Young Muslims and Extremist Ideologies

This is a summary of the talk delivered by Mehri Niknam at a one-day conference on “Young Muslims and Extremist Ideologies” at the Open University on 15th June 2015.

Question: Why have government efforts so far failed to effectively combat the attraction of some young Muslims to extremist ideologies such as IS?

My observations are based on my longstanding experience as a practitioner of social interactions with university students, particularly Muslim students. To begin with, there isn’t one homogeneous group of young Muslims who are attracted to extremist ideologies. There are different groups from different backgrounds and each one has its own characteristic reasons. For example there are the converts from African Christian background; the converts from socially deprived white English working class; the previously non-observant Muslim prisoners; and finally the intelligent, educated university students or sixth form students. I limit my observations to the last group.

It seems to me that there are three interconnected major reasons for the attraction of this group to IS. This attraction and eventual conversion does not happen suddenly but is a drip-drip process:

  1. Political and religious, personal, communal, national and international grievances conflating into one another over a period of time. When political search for solutions to injustice fail, then extreme approaches begin to look attractive.
  2. Young Muslims feel frustrated at their inability to give humanitarian aid and assistance to their fellow Muslims abroad. They see an unjust disparity between opportunities that exist for other causes but not for their fellow Muslims in war-torn countries. They want to be involved hands on in humanitarian efforts rather than just through giving a few ponds to international charities. They are frustrated with the government for not allowing them to do anything. Eventually this frustration turns into rebellion.
  3. They feel frustrated and helpless at what they see as continual waves of laws that violate their human rights, unjustly limit their freedom of speech and freedom of religion and brands them as extremists. When they can’t oppose injustice vocally, they become attracted to other measures.

Note: The social media messages of IS are very sophisticated psychologically. They work subliminally. Often just a few words on a picture communicate a message which is psychologically and emotionally very powerful. These messages need not follow logically because they are directed to the unconscious and the emotions.

Three reasons why policy makers actions against extremism fails:

  1. Not listening positively and constructively to those university students who are not extremists but do have major disagreements with certain policies of the government. They can explain the genuine reasons for attraction of young Muslims to extremist ideologies.
  2. Not consulting regularly and effectively with the Muslim community but merely taking the advice from government advisors who are detached from the community and usually tell the government what they think the government wants to hear! An example is the negative result of the letter written by Eric Pickles MP, the previous Secretary of State for Communities & Local Government to all mosques about combatting extremism.
  3. Constantly choosing theologians or secular organisations that have no authority either theologically or spiritually among the students. Instead of addressing the students’ issues, the government asks these theologians or counter-terrorist organisation to write a superficial rejection of extremist ideologies based on religion or democracy. A superficial theological rejection is no match for an authoritative text-based refutation. Such refutation by its nature can’t be one hundred percent what the government wants but will be largely effective among young educated Muslims.

Three recommendations to policy makers:

  1. Reviewing and possibly moderating some aspects of the criteria by which students are branded as “extremist”, and, listening to them constructively. Telling intelligent students “Don’t do or don’t go” is counter effective. Instead, in direct association with the students provide a genuine opportunity for them to do meaningful aid work for their fellow Muslims in war-torn countries.
  2. Emphasising greater consultation with those authoritative religious and community leaders in the Muslim community who represent the majority views while also considering minority views. Often people chosen by the government represent a very small minority, but are prepared to kowtow to the demands of the government.
  3. Accepting that there isn’t a simple rejection of extremist ideologies in three easy lessons! Rather it requires sustained, open-minded and realistic approach assisted by experienced and unbiased experts.
Mehri Niknam with Professor Marie Gillespie, Chair of the Conference