What is it like to be raised by a militant or religious extremist? This is not something people like to think about, raising uncomfortable images. Children ensnared in a reality that promotes extremism, punishes free thinking, and kills dissenters. Children trapped in a life of indoctrination which makes the abnormal acceptable and the irrational logical.
Terrorist attacks have become a daily occurrence globally, and many extremists are groomed from childhood to carry-out heinous acts of death and destruction.
As the daughter of a militant Islamist who moved us to Nigeria when I was a child, I know how challenging it is to escape these early influences. Exposure to radicalism is a pernicious experience against which all survivors struggle. In my life it manifests in a tendency to view the world through the corrupted lens of the racist rhetoric and conspiracy paradigms of my father’s beliefs. I am vigilant in every action and hypersensitive to my spoken and written word, constantly examining each for hints of corruption.
Extremism is a virus passed from person to person, and children raised in extremism enforced through religious autocracy and fortified by patriarchal tyranny are most susceptible. Outsiders frequently misunderstand the extent to which family members, particularly children, have no recourse or escape from this terrible imprisonment. In fact, even contemplating escape results in an existential crisis for these victims.
First, there is the likely loss of financial or communal support, and even death if caught. Second, and more puzzling, is the conflicted emotional connection that exists with the extremist. Love persists despite physical and mental abuse. The idea of being separated from their parents is a frightening concept. So, what are the children of extremists to do, or more importantly what responsibility does the community bear with regard to these children? Therein lies the quandary.
Some ask if the solution should be the removal of these children at an early age to ensure that they are not indoctrinated into fundamentalist religious views. But who will raise these children? In war torn countries dominated by extremist organizations like ISIL, al-Qaeda, and Hezbollah, there is little we can do for such children as most are either conscripted, or willingly take up with these groups for protection or to have access to basic necessities.
In the Talmud, there is a concept that addresses the issue of “trapped or captured children.” It is the concept of Tinok Shenishba. Which refers to Jews who inadvertently sin because they were not raised properly, attributing their misbehavior to the brainwashing that passed for child-rearing and education. According to Rabbi Ronen Lubitch of Moshav Nir Etzion in Israel, “The idea that lies behind the concept is that the secularist has a status of being compelled (oness), and the fact that he does not observe commandments is a result of the fact that he had no choice other than to live according to the irreligious education that he received. In Halachic language the term “oness” is simply a technical definition, which can be utilized to exempt people from criminal transgressions that they were coerced to do.” (Source: Beit Midrash for Jewish Thought)
Therefore, should children raised in fundamentalist households be allowed to remain in them when the risk of becoming radicalized is high? Or should such exposure equate to child abuse, giving authorities the right to remove these children from these homes for their own good and that of the community? But then the question remains: who will raise these children?
What responsibility do we as a community bear when these children who have been coerced by radical environment commit immoral crimes? Should they be held to a different standard? Should they receive lesser sentences based upon the fact that as Tinok Shenishba they lacked the free will to establish the moral rectitude which would cause them to reject violence?
There are no easy answers, but it is a question we must contemplate even as we guard ourselves from external terrorism.
Whether terrorists are Muslim (as my father was) or loyal to some other religion or ideology, neither precludes nor precipitates this type of heinous behavior. The clearest determinant of fanaticism is indoctrination and up-close exposure to extremism. There are no easy answers and there are no simple solutions, but the foul legacy of terrorism is that the children raised in extremism today will likely become the enemy we fight against tomorrow.