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Muslim teens need space and support to find their voices

14 October 2015

Muslim teens throughout the Western world are looking for answers for the events around them, writes Hussain Nadim.

It is impossible to counter the radicalisation process, because it is simply part of growing up.
Hussain Nadim

Radicalisation is not exclusively bad, contrary to the common perception. This may come as a surprise to many people and for the right reason. It is, after all, commonly associated with terrorism and violence. But the truth is that radicalisation is a vast subject, the nuance of which is filtered when it is dumbed down for policy-making and public consumption.

The result is typically ill-conceived deradicalisation policies that don’t deliver. There is a need to revisit our understanding of radicalisation to understand why a 15-year-old Muslim kid resorted to violence recently in Parramatta.

Radicalisation is simply a process that triggers an individual to act in a particular way. It could well be positive or negative. This is an important distinction because through a separation of positive and negative radicalisation, Australia – and other countries – may be able to counter the negative and more violent forms, especially among Muslim youth.

The problem arises when the process is connoted as evil and attempts are made to counter it. I firmly believe it is impossible for the government to counter the radicalisation process because it is simply part of growing up. What must happen is an intervention at the right stage to ensure the energy is used for positive work rather than engaging in violent activities.

The process of radicalisation starts from the idea of learning and being inquisitive. It’s driven by questions on one’s identity and purpose, amid the pressures from global events. And these questions are universal to every child growing up in a globalised world, not just Muslims.

In the past decade there has been a rise in the number of radical youth joining militant organisations or Islamic State. But there was also a surge in positively radicalised youth through the mushrooming of youth-related organisations advocating for everything from international peace and religious harmony to nuclear disarmament and animal rights.

How a teen is treated and nurtured during these formative years really defines their trajectory. The problem with Muslim teens, and the reason they may turn to violent activities, is that their multiple identities make them vulnerable to all sorts of narratives – including that of Islamist militants.

More importantly for Muslim teens in the West, who do they talk to for answers while growing up? These kids have no forum to communicate their ideas and confusion.

Growing up in a Muslim household, to question is to sin, especially for questions related to religion or one’s identity as a Muslim. Most of the teens who have been radicalised are those who have a broken communication with their parents.

Parents’ inability to engage with their children on such questions – along with Muslim community leaders who don’t connect with youth – result in Muslim teens finding their answers in Islamic forums online, which can be recruiting grounds of Islamist jihad.

What then are we to expect of a 15-year-old who is being counselled on his identity and purpose of life by jihadist elements on social media? When militant groups become the primary source of information, political radicalisation leading to violent extremism is inevitable.

The most disturbing thing is how the propaganda of Islamist militants makes a lot of sense to these young Muslims. It is perhaps because the ultra-conservative Islamic ideas have already been drummed into the kids by their parents to protect them from what their parents see as ‘‘evils’’ of the Western society.

Muslim teens in the Western world are looking for answers to the events around them, and a way to consolidate their identity in a world where they are physically in Australia, but mentally and emotionally connected to the pains of those living in the Middle East. It’s at this stage when these teens are most vulnerable and the views of their mentors define their course of action.

If the Australian government is serious about countering violent extremism, it must approach radicalisation as a psychological issue that can be solved through the right parenting and counselling, rather than a security issue that requires only law enforcement. Policies such as a plan to lower the age where police can seek control orders on suspected terrorists aged 16 to 14 and running deradicalisation programs at high schools will only harness the ‘‘us versus them’’ divide, pushing Muslim youth towards negative radicalisation.

Within the process of radicalisation itself is the key to countering violent extremism – an intervention at the right stage can ensure that the next Muslim kid undergoing a teenage crisis does something positive and doesn’t take up a gun.

Hussain Nadim is a PhD candidate and co-ordinator of the South Asia Study Group at the University of Sydney. This article was originally published in The Sydney Morning Herald.

Jennifer Peterson-Ward

Assistant Media and PR Adviser (Division of Humanities and Social Sciences)

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