This week has seen three terror attacks in Europe. Hours after van killed 13 people and injured 100 in Las Ramblas, the seaside town of Cambrils was hit by second vehicle attack, leaving one dead and six injured. A day after the Barcelona attack, two people were murdered with a knife in Turku, Finland, with the attacker allegedly yelling “Allah-u-Akbar”.
One factor common amongst these attackers is their youth: the alleged offender in the Barcelona attack, Younes Abouyaaqoub, is 22 years old. The suspected terrorists shot dead by police in Cambrils were aged between 17 and 24. The Finnish terror suspect is an 18-year-old Moroccan. Closer to home, the Manchester Arena attacker was 22, and two of the 7/7 bombers were under the age of 20.
The vile actions of these attackers bear no relation to Islam, which is embraced by millions of people across Europe. But I frequently wonder why increasing numbers of young European Muslims are joining Isis. What allures these young people to abandon their relatively prosperous lives in a free society to join a vicious band of nihilists?
A profiling of these terrorists reveals that there are several factors that can turn a young person into a terrorist, and some of these factors are not exclusive to Muslims because Isis recruits are not Muslims only.
Isis use religious motivation to recruit young Muslims. This religious motivation must not be confused with the teachings of Islam itself. Killing an innocent person is one of the gravest sins in Islam. Islam has no regard for terrorism. People from majority Muslim countries are often caught up in terror incidents, as is the case in the Barcelona attack.
Isis present a distorted interpretation of Islam to young men to motivate them to establish a utopian world, which may also involve an adventurous trip to Syria. Through their sophisticated propaganda, Isis are able to convince some young people that by joining Isis, they will take part in an important episode of human history. The emergence of Isis, according to them, marks the start of the apocalypse of the anti-Christ and eventually the day of judgement.
Isis tactically use powerful religious ideology to induce recruits to accept a life that in all probability will include martyrdom. The ultimate truth, Isis maintain, lies not in this world with all the frustrations and disappointments, but in another realm not of this earth.
The State, a drama which will be on Channel 4 from Sunday, shows how shamelessly religious terminology is used to motivate and reassure young recruits. The wives of Isis soldiers are repeatedly told in the drama: “Your husband has been given a great honour. He is with virgins in Paradise. To be the wife of a martyr is a great reward.” The truth could not be further from that. The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) has said that whoever kills an innocent person will be nowhere near Paradise.
However as Isis use Islam for their propaganda, albeit a distorted interpretation of it, we Muslims must not only continue to condemn and disassociate ourselves from the acts of terrorists, but continue to pro-actively challenge the spectrum of extremism through education, engagement and the empowerment of vulnerable young people. Where Isis offer something to die for, we must offer them something to live for. By standing together, working together and living together, we all need to show young people of Europe why Isis worldview is a deluded illusion and path to destruction.
We often talk about counter-narratives but simply theologically dissecting Isis’s twisted ideology is not enough. Counter-narratives do have an important role to play, when seeking to re-engage those already susceptible. But “Don’t be an extremist” is too passive.
The world must offer a positive call to action – a clear articulation of a shared identity and sense of belonging. This means tackling socio-economic and socio-political factors, which are also key drivers for extremism. Islamophobia, disproportionate levels of unemployment, discrimination, poor housing and educational disadvantage are used as powerful tools for Isis to recruit frustrated young people who do not have sense of belonging.
It is not by choice that the vast majority of European Muslims live in social enclaves, rather this segregation is largely a product of social and economic exclusion. Isis offer these disenfranchised young people a highly seductive subculture – a cultural community and a new life that is emotionally rewarding.
States across Europe needs to invest in young Muslims, create job opportunities and bring prosperity to their lives, leading to better economic and social integration. This is not to say that Muslims should be treated favourably, rather equally.
Despite the outrage that we feel, our societies must stand together to oppose the acts of hatred or terrorism that divide our communities. We must show defiance against the coward terrorists, and remain united to build a world where we can all feel included, safe and secure.