The revelation that a young Ottawa man, John Maguire, may have joined the Islamic State militant group has brought "homegrown radicalization" back into the public spotlight.
If his family's suspicions are correct, Mr. Maguire has joined a growing list of young men who have travelled overseas to partake in jihad. Young women are also being targeted – The New York Times has reported that Muslim women in the West are being recruited to serve as "jihadist wives" for extremists in Iraq and Syria.
In an effort to stop radicalization, Western governments have expanded domestic intelligence, adopted anti-terrorism laws and developed community-based programs. There are also salient points of various studies worth mentioning.
While there is no single pathway to terrorism, one common thread is the search for a meaningful identity, according to U.S. terrorism expert John Horgan. This may be precipitated by a personal crisis, family dynamics, Islamophobia, disenfranchisement or cultural dysfunction.
According to Mr. Horgan, "there's typically a very, very strong moral pull. You often see recruits are driven by this passionate need to right some perceived wrong, to address some sort of injustice, to restore honour to those from whom it's been taken." Extremist groups produce slick videos that appeal to the "freedom fighter" paradigm. While these messages initially have a noble appeal, they dehumanize those who do not ascribe to the same narrow vision. There is no middle ground – potential recruits are either "with us" or "with the enemies of God."
European and American studies have found that religion is not the primary source of most extremist behaviour. Many terrorists are neither religiously observant nor religiously literate. The latter leaves those with little knowledge of Islam vulnerable to radical messages – after all, a little knowledge can be a very dangerous thing. A 2008 report by Britain's MI5 intelligence agency concluded that "a well-established religious identity actually protects against violent radicalization."
So, what can be done to stem the tide, in view of so many echo chambers of hate dressed in the garb of Islam?
First, laws should be enacted that criminalize the recruitment and facilitation of travel for overseas fighting.
Second, rather than pointing fingers at all Muslims and fanning the flames of Islamophobia, there must be meaningful partnerships in which Muslim communities play an important role in rooting out extremism. Muslim communities are the best sensitized to observe changes, which can be subsequently reported to authorities and/or addressed by community programs that focus on religious literacy about jihad, messaging against extremism, support for converts, mentoring, constructive channelling of political grievances and the special role of mothers.
The post-9/11 environment sent a chill about discussions of the "j" word. This naturally led to underground discussions, away from mainstream counternarratives. Today, the topic of jihad must be addressed openly by imams. Religious literacy about its strict conditions and unequivocal prohibition of violence against non-combatants is essential. For example, the British government has appealed to anti-extremist imams to counteract the seeds of radicalization.
Muslims can play an important role by speaking out against atrocities committed in the name of Islam. Muslims throughout the world have spoken and demonstrated forcefully against the Islamic State's brutality. Strong community abhorrence provides a powerful alternative to the romanticized extremist jihad message.
Converts to Islam often lack community support networks and in-depth knowledge of religious sources. Programs need to be developed to provide both elements in order to prevent their exploitation.
Mentoring and counselling programs will help to push youth away from extremist ideology. This should include opportunities for grassroots activism that channels grievances into constructive action. A Dutch study has found that young people who feel confident that they can make a change locally, who engage with society and feel politically empowered, tend to reject extremism. We must provide greater opportunities for political engagement with young people who feel passionately about foreign affairs.
Finally, Islam places mothers on a pedestal above fathers. Their moral authority can dissuade a child from embarking on a self-destructive path. Their voices of reason, compassion and love need to be amplified. Their nurturing desire to protect all children can be channelled constructively.
They can also lend moral support to mothers who have been affected by extremism. Remember – it was the mothers who launched Northern Ireland's peace movement.