Last year we witnessed surprising riots and fire in the streets of Stockholm, largely perpetrated by young men whose families originated in the Maghreb region of Africa. This is in Sweden, where official multiculturalism has lived. It looked like something we had seen previously in the suburbs of Paris. Young people, mostly young men of non-European extraction taking to the streets and setting cars and property ablaze. This in a nation that has favoured one French culture.
But here’s the thing: three of the four London subway attackers on July 7, 2005 were born in Britain — to parents of Pakistani origin. Some of the so-called “Toronto 18” were born in Canada. We are told that increasing numbers of young Canadian men have chosen to leave the comfort of home to join in the Syrian conflict.
Some call this “homegrown terrorism.” Why are young men – often the children of compliant immigrants – taking up arms against the civilizations in which their parents have chosen to put down roots?
Why are young men – often the children of compliant immigrants – taking up arms against the civilizations in which their parents have chosen to put down roots?
There are a number of contributing causes behind why the child of a hard-working immigrant family could so readily attack the adopted homeland of his parents. Many young European Muslims refuse the minority and marginal status their parents accepted.
It is not solely the children of immigrants who riot in the streets. In August 2011, riots in England were perpetrated by mostly mainstream youths. A majority of those who participated in the Vancouver hockey riot of June 2011 were drawn from the mainstream population.
However, there can be no denying that a malaise troubles second-generation Canadians – the children of immigrants appear to be fertile recruits for gangs of ethnic allegiance that foment violence or to go overseas and join someone else’s war.
Radicalized by the internet
In recent years, we have seen young people willingly sign up to support Al Qaeda and other such extremist iterations of Islam. We are told that these young people were radicalized by the internet. It must be a very susceptible brain that can be convinced to risk life and limb and to change religious practice simply based on an out-of-focus video from overseas and images of young men ridiculously calling out the name of the almighty while slaughtering others mercilessly. It takes more than an internet site and the words of a persuasive extremist to turn the heads of young men. No simple video is going to do that. As a TV Producer, I have to ask how a simple grainy video on the web can radicalize someone. There had to be fertile soil to start with.
As a TV Producer, I have to ask how a simple grainy video on the web can radicalize someone. There had to be fertile soil to start with.
Young men have always been susceptible to extremism. I recall when I was in university how many of my fellow students became involved or at the very least interested in the teachings of cults and extreme movements. Some of them changed their appearances and their names to follow the cults or to chant in the street. But none of them, as I recall, had a callous disregard for life.
We have young men eager to die over there or to risk everything to hatch a terror plot aimed at the institutions of Canadian society right here on our soil. ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) has recently paraded before us young Calgarians who have been drawn to their cause. In London, Ontario a young man of Chinese extraction and another of Greek Orthodox background joined with a fellow student who was a Muslim and the three of them went off to perpetrate acts of terror in North Africa in the name of Jihad. Two of them died. Meanwhile, a young man of French-Canadian extraction from Timmins Ontario forsook his home, changed his name, and found himself alone in the vicious Syrian theatre, where he lost his life.
The young men in France, the children of immigrants, are disaffected and disengaged and fall prey to a narrative of being disrespected in their cultures and their faith. Many of their parents immigrated to Europe and accepted low-paying and/or low-prestige jobs for an opportunity to provide a better life for their children.
However, the dropout rates in these communities are extremely high. As a result, a downwardly mobile second-generation underclass has formed. Not as docile or resigned as their parents, they expect more. Yet, they face economic hardship with no available exit. In America, these same types of conditions once led the impoverished to drug trafficking and criminal behavior.
At the other end of the scale, there are the children of immigrants who do indeed go on to higher learning and yet in the stale economies of the West may not find appropriate work. They might also be fighting for opportunity against an entrenched predominant culture (read: prejudice). So, in spite of having the credentials, they can’t get their piece of the pie. This is reminiscent of Britain’s angry young men in the 1950’s. They had graduated from the new red-brick universities, but they had neither the pedigrees nor the old school ties that opened doors. This breeds bitterness.
There are still other factors. For example, a second generation that is neither fish nor fowl. They are regaled at home with stories of homelands that they do not know, and told that they are better humans and live more pious lives than the condemned non-believers with whom they must rub shoulders. Resentment grows.
All this ethnic and cultural tension is stretched over some age-old truths about youth. Young men of all cultures have long found attractive the lure of the freedom fighter and the distant war. The same gene that drives them into daredevil and extreme sports makes appealing the possibility of involvement in a distant conflict.
The same gene that drives them into daredevil and extreme sports makes appealing the possibility of involvement in a distant conflict.
Canadian security officials have expressed concern about scores of young Canadians who are fighting the so-called holy war in Syria, and have joined Jihadist groups worldwide.
One thinks of the Mackenzie–Papineau Battalion (the Mac-Paps) of idealistic Canadians who fought on the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War. Their activism pressured the government of the day into making it illegal for Canadian citizens to serve in the Spanish Civil War. However, unlike this new wave of Jihadists, the Mac-Paps never called for the deconstruction and demolition of the society from whence they came.
And here we have arrived at a dangerous intersection. While young men may find an international conflict exotic, I have seen enough disaffected youths drawn to religious cults and extremism to know that it, too, has a special idealistic lure. Young men, drifting and unaccustomed to lives of prayer, obligation and fasting, may find the rituals alluring. Ritual + an exotic overseas conflict + romanticism may equal something like catnip for young men who are not well grounded. Et voila, radicalization!
Yes, there are extremist pied pipers who prey upon the young, the lonely and disaffected, telling them they are being disrespected and that the society at large hates them. Extremists like the late Anwar Al Awlaki tell young men that they will finally find meaning in their lives when they take up arms against the West. Simple, uneducated minds buy this drivel. The Boston Marathon bombers had a cult-like belief they were doing the Almighty’s will. The thing about fundamentalism, be it religious conversion or political, is that converts have an unending reservoir of zeal.
So how should Western societies deal with the roots of homegrown terrorism? With only limited successes, they have tried three approaches for dealing with immigrant populations:
- Multiculturalism: Promotion and financing of integration, and equality of opportunity;
- Assimilation: Forced assimilation/melting pot that leads to resentment;
- Avoidance: Laissez faire benign neglect that produces a Balkanized and segregated society.
Writing in a Foreign Affairs article “Europe’s Angry Muslims,” Robert S. Leiken observed: “Yet it is far from clear whether top-down policies will work without bottom-up adjustments in social attitudes. Can Muslims become Europeans without Europe opening its social and political circles to them? So far, it appears that absolute assimilationism has failed in France, but so has segregation in Germany and multiculturalism in the Netherlands and the United Kingdom.”
It appears there is no simple, proven answer that will assuage the angry second generation. The answers may involve an amalgam of the three approaches and an educational system that addresses the issues of this generation head on.
Richard M. Landau has been responsible for adjudicating disputes and enforcing a television network code of ethics in a religious broadcasting setting since 1992. He is a graduate of Carleton University and the University of Ottawa. A leader in interfaith dialogue, Mr. Landau has consulted with the U.K. Home Office and the White House Office of Community- and Faith-based Initiatives. He works closely with leadership in all of the major world religions. He is author of “What the World Needs to Know about Interfaith Dialogue.”