The recent arrest in Yemen of Somali-American Sharif Mobley, accused of being a member of an Al Qaeda affiliated group, raises the question: Why are young American men abandoning this country’s promise and opportunities to pursue jihad in foreign countries with groups rooted in anti-Americanism?
From concerned citizens to journalists to think tank panels to Capitol Hill, everyone seems to think that the key to understanding “why” these men have turned against America lies in the pathology of Islam. But they’re missing something big.
Reporters offer blow-by-blow accounts of these men’s religious observance, dwelling on which mosques they attended, which imams they heeded, what clothing they wore, and which verses of the Koran they cited.
Security experts tend to see only a threat of Islamicization and the incompatibility of Islam with American values.
Even Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, who killed his fellow soldiers at a time when violent crime and suicide in the military are both on the rise, is cited regularly as an example of home-grown terror with little to no mention of other contributing factors.
By focusing on religion, the discussion about the radicalization of Muslim American youth ignores the more salient factors: gender and an American acceptance of violence.
The literature on masculinity, boys, and violence is well developed, yet seemingly disregarded in examinations of these Muslim Americans. What if we were to invite such experts into this conversation?
Dr. Rhea Almeida, founder of the Institute for Family Services and who works with Muslim American boys, explains that this radicalization is rooted in the same sorts of dynamics that can lead other boys to other kinds of violence from gangs to school shootings – essentially, the need to find status and assert masculinity in a society where they are marginalized and thereby emasculated, whether for their race, class, ethnicity, sexuality, disability, or religion.
Of course, being marginalized within the greater American society is not the only factor. The diverse, toxic cocktail that can lead an individual to choose violence (and it is a choice) includes mental-health issues and problems in his family, school, personal, and community lives as well. These combined factors need to be examined if we want to understand why individuals turn to radicalization – not just the sura of the Koran.
The alienation that can lead Muslim American youth, already sensitive and on the defense for being a misunderstood minority in America, to radicalization is further compounded by the fact that there are few spaces in which disaffected young Americans can express their legitimate dissent, frustration, and anger with certain government policies.
In the absence of places where legitimate concerns about both domestic and foreign policy can be explored in the flesh, among a multitude of voices (including women), and in a real-time give-and-take, youth go “underground” or to the Internet. There, the conversation is controlled, one-dimensional, and unchallenged. Anonymity means participants can’t be held accountable for ideas that, if they were uttered in front of peers or families or elders, might be disputed and raise early red flags; and there, recruiters from groups like Al Qaeda with their absurd Islamic interpretations are waiting to fill the vacuum and prey upon the most vulnerable.
Religious centers could be natural spaces for these sorts of discussions. But having come under heightened scrutiny from government, private individuals, and the media, many religious centers have attempted understandably to be apolitical.
Yet consider what happened during the struggle for equal civil rights: Organizing often did happen in places of worship and youth were an included, integral, mentored part of the movement.
By looking only at Islam to account for these actions, Americans are distracted from the fact that our greater American (and increasingly global) society is quite comfortable with violence and has legitimized it as a means to accomplish a wide variety of ends. That acceptance touches all Americans, not just Muslim Americans.
Consider the Pentagon shooter John Patrick Bedell or the IRS kamikaze Joe Stack or any of the school shootings, rapes, assaults, and murders reported daily. While there are exceptions like Alabama professor Amy Bishop or “Jihad Jane,” these acts are more often than not committed by men because of the role violence plays in what we understand and celebrate to be masculine.
By focusing on the religion and elevating crimes committed by Muslims to a status more deviant than crimes committed by others, we exculpate our shared society while perpetuating the vilifying of a particular religion and its adherents, further emasculating them specifically.
The United States has historically been relatively successful at integrating many different peoples. However, that very American achievement is threatened by the tone of the current conversation, which looks for sensational explanations that further differentiate “us” from “them.”
Americans must expand the dialogue, to recognize all parts of American society as “our” society – interconnected – and to invite more than just terror and “Islamicization” experts into the conversation. Understanding that there is a gender component and a general acceptance of violence at play here is necessary to move us toward understanding what is happening to young Muslim Americans and how to change it.
Such an understanding will prepare the US for the next step: turning our collective efforts to supporting families who need help and using public spaces like schools, places of worship, and even pop culture to teach all boys how to be men who don’t turn to violence.
Alia Malek is the author of “A Country Called Amreeka: Arab Roots, American Stories.”