National Security

I spoke with thousands of Muslim youth across Western Europe. Here’s what I discovered about the roots of extremism.

April 20, 2016  • Farah Pandith

Key Points

  • How do young Muslims grow up to be extremists and terrorists? Farah Pandith spent years traveling in the Middle East to find an answer to this question.

FBI Director James Comey, White House Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism Lisa Monaco, and other global security leaders and experts will convene at the Aspen Security Forum Global event in London from April 21-23, 2016 (view the agenda). Video from all sessions will be streamed live, featuring conversations about the war on ISIS, the nuclear deal with Iran, NATO’s strengths and weaknesses, and more.

Below, the US State Department’s first-ever Special Representative to Muslim Communities Farah Pandith explores the roots of extremism and the rise of the Islamic State. Her essay is excerpted from “Blind Spot: America’s Response to Radicalism in the Middle East,” a collection of essays compiled by the Aspen Strategy Group.

Between 2009 and 2014, I served as the US Department of State’s first-ever special representative to Muslim communities, visiting communities in eighty countries around the globe and focusing on Muslim millennials and countering violent extremism (CVE). Previously, during the administration of George W. Bush, I worked on the War of Ideas at the National Security Council. Later, I served for three years as senior advisor to the assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, focusing specifically on CVE and pioneering new efforts in the aftermath of the Danish Cartoon Crisis. In this capacity, I visited Muslim communities in 55 cities and 19 countries across Western Europe. Then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Assistant Secretary Dan Fried created this role for me so that our nation could engage with Muslim youth in Europe, a region that most in our government did not see as particularly relevant to America’s waging of the ideological war.

My roles as a political appointee under Democratic and Republican administrations afforded me trust, legitimacy, flexibility, and unprecedented grassroots access in places senior US government officials rarely went. I was given an extraordinary ability to make connections and spot trends across a demographic rather than just a region, irrespective of who was in the Oval Office. Meeting personally with thousands of Muslims, hearing their stories and fielding their questions, I came away with a new perspective on trends relating to Muslim youth.

The realities I encountered flew in the face of many of the theories and seemingly logical explanations that circulate about extremism. Conventional explanations cite the so-called Arab Spring, the lack of democratic values, the lack of jobs and education, our foreign policy, our domestic policies, our immigrant narrative, our separation of church and state, and, frequently “the reformation within Islam.” Yet what young Muslim men and women were confronting — and still are confronting— was different and more unwieldy.

Since 9/11, Muslim youth have experienced a profound identity crisis unlike any in modern history. They have craved answers, seeking purpose and belonging. Nearly every day since September 12, 2001, Muslim millennials have seen the word “Islam” or “Muslim” on the front pages of papers on- and offline. They have grown up scrutinized because of their religion, and much of this attention is confusing to them. As a result, they are asking questions like: What does it mean to be modern and Muslim? What is the difference between culture and religion? Who speaks for my generation?

While members of earlier generations might have turned to closeknit families and communities for help, millennials are tuning into unsavory figures encountered online and in other venues. They look to “Sheikh Google” for answers and seek direction from like-minded peers. This demographic is experiencing something no generation of Muslims before it has experienced. Communities, not to speak of governments, were not and are not equipped to deal with the mammoth impact of this crisis of identity.

Understanding the vulnerability of young Muslims, extremists prey on them, offering ready-made answers. They market their ideas with savvy and alarming expertise — from magazines to apps, YouTube sermons to hip-hop and poetry. The extremists — whether al-Qaeda, IS, al-Shabaab, the Taliban, or Boko Haram — understand that to gain recruits, they must cater to their target audience. They are winning recruits because right now their narratives are louder and reach more youth than any other.

The responsiveness of extremists allows them to build virtual armies of activists around the globe; these activists in turn recruit youth to become part of a real army that perpetuates violence in communities around the world and on battlefields in the Middle East. The Middle East landscape, of course, is critical. Many youth find it validating to see the “powerful and victorious” IS armies march, train, and behead on Arab lands. They fervently believe that IS and others are launching a new chapter in human history.

Farah Pandith’s post is excerpted from a longer writing. That piece originally appeared in “Blind Spot: America’s Response to Radicalism in the Middle East,” a collection of essays compiled by the Aspen Strategy Group.