On Sept. 3, 2004, I had just finished speaking about the life of Mary – regarded as one of the best women in history – to a group of Muslim teens. Hours before, though, news of a violent end to the Beslan hostage crisis in southern Russia had broken, in which 186 children were killed. Armed Islamist groups had stormed a local school a few days before, held teachers and students captive without food or water and wired the gym with explosives.
Rather than continue further discussions about Mary, I wanted to ask the youth about the murder of innocent civilians – especially children – in Beslan. The males were unequivocal: The Russians got what they deserved, for their brutal war against the Chechens. It was revenge, pure and simple.
Stunned, I asked: Did Prophet Mohammed ever kill children and unarmed adults? No, they answered. Did he condone such acts? No. Did he condemn such acts? Yes, they answered. I concluded: So, who will you follow? Mohammed, or the opposite? They acknowledged the former.
I thought of this exchange following the terrorist attack in Manchester last week. Much has been written about the life of the assailant, Salman Abedi, a second-generation Libyan born and raised in Britain. His sister surmised that he had acted in revenge for the killing of Muslim children by coalition forces in the Middle East.
Olivier Roy, a French expert on violent extremism, points to cultural dislocation of second-generation youth who have an "identity vacuum" in which they are detached from both the culture of their upbringing and that of their immigrant parents. He estimates that "60 per cent of those who espouse violent jihadism in Europe" are second-generation Muslims who have failed to integrate or connect anywhere. According to Mr. Roy, they are ignorant of Islamic teachings. Like some converts to Islam (who form 25 per cent of violent extremists), they lack cultural moorings and can fall prey to unscrupulous agents who take advantage of their ignorance.
In the elusive search for clues on radicalization, there are meaningful steps that Muslim communities can take toward addressing this scourge.
There should be "safe" spaces available for Muslim youth to discuss their concerns and passion for justice, in the company of those with sound knowledge of Islamic teachings. Rather than the traditional one-way lecture, there should be round tables in which topics are discussed frankly in context with normative Islamic principles. Currently, most Muslim institutions shy away from such discussions, for fear of being accused of fomenting extremism. Local organizations can sponsor a screening of Tug of War, a short Canadian indie film that boldly tackles this topic.
Grassroots initiatives that teach resiliency to Muslim youth must be developed. Since Canada opened the doors of immigration, a plethora of ethno-religious groups have experienced racism. Yet, such groups have found the resiliency to survive and thrive.
Muslims have deep resources within their faith about dealing with hostility through patience, principled justice and forgiveness. They can also use valuable anti-racism tools developed by civil society. For example, the National Council of Canadian Muslims plays a key role by empowering Muslims to address xenophobia through engagement with civil institutions.
Mentorship will also play a key role in helping youth to integrate. There are many Muslim professionals, entrepreneurs, artists and activists who have faced challenges and succeeded. Their experiences are invaluable for the coming generation. We need forums where such knowledge can be shared and mentoring partnerships established.
Civic engagement is the key to non-violent activism. Whether the focus is local justice or foreign policy, there needs to be further education about the role of NGOs, government institutions and one's responsibility in the democratic process. The 2015 federal election prompted many Muslims to initiate grassroots campaigns for political engagement. As an example, The Canadian-Muslim Vote provides regular updates about House deliberations, along with interviews of MPs.
Perhaps the most difficult, yet necessary, component is to ask some tough questions. Why is it that a small minority of Sunni Muslim youth is latching on to a death cult? How are the teachings of Islam being twisted to appeal to a hateful, morally bankrupt mindset? Why are appeals to basic morality (e.g., forbiddance of murder and suicide) failing?
Finally, those espousing violence must be reported to the authorities. Friends, family and mosque congregants had warned police about Mr. Abedi's extremist views – without success. This means we must all try harder to prevent the next incident.