How the public perceives teens after having joined ISIS gives invaluable clues as to why they may have joined in the first place.
The media and the world are asking why teens of the western world would leave their cozy homes to join the ranks of ISIS and aid them. This phenomenon is occurring in numerous westernized countries: United States, Norway, Australia, France, and Austria. I am examining the case of two female teens from Austria, Samra (left) and Sabina (right), who both left Austria in April 2014 to join ISIS.
According to media sources, Samra and Sabina are children of Bosnian immigrants raised in Vienna. Stories of teens fleeing westernized countries to assist ISIS are mainly immigrants or children of immigrant families of Muslim faith. Some also convert to Islam prior to going. Considering the extensive and prolonged war between US-led coalitions and the Middle East, how accepted and integrated are youth and families of Muslim faith living as expats, refugees, and asylees in westernizing countries?
Having worked with teens in conflict with the law for more than a decade, I am naturally drawn to media attention given to teens. Unfortunately, the press teens receive is usually negative, perpetuating harmful teen stereotypes. Here is yet another example of how public criticism on teens choosing to aid ISIS further alienates marginalized youth.
Articles on teens joining ISIS had little insight into my first question. I then became curious about the comments readers were making about teens joining ISIS and particularly about Samra and Sabina. Would the comments be of concern and understanding or hatred and retribution? To my dismay, I was saddened, shocked, and even disturbed by what I read. Some words and expressions are explicit and I apologize, however, I wanted you to read what could be the underlying issue at hand.
Samra and Sabina were described as “weak minded, creatures, dim-witted, unsophisticated, stupid little girls, stupid cows, little Evil/nasty bitches, and dirty little whores”. One female commentator went as far as calling them a “stupid pair of TWATS and brain dead whores.” Another commentator hoped “they returned to Austria in body bags”, while another posted, “kill them and their offspring.” Some blamed the parents and even wanted them prosecuted for aiding terrorists. The hatred in these comments was palpable.
After reading about a hundred or so such comments, I began to feel disenchanted until I saw this post that confirmed my belief about the first question and reconfirmed my sanity and belief in humankind.
“What was happening in their lives before they left their homes? How could they have become so disenchanted with their lives at such a young age, that leaving all and everyone they know was seen as a better life? Questions must be raised at how no one noticed such a change in them. Was there no one talking or taking notice of them. It seems that the only time they felt special to anyone was when fed the ISIS way of thoughts. How very sad for society today. There are probably many young people who are easy meat ready to be converted with empty promises because they have nothing else in their lives to live for.”
This reader was able—with compassion and care— to see root causes of their decisions and trying to take ownership, versus being a detached judge, angry jury, and at times stone-cold executioner. She was looking for a proactive social answer, not a reactive and punitive one. She raises several pertinent questions and the question I had was: Were these girls and other teens who joined ISIS already disenchanted beforehand, feeling the same and being treated the same as the comments made about them after they joined ISIS? Before engaging with ISIS who was:
Reaching out to them?
Talking to them?
Making them feel like they belonged?
Making them feel valued and worthy?
Only others (i.e. family, peers, neighborhoods, communities, schools, agencies, and businesses) can answer these fundamental questions. Was society’s response sufficient enough in addressing these existential needs? That is uncertain, however, ISIS was there to fill this void for them.
Extreme groups take advantage of those who feel extremely unaccepted, unloved, and misunderstood because they are desperately seeking extreme ways to satisfy prolonged unmet basic needs. The basic needs of belonging and power (feeling worthwhile to self and others) are very much present in adolescents. If teens cannot find socially responsible outlets to have their basic needs met, then they are vulnerable to extreme and radical groups. ISIS is not the only radical group out there looking for people who are desperately finding a place and purpose.
This happened regularly with the young men I worked with who were either gang involved or seeking gang involvement. They looked to these groups to belong, to feel loved, and purposeful. Some did it for survival (selling drugs and stealing). Many were minorities, immigrants, or children of immigrants living in less than desirable neighborhoods.
Being a “somebody” regardless of how it manifests, is far more desirable than being a “nobody”. Similarly, negative attention is better than no attention. Being neglected, dehumanized, discriminated against, and degraded is severely damaging to one’s sense of self and can have equally damaging repercussions, which brings us back to the public’s comments about Samra and Sabina.
Presuming both are alive and reasonably well (there are rumors of one being dead), how do these comments help marginalized teens— who only later see the gravity of their decision—feel included, wanted, and purposeful? They don’t.
Social workers and Austrian Muslims have joined together to “dereadicalize” young people who have been to Syria, or having thoughts of fighting with ISIS. The goal is to connect them and their families with community agencies and resources to discourage them from extremism. You can read more at www.thelocal.at.
This is a good first step, however, the real impact in helping teens like Samra and Sabina starts with us. What kind of daily interactions are marginalized youth having with you, neighbors, teachers, law enforcement, passersby, peers, and store clerks? Are we, as a community, adequately addressing the 5 questions above, or are we passively and actively inviting and letting extremists do so?
We blame ISIS or other radical and harmful groups consisting of hundreds and even thousands of brainwashing youth, but when a young person decides to join the ranks of any anti-social group we are quick to punish the individual—even the parents—but no one else. If a community of extremists can be blamed for taking advantage of impressionable and alienated youth, why are the communities from which these young people come also not blamed in part for creating an environment that pushes them to seek out, engage with, and ultimately join radical groups?