Helping young Muslim "in-betweeners"

By Patrick Hudson

Upon returning to campus following a brief Thanksgiving break, Ohio State University students were subjected to an attack, the fourteenth terrorist or terrorism-related attack this year in the United States. While the only fatality was the attacker himself, a troubling connection emerged between this attack and the Boston Marathon bombings in 2013the Chelsea bombings in 2016, and the Fort Hood shooting in 2009: all were carried out by young men who were radicalized in part due to the influence of Anwar Awlaki’s sermons.

Following Somali refugee Abdul Razak Ali Artan’s attack on the Ohio State campus last week, the media speculated on the attackers’ background, religion, citizenship status, and a host of other factors. ISIS later claimed responsibility for the attacks, describing Ali Artan as a “soldier.” While the facts remain uncertain, as ISIS consistently claims any and every attack on the West to boost their reputation, the undeniable truth of al-Alwaki’s influence over many Muslim youths is deeply troubling.

Anwar Awlaki was an American-born Yemeni cleric who became the voice of the moderate Muslim community following the September 11, 2001, attacks. He led the Muslim prayer on Capitol Hill in 2002 and was asked to speak at a luncheon at the Pentagon later that year. Awlaki was seen by many as occupying an extraordinary position: he was an individual who was part of what the Wall Street Journal called, “a new generation of Muslim leaders capable of merging East and West.” Awlaki’s radicalization came from his displeasure over US treatment of Muslims overseas and within the United States, resulting in his fleeing to the United Kingdom and ultimately into self-exile in Yemen in 2004. Awlaki’s rhetoric shifted while in the UK, and he went from preaching tolerance after the devastating 9/11 attacks to instructing young Muslims to “never trust a kuffar[nonbeliever]” under any circumstances. In Yemen, he began teaching at an al-Qaeda affiliated university, with many alumni becoming involved in the group after graduating.

Awlaki’s rise to prominence in the radical Muslim world became inexorable after he expanded his presence online. Awlaki’s Facebook following grew along with his fame, with many “fans” being young, high school-aged men. His message inspired several attacks, including the attempted bombing of Times Square and the massacre at Fort Hood. In the instance of the latter attack, Awlaki had corresponded via email with the attacker. Awlaki was later killed in an airstrike alongside his sixteen-year-old son, prompting outrage due to his son’s age and alleged innocence. Clearly, the US viewed Awlaki as dangerous but discovered that his online presence would last far beyond his death. Awlaki’s mystery and intrigue increase with each attack supposedly done in his name, with younger men being attracted to his sermons. Awlaki’s online presence became a posthumous bridge to the radical Muslim world following his targeted killing in 2011.

The question that every media outlet begs following such an attack is,  “How do young men living in western countries become radicalized?” The “in-betweeners” phenomenon is not exclusive to the United States, but has existed in France and Belgium as well. These young men currently have uncertain identities and seem to long for a sense of home while feeling unfamiliar in their current country of residence. When religion is added to the mix, young minds are easily swayed. The uncertainty in a young man’s mind can be distorted, allowing him “to attach his identity to something that is larger and inflates his sense of himself,” as described by the New York Times. Being part of a movement that lends genuine credence and purpose to one’s existence, while removing uncertainty about where one belongs can be preferable to the consistent uncertainty of wondering who one is. The jihadist ideology puts young men at the centre of their own destiny, allowing for a young man to become the hero of his own story, despite his confusing and often troubling cultural duality.

While Awlaki and his cohorts advocate for these youths to reject the “Sally Soccer Moms and Joe Six-Packs” of suburban America, we must double our efforts to be more inclusive to marginalized communities, including Muslims, to remove the confusion and sense of alienation that they face. While our President-elect Donald Trump stated that Ali Artan was a refugee “who should not have been in our country,” his aims align with those of Awlaki—for both, division is pivotal. Both Trump and Awlaki’s ideologies benefit from a divided populous based largely on populism and tribalism. To combat such ideologies, we must do the opposite and focus on the importance of extending inclusion and acceptance to those who feel marginalized through “in-between” identities. Social scientists in Europe have discovered that in France, far more than in the US, Muslims feel “frontally rejected” by society, thus increasing the chance of their feeling “in-between” French culture and their traditional Muslim culture. Subsequently, this sense of alienation increases their chance of radicalization exponentially. These same social scientists say that this feeling comes from parties being told they are not “French enough,” though when they return to their ancestral homes, they are  told that they are not “Arab enough.” This trend of alienation could change. As refugees and immigrants become part of European culture, statisticians are seeing fewer and fewer “third generation” migrants involved in heinous acts.

Unfortunately, this promising trend could also be reversed. The rise of far-right politics in the United States and Europe may fuel feelings of marginalization in young men as they hear and see increasing nationalism and anti-Muslim sentiment, a phenomenon that is cause for concern among both the Muslim community and the progressive movement as whole, including humanists. How can we as individuals combat this wave of anti-Muslim bigotry? An idea: if know of or learn of a newly emigrated family in your area that is unfamiliar to life in your country—welcome them, invite them to dinner, and have your children play with their children. These refugees left everything they’ve known to survive  and have undergone hardships nobody should go through. By inviting them over to dinner you extend an unclenched fist to those in need. And let us remember the words engraved on the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”—welcoming immigrants is part of the American identity – the proverbial American fabric.

Let us reach out to understand those who are tired, poor, yearning to breathe free, and in return we share our identity with them, so that they may never feel “in-between.”


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Patrick Hudson is the Special Projects intern at the American Humanist Association.

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  • commented 2016-12-12 14:02:27 -0800
    Good points, and by the same token, we need to level the same criticisms at Islamic dogma and social policies as we do at Christian dogma, thereby helping to break through the pernicious idea that Islam is somehow specially immune to legitimate criticism. After all, just as Christian Science dogma routinely kills and maims the children of members of that religion, so Islamic dogma is arguably at least one of the leading causes of premature death of Muslims around the world.


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