Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door
Give me your tired, your poor, your tired, poor. – The New Colossus (song derived from the sonnet)
There is a young woman of about 18 or 19 years of age who works in a supermarket in my area. She looks pretty normal in all aspects except for one. Whenever you get her on the cash register, she goes on and on about how great Allah is. When one explores it with her, you discover that she has become consumed by the romanticism that she perceives in a faith that in her words is struggling to throw off the yoke of unfair oppression in an effort to unite the whole world in a single faith consumed by love.
In fact, she goes on about it so much that I wouldn’t be surprised to see her named as the next young woman to board a plane for Syria to fight for the cause she rants about.
But as I listen closely to what she is saying and how she responds to my questions, I can see why she perceives her world the way she does.
She feels lost in a world that to her looks cruel, heartless, pitiless and without hope and she has thus become a target for someone who is showing her “the love”.
As I think about her and as radicalization continues to grow, whether it be in prisons or more frighteningly, within our youth, I can’t help but wonder if we are treating the symptom rather than the cure when it comes to extremist recruitment.
In fairness, there are some excellent sources of information out there to increase awareness and impact of radicalization. The best one I have seen to-date has been published by the RCMP in Canada and can be found here. There is some interesting and useful information on the Extreme Dialogue website as well although some of it appears to be too feel-good for my liking.
However, I think we are missing an important element when it comes to preventing the radicalization of our youth and it’s in the notion that we are not approaching our youth from their perspective and how they became vulnerable and disenfranchised in the first place.
How do they get this way?
They look around their world, either local or further afield, and they make observations based on their own perceptions, creating a reality that is often not accurate or helpful.
They look at their parents, their government leaders, their corporate leaders, their religious leaders and the like and they make decisions correctly or incorrectly that the people they look up to are either letting them down, accidentally hurting them or purposefully interfering with them.
Some of them have been abused, bullied or hurt in other ways in their childhood.
Some have fallen prey to substance abuse or are in need of support for mental health concerns.
Some merely have low self-esteem and are prey to someone “who cares”.
They then amplify their own perceptions through the news media, social media, etc., cherry-picking the information that supports their perceptions and deepens their anger and disenchantment with pretty much everything. The news media is particularly culpable – have you seen much news praising leaders and others lately or do they mostly project news of corruption, malice and other things that further prevent many from seeing hope in the world?
As their perceptions are reinforced, their personal resolve and ability to rationally rise above the difficulties they face, either real or perceived, weakens, thus making them extremely easy targets for anyone recruiting them. Anyone who promises love, attention or respect or offers them a better world than the world they perceive will become an instant hero and best friend to them.
The vulnerable are easily picked out of crowds, easily approached and easily befriended.
Once they have been befriended, they become the property of the person who seeks to control or direct their behavior and the rest of us who care are already in a losing battle.
We must do better …. earlier …. much earlier.
The Bottom Line
While “having a conversation” with our children appears to be the mantra that many are promoting, remember that merely having a conversation with someone whose perceptions have taken root and been nurtured / reinforced for years is not going to be enough. This is especially true if the person seeking to redirect their behavior for evil purposes gets more of their time and exploits their weaknesses more effectively than the time and effort we put in to shore up their weaknesses.
It’s like taking a lifetime of problems to a psychologist and expecting solutions to manifest by seeing them for one hour once a year.
Promoting diversity awareness, the love-cures-all approach, etc. to the disenfranchised doesn’t work either. They have already reached the point of not listening to that which they do not want to hear and so this will likely create more agitation in them. It may make for good preventative measures but for the MANY who feel like they have lost sight of their Path, it’s going to mean very little if anything.
It is true that helping people, including in the areas of preventing radicalization, starts with knowledge and a conversation.
But a scratch-the-surface conversation doesn’t mean much unless we get to the heart of what troubles someone and makes them prone to be radicalized in the first place.
That conversation takes a lot more effort and often requires more time, knowledge, effort and support from all of us than we realize.
Are we ready to put in that effort?
Because if we are not, then everything else we try is merely a band-aid or makes good PR for someone who wants to show that they are doing something when instead they are merely demonstrating the marked difference between activity and productivity.
And so the next time a young person is recruited, we won’t be able to blame the recruiters.
We will only have ourselves to blame and merely prove the following adage:
Mediocrity - It takes a lot less time and most people won't notice the difference until it's too late.
We can either treat the symptoms (the radicalization) or the disease (the sense of vulnerability and disenchantment that enables radicalization).
Which do you think is better?
In service and servanthood,