Jihad as a form of youth protest

In her new book "Zum Töten bereit. Warum deutsche Jugendliche in den Dschihad ziehen" (Willing to kill. Why German youths are joining the jihad), religious education teacher and scholar of Islam Lamya Kaddor asks why some young Germans are attracted to the jihadi cause. Claudia Mende spoke to her about the radicalisation of young Germans

By Claudia Mende

Ms Kaddor, five of your former pupils went to Syria to join the jihad. How did you react to the news?

Lamya Kaddor: Well, it came as a shock, because I was involved in the boys' education for a certain amount of time. It felt strange to be affected in this way.                                                                                        

The pupils all attended your religious education classes…

Kaddor: Yes, they were my students. I taught them for years, and they were radicalised after they left school.

Looking back, were there any indications at the time that they would be radicalised at a later stage?

Kaddor: No, none whatsoever. There were no signs at all. Unless you regard a particular vulnerability as a sign. The vulnerability lies in the fact that these young people encounter difficulties in life because of their migrant background, which exposes them to disadvantages because they come from socially difficult backgrounds. This means they meet several of the prerequisites for radicalisation.

Cover of Lamya Kaddor's book "Willing to kill. Why German youths are joining the jihad" (published by Piper Verlag)
In her book "Zum Töten bereit. Warum deutsche Jugendliche in den Dschihad ziehen" (Willing to kill. Why German youths are joining the jihad), Lamya Kaddor tells of a generation of young people without orientation and explains what needs and has to be done to stop young people from being radicalised

Is there any pattern to this process of radicalisation?

Kaddor: A basic prerequisite is that they feel lost in this society. All these young jihadists display this emotional instability. They are all united by a sense of being lost, of not being accepted. Their families have failed them; there's no other way to say it. Some of my pupils display huge social and emotional deficits – although it doesn't mean they all become Salafists.

Does the same apply to young people from non-migrant German families who convert to Islam?

Kaddor: Converts display the same psychosocial prerequisites, as do young people who later join the right-wing extremist cause. They all feel unappreciated, not assimilated. They are searching for support and guidance, perhaps also for love – all the things their families have not given them. There must be a reason why no one could compensate for these deficits. Even their families have evidently not managed to satisfy the yearnings of these young people. And so they go looking somewhere else. It's not necessarily by chance that young Muslims look to jihadism as a way of building on their self-esteem; left-wing extremism isn't so important these days, and right-wing radicalism is not an option for them.

The debate has become more theological since 9/11, the tendency now is to look for the answers in Islam…

Kaddor: Well, that's partially an expression of Islamophobia. In recent years, no religion has been subjected to as much criticism as Islam. And it's getting worse. Just look at the media; for example, for the third time within a short period, "Focus" [a popular German weekly news magazine – ed.] ran a title story about how bad Islam apparently is. What we should be doing is looking much more closely at the political and social causes of jihadism.

Your understanding of jihadism is that it is essentially a youth protest movement. Against what are these youngsters rebelling?

Kaddor: They're rebelling against their parents, against our state, against a system that – from their perspective in any case – excludes them and discriminates against them. They don't have the same educational opportunities. That's also a form of exclusion; they want to rebel against that as well.

Against their parents too?

Kaddor: Individual cases can, of course, vary. For example, a protest against parental views in highly traditional families. This is different from case to case. I also perceive youth jihadism as a rebellion against the parents. These families have often failed.

Young people, mostly Salafists, cheer on the controversial preacher Pierre Vogel in Frankfurt on 20 April 2011 (photo: picture-alliance/dpa/B. Roessler)
Young people, most of whom are Salafists, cheer on the controversial preacher Pierre Vogel in Frankfurt on 20 April 2011. According to Lamya Kaddor, many young Germans with a migrant background are susceptible to radical Islamist messages. "A basic prerequisite is that they feel lost in this society. All these young jihadists display this emotional instability. They are all united by a sense of being lost, of not being accepted."

But how do you explain this heightened fascination with violence, which is not necessarily present in other protest movements?

Kaddor: This is due to an absolutist ideology that together with a claim to the truth insists on being upheld, if necessary, through the use of violence. They use violence to legitimise this claim to the truth, which God has supposedly given them.

Germany's Islamic associations distance themselves from violence in the name of Islam. Nevertheless, you write that these associations have misjudged and underestimated the issue of Salafism. Why is this so?

Kaddor: Perhaps on the one hand because some grassroots elements are more sympathetic towards fundamentalist tendencies than senior figures in these associations would like. And on the other, because these functionaries deemed the phenomenon and problem of Salafism to be of secondary importance.

You mean because they feared offending some of their supporters?

Kaddor: They can't afford to disappoint sections of their grassroots members. It could also be that the associations quite simply lack the know-how, the ideas and the people to hammer out these ideas. I think that's a key consideration. Many people in these organisations lack skills in this area. That's how I would explain it.

But it's also difficult to reach young people. There's often a lack of attractive youth work in mosque communities...

Kaddor: Yes, that's part of the problem. There are too few Muslim social workers who are paid a decent wage, so it's also a question of money. Up to now, much of this work has been done by volunteers. But what Muslim social workers are prepared to take this on in addition to their regular workload? They would like to be paid an appropriate wage for it, which is perfectly understandable. But either there isn't any money, or it's being invested in things other than youth social work.

Of the five former students of yours who went to fight in Syria, four have now returned. Is enough being done for those who do return?

Kaddor: No, nowhere near enough is being done. There are many programmes in place that seek to prevent right-wing radicalism, but there is almost nothing in place to avert the radicalisation of young Muslims. There is, for example, hardly any social work in schools; the issue is still rarely addressed in universities. One of the few initiatives has been launched by the Technical College in Munster. They asked me whether I would give seminars on Muslim life as part of their social work study programme. There is still so much to be done.

Inner-Islamic dialogue is important for a rigorous debate with the Salafists. Nowadays, are you seeing a greater willingness to accept diverse faith trends?

Kaddor: Yes and no. It is now accepted that liberal Muslims do exist. That's something, at least. They were previously mocked and their faith disputed. Now we're at the point where people say: "yes, we recognise that there are liberal Muslims who hold views different to our own. Not that we like it very much." I believe we can say this now, but it's nothing more than that. To date, we are not seeing any real co-operation between Islamic associations and the "Liberal Islamic Alliance". That's a pity. And this is not because of the liberal Muslims. That's why I appeal to the Islamic associations to show a greater willingness to co-operate. I call on them to work together with us, even though we don't always agree.

In your book, you speak of a "Muslimisation of Muslims". In other words, the experience of being rejected because of belonging to a particular group actually strengthens the feeling of belonging to that group. What can Muslims do to extricate themselves from this situation?

Kaddor: Muslims themselves are not responsible for this. It is more a matter of how they are seen from the outside, and that's difficult for Muslims to influence. The media discourse on the issue has to change so that the external perception changes.

At the end of your book you call upon all Muslims to distance themselves from the fanatics. What can an individual do?

Kaddor: I don't call upon people to distance themselves from the fanatics, but to adopt a position on the fanatics. There's a difference, and I attach great importance to that difference. Because distance presupposes proximity. But there is no proximity between me and an attack that takes place somewhere in the world and just because I am a Muslim. It's outrageous to suggest such a thing. At best, I can call on people to adopt a position, but definitely not to distance themselves from anything.

Interview conducted by Claudia Mende

© Qantara.de 2015

Translated from the German by Nina Coon

Lamya Kaddor: "Zum Töten bereit. Warum deutsche Jugendliche in den Dschihad ziehen" (Willing to kill. Why German youths are joining the jihad), published by Piper Verlag 2015, 256 pages, ISBN: 978-3-492-05703-5