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The horrific terrorist attacks in France have unleashed a torrent of heartfelt reaction, in the form of solidarity with the French people and condemnation of terrorism. Perhaps the best response is full-throttled engagement in the debate about free speech itself – such as its limits and double standards applied by those in power.

Muslims far and wide have condemned the killings, pointing out that nowhere does the Koran sanction or advocate the murder of those who insult the Prophet. In fact, the Koran itself repeats the worst insults hurled at Mohammed, and provides guidance on how to deal with the pain. His life provides examples of his forbearance and forgiveness to those who pelted him with garbage, called him a liar and worse. The Paris murders were far more offensive to the memory of the Prophet than the original cartoons. What better way to "avenge" the Prophet than to live his example?

While France was gripped for days by terror, hundreds of women, children and elderly people were massacred by Boko Haram in Nigeria, three dozen Muslims were killed by a suicide bomber in Yemen and other Muslims were murdered by extremists in Iraq, Syria and Libya. All this came just a few weeks after the Taliban massacre of schoolchildren and their teachers in Peshawar, Pakistan. And before that, there were "lone wolf" attacks in France, Australia and Canada. Many countries are struggling to keep a tiny core of diehards from travelling overseas to engage in "jihad," while carefully watching those who return.

In Paris, Sydney, Ottawa and Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, we have seen the emergence of a dangerous cycle in which violence is followed by anti-Muslim backlash, leading to further division and alienation of Muslim youths, who in turn are preyed on by extremists. We need to find ways to break this cycle, by understanding the underlying dynamics.

Why is the extremist narrative gaining traction? The answer may be partly found in alienation, political chaos in parts of the Mideast, and the emerging ideology of jihadi Salafism (to which the Islamic State and al-Qaeda subscribe).

American theologian Dr. Yasir Qhadi, a self-described former Salafist, provides an excellent analysis of the diversity of Salafist ideology – from the insular, non-violent majority for whom loyalty to the ruler is paramount, to a minority (rejected by the majority) that wants "jihad" for the removal of secular rule in Muslim lands and sustained conflict against non-Muslim governments that have militarily intervened in Muslim lands. "You interfere in my land, I will interfere in yours" is the mindset.

These groups all share contempt for women and non-Salafist Muslims and have a poor understanding of modern politics. Each group also believes it represents "true" Salafism. They share an exclusivist, hierarchical view, and it is perhaps understandable why disempowered young men would gravitate to a loosely structured movement that places them at the top of the heap. A violent minority of Salafists have exploited legitimate political grievances with the aim of overturning local political order.

The common thread in the recent attacks in the West is linkage to jihadi Salafism rooted in the Middle East. Young men with little knowledge about Islamic norms, on the margins of the wider Muslim community, have turned to an ideology that speaks to their alienation and frustrations. They are reminded of the plight of their brethren elsewhere and their duty to fight oppression. However, under jihadi Salafism, the only legitimate "religious" avenue is armed conflict.

Those working with Muslim youths must understand and deconstruct the seductive narrative of Anwar al-Awlaki, who was assassinated in a U.S. drone strike in Yemen in 2011. A healthy alternative must be provided in which political grievances are channelled via civic engagement – one that provides religious legitimacy as a counternarrative to the Salafist prohibition against political engagement with non-Muslim institutions.

Finally, the voices of mothers must be reclaimed in Muslim communities. They carry tremendous moral authority and can provide a bulwark against extremism.

Two recent examples are Latifa Ibn Ziaten and Hawa Abdi. Ms. Ziaten's son, a Muslim French soldier, was murdered by an extremist in 2012. She has been outspoken in opposing terrorism and building social cohesion in France. Dr. Abdi, who was nominated for the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize, has provided shelter and medical attention to nearly two million displaced Somalis while standing up to violent militants.

Although not a mother, Nobel laureate Malala Yousafzai also inspires us: "The terrorists thought they would change my aims and stop my ambitions, but nothing changed in my life except this: weakness, fear and hopelessness died. Strength, power and courage were born."

sheema.khan@globeandmail.com

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