Muslim youth radicalisation: why does it happen and how to respond


There is a central idea driving Muslim youth radicalisation: young Muslims travelling this path are following a particular conceptual role model that praises activism for Islam, jihadi militancy and death for the sake of Allah. A number of intersecting elements underlie this core idea.

The first element reinforcing such a role model is the influence of radical preachers in some mosques, as revealed in the “Undercover Mosque” documentaries produced in the UK some years ago. The subversive role of such preachers is exacerbated by easy access to radical Islamic websites and social media sites. These create the ingredients for a further key element: a peer group of real life and virtual radicalised youth which adds fuel to the pressures on young Muslims.

Sadly, parents sometimes also provide a radicalised role model. The father of one of the much discussed 15-year-old jihadi brides from Bethnal Green was filmed participating in one protest led by the notorious radical preacher Anjem Choudary. Many young Muslims are brought up in contexts where rabid anti-Westernism is a key part of family discourse.

A further radicalised role model for young Muslims is the prophet of Islam himself. Muhammad is a complex character, but during the last 10 years of his life in the city of Medina, Islamic sources, such as the prophetic traditions or Hadith, and the authoritative biography of Muhammad or Sira, record that he developed the doctrine of jihad, plundered trading caravans, sanctioned the beheading of perceived enemies, and endorsed forced concubinage.

So what can be done to prevent the radicalisation of Muslim youth in the West? First, there should be monitoring of sermons in radical mosques, a practice already followed in some countries in the world, including Muslim countries.

Second, radical preachers should be prosecuted and, where possible, deported, as was the case with Abu Qatada. Western governments should also take steps to limit public access to radical Islamist websites. Furthermore, citizenship should be withdrawn from dual nationals found guilty of involvement in radical groups.

Finally, moderate Muslim leadership needs to address the elephant in the room: the role of Muhammad as a model for jihadi activism. There is little doubt that radical Muslim youth look ultimately to the example of their prophet during his years in Medina.

This is no time for simplistic arguments that have been popular amongst many political commentators in the West; namely, that Muslim youth radicalisation simply results from their alienation from majority society. No other marginalised religious minority community produces hostile and radicalised youth in this way. Islam is a special case, a fact that should be acknowledged and acted upon by political commentators and state alike.

This article is an edited version of the one which first appeared in “ReformMagazine“(UK), February 2016.


Professor Peter G Riddell serves as Professorial Research Associate in the Department of History at SOAS, University of London and as Vice Principal (Academic) at the Melbourne School of Theology (an affiliated college of the Australian College of Theology). He previously taught at the Australian National University, the Institut Pertanian Bogor (Indonesia), and the London School of Theology. He has published widely on the study of Southeast Asia, Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations.

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