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Radicalization of Young Muslims
Dr. Kathryn Seifert, Trauma and Violence Expert Dr. Kathryn Seifert, Trauma and Violence Expert
For Immediate Release:
Dateline: Baltimore, MD
Saturday, November 28, 2015


The Problem

 Radicalization can be defined as the acceptance or use of violence or undemocratic means to achieve political or ideological goals.  It can also mean the destruction of democracy (Lindekilde, 2010). It is most often applied to the radicalization of young Muslims that believe that all people should follow the strictest interpretation of the ancient form of the Muslim faith or be destroyed.  Included in that belief system is the idea that government should be an Islamic run state using Sharia law.

The Muslim Council of Calgary (MCC) called for programs to end radicalization.  Imam Syed Soharwardy of Calgary has stated that Imams that teach hate and violence are a very small percentage of all Muslims worldwide.  However, this small group is growing and is causing great damage and grief and needs to be stopped and prevented from converting new recruits.

Professor Aaron Hughes, an ex-professor of religious studies at the University of Calgary (CBC News, June 25, 2014) stated that he had been concerned about the radicalization of Muslim students in Calgary for several years.  When it was discovered that several Muslims from Calgary went to fight jihad in Iraq and Syria, concern began to grow.  In recent years there have been many calls by citizens of Calgary to intervene in the radicalization process which is occurring there.  The most effective efforts will be to connect the local groups and individuals which have ongoing processes and expertise in stopping radicalization.

 The research report prepared for the Centre for Studies in Islamism and Radicalization (CIR) by the Department of Political Science at Aarhus University, Denmark in January 2010 indicated that there is not a single model that fits all accounts of Muslim radicalization.  There appear to be several paths which sub-groups of radicals follow toward violent jihad: lone wolf self-radicalization, prison radicalization of gang members, radicalization of Muslims in communities where they feel rejected by and disenfranchised from the larger community and neo-orthodox Muslims which seek an idealized Islamic run political state.  These routes involve multiple markers pointing members toward violence against non-combatants and a non-democratic, Islamic state as a desired goal.       

Several writers have described the process of radicalization.  The stages are Pre-radicalization, self-identification through a cognitive opening, indoctrination, gathering with like-minded persons (except lone wolf), and ‘jihadization’ (Bhatt, 2007).  Not all people follow all the steps in the same order and there are drop outs.  However, those that follow all of the steps are most likely to follow jihadi-Salafi Islam as their own ideology and carry out violent acts against non-believers.

Radicalization takes place in multiple settings including: Mosques, prisons, families, hard line Imams, reading material, certain interpretations of the Koran and material on the internet.  In Mosques that do not hold services in the host country’s native language, Muslim youth may be less well educated on Muslim ideas and principals and seek answers in their own language.  Radical Muslims will provide their interpretation of Islam to these young people and can move them in the direction of radicalization.  In prisons and youth facilities, peer group affiliation is often a survival strategy and is quite common.  Gangs and Radical Muslims fill that need and are always looking for new recruits.  They teach recruits one small, slanted sliver of Islamic ideology that supports their interpretation of Islam.  They teach and practice intolerance of freedom of speech and religion and secular political structures.   The importance of power over women and children becomes an important part of their practices, as well.

A cognitive opening is a pre-existing condition or belief system that creates an opening for the planting of the seeds for jihadi-Salafi Islamic ideology.  It is a necessary step in radicalization.  These openings can happen at one or more of 3 essential and universal developmental critical stages: Early childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood. Each of these stages provide the opportunity for a person to become attached to humanity through their families in early childhood, their peers in adolescence and significant others and meaningful life work in early adulthood.  Failure to achieve these milestones leaves an opening or a need for connection to others which is unyielding in its drive to belong.

Some young people that have been drawn into radical Islam have trauma histories similar to many other children who become violent in their teens and in early adulthood without the trappings of radical Islam.  These include children raised in domestic violence and misogyny in their homes and with histories of child abuse and neglect which lead to failure to develop important skills such as anger and self-management, problem solving, appropriate interpersonal relationships and empathy (van der Kolk, 2003; Tremblay, 2005).

The second developmental stage that allows young people the opportunity to attach to humankind and develop the skills needed to be a pro-social part of society is adolescence.  Events negatively affecting this stage of development are bullying, peer rejection, and lack of success in school which is a precursor to life’s work.  Negative events related to young Muslim men in particular are social alienation from western society and Islamaphobia in western culture.  In many ways, radicalization is similar to gang recruitment.  If there is an opening due to discontent or unmet needs and adult guidance is lacking, a recruiter can try to win over a young person with radical propaganda. 

All people need to be on a path to gaining personal significance of meaning (SAMHSA) by adulthood to achieve an important adult developmental milestone and adult health and wellness.  Failure of the quest for personal significance can result in isolation and anger and a continued seeking for a place to belong and “make a difference.  If a Muslim cannot find satisfaction in that arena in the Western world, he or she can be swayed by a radical recruiter to seek it in Jihad.

The joining of a group in a prison or youth center can be a survival strategy.  Failure to join a gang or being kicked out of a gang because of one’s ethnicity, religion or one’s violent temper and uncontrollability makes one a prime candidate for radical Muslim recruiters.  The need for power or a having the characteristics of a psychopath would be ego-syntonic with violent jihad, as well.  Once convinced that jihad would be a way for a young person to express their natural inclinations, it would be easy recruiting. The recruiters often use just a part of Islamic ideology that is consistent with the recruit’s existing belief system to draw them into the group and then to keep them in the group with propaganda. 

A portion of Muslims with a vulnerability to radicalization have some form of untreated mental illness.  They are subject to delusions and psychoses that affect their thinking and their perceptions of reality.  Persons with mental illness may have difficulty with interpersonal relationships, also.  They can be influenced by a skilled radical recruiter when they are not in treatment for their illness and when they are using illegal substances.  The self-radicalized lone wolf is more likely to be mentally ill than the radicalized youth that joins a group.

Additionally, there are debates that we will need to have as a society and may be at the root of the clash between radical Islam and western democracy.   Where is the line for freedom of speech?  Is it OK to disrespect another man’s religion?  Is the line changing?  Can an Islamic state co-exist, side by side, with a secular democracy?  What are the rights of individuals vs. the safety of groups? The "Arab Spring" is extremely counter to the Islamic State.  Can they co-exist?

 Prevention and Solutions

Professionals that work with youth need to help youth meet goals of belonging to a peer group and receive adult guidance.  Without pro-social adult guidance they can be drawn to adults that praise them and give them purpose, albeit an anti-social one.  We must become as good as gang leaders and radical recruiters in drawing in young Muslims that are looking for a place to belong.  Parents, community leaders, volunteers. And professionals need to help youth meet goals toward a vocation, as well.  Young vulnerable Muslims need to have dialogues among those of different religions and backgrounds to teach that there can be differences of opinion and they can still have respect for each other.  We must teach tolerance and diversity.  For those that have mental illness and substance abuse, identification and treatment is needed.  For those with risk factors for violence risk reduction plans are needed. 

We must use community influence to reduce any media attention to violent radicals.

Adolescence, politics, society and religion can be very confusing for youth. They need parents and other adults to help them understand Islam, democracy, freedom of speech, misogyny, individual rights, and participation in society in a prosocial way.  Parents and teachers and Imams can help explain Islam in a modern world that does not require the use of violence.

Parents can have ongoing discussions with their children about diversity and respect.  Parents can watch for signs of radicalization and get help for their children when they see those signs (CBC News, 2014).

Communities can do much, as well.  Imams can interpret Islam in a modern world to youth.  Moderate Muslims can speak out against violent Islam.  Diversity activities and multi-denominational activities can teach tolerance and respect for other religions.  For example, "Love for all, hatred for none" is the motto of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community who joined a nationwide campaign dubbed ‘Stop The Crisis,’ taking a stand against radicalization of youth and the extremist influence of ISIS.  Organizations can counter terrorist propaganda online in social media which is where many youth get their information.  Law enforcement and moderate Muslims can work together to divert young Muslims into positive activities where they can be influenced by more moderate ideas.

It would also be important to have public service educational campaigns to stop domestic violence and child abuse as a precursor to violence.  Where family violence has taken place, make treatment mandatory.  When a young person is at risk for violent acting out, create a violence risk reduction plan.  Follow the plan to reduce the risk for future violence. 

Dr. Kathryn Seifert is a leading voice internationally in the areas of violence, mental health, criminal justice and addictions. The CEO of Eastern Shore Psychological Services (ESPS), Dr. Seifert specializes in the assessment and treatment of individuals who are at risk for violence and/or suffering from attachment disorders. 

She has frequently appeared on national networks to discuss violence and mental health, appearing on Anderson Cooper 360 on CNN, the Huffington Post Live, Discovery ID, Fox News, and CBC in Canada. Dr. Seifert has written two books on the subject; the first, How Children Become (Acanthus Publishing 2006), was awarded the 2007 IPPY (Independent Book Publishers Award) bronze medal in the Psychology/Mental Health Category, and her second book, Youth Violence: Theory, Prevention, and Intervention (Springer Publishing 2011), is frequently utilized in the professional community and in courses and training sessions. 

As an expert contributor for Psychology Today, Dr. Seifert's blog, "Stop the Cycle," has amassed over 150,000 views in the last two years. 

Dr. Seifert has lectured in Italy, Canada, the Netherlands, and across the United States. Past conferences and events include Maryland Psychological Association Annual Conference, Pennsylvania's NAMI Cherry Blossom Charity Ball, and the Conference on the Federal Response to Reducing Gun Violence, which took place following the Sandy Hook tragedy and was headlined by Vice President Joe Biden. 

She is currently finalizing her upcoming book, Failure to Attach: The Why Behind Terrorists and Mass Murderers, which will be published later this year.

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