The World Today
1 April 2015 , Volume 71, Number 2

Hillary Clinton’s envoy to the world’s Islamic communities talks about the identity crisis among Muslim youth that Islamic State is exploiting through Sheikh Google 


Alan Philps

Editor, The World Today


Europe has woken up to Islamic State’s recruitment of young women to go and live in Syria. Should we have been alert to this some time ago?

It is not a new phenomenon that extremists, such as Al Qaeda and now Islamic State, are working on the minds of young Muslims to move them into their real or virtual armies. The world has awoken to this threat because 20,000 foreigners are now fighting in Syria. As to whether we should be surprised that women are going to Syria, let me be clear: if you’re an extremist group, and you’re trying to build armies for the long term, of course you’re going to recruit boys and girls, men and women. It has been a tragic blind spot that governments have not been attuned to this fact and we’re playing catch-up right now. 

I served for several years as Special Representative to Muslim Communities at the US Department of State, though I have now left government. During that time I noticed changes in millennial Muslim women throughout the world – in terms of daily life, and customs. The signs of this change aren’t just when the teenager is caught on a video camera at the airport. The process happens long before and in ways that government is often slow to see. Communities must understand that there is a crisis of identity for Muslims under 30, who are asking questions that their parents and their grandparents didn’t ask about culture and belonging.

Are you talking about just Europe and America, or the Muslim world as a whole?

In the 80 countries that I travelled to as special representative, the consistent finding was that the Muslim millennials are having a crisis of identity. A fourth of the planet is Muslim; that’s 1.6 billion people. And 62 per cent of them are under 30. That’s the pool from which the bad guys recruit. This is not a question of one or other part of the world. We should be as engaged in what’s happening in the Maldives and Central Asia as we are in Denmark and Brazil, because the guys don’t care which part of the world they recruit from. For Muslim millennials who are digital natives, ideas are connected around the world. They aren’t looking at what part of the world this person is from. They are being pulled in an emotional way by their peers. Connecting the dots with this demographic is essential to understanding this threat.

You’ve spoken of the ‘halalization’ of young Muslim women. What does this mean?

In parts of the world where Islam has been central to the culture for hundreds of years, there has been a sudden change in the way women think about themselves – who they are, how they dress, what they eat, how they live their lives, how they think about their own position in the world. They reject the historic traditions of their culture to absorb foreign ideologies. They are uncertain about their past. They are worried that what they have been doing is not ‘Muslim enough’. And so they become hyper-focused on this idea of ‘doing it right’. Asking, for example, am I using a pen that is halal? Am I drinking water that is halal? It’s not just, is the meat that I’m eating butchered in the right way to make it halal? It’s taken that concept to a new level that is quite absurd. 

So why are young people so anxious?

Their anxiety comes from external ideologies that make these kids and their families feel that despite the traditions they have followed for hundreds of years they are not doing things right. These ideologies want to scrub away the diversity of Islam. They want to tell you that there’s one way of being Muslim, that you have to eat in a particular way, dress in a particular way, talk in a particular way, interact in a particular way. The correlation is direct when you look at what Islamic State is doing to historic sites. They are destroying them because they don’t want any evidence of the diversity of Islam, or indeed diversity in general. It is not just ISIS that is doing this. Mosques that are hundreds of years old or ancient cemeteries that have headstones that demonstrate diversity of thinking  and practice are being destroyed. Qurans that have different forms are being burnt.

Which countries are we talking about?

We’re talking about Gulf countries that have spread their ideologies to many parts of the world. If you go to Bosnia, to parts of Africa and Central Asia, you will see the diversity of Islam being scrubbed away. The premise is that local expressions of religion are not ‘real Islam’. Instead, they say, we will build you a shiny marble and glass construction and take away things that have been around for 900 years. Within one generation, there will be no evidence of diversity in Islam. The world, both governments and non-governmental actors, needs to get a grip and understand that all of these pieces are connected. You cannot eradicate this vile ideology if you don’t understand the whole picture. We cannot just say, ‘We need to be more aggressive on Twitter and then we’ll win this.’

Do you think the anxiety comes from the fact that they see Muslim countries incapable of thriving in the modern world? So they take refuge in the past? 

My experience has not borne that out. In the conversations I’ve had with millennials, it really is about a crisis of identity and purpose. For these youths, seeing the word ‘Islam’ or ‘Muslim’ on the front pages of newspapers and online, every day since 9/11, makes them think that somehow they are different, somehow that they will never belong, that they will never have a purpose in this life and they are attracted to ready-made answers.

Is there something that governments can do to stop money coming from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries?

Muslim millennials are growing up in a post-9/11 world and are asking questions about culture versus religion, being modern and Muslim. The people who are answering their identity crisis questions are not parents or family or community voices that in the past may have helped young people navigate their identity. Instead, they’re going online to Sheikh Google. The loudest voices are those of the extremists that know how to shape the way young people see everything. Every country that has been affected by extremists has failed in building the kind of robust 24/7 counter approach. We haven’t been bold and clear about how foreign financing is affecting ideologies. 

Secondly, we need to be clear about the extremists’ methodology. They’re looking to affect every component of a life experience. When you change the way people look at their traditional cultures, how they dress, what they eat, how they pray, how they think about their history, you can change them within one generation. 

Governments have relied on legislation, censorship and filtering to counter online extremism. But these measures often make Muslim communities feel victimized. What is the role of government here?

There are legal steps that government needs to take in terms of the flow of money. But in terms of the ideas on the ground, government is not credible. It is more important to support the communities. They have the answers at local level and they need to be scaled up. The war of ideas is winnable. The solutions are affordable and they are available. What we must find is non-government monies to support local ideas.

Britain has very robust and engaged communities that are pushing back against this ideology. What you see across Britain is very small-scale efforts because there isn’t enough money. We have to be able to facilitate a new way of thinking about how you get communities to build resilient infrastructure in a credible way. 

This means acquiring skills and money from philanthropists and from the private sector. This may seem strange, but it is the only tool we have not yet used to the best of our ability. 

We need to stop thinking that fighting extremism is something the government is going to be able to do alone. As somebody who spent a lot of time in Europe  after the Danish cartoon crisis, I noticed some things that are unique to Britain. British Muslims who know how to go into their communities and have great ideas to counter the appeal of extremist ideo-logy need bigger platforms to push out their voices.

Over the centuries Islam has often sought a return to its roots. Does this help explain what’s going on?

The extremists are not having a philosophical conversation about the meaning of life and theology and more than 1,000 years of Islamic history. They are using modern technology to conduct advertising campaigns that are cloaked in theology. The majority of the kids they are targeting aren’t spending time reading about religion. These kids are being seduced through emotion, imagery, mythology and pop culture references.

When teenage girls go to Syria, you’ve used the word ‘seduction’. Do you see this as sexual exploitation or are we talking about radicalization?

For many of these girls, there is a sense of romance and fantasy in war. The extremists are very skilled at luring these girls, not just on a sexual level, which is part of it, but it’s also giving them a sense of purpose and being part of a ‘noble’ cause. 

They are young, they are being influenced in the same way any other teens are influenced by things around them. We see the same techniques that advertisers use to get kids to go in a particular direction. The extremists are doing the same thing. They’re giving them a romanticized notion about what they’re going to do. The reality is they’re using the girls for sexual purposes, to build their goal of a ‘caliphate’ and create the next so-called army through their wombs. 

The contradictions inside Islamic State and its inability to run a modern economy are bound to weaken it over time. Won’t this blunt the lure of jihadism? 

Contradictions are everywhere yet the ideology persists and young people get recruited. We talked about contradictions in ideology and practice with the Taliban and Al Qaeda, for example: using modern, western-made technology and weapons at the same time as rejecting the West; watching pornography or drinking alcohol at the same time as preaching purity. Unfortunately, we do not see a decrease in the appeal of these ideologies. We see an increase. They’re still there and every day that goes by, they are learning new skills. Even if it’s not ISIS, it will be something else. The manifestation of the ideology will keep changing because they know that they can appeal to youth.

How do you change that? 

Europeans are not all the same. So we have to get very granular as we think about who’s going to make sense for that kid in Dublin, who’s going to make sense for that kid in Nottingham, who’s going to make sense for that kid in Oslo or in Madrid. We have to be able to find those voices and scale them up. Kids don’t listen to government. They want to hear from their own peers. In the end, it’s the cool factor that counts and those credible voices offline and online are the ones that will change the game.


Farah Pandith was born in India and brought up in Massachusetts. She worked in the George W Bush administration at the National Security Council as a director for Middle East Initiatives and then in the Department of State as adviser on Muslim engagement in Europe. In 2009 she was appointed as Special Representative to Muslim communities with responsibility for engagement with Muslims around the world. She left government last year.