“Someone who kills innocent people will not become a martyr”
ISIS fighters march in Raqqa, Syria in 2014.
More than 20,000 volunteers from the Middle East and North Africa as well as Europe have gone to Syria in past years in order to support ISIS. The volunteers’ motivation is quite diverse, but there is a common pattern. Extremists generally attract persons who feel weak, frustrated and alienated.
Imam Husamuddin Meyer works in a German prison for juvenile delinquents. He is aware of increasing radicalisation, with religious extremists telling the youngsters that, in view of criminal action, they can only escape hell by doing something “great”. Options include joining fundamentalist fighters or even launching a suicide attack. The fanatics often exploit the identity problems of young people from migrant families. Many members of this group feel alienated in Germany as well as in their parents’ home country. Meyer says ISIS offers a sense of supranational identity, inviting people to join a grand cause, the resurrection of the caliphate.
Speaking at an event hosted by the newspaper Frankfurter Rundschau and GIZ in September, Meyer pointed out that Islamic teachings are hardly made available in German. As a consequence, young members of migrant families are not well versed in Koranic principles, and that makes them easy prey for extremists. Meyer reports that young prisoners often ask him whether Islam permits terrorism. “Obviously, the faith does not permit terrorism, and someone who kills innocent persons will certainly not become a martyr,” the Imam says.
Personal growth matters beyond faith education, moreover. “If we manage to boost youngsters’ sense of self-esteem just a little bit,” Meyer says, “that reduces the risk of radicalisation and violence considerably.”
In Afghanistan, several extremist organisations are trying to attract followers. Masood Karokhail is the director of the Liaison Office, a non-governmental agency. He mentions the Taliban, who control large parts of the country, and various new groups. He adds, however, that ISIS is particularly well organised and well funded. Because of political instability, there is a lot of scope for extremist activism, especially in rural areas, according to the NGO leader. In his eyes, both the government and civil society are over-whelmed.
Most worrisome, growing radicalisation is affecting universities. Karokhail says young people must be addressed in a faith-based perspective: “We need more cooperation of civil-society organisations with religious authorities.” Karokhail wants donor governments to support this approach.
In Jordan, refugee numbers are rising and tensions are growing, as Gudrun Kramer of GIZ reports. For a long time, Palestinian refugees have made up a big share of the country’s population of 6 million. Since civil war has erupted in Syria, an additional 600,000 refugees have entered Jordan. The UN Refugee Agency UNHCR is expecting the number to rise to 1 million until December 2015. At first, the Jordanian population responded in a sense of solidarity, but now the competition for jobs is intensifying while housing rents and the cost of living in general are rising. People are becoming more aggressive and extremists, according to Kramer, are best placed to agitate in refugee camps where social bonds tend to be weak. ISIS is only one of several militant organisations, she adds.
Kramer’s assessment of Lebanon is similar. She says, that extremists are particularly active in UN camps, where the national government is not in control. But not every young person is inclined to join extremists groups, she explains: “Most Palestinian youngsters’ dream is a Palestinian State, not a caliphate.”