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Why Do Young People Join ISIS? Part 2

Many young people from the region of Lebanon joining ISIS come from impoverished and desperate circumstances.

They are uneducated and have suffered under local and regional security apparatuses, especially those of the Syrian regime during its occupation of Lebanon.

Anger and resentment toward both the Lebanese and Syrian authorities run deep; hostilities regularly flare up.

What does ISIS offer these young people?

ISIS primarily offers them a means of escape. Local mosques and prayer halls influenced by the Islamist ideas of ISIS are places where young people from similar backgrounds have found “salvation” within a certain interpretation of Islam.

This Islam has offered an escape from isolation and self-destruction into a community that offers discipline, respectability and dignity.

Former gang members have become community leaders and role models to the “wretched” youth of impoverished communities.

However, the young people who are “being saved” lack much formal education and the ability to think critically and engage in a wider social discourse.

They are easily led, and often lack even a basic understanding of Islam – other than what is being fed to them by some extremists in their communities.

In fact, many of these young people are not attracted to Islam per se, explained Mohammad Abi Samra, in his book, “Revenge of the Wretched,” but rather have a desire to escape.

ISIS also offers a sense of belonging to something bigger and more significant than these young people may have ever been able to imagine.

This is a trend that is growing by the day, as the vision of ISIS and what it offers becomes more significant.

What is the role of the faith communities – and the church – in responding?

Jesus teaches his followers to love their enemy as well as their neighbor. The reality is that our neighbors – young people from our communities – are becoming “the enemy.”

How can we even begin to think about loving them when loving them involves taking loving actions toward them?

First, we need to recognize that each of these young people has a name and a history that has led them to take such a radical decision.

They too are created in the image of God, however disturbing this may be to us. Rather than writing them off as “crazy,” “sick” or “evil,” we should try to understand the conditions that led them to be willing to join such organizations.

In no way am I seeking to justify their actions, but it is important to understand them.

Without seeking comprehension of their motives, we cannot respond in ways that prevent others from following a similar path.

Second, we must consider how Christian churches can serve as peacemakers with Muslim communities.

Poverty does not make distinctions between religious communities.

Recently, at least two Lebanese Christians from Tripoli joined extremist terrorist groups, further highlighting that maybe it is not Islam per se that drives people toward groups like ISIS.

One is believed to have joined ISIS while another was arrested in connection with suicide attacks in a neighboring community.

In such contexts, peace-loving churches need to build friendships with peace-loving mosques to seek ways not only to reject violence, but also to address the conditions that lead to such fertile recruitment grounds.

The global church should take an interest in the local contexts from where ISIS members originate and seek to support initiatives that counter hatred and discrimination, asking prophetic questions about how nations could and should respond in such challenging circumstances.

In the meantime, we should pray for these young men and women and for their families as well as for the families who have lost loved ones as a consequence of the devastating realities on the ground in the region.

Arthur Brown is the assistant director of the Institute of Middle East Studies (IMES) based in Mansourieh, Lebanon. A longer version of this column first appeared on the IMES blog and is used with permission. You can follow him on Twitter @arthurandlou and IMES @IMESLebanon.

Editor’s note: This is the second of a two-part series. Part 1 is available here.