A few weeks ago, a local community leader shared the disturbing spectre of the rise of the salafist movements overseas in Tunisia and Egypt. Whereas before the salafis shunned all political participation, they took advantage of the post-Arab Spring tumult to forcefully stamp a hardline approach on wider society. Muslims who do not agree with them are labeled as disbelievers. There is no middle ground.
The concern is a spillover of the salafist trend to Muslim institutions here, as the hardliners vie for influence over local communities. Before, they were content to remain insular. And make no mistake – they are looking to bring youth into the fold, away from the decadence of teen culture.
The dizzying events in Boston and the sudden arrests yesterday may seem disconnected at first. In Boston, two young men of Chechen origin and raised in the U.S. killed and maimed innocent civilians. In Toronto, two Middle Eastern immigrants in their 30s allegedly planned the same.
Questions remain about the radicalization of the Tsarnaev brothers, while preliminary media accounts suggest that Mr. Esseghaier and Mr. Jaser followed a very strict interpretation of Islam, remaining insular from the wider community. The elder Mr. Tasarnaev and Mr. Esseghaier were vocal in opposing Muslims who did not share their narrow visions. Tamerlan interrupted two Friday sermons at a Cambridge mosque when the imam encouraged Muslims to embrace valuable lessons from Independence Day and Martin Luther King Jr.
Mr. Esseghaier chastised a Muslim co-worker for paying Canadian taxes, and allegedly ripped a charity poster that showed a picture of a woman. While not all those who ascribe to such absolutism are violent, all violent extremists ascribe to this paradigm. The worry is that these views are gaining currency among Muslim youth living in the West.
Such was the concern of the unnamed Toronto imam who alerted CSIS about the extremist influence of Mr. Jaser on local youth. And this is the concern of Muslim communities everywhere: as Muslim youth take a heightened interest in their faith and geopolitics, how do we help them navigate through complex issues as they forge an identity?
Many feel conflicted about a youth culture that emphasizes alcohol, sex and materialism. They long for a path that affirms spiritual impulses. When some decide to observe the faith 24/7, they feel ashamed of their past deeds. Unable to run away from oneself, some do the next best thing by cutting themselves off from all reminders of their past life. But there is also a need for validation, and this is where the nature of the support structure is critical. At this vulnerable stage, support can come from those who affirm the new path, despise the old, and suggest that salvation only lies in armed conflict. Or support can come from those who affirm the new and help youth understand that their Western upbringing is part and parcel of who they are. God forgives and embraces the individual – warts and all. How can one deny past and current blessings, whether it is health, shelter, wealth, education, safety, or freedom to worship? As the Koran states: “All good is from Allah.”
Muslim communities should be commended for working in partnership with our security agencies. A supportive word from the Prime Minister would help. However, more work needs to be done. Muslim youth need safe spaces to frankly discuss issues that matter to them. Let’s help them to channel their energy towards social justice programs, political participation, and even create innovative programs open to all, such as a youth peace corps program.
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