The Roots of Radicalism We Don’t Discuss

6 minute read

Have you ever been so heartbroken that you joined the conservative faction of a local mosque? Khalid did, because he felt he had no other way to cope.

Khalid’s heartbreak happened in college. But the seeds for his slide into fundamentalism were planted before that. Khalid was born to Afghan parents in New York. And his story offers a different answer to the question of why American, French, or British youth from standard, middle class families turn to religious fundamentalism. It’s the holy grail of policy discussions, and tends to yield answers focused on external factors – like economic hardship or assimilation pressures. But a glance at the effect of internal household pressures reveals insights that are just as critical to any future policy solutions.

Like many children of immigrant families, for Khalid, negotiating among cultures and sub-cultures compounded feelings of isolation, inadequacy, and a desire to belong to something meaningful. For Khalid, college was emotionally turbulent. It was the first time he had to figure, on his own, the limits of Afghan norms while being immersed in American college culture. He went to parties, drank alcohol and fell in love with a non-Afghan woman – all things that incurred his parents’ intense dissatisfaction.

Khalid’s family was fairly traditional – beholden, as many are, to their community’s perception of status and family honor. These important social networks do not diminish by virtue of distance from the homeland; rather, families often struggle to assimilate while still under obligations to uphold and perform customs and traditions for the sake of community perception. This creates a volatile micro-environment, acting like a pressure cooker of often-contradictory demands and influences — a transformative confluence for people, like Khalid, who straddle a multitude of cultural boundaries. In college, he bucked under the contradictory pressures.

“My mom would call me all the time. ‘What if another [Afghan] family finds out that you’re running around with girls and partying? How’s that going to make us look?’ It was a lot of pressure. I was paranoid in public with my girlfriend. In the end, we broke up. I was a wreck. It took a long time to get out of feeling depressed.”

Khalid attended mosque regularly to distract himself. His family wasn’t open to discussing his pain. And he was reluctant to talk to his peers lest the gossip reach the Afghan-American community and tarnish his family’s name. He briefly joined a conservative group that seemed to understand his turmoil. They contextualized his feelings as normal human weaknesses that could be conquered by following the righteous path of Islam. In the nebulous configuration of Afghan-American culture, Islam served as an anchor; a clear set of guidelines that, if observed, could position someone above reproach.

Khalid withdrew from what he considered material and amoral. He stopped drinking and fraternizing with friends in settings, such as parties, that could compromise his piety. He stopped shaking hands with women and socializing in mixed-gender company. His parents considered the changes extreme, but they placed Khalid above reproach. He had staked a claim to a sense of authenticity as an Afghan and as a Muslim against which even his parents fell short.

“It was like the roles reversed,” Khalid told me. “Now I was telling my dad that him playing cards with his friends wasn’t right, or that the bottle of whiskey they had was haram. I was teaching them what was right.”

Arie Kruglanksi, a psychologist and professor at the University of Maryland, identifies the need for “cognitive closure” as one of the reasons why youth, who experience existential identity issues, get drawn to ideologies that provide a normative structure in which right and wrong are explicitly defined. As such, religious groups offer social acceptability where others may find it lacking — whether that’s in the home, community, or society.

But given his identity choices, Khalid’s parents feared that he would be a target for government surveillance or for hate crimes. His mother urged him to go out with his friends and to lessen his restrictions on his interactions with women. She was relieved in 2011 when Khalid secured a job that took up more of his time than his cohort at the mosque.

“Eventually I found a balance in my faith,” Khalid said. “I’m still Muslim — very much — but I don’t see it as radically different to everything else like I did before. I needed an escape from dealing with a lot of mixed emotions and thoughts in college, and found that peace in my Islamic identity. But there was also a lot that I couldn’t identify with that lost relevance as I came to understand myself outside of the Afghan context or the mosque.”

Some forms of radicalism and extremism spawn from counter-culture movements. But sometimes those contestations of power can be local, and all the more salient among immigrant families where negotiating competing identities is just as much a public spectacle as a private endeavor. Buying into different norms, values, and beliefs may be perceived as selling out of one’s own.

The current policy climate risks insularity by focusing on external motivators — such as unemployment, disenfranchisement and susceptibility to recruitment via social media. Such an approach raises valid points, but it is conducive only to identifying a limited range of resolutions. The skeleton key may remain elusive.

As the Islamic State continues to recruit from countries around the world, we have an opportunity now for immigrant communities and households to revisit their own social boundaries. To ask families to reconsider how they handle generational dynamics and cross-cultural differences. Is it possible that the walls supporting youth radicalism are actually beneath their own roofs?

Morwari Zafar is a PhD candidate in anthropology at the University of Oxford and a visiting scholar at George Washington University’s Institute for Global and International Studies. This piece was originally published in New America’s digital magazine, The Weekly Wonk. Sign up to get it delivered to your inbox each Thursday here, and follow @New America on Twitter.

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