The roots of radicalism: Family, society and the solace of religion

Published 13 January 2015 / By Morwari Zafar

Back to Articles

This blog was first posted on Opedspace, 24 November 2014

Have you ever been so heartbroken that you joined the conservative faction of a local mosque? Khalid did, because he felt he had no other way to cope.

For the children of some immigrant families, negotiating among cultures and sub-cultures compounds perceptions of isolation, inadequacy, and a desire to belong to something meaningful. Radicalism is not necessarily a collective response to assimilation or economic impediments; it can also be an individual response to social class and status. Media reports treat motivations among radical youth with a sense of cognitive dissonance: Why do American, French, or British youth from standard, middle class families turn to religious fundamentalism? As the holy grail of policy discussions, the answer won’t be in the singular. Rather than fixate on the external appeal of the Islamic State or Al Qaeda, a glance at the effect of internal household pressures reveals greater insights.

Some immigrant families remain beholden to their community’s perception of status and family honor. These important social networks do not diminish by virtue of distance from the homeland; rather, families often struggle to assimilate while still under obligations to uphold and perform customs and traditions for the sake of community perception. This creates a volatile micro-environment, acting like a pressure cooker of often-contradictory demands and influences – a transformative confluence for people, like Khalid, who straddle a multitude of cultural boundaries.

For Khalid, college was an isolating experience. Born to Afghan parents in New York, it was the first time he would have to figure, on his own, the limits of Afghan norms while being immersed in American, college culture. He went to parties, drank alcohol and fell in love with a non-Afghan woman – all things that incurred his parents’ intense dissatisfaction.

“My mom would call me all the time. ‘What if another [Afghan] family finds out that you’re running around with girls and partying? How’s that going to make us look?’ It was a lot of pressure. I was paranoid in public with my girlfriend. In the end, we broke up. I was a wreck. It took a long time to get out of feeling depressed.”

Photo by Dionysis Kouris, COMPAS Photo Competition 2014

Photo by Dionysis Kouris, COMPAS Photo Competition 2014

Khalid attended mosque regularly as a means of distracting himself. His family was not open to discussing his pain and he was reluctant to engage his peers lest the gossip should reach the Afghan-American community and muddy his family’s name. He briefly joined a conservative group that seemed to understand his turmoil. They contextualized his feelings as normal human weaknesses that could be conquered by following the righteous path of Islam. In the nebulous configuration of Afghan-American culture, Islam served as an anchor; a clear set of guidelines that, if observed, could position someone above reproach.

For those who feel lost in both the old and new worlds, religion and religious-based groups can provide a reconciliatory space. In communities where accountability to one’s heritage and customs is tacitly enforced by the power of “talk,” (i.e. gossip) subscribing to measures that clearly dictate behavior and consistent with a higher purpose can prove easier than balancing what is socially and culturally permissible across two worlds.

Arie Kruglanksi, a psychologist and professor at the University of Maryland, identifies the need for “cognitive closure” as one of the reasons why youth, who experience existential identity issues, get drawn to ideologies that provide a normative structure in which right and wrong are explicitly defined. As such, religious groups offer social acceptability where others may find it lacking – whether in the home, community, or society.

Some forms of radicalism and extremism spawn from counter-culture movements. But sometimes those contestations of power can be local, and all the more salient among immigrant families where negotiating competing identities is just as much a public spectacle as a private endeavor. Buying into different norms, values, and beliefs may be perceived as selling out of one’s own. As Tariq, an Afghan-American in Washington DC, explained:

“In places like northern Virginia, there is still a strong sense of Afghan community and it places checks and balances on people’s Afghan-ness. People can’t compromise on their Afghan-ness because it would be a disrespect to their legacy.”

The current policy climate risks insularity by focusing on external motivators such unemployment, disenfranchisement and susceptibility to recruitment via social media. It calls into question the legitimacy of every institution from Islam to Facebook. Such an approach raises valid points, but it is conducive only to identifying a limited range of resolutions. The skeleton key may remain elusive.

This is an opportunity for immigrant communities and households to revisit their own social boundaries. It compels families to reconsider how they handle generational dynamics and cross-cultural differences. Is it possible that the walls supporting youth radicalism are actually beneath their own roofs?

Note: Khalid is a real subject interviewed by the author. His name has been changed for his privacy and protection.

Author affiliation: Morwari Zafar, DPhil in Anthropology, COMPAS/School of Anthropology