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American Youth And ISIS: What’s The Attraction?

2014 witnessed the rise of a new terror group, a group that has made its name through brutality manifested by graphic, videotaped beheadings of westerners.  Ironically, some of its recruits are increasingly coming from the West, and surprisingly, some of these are American youth.  A trio of adolescent girls [1] from Colorado, a 19-year-old convert to Islam, and a suburban Chicago teen were all planning to leave the U.S. and join ISIS.  FBI investigators have discovered a network of online recruiters who are providing information on how to make the trek.  What begs understanding, is why youth would be attracted to making such a journey to join forces with an extreme ideology bent on vindictive violence.  One helpful perspective for understanding such motivation comes from the study of cults more generally.

Religion, Cults, And Teens

The psychology of why young people are drawn to what might objectively be seen as extreme and unrealistic views of the world has been studied for some time.  Adolescence is the quintessential time of identity formation and discovery of who one was created to be.  Thus, for most, if not all, it is a time when established societal values are critiqued, different philosophies of life are explored, and insecurities about belonging and ‘fitting in’ abound.  During adolescence, higher-order thinking skills become engaged and open youth to new intellectual and spiritual ideas.  At the same time, given that the world for adolescents can often seem unpredictable, and uncontrollable, feelings of vulnerability are not uncommon.

For most adolescents, parents and friends, school, or civic clubs and organizations provide the necessary tethers to allow them time to sort through these feelings.  However, when a young person feels alienated [2] from those family or friends who should form his primary support group, for whatever reason – divorce, child abuse, bullying, cultural differences with peers, absence of extended family – he will naturally seek [3] to find his niche elsewhere.  While this searching usually takes the form of standard ‘adolescent rebellion,’ there are times when relief from a much deeper sense of disconnectedness is sought, relief which is seemingly afforded by the communality of a cult and an oftentimes-charismatic cult leader, who offers a vision, albeit a false one, of a perfect society.  Religious cults [4], in particular, provide a natural venue for this search because of the promise of meaning and fulfillment they offer which stands in stark contrast to the increasingly-vacant secularism of our society today.

ISIS’ (ironic) Post-Modern Approach

Despite ISIS’ apparent goal of the return of the Caliphate from centuries past, its tactics are quite modern.  Amidst all of the “sturm und drang” that American youth experience, ISIS has capitalized on the availability and saturation of social media to blanket the world with its “promise” of bringing meaning and purpose to life.  Our post-modern world of rampant secularism has separated many families and their children from the religious values and traditions [3] of Western Civilization which historically have been a bulwark during the oftentimes stormy search for identity in one’s life.  Nature abhors a vacuum, it is said.  So while some desperate youth choose drug abuse or even attempt suicide in a search for meaning, or relief, for others, the rugged, clear, and focused message of radical Islam provides the desired clarity.

A Timeless Remedy

What youth need today is essentially the same as what they have always needed: loving family relationships characterized by a firmness and flexibility that allows them to explore the world and their emerging sense of self, but within boundaries and with the guidance of those entrusted with their care.  Meaningful friendships also provide needed feedback and consolation for youth as they navigate their way into the adult world.  Sadly, some youth are not afforded these gifts, and without proper guidance and understanding, are susceptible to believing the propaganda and indoctrination that cults provide.

I suppose every generation can stake some claim to the notion that its road was the most difficult to travel.  Youth today are surrounded by modern conveniences and technology which were unimaginable just decades ago.  Yet, one thing that youth in centuries past more likely had was family, and a local community that afforded them clear definitions of what was important in life and supportive others surrounding them to provide guidance.  That is greatly lacking today.  And its absence has consequences.