When we don’t invest in our children, the results can indeed be disastrous.
Norwegian filmmaker Deeyah Khan recently made a documentary called Jihad: A Story of the Others. Khan seeks to understand why young men of her religion living in Europe get involved in violent extremism. It was quite a challenge for her – as a Muslim woman involved in the arts, she was often a target of hate crimes herself.
What Khan discovered surprised her. She found disenfranchised young men caught between two cultures. They didn’t feel like they fit in anywhere and so they lived without hope. Many had been abused or neglected as children. So they became vulnerable targets for jihadists, who offered them the things no one else offered, things they craved: belonging, significance, purpose and acceptance.
The profile of these Muslim extremists is almost identical to that of members of white supremacist groups and criminal gangs. These young people, especially men, feel like social outsiders, that their families don’t understand them, and that they have no future or purpose. They easily fall prey to the lies of hatred, extremism and violence.
How do we keep this from happening?
Education is key. Young people need to be made aware of the dangers of such lifestyles and how they’ll be used and exploited by the people who pretend to accept them and care for them. We’ve seen reductions in gang violence where such education programs exist.
But for these programs to be effective, we need to meet the more basic needs of our youth. We need to accept them for who they are, celebrate their giftedness and give them hope.
Compared to many other countries, Canadian schools do a good job of meeting the needs of many of our at-risk young people. Publicly-funded schools, for example, are the great equalizer, giving recent immigrants the opportunity to become a vibrant part of Canadian society while embracing their ethnic heritage. These schools are also getting better at meeting the needs of those from cultures that have been neglected and oppressed for far too long, especially aboriginal children.
Still, much more needs to be done.
As our schools improve to meet the needs of each child in an ever-changing world, young men especially will no longer be drawn to violent organizations fuelled by ethnic hatred or other lies. They will celebrate their goodness and the goodness of others, and share their gifts for the benefit of all.
Some may call me an idealist, but I’ve been working in the trenches with at-risk youth long enough to see that we are making a difference. There are caring and compassionate staff and students in our schools who are helping to improve things.
The key to making the world safer, to significantly reducing the threat of terror in increasingly multicultural societies, is not greater security. It’s not keeping out people who are “different” or building more secure prisons.
The key is to invest in educational systems that strive to celebrate diversity and make sure that every individual knows they are significant. It’s in listening to our children when they call for help. It’s in making sure we have the mindset and the resources to help each sacred person achieve their greatest potential.
When we invest in every child, we all benefit.
Gerry Chidiac is an award-winning high school teacher specializing in languages, genocide studies and work with at-risk students.