Why would teenagers from Denver or schoolgirls from London skip class to join the Islamic State? Because they want to “belong to something special…,” said John Horgan who studies the psychology of terrorism at the University of Massachusetts. “They want to find something meaningful for their life.” Such crises of identity coupled with an appeal to religious loyalty entice even the most unlikely of candidates. We shake our heads in astonishment.
But there is more to the story.
Global unemployment topped 200 million for the first time in history, with record numbers among youth. Unemployment rates among Arab youth are the highest in the world, with 1 in 4 unable to find a job. Some say the numbers are as high as 35 million people without work, with more than 100 million jobs needed by 2020 to meet the growing population. The unemployment issue amounts to a questionable future for many, especially students aspiring to a meaningful career.
But a bleak future alone does not lead a person to consider joining groups like the Islamic State. Millions of Arabs feel they are being denied basic human rights. “The typical Arab citizen, with few exceptions, has felt humiliated… by his or her government,” said one expert. According to a Gallup poll, just over half of Arab youth have confidence in their government — in poorer countries it’s as low as 37 percent — and only a third believe their national elections are honest. Without a government they can trust, people are left feeling desperate and helpless. Some turn to the Islamic State as a result.
In their book, “Friction: How Radicalization Happens to Them and Us,” Clark McCauley and Sophia Moskalenko describe how surprisingly normal people with strong beliefs and passion can be radicalized through mechanisms ranging from personal grievance, love, status and an appeal to selflessness. But the authors also present how these same mechanisms can equally mobilize people toward good. They cite the strengths of peaceful activism and “trajectories of self sacrifice” in response to world events, such as the 2010 earthquake in Haiti.
In the Democratic Republic of Congo where violence and war have ravaged for decades, unemployment is endemic, and human rights are nonexistent. Rebel militias regularly commit atrocities not unlike the Islamic State. But I have seen firsthand how people have turned their desperation into good. In what is known as the rape capital of the world, women are finding strength in each other to help their “sisters,” some as young as nine, to heal and rebuild their lives. They have joined together to form Village Peace Committees, groups of citizens working to solve local conflicts, create economic opportunities and mitigate future violence. Today, thousands of peacemakers are waging peace in Eastern Congo one village at a time.
While research shows that poverty does not necessarily create an environment conducive to terrorism, a lack of civic involvement does. When people find meaningful and effective ways to shape their future, whether through political engagement or civic participation, violence and terrorism are far less likely. On this front, the Congolese have something to teach us.
Having taken a front seat to war and violence over many years, any signs of tangible hope are worth noting. Consider, for example, one story where potential violence was stopped not by the government but by a group of village citizens. About a year ago, the wife of a rural man living near Goma, Congo, was abducted by a rebel militia. The man looked for his wife but could not find her. She didn’t come home. After six months, he met with the pastor who married them. “My wife is dead,” he feared. “What should I do?” The pastor released him from his marriage, and, some months later, the man took another wife.
But after nine months of captivity in the bush, serving as a slave to the rebel army, the man’s first wife was miraculously released. She came home to her husband and children.
The man appealed to members of a newly formed Village Peace Committee. “What should I do?” he said. “I don’t want to dishonor God or my new wife, but I want to be married to the mother of my children.” Committee members met with the pastor and each wife, and counseled their extended families. After praying, the second wife asked to honorably step out of the marriage. With some help, she found another husband. The pastor married the new couple and also re-married the man to his original wife.
The complexity of the situation struck me so I asked the Village Peace Committee leader, “What would have happened had there been no intervention?” He said the wife who was held captive would have blamed the pastor for marrying her husband when he hadn’t “found her grave.” He said, “the courts would have eaten all their belongings,” meaning, they would have bribed the families for the little, if any, justice they could provide. And the families of the two wives would have settled into enmity, avenging one another for generations to come.
While the Democratic Republic of Congo is a long way from the Middle East both politically and culturally, the Congolese are resilient, independent and innovative like most Arabs. They are not waiting for their government to exercise their civic responsibility. Instead, they created their own mechanisms to begin tackling chronic and entrenched problems. As they began to see progress, they were motivated to do more. And their work inspired hundreds of others to join.
Overcoming despair with action, the Congolese discovered a new sense of belonging, an identity not limited to an ethnicity or ideology, but to the broader ideals of peace, hope and community. And, their faith not only served to catalyze their commitment, but also helped them shift their values toward greater good. By serving across ethnic lines and religious differences, they began to see one another as people with intrinsic dignity and value. By helping women afflicted by violence, communities began welcoming them back rather than shunning them.
A sense of belonging, a more meaningful life and a way to constructively express faith are common values found among youth, especially those who feel desperate and hopeless. The Islamic State exploits youthful desires, manipulating them toward evil ends. But desperate times, injustice and even outrageous oppression can lead people to respond well. There are thousands of people and numerous organizations throughout the Middle East and North Africa responding with good.
Unfortunately, we rarely hear narratives of those responding well. Now is the time to herald these stories of hope, praising the heroes who create them. A younger generation longs to give their lives to something grand, hopeful and life-giving. Let’s give them the better option.
Stephan Bauman is president and CEO of World Relief, which empowers the worldwide church to overcome global poverty and injustice. He is also executive director of The Justice Conference, and author of the new book, “Possible: A Blueprint For Changing How We Change the World.”
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