With tensions surrounding Islam and Muslims in the West, especially in a post-9/11 and post-ISIS era, Islamic schools have attracted much attention due to the status quo of Western Muslims as a suspect community that breads radicals, the continuous debates over minorities’ ways of integration in their host societies, as well as the role that education might play in that transition. Muslims in diaspora encounter cultural and religious dispersion, social alienation, and a form of detachment from their host societies and their countries of origin respectively.
Homegrown terrorism and violent radicalization affect Muslims’ integration and wellbeing. They raise concerns about Muslim youth being isolated, alienated, and marginalized in their societies. There are also worries that some of them might develop sympathies with terrorist groups, get self-radicalized, seek to join violent jihad overseas or to commit violent acts at home. The challenge is not solely about youth being drawn to violent extremism, but it is also about Muslims in general and what is being taught in their mosques and institutions in the West.
Muslims’ Institutions in the West
Various Islamic institutions have emerged in Europe and North America in the past few decades. The increase in the number of these institutions is a direct outcome of the growing number of Muslim migrants; they have been developed in response to cultural and religious needs from within the community. Their presence began with the history of Muslim arrivals and with the evolution of a Muslim consciousness as a distinguished, growing, and independent permanent community. As these Muslims have in one way or another contributed towards the communities and the cities in which they have settled, one of their main contributions for members of their community is in the field of education through the establishment of Islamic schools. These schools are not a western invention; they have existed for decades and centuries in the Arab world and in the Indian Subcontinent.
Debates over the role of faith-based schools in general, and Islamic schools in particular are on the rise. Critics often see Islamic institutions as entities that teach against social cohesion and deprive students of an adequate civic education that prepares them to be good integrated future citizens, especially that some Islamic schools still segregate boys and girls and might teach radical interpretations and violent verses of the Qur’an, which could incite radical thoughts and behavior. Fierce opponents even accuse them of being virtual plants that transfer youth into “human bombs”. Nonetheless, with the exception of the accusations of radicalization and terrorism, most criticism directed at Islamic schools (i.e. dogmatism, isolation, teaching creationism) could be applied to other faith-based schools as well.
In one of my academic papers on radicalization, I developed a critically reflective approach to Islamic schooling in the West for the purposes of preventing behavioral radicalization amongst Muslim youth. I tried to set out the core components to developing a critically reflective approach to Islamic schooling in the West for the purposes of preventing behavioral radicalization of Muslim youth.
I realized that many devout Muslims in the West believe that religious education, despite containing aspects of radical talk and thought, is effective in avoiding the rhetoric of radical actions. For instance, while doing fieldwork in Montreal, Canada, a mother shared her concerns about violent radicalization. As a parent, she was also worried about Muslim youth being radicalized through religion, she said:
You know, before putting my son in this Islamic school, I was discussing with my sister and you know my worst fear? I was afraid of radicalization. She said it is people that don’t know about religion who have more chances of getting radicalized. Then I thought yeah that is a good point, and that’s what encouraged me to go there [Islamic school].
Another mother, who shared her experience on the Islamic Monthly stated: “I want my daughter to know about jihad. But I don’t want her to learn about it from Facebook, Twitter or YouTube”.
These mothers believe that learning about Islam and its diversity in accredited Islamic schools will make their children resistant to fanaticism and radical interpretations of their faith. By promoting religious pride alongside national pride, reaching out to other communities, and building a shared identity, some of these schools were promoting social coexistence. Furthermore, we would be mistaken if we view Islamic radicalization as purely “Islamic”, since other cultural, social, and political factors have important effects as well. The principle conceptual fault-line is between notions of radicalization that emphasize radical beliefs and those that focus on radical actions.
That being said, youth’s emotional and spiritual well-being should be a central component of learning and growth. For instance, the term jihad, which does not necessarily mean holy war, is probably the most often-heard concept in the West to explain or describe an act of violence perpetuated by a radicalized Muslim. In this essence, accredited Islamic schools modernize and Westernize Islamic terminology, in particular controversial terms such as jihad, kuffar (infidels, disbelievers), dar al-harb (abode of war), and dar al-silm (abode of peace). According to Canadian scholar Jasmin Zine, the Islamic school is often viewed by some parents as a temporary stage and path towards a safe haven; these parents often speak about the challenges they face raising their children and helping them resist deviation, crime, violence, and dogmatism.
It is an Ideological battle
The battle against violent radicalization is mainly an ideological battle. Rational and positive empowerment will help in creating rational youth who are balanced and aware while making conscious decisions in their lives. Islamic pedagogy must widen its discursive boundaries to include alternative epistemological considerations that provide youth with the opportunity to investigate multiple truth claims on ideological, rational, and empirical grounds, which will eventually draw them away from exceptionalism, extremism, fundamentalism and, therefore, from violent radicalization. That said, most accredited Islamic institutions manage to establish an atmosphere void of these radical interpretations.
Moreover, it is well known that terrorist recruiters employ ideology to lure youth into joining their cause. They also use social and political events (i.e. Israelo-Palestinian conflict, invasion of Muslim countries, discrimination and Islamophobia) to increase despair amongst youth by convincing them that the source of their problems always comes from the West. Similarly, whereas religious and spiritual identities can represent sites of radicalization, they can also be sites of resistance and challenge to this radicalization through providing a space for critical contestation and political engagement. For instance, while religion is used as an alibi to push radical ideas, we can also refer to religion to seek liberation and prevent radicalization. In other words, while some Islamic beliefs can provide justification to some individuals to commit violent acts, institutionalizing the process of learning Islamic principles may lead to contextualizing them to fit their modern environment. Muslim educators should also be aware of, and resist, the penetration of Islamic extremism into the curriculum of Islamic schools.
The correct religious literacy that focuses on shared values, national identity, and social inclusion either delay or prevent radicalization. Thus, (national) identity and shared values would seem to have a complex and somewhat unstable relationship in general. This presumably has some significance for debates about Islam, Islamic schools, and sense of belonging. For example, simply because Islamic schools teach cultural-religious values that are specific to Muslims (e.g. hijab, Ramadan) does not mean in and of itself that these schools are deviating from liberal-democratic western values. At the same time, it would seem that a robust sense of Western identity does not guarantee conformity to liberal and democratic values (e.g. Alt-right nationalist groups in Europe and North America).
Furthermore, prevention through policing thought and cognitive radicalization is seen as controversial, especially in advanced countries where freedom of conscience and religion is protected by the law. The main challenge for monitoring radicalization of thought is that it broadens the at-risk population, which may result in profiling and unintentionally convicting people. In addition, because the literature on radicalization is fragmented, most theoretical measures cannot be applied on the field, which makes this inquiry very important in tackling religious radicalization as it presents practical measures in existing Islamic institutions.
It should go without saying that I am not in any way advocating for opening our doors to all kinds of Islamic schools without any legal regulations. Not all Islamic schools are created equally, of course. Rather, the question to ask is whether we have to support these, from within, initiatives in place to make sure they are on the right path. Accredited Western Islamic schools that are supervised and subsidized by the concerned ministry will struggle to provide and deliver high academic results, preserve and promote a collective religious identity, and establish a balanced civic identity.
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Hicham Tiflati is a fellow at the German Institute for Radicalization and deradicalization Studies (GIRDS), and a senior researcher with the study, Canadian Foreign Fighters, based at Waterloo University. Tiflati is also a fellow at the Center for the Research on Religion (CREOR) at McGill University, and a Ph.D. (abd) in the Department of Religious Studies at UQÀM). Follow him @htiflati.
European Eye on Radicalization aims to publish a diversity of perspectives and as such does not endorse the opinions expressed by contributors. The views expressed in this article represent the author alone.