To combat extremism, young Muslims need to be empowered

Anything that makes Muslims feel more like outsiders serves one group more than anyone else: Daesh.

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The existence of Daesh is based on their success with a key demographic – young Muslims. Whereas most Al Qaeda recruits were aged between 25 and 35, most Daesh fighters are aged between 15 and 25. Investing in our youth is now a top priority for the Muslim world - and in Muslim minorities in Europe and elsewhere.

Approximately one third of the population of member states of the Organisation for Islamic Cooperation are young people - and this figure is growing. Muslim countries simply cannot afford to ignore their ‘youth bulge’ any longer – young people’s limited opportunities for employment and education “lowers the opportunity cost” of joining a radical movement, according to the Council on Foreign Relations.

This is why so many Muslim countries are rated as “high risk” in Population Action International’s analysis: restless, disenfranchised teens and young adults are naturally attracted to radicalisation and revolution. This tragically remains the case even when so-called “revolutions” lead to worse life chances for them, such as in Syria and Libya.

It is essential that youth unemployment in Muslim-majority countries is reduced from the current 15.6% to the global average of 12.6%, and that the quality of education improves . There are only 2 universities from Muslim-majority countries (a quarter of the world’s population) in the global top 200.

Tragically, all these problems are mirrored in Muslim minorities in the West – including in the UK. Too many Muslims are growing up in ghettoes, cut off from wider society and trapped in poverty. It is in this context that Trevor Phillips and Channel 4 have produced extreme findings based on a skewed sample of British Muslims. All surveys should tell the whole story about Muslims – like all people, they are products of their environments. If a particular study, like this one, focuses on areas with at least 20% Muslim populations these areas are likely to be more deprived than most, making extremism more attractive. We see the same dynamic in Muslim-majority countries.

Many have called this kind of study, and the subsequent tabloid coverage, Islamophobic. Although as yet there exists no internationally agreed definition of the phenomenon of Islamophobia, it can be defined as a contemporary form of racism and xenophobia motivated by unfounded fear, mistrust and hatred of Muslims and Islam. Islamophobia is also manifested through intolerance, discrimination and adverse political, media and even academic public discourse.

The most important question is: “whose agenda is this kind of discourse serving?” Anything that makes Muslims feel more like outsiders serves one group more than anyone else: Daesh. The terrorist group’s whole strategy in radicalising Western Muslims is based around the ‘grey zone theory’: after the Paris attacks, their official magazine Dabiq celebrated that “the grey zone is on the brink of extinction…these operations manifested two camps…a camp of Islam, and a camp of disbelief - the Crusader coalition.”

The ‘grey zone’ is the intellectual and emotional area that almost all young Muslims, in Europe and around the world, inhabit: people who love true (i.e. non-extremist) Islamic values but also have loyalty to their country of citizenship.

It is the priority of the Islamic Conference Youth Forum, as an international institution affiliated to the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), to change things in OIC member states, but similar solutions apply to Muslim minorities in Britain and Europe.

We aim to improve the quality of both informal and formal educational opportunities available to young Muslims. This means establishing accessible centres of informal education in various member states, as well as working with 20 OIC member state universities to facilitate their entry into the top 500 universities globally.

We also encourage entrepreneurship and job creation through collaboration between public and private sectors - we have access at this week’s OIC Heads of State summit to over 40 heads of state, but we also connect startups with investors and tech ’gurus’. Ultimately, we do all this to empower young Muslims as active citizens. Daesh’s slick and seductive social media presence cannot be allowed to be the only form of active citizenship available to Muslim youth, in Britain or anywhere else.

To achieve this, it essential to have cooperation from mainstream Muslim activists (in the West in general, and in Europe in particular) against both the manipulative propaganda of Daesh, and the Islamophobic agenda that fuels it.

Elshad Iskandarov is President of the Islamic Conference Youth Forum, an affiliated international institution of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), which is the the second largest intergovernmental organisation in the world. He is also a career diplomat of Azerbaijan who has served various governmental postings including at the United Nations. The OIC Heads of State summit takes place in Istanbul this week.

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