Preparing young minds for challenges
By: Alaa Alghamdi
As we have just reached the 13th anniversary of 9/11, and as news reports unveil renewed US action targeting radical groups, it is time for another introspective and comprehensive look at this phenomenon. Just a few days ago, the Arab League called for measures to combat extremism. The consternation regarding extremism is natural and justified. But why are we still stuck in this quagmire? What fuels religious extremism, and how can it be prevented? Prevention, I think we would all agree, is preferable to combative or reactionary measures.
It goes without saying, and requires no reiteration here, that the majority of Muslims do not espouse extremist views. Nor is there anything inherent in Islam to make it a warlike faith — quite the contrary. Extremism exists on the fringes of faith and society. It is very unfortunate, though understandable, that those fringes disproportionately receive the world’s attention. I believe that religious extremism is reactionary and politicized in and of itself, using faith only as its backdrop.
Religious identity is not purely a spiritual matter. It is inherently cultural, religion being one aspect of identity and belonging. Thus, restrictions placed on a group — political, economic, and other — may evoke enmity that is expressed in religious terms. This has happened within the context of all major religious groups, at one time or the other. To cite just one example, the Christian Crusades were an aggressive attempt to capture land that had never been Christian, under religious pretensions. It would be no stretch of the imagination to say that those who volunteered for such an enterprise were extremists. But extremism does not arise out of nowhere. What was driving the action was an interlocking set of urgent motivations and persistent circumstances: The economic need for a trade route to the East, the formidable onslaught of Ottoman invasions to be repelled, the need to consolidate the faith within Europe, and the concentration of power in the office of the Pope — the only unifying authority in a continent of competing and often unstable kingdoms.
There is no question that social conditions were adding fuel to the fire of religious extremism, though religion itself may often provide the zealous flames. It might be best to view extremism as a desperate grasp at powerful identity and identification in the face of multiple threats.
The problem is that a narrowly defined identity is both inappropriate and ineffective in today’s world — a world in which, through economic and cultural globalization, differences rapidly disappear.
It is a matter of some urgency that we cultivate a generation of young people who can withstand perceived threats to their identity, and whose inner sense of identity is intact and stable — not vulnerable to manipulation by charismatic leaders and desperate causes. How can we achieve this? Studies show that children who are encouraged to think for themselves, to think critically, and to make informed choices even from an early age are far less susceptible as young adults to the lures of radical conformity. Extreme conformity is, of course, a hallmark of extremism itself.
We all identify with our collective history and culture, but it is dangerous for these external elements to be our only source of identity. In educating children, therefore, it may be worthwhile to introduce them, neutrally, to various world cultures, pointing out commonalities as well as differences. Educators and parents must help our young people find their place in an ever-expanding world, fostering a sense of belonging that is robust rather than fragile, along with a social structure capable of meeting individual and group needs. Perhaps the only way we can successfully combat extremism is by creating a society and a world that had no more need of it.