An empowering message of personal responsibility rather than encouraging victimhood has the potential to change the debate about counter-radicalization. I’ll begin with a personal story to show you what I mean.
One night during the Blitz my grandfather, then a teenager, was too tired to get up for yet another air raid siren. Instead, he stayed in bed while everyone else went to the shelter. A bomb hit the shelter directly and killed everyone in his family except for him. He never dealt with the grief properly and couldn’t connect emotionally after that.
When my father was 14, his mother, my grandmother, killed herself because my grandfather was cheating on her. Obviously unable to process this event, my father himself became a philanderer, and when I was 10 my mother, sick of his shenanigans, kicked him to the curb. As terrible a father as he was a husband, he promptly disappeared. Apart from a couple of very brief encounters in my teens, I have not seen him since.
I am not telling you these things to play the victim. In the big picture, my family is relatively mundane. I am using this personal example to make the simple point that inter-generational trauma pays the pain forward and inflicts fresh suffering on the next generation.
That, in my eyes, is the meaning of the biblical threat that God will continue “visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation.”
So how does inherited trauma impact the discussion on radical Islam? Muslim communities and families, like most people, have suffered various forms of trauma over the past century. Historical events like World War I and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire had a personal impact on millions of people in ways that continue to shape the worldviews of their descendants.
One Indian Muslim dragged to fight for the British in the mud of France wrote home: “The shells are pouring like rain in the monsoon. The corpses cover the country like sheaves of harvested corn.” He was one of 885,000 Muslims recruited to fight for the Allies in World War I.
Most British people don’t even remember that 89,000 Muslims died for King George, but their experiences shaped the development of the British Muslim community. Many Muslims suffered racist indignities in Europe and America. Others suffered abuse from patriarchal elders in their own communities. These abuses impact the mental development of the upcoming generation to the extent that they may internalize the pain and make worse choices as a result.
The reasons a person chooses to affiliate with a destructive ideology like radical Islam are deeply personal and complex. Ultimately, it is a choice and no person who voluntarily takes that path escapes moral culpability for their actions.
But personal and family traumas can push a person into mentally unhealthy patterns of behavior that make it more likely they will seek harmful solutions to the problems of their minds.
Therefore any effective approach to counter-radicalization has to include this simple message: Don’t pay the pain forward. Whatever suffering you have had in your life, or whatever your family has been through, make the proactive decision that it stops with you. Don’t allow the pain to fester inside you and carry it around and inflict it onto someone else.
In my work for Clarion, I have been privileged to speak with many different Muslim activists from all over the world. What has struck me about those who are making a positive difference is their commitment to this idea. Some of them have incredible family stories and have suffered in immense ways. But they have chosen to not be defined by their pain and to work to improve the future, not rehash the past.