In recent days we’ve witnessed six Canadian youth disappearing into thin air—likely heading for ISIS and three UK girls also recently slipped into Turkey, presumably ISIS bound. Western youth heading out to join the Caliphate is an increasing concern for all Western nations. It started in drips but the stream is increasing as disenchanted Muslim youth begin to believe the ideology that al Qaeda spent years erecting and that ISIS is now building upon.
Utopian fantasies and adventures are always appealing to youth. The euphoria of declaring a Caliphate, invoking end-times beliefs and claiming to build a society built upon Islamic ideals is of course contagious. What can we do to protect those who might answer the ISIS call? Can schools and parents make a difference?
Some might say once you’re indoctrinated, anything your parents tell you won’t help. Kids are strong-willed, stubborn—how many kids listen to their parents? Why is jihad any different than drugs or sex?
But I don’t agree.
The fight against ISIS begins with good parenting and begins at home as much as it does with resolving the political crises plaguing the Middle East, bringing justice to Muslim hotspots and delegitimizing a “jihadi” ideology that is poisonous and destructive to those who swallow it.
While governments are telling parents to warn their kids off of ISIS, it’s not a simple warning parents need to give their teenagers. It’s a whole outlook on life and training to be full human beings that will work. If parents raise their kids from early on—well before they become teens—to believe that force solves problems then they will automatically respond to calls to use force. If discipline is carried out by striking our children—in anger for instance—rather than thoughtfully and lovingly disciplining them the final outcome will be very different.
A child that is nurtured from an early age to become empathetic, verbal and sensitive will learn to use skills that will make him more prone to peaceful resolutions of problems. Gentle, kind, loving and sensitive parenting produces a thoughtful child who considers many responses—not just the knee-jerk response of jihad. Mosques and preschools might want to consider lessons in parenting that can pay off as children age..
Likewise giving a child the skills for critical thinking also helps her to avoid becoming easily indoctrinated by an ideology full of holes. And just like drugs and sex, parents need to talk to and be up to date with their young. If you don’t acknowledge the dangers that exist in the outside world—including the false call to “jihad”—it doesn’t make them go away. And Muslim children need to understand their faith—so some stranger doesn’t come and wrongly interpret it for them. In Chechnya for instance we found that those who went for suicide terrorism were much more likely to have not been raised with an in-depth understanding of their faith and were thus more prone to becoming indoctrinated by Wahhabi violent beliefs popular with terrorists at that time.
Schools have also influence and teachers as well as parents need to inculcate early on the understanding that terrorism is always wrong. There is NO cause, anywhere in the world that justifies intentionally targeting civilians and killing innocents in order to advance a political gain. None.
Al-Qaeda skillfully changed a whole generation of Muslim thinkers to believe first that suicide terrorism was justified in certain cases, i.e. for the Palestinians under occupation facing a much better armed enemy, or for Iraqis or Afghanis whose countries were invaded by foreign forces. But we need to teach our children that there is never any place for terrorist acts any place in the world. And when our own government engages in actions where collateral damage outweighs the targeted goal we need to cry out against that as well.
The idea that ISIS can build an ideal Islamic State imposing its violent will upon Iraqis and Syrians is of course ludicrous. Examples of failures in utopia building abound—for instance the Soviet experiment of trying to impose communism at the expense of the blood of millions of its murdered citizens. Utopias never pan out. Whether the terror of a government imposing its will upon its people or the terror of a group enacting political violence, it is always wrong. There are many skilled ways to discuss these issues in school curriculums in ways that can powerfully demonstrate the ideology of ISIS is illegitimate, as too is its use of terror and force. We need to invest serious resources into doing so if we want to save our youth.
That said, once intoxicated with the ISIS seductive call to jihad, adventure, sex and the utopian dream of living under Islamic ideals, no matter what the short term costs turn out to be—watch out. Adventure beckons and hormones are strong.
Anne Speckhard, Ph.D. is Adjunct Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Georgetown University in the School of Medicine, and of Security Studies in the School of Foreign Service. She is author of Talking to Terrorists and coauthor of Undercover Jihadi. She was responsible for designing the psychological and Islamic challenge aspects of the Detainee Rehabilitation Program in Iraq to be applied to twenty thousand detainees and eight hundred juveniles. She also has interviewed over four hundred terrorists, their family members and supporters in various parts of the world including Gaza, the West Bank, Chechnya, Iraq, Jordan and many countries in Europe.