Milan (AsiaNews) – The Islamic State (IS) group has been hard at recruiting underage kids, including children ranging in age from 8 to 11.
For IS, it is increasingly harder to recruit adults. Since the start of the year, only 120 people over 18 are thought to have joined the Caliphate’s "holy war" in Syria.
However, since the start of the year, at least 400 underage kids have been drawn in IS-held areas in Syria and sent for religious, political and military training.
According to the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, these kids belong to the so-called ‘Ashbal al-Khilafah’ (cubs of the caliphate).
The vast majority of them are recruited at IS posts located near mosques, schools and public areas. For experts, they are chosen specifically because it is easier to brainwash them.
Is also encourages parents to send their children to its training camps. Sometimes they take the children with the parents’ consent or offer them money.
Underage recruits, sometimes with physical or mental disabilities, are trained and used in military operations, propaganda videos (like the 11-year-old boy who killed two "Russian spies"), guard duty or as human shields at sensitive targets.
Europe’s young Muslims, often second or third generation, are also targeted for recruitment, because they are often alienated from their environment.
IS takes them in, offers them sexual gratification, adventure, comradeship and personal redemption. This allows jihadists to use religion to inculcate the recruits with their political and social views.
To better understand this increasingly worrisome reality, AsiaNews spoke to two experts (a Christian and a Muslim) on the subject of Islam, immigration and sectarian extremism: Fr Paolo Nicelli, a priest with the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions (PIME), and an expert in Islamic studies and a professor at the Biblioteca Ambrosiana; and Prof Wael Faruk, Arabic Language instructor at the American University in Cairo and visiting professor at Milan’s Cattolica University.
“There is a religious and a social aspect” to ISIS influence on young Muslims in Europe, Fr Nicelli said. In the former case, “no great knowledge of the Qur‘an is required. Religious practice occurs in mosques and in the community, involving rituals, worship, and learning about political and legal practices.”
Passages from the Holy Book are used to “support fanatical views and interpretations,” and inculcated in “these young people,” most of whom do not know the Qur‘an, the PIME missionary said. “They get an interpretation that has been filtered by ideologues and local ISIS acolytes."
At the social level, recruiters seek out mujahedeen "in pockets of cultural and economic deprivation," which in most cases "are not controlled or controllable" by government institutions, society, and law enforcement.
For Fr Nicelli, "France is the classic case, with its suburbs full of young misfits, without an identity, to whom jihadists provide a role and a well-defined identity. Suffice it to say that most radical conversions take place in prisons or in areas of segregation."
In the West, these kids "are not integrated in the social and cultural fabric" because ours culture "lost its religious element," the priest said. In such a context, young Muslims are struggling to find their identity, and feel the absence of an "inclusive reference".
This requires "long-term work at the cultural level, which goes against short-term, immediate quest for political support. Universities are the privileged place to start this work."
Wael Faruk is one of those who has developed programmes and undertaken initiatives at his university in the fields of Arabic history and literature to enable young Muslims to learn about their culture, free from the ideological blinkers of fundamentalism.
"The main reason for the attractiveness of the Islamic State is the emptiness these young people see in the western world,” the professor told AsiaNews. “Everyone talks about freedom of speech, but they lack experience. Extremism and violence are not new elements; they did not emerge with the rise of the Islamic State."
For Prof Faruk, there is a “general” problem that involves young Italians and first generation immigrants who are excluded from society and culture." What identity or culture does "a 18-year-old person have? What models can inspire him?”
"These are the real questions. It is no accident,” he noted. “One has to analyse the deeper causes, starting from the secularism that tends to sacralise every ideology, with power itself becoming a religion."
In order to respond to barbarism and violence, we need "people who live immersed in a reality,” he said, as well as “personal relations and bonds that emerge in given places, like [Milan’s] Cattolica University.”
"My work is based on friendship,” the Muslim scholar said. “University students can promote and live certain experiences. This type of meeting could occur in a Catholic university because it had a strong identity.”
“These are not words, abstract concepts, but like interfaith dialogue, they are actual experiences of friendship and interaction with others." (DS)