Repression & Radicalization

Image via AOTW


When my father was frustrated by something I wanted to do, he would liken me to an orphan. This was an insult meant to illicit guilt and to stop me in my tracks from doing whatever it was that he found irresponsible. For my father and others born into an izzat, or honor-based culture, one is a representative of one’s family, and reputation is deeply tied to how he or she is seen by the community.

Thus, it is an obligation to behave in a manner that maintains a family’s good-standing in the community. By having no ties or duty to family, in the eyes of society, orphans are castigated as potentially reckless.



The counterpoint to honor is shame. Family honor is managed by shaming individuals into behaving properly, and avoiding public censure. Calling me irresponsible alone would not have been enough to garner the result my father wanted. I would have merely rolled my eyes and moved on with whatever I planned to do. Calling me an orphan, however, was an undeniable signal to me of how angry he was, and how by doing X, I would be intentionally disregarding my responsibility to my family. Specifically, to my father, who was the family’s head.

Too often, the media limits coverage of honor-based culture to the overtly violent results—female genital mutilation (FGM), violence against women (ranging from acid attacks to honor killings), and child marriage. There is little—if any—conversation about repression, a force that holds the individual back for the sake of the collective. In turn, however, repression inhibits the personal and intellectual development of both men and women in patriarchal cultures. Repression creates oft-unrealized frustrations that, for many, contribute to identity crises. And for an even smaller subset, fuel extremism.

As I look back at the 14 years since 9/11, and my own upbringing as a first-generation Pakistani American, I increasingly wonder whether the collective cultural identity forged by honor societies—often marked by repression to preserve how one “looks” in the community in which we are raised—plays a role in the growing extremism among young Muslim men and women in the West. As of May 2015, almost 600 women and 800 men have left or attempted to leave the United States and European nations like Sweden, the United Kingdom, and Austria, for Syria and Iraq to join extremist groups like ISIS.

While I did not grow up in cities like Minneapolis (United States), or Bradford (United Kingdom), which have become alleged hotbeds for churning out Islamist extremists, I can empathize with their struggles to find direction at ages when it is normal and expected to do so.

For many immigrants in the West whose families have emigrated from Muslim-majority countries, faith is the primary identity marker used to self-identify families. This does not mean that families are particularly orthodox. It is merely a concession to how intertwined many cultures, like my own Pakistani culture, are with what are considered Islamic values. In reality, the old world cultures and their respective values, though infused with the rhetoric of faith, pre-date any one religion. What is considered appropriate is in actuality a combination of the honor-based values that dictate patriarchal society. These values are reinforced through faith and given greater force by having been issued from God—or so the male interpreters of Islam would tell you.

As a result, Muslim parents often invoke faith to prevent their children from engaging in religiously and culturally prohibited actions such as eating pork, dressing indecently, drinking, or dating. Unknowingly, statements like “You are not like them…we are not like them,” “We are Muslim, they are….” harbors the seeds of “otherness” in some children’s minds. Repression and alienation are natural byproducts of such grooming.

Parents do not realize this. They simply want to protect their child from ruining his or her reputation—which is everything in an honor-based society—and to prevent shame or embarrassment from harming the family’s “face” within the new community they have joined as new immigrants. And by the word “community,” I mean the social networks created in their respective ethnic/national community and mosque.

Is it possible that these men and women seek redress for their repressed identities in the only way they know is permissible—through faith?



“Who am I?” is a question we take for granted in the West. The question initiates a rite of passage that allows us to develop a sense of self and purpose in the world. In fact, the journey to know oneself is one of the most difficult that we ever make. To be able to say, “I know who I am,” is the prize many seek through yoga, therapy, traveling abroad, and making and breaking away from friends and significant others. Our first breakups begin at home. From our terrible two’s to our teen years, we attempt to assert ourselves, to test our boundaries with our parents and to challenge their authority over us. But these moments are experiences that help us to understand ourselves, to articulate our preferences, our likes and dislikes. This is the noble struggle for identity.

Yet, as Aristotle said, we are social beings. At the same time, accompanying the need to be with others is our desire to express ourselves honestly and meaningfully. So, only through the dialogue between the individual and the community are we able to identify our unique purpose and translate it into a meaningful contribution to our larger society. Without emotional support or validation from our loved ones and community, however, the journey to know ourselves becomes a lonely and, for many, an insurmountable trek.

For fear of breaking societal norms and codes of honor, young Muslims are closed off and required to dissociate from mainstream society. Is it really any surprise, then, that we see the rise of extremism in young men and women among immigrant communities in the West?

Without ever needing to support groups like ISIS explicitly, self-segregating communities directly and indirectly raise a generation that thinks they do not belong where they are born and/or bred because non-Muslims live in a manner Muslims are to shun.

Dating, sex, and marriage to a non-Muslim would all bring shame upon the family. How often are the children of friends fodder for gossip within such communities? “I saw so-and-so’s daughter at the mall with an American…” (the snickers echo through multiple households within days). The family’s embarrassment is easily complete by the next community gathering. In an arranged-marriage culture, a girl has no dowry greater than her reputation. If enough of such stories circulate, the daughter is potentially ineligible for marriage.

What such girls are allowed to do is fall back on their faith. The more fervent, the better. “Mashallah! She prays five times a day.” Or, “She has read the Quran many times….”

Growing up, both boys and girls are presented with very few acceptable paths in which to express themselves intellectually or creatively. Expected to conform and to be “good,” their only other duty is to increase the family’s status, and therefore, honor, in the community by becoming financially successful. The most common accepted field of study is medicine.



Decades before 9/11, in reaction to a number of factors including increased Westernization, the breaking up of the Ottoman Empire into nation-states, and lack of development in the region, a new ideology rose in the Middle East—Islamism. The goal of the political movement was to offer a fundamentalist interpretation of Islam as a socio-political alternative to secularism, capitalism, and democracy. Movements from the Muslim Brotherhood, to the Iranian revolution, to the democratically-elected AKP party in Turkey all promise to usher in an Islamic utopia under their respective interpretations of Islamic law. Most importantly, each movement vows to reassert Islamic power as a global force vis-à-vis the West, a lost status dating back to the fall of the Ottoman Empire nearly 100 years ago.

Islamist recruitment requires converting apolitical Muslims to its mission and converting non-Muslims to its specific brand of Islam. Against the current backdrop of ongoing violence in the Middle East, drone strikes in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and recurring news stories of discrimination against Muslims in the West because they are Muslim, a victimhood narrative has emerged. The sense of otherness elicited from this narrative is what extremists prey upon. Vulnerable Muslim youth, at ages where they want to learn where they come from, what their faith means to them, and what role they should play in society to “do good,” see fellow Muslims suffering. Without an education on the variety of schools of thought within Islam that are more moderate and peaceable like Sufisim, Barelvi, or Ismaili Islam, or even the Maliki Sunni school of jurisprudence, these young men and women come into contact with extremist writings and videos online. They attend events organized by alleged Islamist groups like the Muslim Student Association at university, or Hizb ut-Tahrir, who are heavily influenced by the Muslim Brotherood, Salafi, and/or Wahhabi doctrines. The latter three interpretations of Islam are anti-colonial, anti-Semitic, and supremacist, often teaching that minority Muslims like the Shi‘a or Ahmadiyya are heretics, women are subservient to men, and that gays and apostates are subject to corporal punishment.

New immigrants, even into the second generation, from Pakistan to Somalia, are very aware of the suffering still going on in their respective home countries and want to do something to help. Conversion to Islamism is not difficult for some when taught that this suffering is simply due to Western foreign policy, rather than a combination of domestic and foreign factors.



Since 9/11, the victimhood narrative has guided the conversation of an entire generation of Muslim immigrants’ identity formation with two primary results: Orthodoxy has increased among many Muslims as a counter to perceived discrimination; conversely, many others increasingly identify as cultural Muslims only, or as outright atheists. Radicalization, in absolute numbers, is a mere handful of the overall population.

Sadly, it only takes a miniscule number of extremists to cause a significant amount of hurt. We know this from the 9/11 attacks of 2001 and, more recently, from the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris and the Peshawar school attack, both in 2014. The failure in the public debate to distinguish between personal piety and the politicized ideology of Islamists has resulted in a conflation of the two, where criticism of the politicized extreme is labeled Islamophobia along with the actual nastiness coming out of some fringe anti-Islam circles. Worse, by failing to direct the conversation toward how we humans behave and how we treat each other, we are increasingly in a competition of –isms.

A number of young Muslims today are attracted to the message of a “pure” and “true” Islam. When I was of that age, however, I became a militant atheist. For me, no principle, however positively interpreted, mattered if the behavior of the community did not mirror it. What I saw in the Muslim Student’s Association in college, as well as other venues throughout my childhood and young adult life, was a reactionary meanness in thought and practice that could not make the world a better place.

Growing up, I experienced life as a first-generation immigrant for whom honor and reputation mattered more than anything else. Being perceived as pious was more important than being pious. I knew numerous individuals who prayed five times a day, fasted, and practically lived at the mosque, engaging in one holiday or commemoration after another. Yet, from that same pool of individuals, I saw no acts of volunteerism, of helping the poor or needy. I heard gossip, backbiting, and judgment. I saw hypocrisy, sexism, and a constant fear of how one looked in the eyes of the community.

Today, I prefer to call myself a humanist rather than an atheist, though the latter forms much of my intellectual understanding of what is or is not around me now and after I die. But, I am not Adam’s rib, so to speak. I am a complete individual who aspires to live by a complete moral compass based on my education, life experience, and instinct. These aspects of my identity are heavily imbued with a sense of right and wrong, compassion, and empathy for others. I am a humanist that believes there are universal principles that should be the foundation of human society, principles that uphold freedom of conscience and development of the individual, regardless of gender, sexual orientation, faith, or lack thereof.

Faith, whether it is God-given or man-made, plays a role in the positive development of a more humane world. However, to the extent that it reinforces the values of honor-based culture, it must be re-developed. Patriarchy must be removed from it. This is a struggle not unique to Islam, as many aspiring female priests in Catholicism know.

The struggle to shift the paradigm from the superficial honor-based “how we are perceived” to a more personal journey striving for authentic identity formation will take time. But it must be acknowledged as essential to fostering individual development. Not having to constantly worry about how we look or how we make our family look in our communities will remove the repression of unique qualities, talents, and desires. This will allow for the development of positive goals and give direction toward some purpose that is meaningful to the individual, and will be less self-destructive than the path offered by extremist ideologies like Islamism.

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