A month ago, I’ve read an article on Al Ahram, written by an Egyptian journalist who, among covering the situation in Syria, had also conducted interviews with men who were previously members of terrorist groups.
What struck me the most is that many of those terrorists were young men; even boys.
Another account from a former resident of Mosul reveals that many of those young men come from underprivileged, poor, less well-off backgrounds than the people they’re terrorizing.
And this made me rethink my position on the religious aspect of those crimes. Religion is easy. It’s easy to become religious, unlike the mental, emotional, and spiritual exhaustion it takes to leave it. It’s easy to say a group of Islamists are killing civilians, but it’s hard to say that a group of young men, who are poor, less educated, marginalized, discriminated against, are fighting a mindless war to live with a sense of dignity that was denied to them by their governments.
What they’re doing makes them feel like they’re humans; like they exist and are of importance.
Many of us are born and die, and in-between, we exist as sub-human, and sometimes even less. Our governments play a direct role in alienating entire communities, especially the youth, who feel forgotten and betrayed by their countries. These countries suffer from the centralization of development which is mostly restricted to capitals and big cities, leaving villages as well as small towns with low quality services, poor engagement in various aspects of life, and less job opportunities.
It’s easy to redirect the anger resulting from that to the wrong target. It’s easy to brainwash young men into believing that other citizens are the reason for the bad conditions they had to endure.
Take away the weapons and whatever religious motive those men have, and you are left with boys. Boys, many of them adolescents. Boys who, in many occasions, break down in tears during interviews and interrogations. Boys who lived their entire lives in the exact environment that breeds that kind of mindless violence. And it’s dangerous to not hear their narrative. It’s dangerous to not hear their stories and their reasons to join extremist groups.
Call me a terrorist apologist, but I whole-heartedly believe in these young men’s right to redemption. Their right to a second chance. I sympathize with them. It’s of utmost importance to rehabilitate them, to offer them a proper education, to connect them to people who are qualified to help them reassess their situation and rethink their lives, people who are ready to form deep, meaningful connections with them. People ready to love them and forgive them.
Saudi Arabia had created several ‘luxury’ institutions meant to rehabilitate terrorists, but it is not working, because a swimming pool and television programs do not suddenly change people’s minds about their ways; contrary, it cements their previous knowledge of the economical, educational, and societal gap between them and others.
It is not working because no one is actually helping those men feel like normal human beings. It is not working because the feeling of being rejected and despised persists inside them. It is not working because those men remain unloved.
I am against the death penalty. No one deserves to die, especially ones who are not currently engaging in battles, and who were captured by authorities. So it’s crucial to offer these young men a chance to speak, in comfort, and with people who possess the tremendous capacity of ridding themselves of previous judgments and presumptions. It’s crucial to hear their stories, understand their personal as well as collective struggles, and allow them a reconnection with loved ones.
They must not be physically isolated, because it only complements their emotional and mental isolation. We are social creatures, and being surrounded by others helps people cope and feel safe.
Khaled al-Dakheel, a social scientist, commented on Saudi Arabia’s program, saying: “To treat the problem at its root, one should challenge jihadist thought with an enlightened philosophy, not just with other Salafist ideas that are only slightly less extreme,”
And he is absolutely right. No help will come by subjecting them to a religious ideology, no matter its form; they were already submerged in one, and the solution is to remove them from religious discourse and into activities that encourage free thought and engagement with others. They must not be treated as inferiors lacking proper human decency, but as subjects worthy of living and capable of starting anew.
To look beyond their despicable actions, we need to focus on the cycle of oppression that creates them, a cycle that our governments are responsible for and must be held accountable for perpetuating. A blogger on Facebook, after the video of ISIS members killing 21 Christian Egyptians, writes how our governments indirectly bring extremist groups into existence, and even sponsors them and creates the perfect environment that breeds them, noting that: “For every terrorist the military kills in Sinaa’, twenty terrorists emerge in Cairo and other cities, not because a terrorist was killed, but because someone who was not a terrorist was wrongly killed.”
This cycle starts with an unjust murder of a peaceful religious opposition, creating a hateful response seeking revenge, which in turn propels the government into more prosecution, leading to brutal aftermaths, ones that could have been avoided.
Our governments are oppressive, following a tactic of brutal elimination of any opposing factions, especially ones with a religious basis, offering no chance of even an agreement to fair and honorable competition, and this leads a largely religious population to believe that the government seeks to destroy religion, one of the few things people hold into as a form of whatever identity they had left after years of colonization and western domination.
To fix the problem, we must go to the root. Contrary to those who say this root is religion, it’s not; it’s the young men carrying terrorist actions. Religion is merely a cover for the hundreds of ways those men were betrayed by their governments. They need to be heard, their stories need to be told, and their narrative needs to be known, because they are the key to solving the phenomena of Islamic extremism.
So, are you ready to let go of hate and resentment to reach out to a former terrorist? For me, I know I can. You should, too.