It seems the height of contradiction to be a Saudi, Kuwaiti, or Egyptian parent and worry that your children who are studying or working in the United States or Europe may turn into extremists who aspire to join organizations like Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
Nonetheless, it is not an irrational fear if we examine the experience of exchange students in foreign countries and those who have emigrated to live in the West. Fears that a Saudi student may turn into an extremist while studying at a university in Chicago or Birmingham are perhaps more well-founded than worries that a student in the university of Umm Al-Qura in Mecca, or in the Imam Muhammad ibn Saud Islamic University in Riyadh, or Al-Azhar in Cairo may do the same. This is, of course, just a hypothesis and it doesn’t yet mean that we have a new phenomenon on our hands. However, worries persist.
The Saudi cultural attaché in the United States, Dr. Mohammed Al-Issa, reflected this worry when he urged Saudi students there to avoid extremist circles and suspicious groups. There are concerns for those who move to a completely different society than the one that they are used to, as they become completely responsible for themselves and for their character development in a society that allows them more scope to make choices about these things. However, and despite this freedom, plurality and individualism, people in these societies arm themselves with a culture that protects them from dangers like getting involved in violent groups.
Early youth is an experimental and character-building phase. It’s not unusual for a student to travel to the US with long hair and return with a thick beard as they go through the motions as a result of their encounter with a culture that’s very different to the one in which they were raised—a culture of individual responsibility, independence and freedom. Some of the most important lessons taken from studying in a foreign country are learning to live outside one’s local support systems, trying new things, making decisions, building character, becoming self-reliant, and co-existing with others. These are all positive characteristics in addition to the education one was sent abroad to acquire.
It only becomes a source of concern when the individual cannot cope with their new environment and thus fails to understand the dangers presented by some choices. This is when people make mistakes like developing a drug addiction or joining an extremist group that believes in violence.
As to how this may happen, it’s linked to the atmosphere of freedom, and it requires a long period of education to learn how to stay within sensible limits. Saudi society largely remains consistent with its longstanding traditions and ideas, while the West is freer and less dominated by tradition. The former is conservative while the latter is open.
There is a difference between conservatism and extremism, though some people confuse the two. American universities don’t push their students towards extremism, but they do grant them the freedom to think and associate with like-minded people, and offer a space for independent activities, and this freedom is behind the boom of extremist organizations we’ve come to know since the 1970s—Ba’athist, nationalist, and Islamist groups developed and grew on American and European university campuses a lot more than they did in those of Arab universities.
There’s no problem in students making full use of their rights and pursuing their interests, but problems arise when they fail to understand what this openness means. For example, freedom to them may mean the right to violent partisanship without taking into consideration the concept of individual responsibility and social co-existence.
Muslim immigrants seem to suffer even more from this problem than foreign students who are often kept busy with their education, and who have left their home country temporarily, not permanently, to study.
A news story published this week in the US exemplifies this problem for immigrants. Zarine and Shafi Khan are a Muslim American couple of Indian origin living near Chicago. They protected their children by banning them from watching TV and monitoring their use of the Internet, but one day FBI agents knocked on their front door with a search warrant after three of their children were arrested at the airport for trying to go to Turkey, and from there cross the border and join the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). The parents were shocked when, 30 years after emigrating from India, they realized that they had failed to understand the real threat to their children. They feared the impact of Western culture in their own neighborhood, yet the harm came from abroad. It turned out that their eldest son, 19, daughter, 17, and third son, 16, were victims of a man who goes by the name Abu Qa’qa. Abu Qa’qa misled all three via the Internet, which they accessed on their smartphones, while their father thought he was being careful by monitoring his children’s Internet activity on the home computer. Abu Qa’qa convinced the children that ISIS had created a genuine Islamic state, and that they must go to Syria. He gave the daughter the name Umm Al-Bara, and she said she was not going to Syria to fight, but to marry an ISIS fighter.
All this took place in a Chicago suburb under the nose of their father, whose fear for his children centered on porn sites and television programs. We mistakenly think Pakistan or Saudi Arabia are more dangerous for our youth, when in reality the threat posed to Muslims from extremist ideology ignores physical borders.