Why are young people joining ISIS?

Battle of Ideas festival 2015, Sunday 18 October, Barbican, London


Increasing numbers of young European Muslims are joining ISIS. News earlier this year that a group of young medics had left to work in Islamic State-controlled hospitals followed the shocking story of four East London teenage girls fleeing their families and a promising academic future to make a perilous trip to Syria. ‘Jihadi John’ has been unmasked as Mohammed Emwazi, a British-brought-up university graduate. What could encourage these and hundreds of other UK citizens to abandon their relatively prosperous lives in a free society to join a vicious band of nihilists?

There is, of course, nothing new about young idealistic people being been drawn to exciting international causes. During the Spanish Civil War, over 2,000 volunteers left Britain to join International Brigades fighting on the side of the republican government, joined by thousands of others from across Europe. What makes young people joining ISIS different? Perhaps one factor is a generational estrangement that is not the preserve of Muslim youth: contemporary youth culture in general contains many strands of nihilistic alienation, from self-harm to vicious trolling. Moreover, rejection of Western consumer society and European values is normal within many UK universities. But when a significant minority of Muslim youth translate this anti-Western hostility into an embrace of a brutal caliphate, this represents a more serious rejection of society and raises difficult questions.

One response invokes the language of child protection: these ‘vulnerable victims’, it is argued, are ‘groomed’ and ‘brainwashed in their bedrooms’ by evil online preachers. But how do we explain that even the youngest teenagers involved actively sought out jihadist websites and chose to travel to Syria, despite some formidable obstacles?

Meanwhile, the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act charges schools and universities with a statutory duty to prevent youngsters from ‘being drawn into terrorism’, implying some blame lies with educators not actively promoting ‘fundamental British values’. Yet outside of classrooms, Britishness seems to have little positive meaning and is highly contentious, as illustrated by the comparative closeness of the Scottish independence referendum and the SNP’s election landslide north of the border.

Getting to grips with why British society seems unable to elaborate values that bind everyone together seems crucial. To what extent is this a problem specific to young Muslims? What role have multiculturalist policies played in creating divisive and separate cultural identities? What explains the failure of a democratic way of life to inspire so many young people?

Kalsoom Bashir
co-director, Inspire, an NGO working to counter extremism and gender inequality

Professor Ted Cantle, CBE
director, Institute of Community Cohesion (iCoCo); chair, Community Cohesion Review

Professor Bill Durodié
head of department and chair of international relations, University of Bath

Shiraz Maher
senior research fellow and head of outreach, International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR), King’s College London

Mohsen Ojja
principal, The Crest Academies

Claire Fox

director, Academy of Ideas; panellist, BBC Radio 4’s Moral Maze; author, I Find That Offensive