Culture At Large

Homegrown terrorists and the human need to belong

John Van Sloten

What if a Western Islamic man knocking on the door of a terrorist organization is really looking for the love of God?

I don’t even want to think about the possibility. Those who join the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) are our enemies and have sworn to destroy us. Attempting to understand them feels like betrayal. Anyone who chooses ISIS is 100% evil. Period. United States President Barack Obama is right: when it comes to ISIS, we need “to degrade and destroy.”

And as I think these things I hear the words of Jesus whispering, “Love your enemies.”

This past week, a Canadian jihadi convicted of terrorist conspiracy made a bid for early parole. Fahim Ahmad (pictured above in a 2002 yearbook photo) was part of a group called the “Toronto 18,” and his parole application process offers an insight into the mindset of Westerners who link up with groups like ISIS.

The Globe and Mail reports that “his jihad had less to do with religion than his urge to escape a mundane marriage… At the time he was a lonely jobless dropout whose wife was on welfare. Their two crying babies kept him up at night.” In response, he “developed an alter ego that gave him a sense of escapism.”

Ahmad confessed, “Most of [his radicalization] happened on the Internet.”

As I read those words, I couldn’t help but make the connection to a person’s fall into adultery or other licentious living. When things that should be right in an individual’s life go wrong - when you aren’t experiencing a healthy marriage, a fair chance economically, a supportive family, a strong community, a sense of a future - it’s easy to run and seek escape.

What if a Western Islamic man knocking on the door of a terrorist organization is really looking for the love of God?

While reading the reports of other Westerners who have become radicalized, I noticed a common theme: a lost dream, perceived unfairness in the West, increasing isolation and then the purchase of a one-way ticket. While I’m sure there are pure ideologues out there who simply hate all that the West stands for, I wonder if they really are few and far between. What makes ISIS scary is the fact that they are able to recruit our neighbors - those who ride the bus with us, work with us and share the sidewalks with us.

Perhaps the remedy for this shocking reality needs to start in these places.

Often, when you read stories about homegrown terrorists, you see a photograph of when things were “normal” - a high school yearbook picture, a shot of the person sharing beers with friends, a family photo. Somewhere between those “good” times and now, things fell off the rails, work opportunities evaporated and life lost meaning. Enter a global gang like ISIS - a place to belong, fight back and find yourself again.

It makes me wonder if things would change if Western countries did a better job including new immigrants, caring for the poor and disenfranchised, integrating and loving others as we love ourselves. Imagine creating such a strong sense of belonging that there would be no room for dissention or anger, no reason to leave, no desire to hit back, only gratitude and respect. Imagine imaging God in these ways.

That can happen at two levels: first, through each of us in our cities, on our buses, at our offices and on our streets; and second, through all of us as wealthy Western nations. There is a dark part of my heart that needs to change in this regard. I need to do a better job loving those who are different than me: the new, the outsider, the poor, the sojourner at my gate. As the countries who have the power, perhaps we in the West can do more: be more selfless and gracious toward our fellow nations.

This is what God has done for all of us. He broke down the dividing wall of hostility, included the last, the least and the lost, made room for us, laid down His very life. All so that we could flourish, make a home, have space and find life.

God has built an irrepressible need to belong into all of us. Helping our neighbors find their place is not only our Christian calling, it may also be a local remedy for global terrorism.

Topics: Culture At Large, Theology & The Church, Other Religions, News & Politics, History, World, Justice, North America