What puts a person on the path of misguidance?
I have worked with many young men who were on the path of extremism, violence and hatred. The ones I worked with were those who had already begun to wake up and came to realize that they were on a completely misguided, unholy path.
I asked them afterwards what put them on such a path to begin with. One of the reasons they cited was that they did not feel cared for by religious leaders, they did not feel that the message being offered by traditional religious figures was attractive or addressed their needs, and that no one took the time to reach out to them personally. In contrast, many of these extremist groups work very hard on establishing relationships, as a tool of recruitment. To individuals who are starved of positive connections these extremists offer a great deal of one-to-one attention. It’s a crying shame that Muslims in our communities do not offer this kind of nurturing care to their fellow human beings – how many would have embraced light if we had simply made an effort to form relationships with people that go beyond superficial ‘Hi, how are you?’ and reach into people’s actual lives with care and support!
Many religious leaders have forsaken the art of mentorship – of taking time to work with an individual to address the barriers he is facing in his relationship with God, to heal traumas including sin, and to help with the wise application of religious teachings to the complicated realities of day-to-day life. Extremist ideologues enter this void and provide a quick fix. No need to struggle for personal peace with God – simply adopt a few self-righteous stances and you’re good. Your parents and local religious community leaders don’t agree with your new beliefs? No problem, that’s just more proof that you’re right and everyone else is wrong.
What else leads a person astray? To answer this fully, I need to say that I cannot sit here and make up reasons, as if I am some kind of expert. Rather, it is those people who took that journey and came back who can themselves explain. I will add one observation before sharing what they have told me and that is: it’s clear to me that their motivation in joining groups off the beaten path had far less to do with religion than with modern psychoses and the failings of modern society to support the growth of healthy individuals.
The single common factor all these young men cited as leading to their deviation was a problem with authority and a desire to find a way to rebel against all authority. That includes religious authority and parental authority. There is a great rift in society today between youth and elders, and there is no expectation that youth should respect anyone. It’s almost a mantra for us in modern society that respect needs to be earned, it is no longer given based on age, wisdom, etc. This is totally contrary to what all religions teach – it is a profoundly secular, materialist perspective. Prophet Muhammad peace be upon him made it clear in his teachings that respect for elders, scholars, and parents was a fundamental aspect of faith, and was given based simply on the fact that they have been granted authority over us by God, and we must honor their being further along than us in this journey of life. However, in the modern world, this kind of respect is all but extinct. Everyone today is a judge of the other, deciding based on personal criteria who deserves respect and who doesn’t. And we religious leaders sat by and let this very dangerous germ of discord enter into our societies, until it came back and bit us.
When our youth no longer seek our advice or their parents or grandparents’ wisdom and counsel, they end up in a do-it-yourself perspective on how to live faith. Cut off from those teachings that have come down via tradition, generation after generation, they are vulnerable to whoever has the loudest, most eloquent voice and can manipulate their feelings of concern about injustices in the world. They go online and this is where they get in touch with negative mentors, equally-disenchanted peer groups, and violent outlets for their sense of discontent with their lives. Additionally, they receive peer pressure and encouragement do things without their parents or local religious authorities knowing. The reality is that due to societal trends much larger than this example alone demonstrates, we have lost the ability to act as authorities in the lives of youth, and help direct their discontentment and youthful desire to change the world into forms of community service, charity projects, and so on.
Let me say, again to set this extremism in a larger context of violence and anti-societal harm, that this lack of respect for others is something to really reflect upon. In Cormac McCarthy’s haunting novel ‘No Country for Old Men’ – a study of evil in modern society, the sheriff on the case of a serial killer is asked by a reporter how crime in his country has gotten so out of hand. The Sheriff replies: “It starts when you begin to overlook bad manners. Any time you quit hearin Sir and Mam the end is pretty much in sight.” This assessment might seem quaint, but it’s a commentary on how lack of respect for human life starts in lack of respect for elders – including strangers – in our lives. When we lose the ability to consider the men and women we meet around us and have brief interactions with as ‘Sir’ and ‘Mam’ – that is to say, people worthy of a demonstration of our respect for them, this indicates the breakdown of society as a cohesive system of interrelations. Of course, not everyone is going to end up violent because they don’t offer respect to others. At the same time, we have to consider how societal trends that have brought about indifference towards strangers, at best, and disdain for them, at worst, play a role in the further breakdown in some individuals’ minds of norms of respect for human life.
I am emphasising this point because I will come back to it later to show just how important it is from a Scriptural perspective.
Another factor leading to extremist thinking in youth is that youth of immigrant families feel a sense of marginalization and lack of belonging to the larger society. To find a sense of worth and belonging, some youth turn to gangs – and extremists are just one type of gang that happens to use religion as its clothing. Muslim youth are fed many negative images of themselves from the media, and do experience real systemic discrimination, all of which can lead to a kind of defiance that says: okay, you want to insist I’m not welcome, well, I’ll show you! I’ll show you that I am different and I will embrace that in a harmful way. I should make it clear that marginalization is no excuse for extremist responses; the vast majority of marginalized people including Indigenous People do not become extremists in order to deal with this reality. But it is one of the factors cited by young men who have taken the extremist path.
A third factor that leads youth into radicalized positions is what they perceive as double standards: they see blanket coverage of what happened in Paris but almost no coverage of the deaths of those in Lebanon under similar circumstances only the day before. They see biographies of the French victims, but only nameless numbers for the dead of other regions – also victims of terrorism – but apparently without beautiful stories, without families, without something that might allow us to mourn them. Finally, youth note the silence about state terrorism by which some countries occupy other countries and cause great death tolls and total chaos on all levels. These are issues much larger than religious practice; these are societal issues. These are issues with the systems – media systems that operate on the stories that sell better, and so on.
We as people of faith, as leaders of faith, our call is not like the media call. We don’t need to rely on a particularly attractive story to make our words reach. We need to make our message one about Truth. Truth is one of the Names of God. And this is what I mean. When our call becomes aligned with the Message of the Truth, of discovering a life of inner peace with our Lord and in Him the source of solutions to all our needs and concerns including injustices around us, our call will reach. We don’t need anything to make it fancy or attractive. God is already attractive, Beautiful; He is our Home.
That kind of call will be in the tradition of our Father Abraham, peace be upon him. God will be with us and make that call reach the hearts.
Distortion of Traditional Spiritual Teachings in Mainstream Religious Education
Another way in which our call has become unheard, is that we no longer call from a place of clear and pure godliness, the way that Abraham peace be upon him did. That is to say, we don’t give the true picture of faith. Our way of talking about Islam, for example, is to make it an accessory in a life that is totally modelled on the current capitalist consumer society paradigm. Thus, you “do” religion a few times a day, like a ritual or a part-time job, and you live a workaday consumer life ignoring the real struggles of the oppressed, as well as your own heart’s journey to God, the rest of the time. This is how immigrants have chosen to express religion here in Canada, perhaps as a reaction to their past lives of impoverishment in their home countries, they have embraced material comfort and sought safety in the working life routine. But this part-time comfortable consumer-friendly faith is not satisfying to youth who by their nature have a rawness in their desire to understand their meaning in this world, and a passion in their desire to create a better world, and a wish to dedicate their lives to something real and lasting.
Within religion itself are prayerful and godly ways to respond to the injustices of the world, and we need to offer these to our youth. One of the most important ways is to work on one’s own self. This may sound like a passive approach, but when we explain to our youth that this is exactly what God and His Prophets taught us to do, then we can reach their hearts. All the Prophets peace be upon them relied on God and in seeking His Help; they invested their efforts, energies and hopes in God, not in weapons and strategies and the like. Investing one’s precious time and thought in strategies, revenge, and weapons is actually very materialistic, for it relies solely on the material tit-for-tat of warfare. That is a very low level of dealing with an issue. Seeking God’s Assistance is the higher level and understanding the situation the way Prophets taught us – that all things are interrelated in a kind of spiritual butterfly effect – is the actual call of faith.
In our beliefs, when one individual makes proper peace with God, when he or she cleans up his or her actions, and becomes a more pious individual, world events change based on this one individual’s returning to God. God looks upon all of humanity with satisfaction and causes blessings to descend, based on even the actions of one pious individual. And this is how things change for the better. And this is the role youth can play.
What does it mean to be more pious? Nowhere in any of our texts is it defined as taking on injustice through direct violent action. The Prophet peace be upon him gave us a keystone teaching that has been handed down over the generations: Religion is how kindly you treat others.
Refining ourselves, improving our treatment of others, making peace with God – these are continuous processes that any individual can do – every time we bring one more part of ourselves to God, we are activists by whom God sends mercy down on the entire world. We are agents of change. And every time we decide to go against God’s commandments, we are also a reason why evil on earth is made stronger and injustice prevails. We are taught in Quran that God will only improve the outer state of humanity when the inner state of our hearts becomes better. But many eschew this work, because there is no immediate attention from others, there is no fame and fortune to be had by doing that kind of silent inner work of the heart.
This is the type of teaching and challenge we have failed to offer our youth, even though it is firmly rooted in the beliefs of the religion, and makes complete sense from a religious paradigm. After all, we don’t believe this world is just the superficial cause and effect around us. That is the belief of the terrorists, who think that they can bring terror to others and control things through their strategies and guns. This is the height of materialistic egoism and just the other side of the coin of the kind of thinking that causes the French Prime minister to declare he will bomb Syria without pity.
These spiritual teachings have lost their place in how Islam is taught today, and if I were to be asked what single issue we have as Muslims regarding the matter of losing our youth to these distorted radical groups, I would say this is it. That Islam is no longer being taught as a spiritual path and only being seen as a worldly set of duties and rituals and identity and political worldview, and that we don’t show youth how prayer is a path to liberation – both personally and globally. Our failing in this regard has led youth to go off the right track and end up seeking out other ways, ways that seem to offer a more robust commitment to changing the world. We haven’t taught them the art of interacting with God. We haven’t warned them that anything that purports to be religion, but is built on pride of identity, is not true religion.
Motivated by their youthful their desire to respond to injustice, and their desire to find meaning and self-worth, our youth end up falling into the hands of people completely outside of the faith who claim to be its true representatives.