Countering a digital jihad

Conflicts in the Middle East are drawing in young recruits from Europe and elsewhere. Needed now: An effort to channel that fervor in more constructive directions.

LIONEL BONAVENTURE/AFP/GETTY IMAGES
YOUTHS PLAY BASKETBALL AT A SCHOOL IN AUBERVILLIERS, OUTSIDE PARIS.

Not every young person is a rebel. Not every rebel has a cause. But throughout history, the young and idealistic have been stirred to action by stories of injustice, visions of better worlds, and images of clenched fists and banners held high. Ernest Hemingway described the attraction to a cause (in his case, the Spanish Civil War) as becoming part of something “you could believe in wholly and completely and in which you felt an absolute brotherhood with the others who were engaged in it.” 

Even if you don’t share the instinct for rebellion, you can probably see how the persistence of repression and hypocrisy in the world fuels it. So it’s not unusual that radical Islam would today draw young people to the battlefields of the Middle East and North Africa. The anti-Russian uprising in Chechnya in the 1990s attracted multinational volunteers – primarily from the Middle East and Central Asia – as did the mujahideen campaign during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s. Now, as Sara Miller Llana’s reports in a Monitor cover story, concern is growing over Europeans and North Americans attracted to the mushrooming number of conflicts in places such as Syria, Iraq, Somalia, and Yemen.

Social networks like Facebook and Snapchat are powerful tools for recruiting would-be jihadis. In the past, a pamphlet or cassette might have beckoned a young idealist, but those were crude propaganda tools compared with a YouTube video or an ongoing text message relationship between a teenager in a suburban Paris bedroom and a fighter on the streets of Aleppo.

Sara’s report traces the many paths of digital jihad. An accompanying article (click here) explores one attempt to steer young Muslims away from radicalism and to counter potential trouble when those who join a jihad return home. A crucial weapon in that fight, a counselor for the Hayat program in Berlin says, is families. As with most social problems, families can be “living, positive, counternarratives” that provide meaning and purpose to young people.

So can more-constructive social networks aimed at investing young people in society. A couple of months ago in Berlin, I joined a group of other journalists in talking with members of an organization known as JUMA (Young, Muslim, and Active). These men and women have varied backgrounds. Some are the children of guest workers. Some are refugees from conflict in the Middle East or South Asia. One told of a harrowing, overland journey from Pakistan to Europe. All are interested in Islam, though in varying degrees (head scarfs, no head scarfs) and with different denominational ties. JUMA’s purpose, one young woman told me, was to work with Muslims to help them feel like full members of European society and to work with non-Muslims to help them understand that Islam need not be about radicalism.

That’s another counternarrative at work. It may not be as stirring as jihad. It is more about encouraging, nurturing, and educating than about rejecting and overthrowing. But it is a promising alternative for the young, Muslim, and active.

John Yemma is the Monitor's editor-at-large. He can be reached at yemma@csmonitor.com.

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