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Why Are Muslim Youth Losing Their Faith to Extremist Groups?

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A recent analysis written for the online Indian news outlet FirstPost attempts to provide some possible answers to a burning question around the world: Why are Muslims are losing their faith to extremist groups and joining Islamic State?

Women who join ISIS are usually converts and neo-Muslims. The author states that they “are not fascinated towards the traditional spiritual Islam or progressive Islamic thinking. But rather, they are driven by a network of half-educated, misguided and extremist youths—most of them being males.

“Scores of bright students of science, medicine and engineering have reportedly terminated their education aiming for an Islamic state or shariah-controlled zone where everything is ‘pure’, ‘perfect’ and idealistic.”

The fact that many of ISIS’ new members are not only not raised with any sort of extremist religious views, but are also — like many secular youths today — college educated, makes the trend even more disturbing.  These youths appear on the outside to not be all that different from their peers who do not join such groups.

But, there is something going on inside of these young people that makes them susceptible to such groups – possibly, this desire for an idealized world divorced from crass materialistic concerns of the West.

Many wish it were the case that individuals who join Islamic extremist groups were mentally ill.  However, as an article in The Atlantic suggests, this particular theory is losing popularity. “The scholarly consensus now holds that the root of terrorism lies not in the individual, but in the wider circumstances in which terrorists live and act.”

Drawing from relevant studies, social scientist Albert Bandura concludes that “given appropriate social conditions, decent, ordinary people can be led to do extraordinarily cruel things.”

Although this theory is helpful when talking about violence in particular, it does not quite seem to fit when talking about why people — whose social conditions are virtually the same as their secular peers — would desire to join a group that supports an entire framework of misogyny and extreme violence towards those who disagree in the first place.

Another theory postulates that the motivation of many who join Islamist extremist groups is anger, which they direct towards the society they perceive as threatening their values (e.g., Al Qaeda in the early 2000s in relation to the U.S. and the West at large).

The particulars of the anger do not really matter, but, by joining these groups, individuals are given a vehicle with which they can fight the perceived “enemy.” Perhaps the belief in the dogmas of these groups only comes later for these “converts,” or perhaps for some never at all.

What matters most to them is they are unhappy with their societies.  This anger provides fertile ground — the proper “soil” — in which the seed of radicalization can be planted and later made to grow and thrive.

Whatever theory is correct, it is clear that what is going on underneath the surface of these individuals is what is most influential in their decision to join Islamic extremist groups, as we know for a fact that most of these people did not grow up in environments that condone the killing and torture of innocent people.

The quest to understand the reasons why more and more young people are susceptible to radicalization is important as our experience has shown that recruits can come from virtually anywhere and that no society is immune.

Since there may not be any “public,” telltale signs, we must understand the process to be effective in stopping it.

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Meira Svirsky

Meira Svirsky is the editor of ClarionProject.org