Why do some young people find extremist ideologies appealing?
The unique challenges and opportunities facing Muslim youth, who are growing up immersed in social media in the post-September 11 world, make them a particular target for violent extremist recruiters. There are 1.6 billion Muslims in the world today — a number that is expected to grow to nearly 2.8 billion in 2050. This increase is due to the youthful nature of the global Muslim population and fertility rates that exceed the world’s average. In the Middle East and South Asia, nearly two-thirds of the population is younger than 30 and increasing rapidly.
While the vast majority of Muslim youth are peaceful and hopeful, tectonic cultural, political, and social changes — brought on by September 11 and its aftermath, globalization, the erosion of traditional societies and influencers, the rapid evolution of technology, widespread displacement, and urban migration have created an opening for violent extremists to shape their world view. These dynamics are expected to transform the trajectory of Muslim-majority and non-Muslim majority countries over the next few decades.
If we fail to act, we could lose an entire generation and see communities and countries ripped apart.
Motivations and Drivers
Violent extremism is not caused by any single factor or grievance. It grows out of an intolerant world view in which violence is the primary medium of exchange and society is a means to an end. That said, nearly 15 years of global research has shed light on why some people are attracted to violent extremism while others are not.
Experts have identified intersecting “push” and “pull” factors often operating within fragile, oppressive, or conflicted-affected environments that help to explain this phenomenon.
Structural conditions, including real and perceived marginalization, grievances, and experiences of injustice or corruption, may push individuals into joining a violent extremist organization, while radical recruitment narratives, propaganda, and social ties to extremist networks work to pull them in. Psychological factors, such as impulsive, thrill-seeking behavior or a desire to exact revenge or right perceived wrongs, are also thought to play a role in the radicalization process.
Unfortunately, radicalization models cannot predict who will become a terrorist. There is no single pathway into terrorism and no archetypal violent extremist.
Violent extremists are not simply marginalized misfits. They are no more likely to suffer from mental illness than the average person. Many are married and have children. Contrary to popular perceptions, violent extremists are often well-off, employed, and educated. Nor is violent extremism simply rooted in religious devotion. Religious fluency, in fact, can help individuals challenge extremist ideas and narratives.
In spite of the diversity of paths that may lead a person to take up the banner of violent extremism, there does appear to be a common thread. Throughout the world, many Muslim millennials suffer from a profound identity crisis. From Boston to Paris, Nairobi to Dhaka, young Muslims are struggling to find purpose and belonging and overcome an unshakable sense of emptiness or “otherness.” Reflecting on conversations with young Muslims in over 80 countries, senior adviser to the CVE Commission and commissioner, Farah Pandith explained,
“They are questioning what it means to be modern and Muslim in a globalized and interconnected world.”
Violent extremists provide seemingly authentic answers to these questions, offering a way to reconcile religious identity and modernity and to find glory, redemption, or simply a way out of their current situation.
Joining a violent extremist movement is, for many, an aspirational social act — an opportunity to gain power, prestige, and status; to address the abuses suffered by their coreligionists; or to participate in a utopian effort to remake the world.
In this sense, violent extremists offer something universally appealing: a chance to participate in an enterprise larger than one’s self. This search for identity plays out differently depending on one’s circumstances. In some countries where Muslims are in the minority, they face systematic disenfranchisement and injustice. Muslims are often passed over for jobs simply because of their last name or address. For example, a 2010 study indicated that French Muslims of Middle Eastern or North African descent were 2.5 times less likely to receive a call back from an interview than their Christian counterparts. Moreover, Muslims are often physically separated from society, as seen in the banlieues, a pejorative term for the impoverished and neglected neighborhoods on the outskirts of Paris.
The failure to integrate generations of Muslim immigrants, particularly in Western countries, sends the message that they will never be truly accepted as equal and valued members of society. Immigrants in Germany, for example, encounter an education system that forces young people to choose their course of study in their early teens, disadvantaging those who are nonnative German speakers. In the Netherlands, the Dutch word used for individuals born outside the country or with at least one parent born outside the country, allochtoon, is often applied more broadly to those who are nonwhite and not “indigenous” to the soil. This usage creates a second class of citizens, including Muslims, who are labeled as outsiders even if they were born and have lived their entire lives in the Netherlands. The response from some Muslims in the West has been to reject assimilation and adopt an inflexible, unfavorable view of Western culture and ideals. According to an individual incarcerated in the United States for linkages to terrorism,
“I was so bitter. I felt discriminated against as an African American man in America, but also as a Muslim. I felt like Muslims in America were being targeted as the enemies, and this exclusionary treatment led me to seek answers from the wrong people. I went down the wrong path.”
This dynamic may be exacerbated in countries where the government attempts to impose secularism on its citizens, demanding that national identity take precedence over religious or cultural identity. These efforts can backfire. Banning religious dress or symbols, in a bid to preserve the dominant cultural identity, contributes to “us vs. them” narratives manipulated by violent extremists. Researchers have found that Francophone countries, which have taken a particularly hard line on questions of secularism and identity, have proven to be fruitful recruiting grounds for ISIS. Of course, Muslim-minority countries do not have a monopoly on the ill treatment of Muslims. In many Muslim-majority countries, minority sects experience unrelenting persecution, from the Ahmadiyya of Pakistan to Iran’s Sufis to the Shi’a in Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
In countries in which opportunity is lacking and injustice is prevalent, terrorist recruiters offer a way out. Studies have found that a profound sense of injustice and alienation from formal state structures can motivate young people to join terrorist groups. There is also a significant correlation between gross human rights abuses — such as extrajudicial killings, arbitrary detention, and policies undermining religious freedom — and a high incidence of terror attacks. In fact, 92 percent of all terrorist attacks over the past 25 years occurred in countries where state-sponsored political violence was widespread. As one former extremist in London explained, “if you are living under a dictatorship, people will look for an outlet because they are already facing injustice and inequality.”
These environments are often also characterized by poverty, un- and underemployment, and widespread corruption. Former Canadian extremist Mubin Sheikh noted that,
“Young men and women [in Africa] are getting compensated to join groups like Boko Haram… these people are getting jobs that they otherwise wouldn’t have access to in such impoverished and corrupt regions. Boko Haram has oil money, and they are using that money to lure people in.”
Frustrated expectations, combined with an unrealistic assessment of risk — common among youth — can create a dangerous cocktail when youth do not have the means to shape their own future.
However, with concerted action and resources behind the strategy proposed in this report, we can dramatically reduce the appeal of extremist ideologies and enable youth to harness their immense potential, advancing prosperity, innovation, and peace within their societies.