One of the great misconceptions about "radicalization" among Western Muslims — the process by which a normal person will go from abhorring violence to embracing violent extremism — is that it happens at the local mosque. In fact, as virtually any terrorism scholar will tell you, it's the opposite.
Mosques are where radicalization is stopped: They provide vulnerable Muslims with a sense of community, thus overcoming the isolation that can allow online extremist propaganda to seep in, and they give imams an opportunity to intervene in troubled lives and counteract extremist ideas. And US law enforcement have been saying for years that it's local mosques and imams who are their best allies in countering domestic extremism.
But Western imams who want to stop radicalization — not only do they abhor it on fundamental human and religious grounds, but recall that radicalization invites Islamophobia that harms their communities — are in a much tougher spot than many Americans might realize.
This is a point that Canadian writer Boonaa Mohammed articulated well in a recent interview with CBC Radio. Mohammed co-wrote and stars in a new film called Tug of War, which tells the story of two young Canadian Muslims drawn into joining ISIS. It's not an action thriller, but rather a very human story about lives destroyed by radicalization, and by the community's efforts to stop it.
Mohammed, in his CBC interview about the film, at one point began discussing the struggle of Western imams who want to help. It's an important point both for understanding the struggles of Western Muslim communities that are stuck between extremists and mounting Western Islamophobia, and for understanding that radicalization often works very differently from how it's popularly portrayed.
The question comes after Mohammed discusses local imams coming to screenings of Tug of War:
CBC: You mention some imams are worried about counseling young people that are drawn to radical ideas. How has this affected their approach? What's come out of conversations with them about their approach to people who are at risk of being radicalized?
BOONA MOHAMMED: You know Muslim leaders are in such a Catch-22 because it's so unfortunate that if they do and try these young people, and for whatever reason it doesn't work, then they get in trouble. [Canadian police] come knocking at the door saying, "You were in touch with this person and they went overseas. What did you tell them?"
And if he doesn't step up, then it's like, this person is going to be learning about Islam in a vacuum, they're not going to have anyone to discuss anything with, so they end up going off anyway. So our leaders are really caught between a rock and a hard place. They don't know what to do.
Because, first of all, they're not trained in this field. They're not social workers or anything like that. They're classically trained theologians studying religion. So now they're tasked with this idea or job of counseling people in a crazy political environment, trying to counterattack the negative portrayal they've been receiving in the media while at the same time trying to show these young people that there is a reason to be here, there is a reason to live.
Some of these young people actually, you'd be surprised. I was with a very big community leader in Belgium. And Belgium has a growing issue of radicalized young men. And this leader told me that he's dealing with young people who are coming to him who are actually suicidal.
They're coming to him and they say, "We don't want to live anyway. We want to die." And they say, "In our communities, we can't commit suicide. But if we go there and we die, then we're martyrs; people will celebrate us, and it won't look bad on our families. If we just go in a room and we hang ourselves it'll be a big shame."
So you're dealing with people who have a multitude of crazy complex issues going on in their minds. And these imams now are sitting in front of them saying, "I learned from a holy book, how does that apply here?" And our leaders are just being put in this very tough position, and it's unfortunate that they're not really getting the support that they need. They're in fact getting more hate and more stigmatization if their counseling, for instance, doesn't work the way others would like to see it work.
Muslim communities leader in Western countries, Mohammed points out, are facing an extremely difficult challenge. They're increasingly responsible for salvaging troubled lives and guiding young people who feel lost out of the wilderness — a very different job from the one they probably planned on or, in many cases, feel capable for.
They carry on their shoulders the burden of protecting their communities from the tentacles of groups like ISIS — legitimately powerful organizations — that have a proven ability to steal away members of their community and turn them into monsters. And they have to do all this while also bearing the weight of Western societies that often blame and punish them for a problem they're trying desperately to fix.
Understanding that burden is an important step to understanding how this enormous, sweeping geopolitical drama is playing out in individual Muslim communities in the West, which is important both in basic human terms — these are regular people confronting a terrible problem — and in the wonkier policy terms of radicalization and countering violent extremism.
Here is the trailer for Tug of War, Mohammed's film. I haven't seen it yet but have requested a screener and will let you know how it looks.