There is a gap in the Government’s approach to combatting radicalization. In an effort to stem the tide of radicalisation, tens of millions of dollars are being spent; seemingly with little affect. In this feature, Anooshe Mushtaq explores the experiences of young Muslims who are on the frontline of this battle and tries to identify the missing ingredient.
Migrating to another country is full of challenges, no matter how similar the cultures of the countries may be. There is a change and adjustment period required to assimilate into the new surroundings. Most immigrants leave an entire ecosystem behind that they spent most of their lives building. The elation of starting a new life is often underpinned by a cultural shock leading to feelings of alienation and confusion. There are feelings of loss of a world migrants knew but is no longer accessible.
My family’s migration from Pakistan to Australia, when I was a young teenager in 1985, was rife with challenges as well. While I was fortunate enough to have parents who encouraged me to get an education and adapt to this new world, this was not the case for many people I associated with in the Australian Muslim community. Some people in the migrant Pakistani community had become prisoners in their own homes and created a new ecosystem for the sake of cultural and religious preservation.
After 30 years in Australia, the turbulent years of settling, understanding and accepting the Australian way of life are a distant memory for me. Australia is home, it is my way of life and this is where I belong. This is a life starkly different to the one that I was groomed for in my early years. Life in Pakistan was about conformity. We were raised to believe that our actions were directly linked to rewards and punishment in the afterlife. We were told not to question the dictums of religion or anyone who was an authority on religion. Respect for elders and teachers formed the basis of our upbringing and acceptance and admiration of the community was a part of our core beliefs.
My parents, although religious, were not conservative compared to a vast majority of the people we associated. They raised my two sisters and me to be independent and educated. I guess it had something to do with the fact that my father was in the Pakistan Air Force and life in the armed forces is generally more progressive as opposed to civilian life. Nonetheless, I grew up knowing that social and religious acceptance needed to shape my thoughts and actions.
Deviation from cultural norms was unacceptable to my parents and the wider community and I was left in no doubt that my indiscretions were linked to punishment in the afterlife. We were raised to believe that this world is only temporary, existing merely to test our faith. Everything we did in this world was an investment in the afterlife and the rewards it held for us.
An example of this focus on the afterlife is seen in the teaching of the Quran to young children. From a young age I learnt to read the Quran in Arabic because we earned more reward in the afterlife by reading the Quran in its original language. This is the general consensus in Pakistan and people pride themselves on how quickly they can read the Quran in a foreign language. The issue I found with this practice was that I never understood what I was reading. If I never understood it, I could not question it. I had to rely on the interpretations of the Imams and elders in order to understand the teachings of the Quran.
When I found out what the teachings were, I was not allowed to question them because there were gruesome punishments in the afterlife for doing so. The cultural norm of not questioning those in authority allowed those with religious authority to tightly control people’s deep understanding of religion and subsequently their behaviours. The truth is that Quran does not dictate you read it without gaining a strong understanding of what it is meant to say. The practice of reading without understanding is a triumph of tradition over religion.
Growing up in Pakistan, I came to realize at an early age that the relationship between my parents and I was not one based on freedom of speech. This is the norm in Pakistan, and I would go as far as to say, the greater Muslim world. Children may have opinions only as long as they are prepared to have them overridden by the elders. If your parents or the Imam say that milk is black, you just have to accept it.
Children and parents discuss certain issues relating to education, religion and general topics, but when it comes to sensitive issues like relationships, dating, pregnancy, homosexuality and sex, these are a taboo and not open for discussion without vilification from the parents. This is something I will refer to later on as a contributor to radicalization process.
I am not an expert in terrorism, radicalization or psychology but I have seen and experienced firsthand the metamorphosis of thought processes in the Muslim migrant community. I noticed that some parents prohibited their children from going out with their friends who were non-Muslim and the children were confined to the homes and only allowed to go out when accompanied by their parents.
Some migrant parents feared losing their identity and culture if their children were to assimilate in the Australian way of life. As a result, some children start living a double life; a traditional one in the house and one aligned to western culture outside – both polar opposites. Isolation tends to put pressure on children who feel torn between the society they now live in and the demands of their cultural background.
The pressure on children is increased by the common practice of parents comparing their own children to others and trying to motivate their own children to do better so they can be like the ‘others’. This is very common in our culture. You might liken this to the infamous “Tiger Mum” phenomenon. During the early years of growing up in Australia the high expectations of doing well in school, while conforming to religion and avoiding socialising with the non-Muslims resulted in some children, including me, feeling isolated. These kids would spend a lot of time in their rooms where they could have some alone time or invite friends over and spend time in the safety of their own homes.
If we compare that to recent times, the availability of social media on tap has made it easy for children to access all kinds of messages at any time, especially when they are locked up in their rooms in isolation and with little guidance. The confused messages that these children receive in their everyday lives (the cocktail of culture and religion) and the fear of approaching their parents to question these messages can push children deeper into the world of social media with little supervision.
I believe that this is one of the main reasons why international militants use social media to spread their message to the target audience – the young and impressionable youth who are isolated and want to prove they have done something to achieve reward in the afterlife. Since this world is a temporary place according to what they are taught, and they need to earn an eternity of happiness in the afterlife, they feel that joining the cause of militants is the best way to earn that eternity of happiness.
Just because Australia is geographically removed from the rest of the world is no reason for complacency when it comes to permeation of messages being spread by international militant groups. Social media and technology has blurred geographical boundaries with a global reach in real time. The key messages of Islam that resonate with the Muslim youth are repositioned and disseminated in such a way that some youth feel it is their duty to oblige. Their limited understanding of the real teachings of Quran means they listen to those who are seemingly authorities in Islam, and as I mentioned earlier, they don’t question it.
Kalima Tayyab, which forms the basis of Islam and the ultimate declaration of faith, is used by the militants as their logo, for example Islamic State use Kalima Tayyab on their flag. This creates an immediate visual connection to Islam and its fundamental values which we were brought up with. This is a strategic way to eliminate prejudicial barriers of the target audience against these groups. It makes the promulgation of messages easier.
Youth that are trying to live a regular life but are fueled by the negative messages in the media against Islam and want to prove something and fight this increasing prejudice against the Muslims. Joining these militant groups has several benefits in their view.
Firstly, they are told they will earn Jannah (Islamic concept for Heaven) and all the rewards that are offered in the afterlife; secondly, they are keen to prove to the wider community that they have done something that ‘others’ were not capable of; thirdly, they are made to feel like they are the ambassadors of Allah (God) and given more importance and recognition than they received at home.
There is a gap in the Government’s approach to combatting radicalization. In an effort to stem the tide of radicalization, tens of millions of dollars are being spent, seemingly with little effect. The drivers of radicalization are complex and multifaceted, influenced not only by religion but by culture and tradition. Addressing the issue of radicalization requires us to better understand its real drivers. The drivers are laced with religious and cultural nuance that is simply not understood by experts from outside the community. Community members who understand these nuances must be involved in designing and implementing interventions if we wish them to succeed.
The issue is complicated by the strained relationship between the Muslim community, the Government and the media. Many in the community feel under siege. There is a strong feeling in the community that the media targets Muslims and encourages their vilification. We must overcome this mistrust if we are to work together to combat radicalization. Without greater cultural insight and rebuilt trust, efforts to combat radicalization will be met with cynicism and ultimately, they will fail.