How to Speak With Young Muslims About ISIS

As a university Muslim chaplain, I mentor and counsel young Muslim men and women everyday -- on my campus and beyond -- who are navigating their way through the complex and messy world that we all live in.

Most young Muslims I meet are struggling with very personal and intimate issues from romantic and family relationships to stress and anxiety about the future. But, many students are also deeply disturbed -- if not angry -- by all of the great injustices and violence they see in the headline news everyday both at home and abroad.

When these injustices and violence happen in the name of their religion and by those who claim the mantle of Islam -- such as the self-declared "Islamic State" of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) -- the questions and feelings can be even more difficult to grapple with.

On the one hand, there is usually disgust and confusion at how people can interpret the same religion that they follow so dramatically and radically different than themselves. The crisis of authority in Islam can be especially challenging for young people as no one person or even group of people from within the faith can offer an effective counter to violent extremists given that religious authority in Islam is so decentralized.

As such, students on college campuses often find that they have to contend with all of the different voices claiming religious authority from within the global Muslim community and have to evaluate these claims based on their own limited knowledge or research. Furthermore, young Muslims on campuses have the additional pressure of what sociologists call "the burden of representation." Usually well-meaning friends and classmates -- and sometimes even professors and professional staff -- will ask Muslim students difficult questions about ISIS and the like, expecting every Muslim to be a walking and talking expert about their religion and current world affairs. Sometimes the questions can be asked with hostile intent (including organized events on campus from right-wing members of the community) leading to a sense of fear, shame or marginalization among some students.

This is why, in part, it is so important to educate and empower young people on college campuses so that they can wisely navigate through all of these issues. Experts from on and off campus should be made available to answer questions and help make distinctions between legitimate and not so legitimate claims that are made about the Islamic tradition and history. Educational seminars should be organized to systematically and thoroughly address the questions that people have and to counter the powerful propaganda of violent extremists.

But, ultimately education is not enough to prevent extremist ideologies from affecting young people. We must also understand the root causes of why individuals -- no matter how few and far they may be -- would even be attracted to ISIS or any other similar ideology.

Usually on an American college campus it's not about poverty or lack of educational resources that are the problem. It's more so that many young people -- of different faiths and backgrounds -- feel a deep sense of disenchantment with the world: too much greed, too much power concentrated in the hands of a few, too much disparity between the so-called "First World" and "Third World," too much killing and exploitation that more powerful countries get away with, and so on. For Muslim youth, there is also sometimes a deep sense of resentment at how colonialism and capitalism and consumerism -- of course along with internal divisions -- over the centuries have stripped too many Muslims and Muslim societies of dignity and progress. The question of what happened to a once proud and progressive civilization is too painful and overwhelming to answer.

This is where ISIS and the like are best able to strike -- by offering simplistic but appealing answers and solutions to these questions and problems. The so-called solution basically boils down to something along the lines of: "The West is the problem; Islam is the solution." And, then young people are told that the "Islamic solution" can only happen with the total domination of societies from top down. And, that this totalitarian vision can only be achieved through war and fighting against all those who oppose this radical vision -- even against fellow Muslims.

For those who are fed up with the status quo and want to radically change the world, this can be an appealing message. It does not help much, for those few individuals who are attracted to an ISIS type of extremism, to completely and summarily dismiss or condemn ISIS.

In fact, the more that ISIS is condemned the more appealing it can be for some who are precisely seeking a movement or cause that will stick it to the status quo. The more that the West, in particular, speaks and mobilizes against ISIS and even heightens its rhetoric against them, the more appealing it can be to those who have come to see the world as a polarization that pits Islam against the West and sees the West as an unrelenting enemy of Islam.

So, what is really needed instead on college campuses and beyond is to offer young people a different radical and bold vision for how to engage with the world and how to make real and positive change in society.

The fire that many young people have to change the world should be honored. It is about getting students involved -- as early as possible -- in the more difficult, but ultimately more satisfying and successful, work of social justice organizing and human rights advocacy and grassroots mobilization.

If the passions that young people have are not directed in good and constructive ways, then some will find evil and destructive ways to engage their passions. That's a hard, but simple truth. So, the responsibility lies on all of us -- young and old and people of all backgrounds -- to counter violent extremism not just with words of condemnation, but more importantly with actions of compassion and models of construction.

In countering ISIS and violent extremism, some see Islam itself as the problem. And, in doing so seek to secularize young Muslim men and women. But, I would argue that that is exactly the wrong and foolish thing to do. Many young people find Islam to be a really powerful and meaningful force in their lives. Islam has been around for centuries and is not going anywhere. The message of the Qur'an and the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad offer extremely compelling ways in which goodness and virtue and justice can be pursued without taking the world down. It is these teachings and interpretations that should be pursued -- beginning of course with Muslim leaders themselves.

Ultimately, responding to and countering ISIS (and other violent extremist groups across the board) on college campuses requires a multi-faceted effort that includes education, counseling and mentoring, and engagement with social and political problems in healthy and productive ways. And, all of this must be done sincerely and genuinely to seek a better world and to honor the passion of young people -- our best and brightest hope for the future.