LONDON — What is it that makes young Muslims in the West susceptible to radicalism? What is it about the experience of the West’s rising generation of Muslims that leads a small minority to see violence as a solution to their economic and political dilemmas, and suicide as their reward and salvation?
Britain, which will soon mark the anniversary of last year’s bombings in London, provides a test case for seeking answers to these questions. For young British Muslims, our globalized world challenges key beliefs, destabilizing their identity and thus encouraging a defensive response.
British citizenship, of course, guarantees freedom of expression and minority rights, and young Muslims take full advantage of this. Yet they are using this freedom to deepen family and cultural ties to the closed world of their inherited Muslim identity, particularly its politics.
In practice, this means that many young Muslims are utterly preoccupied with events in the Arab and Muslim world. They see what we see: a region where autocratic countries seem corrupt and paralyzed. But they also see an unprecedented level of hostility from the West, with regime after regime seeming to be either in peril or facing chaos. Afghanistan, Iraq, Palestine, and now Iran: All seem to be under attack as part of the “global war on terror.”
As a result, the West’s strategic choices appear inherently anti-Islamic to countless of its young Muslims.
This preoccupation with the Middle East is at the heart of young Muslims’ politics at British universities, mosques and Web sites. Although most do not support Pakistan’s President Pervez Musharraf, Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak, or the al-Saud family, they see hypocrisy in Western criticism of these leaders that is designed to manipulate and marginalize — after all, the West does not really want to push these regimes too far.
Access to the Internet, satellite television and travel is drawing these young Muslims into a community that shares their vision and their rage. So technology is heightening the tensions that exist between the mechanics of a modern free society and the sense of a vast conspiracy against Muslims. This has led to a schism between the hopes young Muslims have for successful lives in the West and their aspirations for their Muslim brothers and sisters, who have suffered so many terrible disappointments.
As young Muslims in Britain (and across the West) try to maneuver between the various, and often conflicting, aspects of their identity, three clear tendencies have emerged:
A secular and pragmatic response, which makes Islam a private matter;
A conservative stance that reconciles cultural, religious and familial ties with “Britishness”;
A radical response to the perceived collision between the foreign policies of their new homelands and the welfare of the Islamic world.
Messianic waves from the Middle East, reaching both schools and mosques, help draw young Muslims into radicalism. One such wave is created by the hardline Saudi/Wahhabi education system, which is based on the concept of al-walaf wa al baraf, loyalty to the system and hostility to the infidels.
This curriculum, exported Westward by fat Saudi subsidies, is heavily punctuated with denunciations of the infidels and calls to jihad. Designed to secure the legitimacy of the Saudi monarchy at home, it is indoctrinating young Western Muslims with values antithetical to open and free societies.
Britain’s government is beginning to recognize the danger and is trying to clamp down on schools and mosques that spread hate. Unfortunately, such repression has been merely reactive and shortsighted, with no clear long-term vision about the nature of Islamic education in the West. Thus it merely feeds young Muslims’ fears that they are being singled out for persecution.
One difficulty with the British government’s response is that it classifies all Muslims as just that: Muslim. By defining people on the basis of their religion, nuances — of national identity or of the degree of orthodoxy — are lost. This plays into the hands of radicals, because it makes Islam the central element of identity.
This process, indeed, is echoed in the 22 Arab countries where religious orthodoxy rules out any significant liberal political opposition. In such circumstances, the mosque becomes the sole public space in which people can voice political views. Politicization of the mosque has, sadly, also become the norm in Britain.
Islamic radicalization and terror need not continue to flourish in the West. Regardless of their disappointments with the Western countries’ foreign policy, young Muslims have been exposed to their undeniable democratic spirit. They may now seek a deeper connection to their Muslim identity, but having learned to question authority, they are unlikely to accept rigid parental or Islamic traditions. Like other young people around them, they want to be the agents of their own destiny.
This desire is changing Islam, especially in the West. The basic texts remain the same, but their interpretation, and the application of religion in people’s lives, has not. Young Muslims, particularly in the West, are setting an example that is slowly being echoed in the Middle East, despite massive state repression.
The task for Western policymakers is to recognize the interconnection of foreign and domestic policies. They must become serious about backing legitimate democratic representation in Muslim countries, for only then will Western policy seem less hypocritical. They must also ensure that career choices are as open to their Muslim citizens as they are to everyone else.
In short, young Muslims in the West need to believe that democratic principles are respected abroad and applied equally at home. Only when such a belief becomes general will despair stop fueling terrorism, and suicide bombing come to be viewed as an obscene calling.