man.”
His friend Kasim, 16, concurs: “I respect all my brothers going out to fight. And my sisters. They are playing their part too. It is something you talk about. The media makes them out to be like, these crazy people brainwashed by crazy people, but that’s not how we (his own group of peers) think about it all. We have so much love and respect for them.”
’X’ needs you!
Ideology aside, there are similarities between psychological tactics used on these boys than there have been in any recruitment campaign in any conflict: be a real man with all the other real men. X needs you!
It’s curious that the West is so surprised at the efficacy of these tactics. Because ideological consideration aside, recruiters have been using the same methods for over 100 years.
Both Aarif and Kasim’s points also highlight something that has been woefully lacking in explaining the appeal of ISIS to the Western-born Muslim teenager: which is old-fashioned peer pressure.
As anyone who has worked/lived with/raised teenagers will attest, the lure of “all my mates are doing it” argument is powerful. There was a recent media storm over the grainy spectacle of Amira Abase, Kadiza Sultana and Shamina Begum all wearing Western clothes and on their way to Syria from Gatwick Airport.
I would bet my mortgage that during the lead-up to their final departure, there were 1,000 conversations that took place in the bedrooms of their suburban houses or on Snapchat where they goaded each other on.
One 17-year-old, Farzana, told me: “I had a massive row with two of my best friends who were talking about going over to Iraq to fight. They talked about it like it was going to be a fun holiday. They said I was a bad Muslim and friend. We don’t speak now.”
Her point offers insight into the romantic view many young Muslims have about joining extremist groups.
Mohammed, 16, is considering going to Iraq to join ISIS. He states his dedication to his faith and the “will of Allah” as the primary reasons for this decision. However, the people he is talking to about this decision (he refuses to tell me whom) also promise “loads of money, guns and good girls.” When I press him further about potential dangers, he shrugs and says “if I don’t like it, I’ll just come home.”
This is a sentiment I hear often. This suggests that for at least some, the decision is based more on rebellion, glory and adventure than ideology.
In Western thought, dying for an ideology is virtually obsolete now. But teenage rebellion against the “man”/parents/school/country/the norm is common. But while many of us cringe at those years, the likelihood of it resulting in anything terrible was slim.
Not so for the young Muslims who see a trip out to Syria in the name of religion as their own equivalent of “On the Road.”
Farood, 17 who describes himself as “devout but modern and completely uninterested in groups like ISIS” concurs with the role of teenage rebellion in the radicalization of young Muslims.
“I definitely think that’s true. Like the press says s*** about you, or your parents p*** you off, and you don’t have any money, and you don’t learn s*** at school and you know there aren’t any jobs, and you feel like no one else gets you. I think that’s a big part of the problem. It’s being offered to a lot of people I know as a better and alternative way of life with your own kind – your brothers and sisters.”
Farood’s girlfriend, Souad, 17 has an interesting female perspective.
“Being a Muslim girl is hard here because you live in a country that is all Western and still have to dress and act traditionally. Some girls I know, like, discuss how fit ‘Jihadi John’ is or talk about how life might be better out there. When you’re not torn between two worlds and don’t fit in either.”
Souad is aware that life under such regimes would be anything but freer or fun, particularly for women and girls. But this is not an opinion held by many of her female peers.
Farood’s indifference to the lure of extremism becomes more interesting and revealing when he revealed he has “a very nice life, at a good school, with a white-British Christian mother and an African father who is a Muslim.”
Crucially, Farood is happy and has a sense of a dual identity as both a British citizen and a Muslim (he was allowed to choose his faith.)
Muslim and British?
Again and again, where I saw young Muslims seriously considering volunteering for extremist groups abroad, there were two constants: they weren’t satisfied with their lives here and they had all been convinced of this binary way of thinking. That you couldn’t be a Muslim and be British.
There is no doubt that Islam is a deep, complex faith that holds influence over kids that want to go and fight in its name. But many other factors are pushing young Muslims into such drastic action.
Disenfranchisement, loneliness, alienation, rebellion, peer pressure and identity crisis – these are things all young people feel, and lie at the heart of many of their choices irrespective of faith.
To return to “Harry Potter” – I have never met a young (or old) person who believed Harry shouldn’t have gone to Hogwarts, despite the danger. That he should have eschewed his glorious (but perilous) destiny for a drab world he felt alienated from.
If we understand this so readily in the children of literature, why is it so hard to understand in our actual children?
Most young people, except the fortunate few, don’t see this as a land of opportunity or hope anymore – and it is obvious why. If you offer a young person the promise of fortune and glory, it is easy to see why they might seriously.