Muslim youth and extremism: A reflection after Boston

By A. Rashied Omar| comments | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare
Article Ecumenical & Interfaith Dialogue
In the wake of terrorism, the global community must come together to build welcoming, loving environments for our young people--especially Muslim youth.

The two suspects of the abominable bomb attacks of the Boston Marathon, Tamerlan Tsarnaev (26) and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev (19), were permanent residents of the United States originally from Chechnya and were seemingly practicing Muslims.

While the overwhelming majority of Muslims have unequivocally condemned their contemptible actions, it is also a distressing fact that this is not the first time that "ordinary" young Muslims have become transformed into radical extremists.

Family members claim that the elder brother, Tamerlan, fell under the influence of a new friend, a Muslim convert, who steered the young man toward a rigid and austere interpretation of Islam.

Under the tutelage and mentorship of his new friend, Tamerlan gave up boxing, stopped studying music, ditched his non-Muslim friends, condemned the celebration by American Muslims of Thanksgiving, and claimed that the CIA was behind the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 and that Jews controlled the world.

Reports from congregants of the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center are particularly instructive. According to one of these reports Tamerlan was apparently enraged at the Imam of the Boston Islamic Center for praising Martin Luther King Jr. during his sermon. Tamerlan objected by shouting, “You cannot mention this guy because he’s not a Muslim!”

Even though the story of the two young Muslim suspects is still developing, their story is not unique.

For some time now Muslims living in North America and Europe have witnessed the transformations of young people who often grow up ignorant or oblivious to the teachings of Islam and engage in acts contrary to Islamic ethics, but who then at some point in their lives experience an acute identity crisis arising out of the two cultural worlds within which they live: the home and the broader society.

This search for identity renders these young Muslims susceptible to extremist viewpoints of Islam. Demagogues who peddle a puritanical and culture-free version of Islam are extremely adept at recruiting such vulnerable young Muslims. Under their mentorship and spell these young Muslims become extremely conservative to the point of condemning members of their own families for not being Muslim enough and fellow Muslims at mosques for being guilty of innovative practices. These extremist interpretations of Islam do not always translate into acts of violence, but they tend to be destructive of communities and engender attitudes of intolerance.

How are we to understand this growing phenomenon of Muslim extremism among youth living in the West, and more importantly, what can be done to mitigate it?  

In responding to these questions I would like to draw on the scholarly insights of the French expert on political Islam, Olivier Roy, and that of the Chicago-based Muslim scholar, Shaykh `Umar Faruq Abdullah.

Both of them have argued that under the impact of globalization contemporary youth, especially immigrant youth, face an acute identity cum cultural crisis.

Olivier Roy argues that the new global context has led to a de-linking of Islam from any specific culture. According to Roy religious extremism has been gaining ground among a rootless Muslim youth--particularly among the second- and third-generation migrants in the West--and this phenomenon is feeding new forms of radicalism.

According to Shaykh `Umar Faruq `Abd-Allah people who advocate a so called "culture-free Islam" lose sight of the fact that culture is integral to the development of a healthy sense of self and community (i.e. identity formation and social cohesion). Culture is what gives a community its distinctive character, and cultivates the social skills through which we interact with each other and the world around us.

The advice that Shaykh `Umar Faruq `Abd-Allah offers immigrant Muslim communities is not to develop reactionary “counter cultures” but rather to engender an American Muslim culture. For Muslims living in the United States, the challenge is to strike a wholesome balance between their identities as Muslims and as North Americans, and thereby develop a North American cultural expression of Islam. Muslim youth growing up in America have great opportunities but they also have to face and grapple with many broader social issues and moral choices that come into conflict with their Islamic world views.

This cannot be easy for them. This grim world is complicated by the fact that current United States foreign policy and in particular its global war on terrorism is engendering a belligerent environment that serves as a breeding ground for hatred and radicalism, the rise of extremist movements, and recruits for the bin Laden's of the world. This is further exacerbated by a growing phenomenon of Islamophobia--an antipathy towards Islam that results in exclusion, discrimination, misrepresentation, and stereotyping of Muslims.

It is against such a volatile context that we need to have more programs that reach out to young people in our community not to emasculate their energies but to channel them into constructive programs for social integration. By this I mean that young Muslims should embrace Islam as a natural way of life.

I am encouraged by the fact that since September 11, 2001, many Muslim leaders and institutions in America have been responding to this challenge in creative ways. In fact, it is exactly one such creative response from the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center, to talk about the praiseworthy leadership of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, that Tamerlan Tsarnaev found objectionable. The fact that Tamerlan with his extremist views objected to a universal message articulated during a sermon at one of America’s most renowned Islamic Centers should serve as encouragement to other Muslim institutions in the United States, for indeed, there should be no space for radical extremists in our masajid and Islamic centers.

But the challenge of global peace and coexistence is not merely the responsibility of Muslims but indeed of all peace and justice loving people. The challenge that peace holds for Christians, Jews, people of other faiths, and of no faith is to work towards the building of more welcoming environment and culture for immigrant groups. Interreligious activists from all faiths need to join the many voices all over the world who are questioning the wisdom of the “war on terrorism,” and the drone killings and grievances it has wrought.

For American Muslims the horrific events of the past few weeks must serve as a reminder of the critical need to continue to witness against terrorism and of a parallel commitment to assist in the nurturing of a more compassionate and localized and indigenous expression of Islam, especially among our youth. 

This reflection is drawn from a sermon delivered at a mosque in South Bend, Indiana, on April 26, 2013.

Photo by Tom A. Wright.