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Inside Outsider

Why Does Radical Islam Appeal to So Many Young Men?

After the San Bernardino shootings and the tragic terrorist attacks in Paris, I asked some of my friends, who have dabbled in extremism, what the draw is for so many young muslims.

by Mahmood Fazal
Mar 2 2016, 5:30pm

"After reading Shelley's 'Frankenstein' in high school... I realized monsters can be human and humans can be monsters." Illustrations by Michael Hili

Ever since elementary school I've felt that being a Muslim is like being part of a big family. Sort of a club with a set of values that use humility as the basis for feeling indebted to one another. When kids asked me where I was from, hearing me pronounce Afghanistan always got a chuckle. All that abruptly changed when I was in my first year of high school—the year after 9/11.

These days I'm a college student who sometimes writes for VICE. This is why, after the San Bernardino shootings and the tragic terrorist attacks in Paris, the guys at the Melbourne office asked for my thoughts on the lure of extremism. I had a think about it, and I asked some of my own friends. They're a mixed group of second-generation immigrants. We grew up in the Melbourne suburbs to become students, trade workers, and occasionally thugs. I know for a fact some of them have dabbled in extremism, mostly in the form of online reading. So I asked around. Why does radical Islam appeal to so many young men?

First of all, you need to know that it's often hard to feel accepted when you're labeled a migrant. Iqbal, a law student from Coburg, quipped that some Australians seem to think "our purpose is to replace their lifestyle with strict, oppressive, and unappealing regimes in pursuit of satisfaction from a god that doesn't exist."

Of course, this isn't the case, but it's the sort of opinion that brings out the worst in everyone. Every time the television flashes news of collapsing buildings, murder, suicide, an attack or a siege, our first reaction isn't grief. It's sad that all we want to know is whether the antagonists were Muslims, again. We nervously hope they're not, paranoid that again we'll be caught in the headlights of bigotry.

Iqbal sparks a Winfield Blue, holding it inward behind his back, afraid his father might catch him before Maghrib. "It angers me every time a Muslim does the wrong thing," he says. "In some ways, it's always my responsibility to publicly condemn their actions."

Earlier this year, on April 18 at 3:30 in the morning, 200 police officers executed multiple raids across Melbourne as part of Operation Rising. Neighbors in Hallam stood dazed on the side of the road as the Victorian Police Special Operations Group yanked teenage boys out of bed and marched them into bearcat military vehicles. They'd allegedly planned an "act of terror," or a revenge attack for the death of one of their friends, Numan Haidar, who was shot as he attacked two police officers with a knife.

One of the accused is a friend of mine. He compares his memory of the raids to shellshock. He recalls the image of his cuffed father, helpless on the floor as a policeman kneed him in the back, demanding with his M16 an explanation of what the Arabic poster on the wall meant. He was later released without any charges.

When asked why he thought young Muslims are sometimes angry, my friend explained, "If we speak out about our concerns [with Australian culture], they think we're just complaining. We're told that we should just accept whatever misguided opinions people have about us, even though we were born here."

Being treated as an outsider, despite coming from the same country, might be a defining factor for a lot of young Muslims. The FBI has revealed that the San Bernardino shooter, Syed Rizwan Farook, was a first generation Pakistani immigrant born in Chicago. French investigators also believe that the mastermind of the Paris attacks was a Belgian national. Both of the Charlie Hebdo attackers were born in Paris, and three of the attackers in the 2005 London Bombings were British-born Pakistanis. It is also estimated that roughly 4,000 people have left their homes in the West to join ISIS.

This is not to say I'm blaming Western culture for making young Muslims feel vilified. Far from it, I believe a lack of stronger leadership within Islam is part of the problem. Harsh criticism of violent interpretations such as Wahhabism need to be brought to the forefront of our own conversations. We're lacking this voice, and the public instead hears from self-proclaimed leaders who don't represent the views of the majority.

I believe it's our lives, not our beliefs, that make us monsters or humans.

We also hear overwhelmingly from the radical media machine. I was told that in radical Islamic lectures, often organized privately in the outer suburbs, the role of the internet and media are usually the principal tools used by "clerics" to desensitize and exploit young believers. Unfortunately, there is a continuous influx of horrific footage pouring in from Palestine, Iraq, and Afghanistan. It's slick, incessant, and it gives everyone—and especially young kids—the impression that Muslims everywhere are being attacked and their only way to help is through violence.

After reading Mary Shelley's Frankenstein in high school, or watching David Lynch's Elephant Man, I realized monsters can be human and humans can be monsters. Now, having spoken to my friends, and having thought about the backgrounds to these tragic events, the work of psychologist Albert Bandura seems most appropriate. As he explained, "It requires conducive social conditions, rather than monstrous people, to produce heinous deeds."

Philip Zimbardo's infamous Stanford experiment reinforces this social argument through the eerie similarities that were replicated in the gross abuses of power at Abu Ghraib prison. The soldiers weren't solely responsible. Instead, it was their total social make-up, history, and their environment that sculpted their ideals and decisions. For any young aggressor, I believe it's our lives, not our beliefs, that make us monsters or humans.

My friend Mohammed isn't a monster, but maybe he's a juvenile delinquent. He migrated from Sudan in 2005 and has recently committed himself to Islam in order to redeem a past shaped by war and a chaotic block of Footscray flats. When asked about his view on radicalization, he explained, "A lot of the young people only know a few verses, out of context, and they use these verses as a basis for their actions." But like the others he also agrees, "If these kids were properly accepted into society, they wouldn't become radicalized. We feel the hate that the public has towards us."

When you're young, all you really want is to feel accepted. The general vibe from my conversations seemed to be that dispossessed immigrant Muslims often feel marginalized, ignored, and rejected by society. While the media is still obsessing over ISIS, the brand has deteriorated like a passé fashion trend amongst religious circles in the suburbs. Yet despite this, engaging in jihad still seems like a romantic fantasy. Some imagine they'll finally belong to a utopia under a caliphate, a system aligned with their way of life according to scripture. The fantasy gives their lives a sense of purpose or an escape from suburban nothingness. It's crazy, but it's a common desire in young males everywhere, regardless of religion.

Follow Mahmood on Twitter.

Illustrations by Michael Hili