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The problem of conflicting value systems for marginal Islamic youth

By Tanveer Ahmed - posted Thursday, 6 May 2004


The trial of the medical student Ihsan Al-Haque for allegedly joining a banned terrorist group indicates that the children of Islamic households can have considerable difficulty in reconciling their identity as both an Australian and Muslim.

Their parents, on the one hand, tend to teach collectivism, religious commitment and gender role differentiation. School and wider society will espouse individualism, secularism and gender equality. The tension this arouses in children can lead to great psychological stress, criminal behaviour and, as shown in this case, possibly aid in recruitment by extremist groups.

It seems strange that a young, intelligent man growing up in a Pakistani household in western Sydney, training as a doctor, would have any interest in Pakistani insurgents trying to claim Kashmir. While his failure in his studies suggest frustration may have been a factor, it hardly explains a sudden desire for martyrdom. He even told his parents that he was "sick of Westerners" before he left for Pakistan.

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The four brothers convicted of rape this month in Sydney may share some characteristics, although their crimes were very different. They, too, were brought up in a Pakistani household in western Sydney and appeared to have real difficulty in coming to terms with life in Australian society. The psychologist's report about one of the offenders, identified as MSK, suggest "socio-cultural factors and family dynamics" played a considerable role in their views about Australian women, a key factor in the crime.

MSK had undertaken an arranged marriage a few years earlier with a woman from his native Pakistan. He was only 20 years old at the time. The peculiar practice of arranged marriage is a great example of the emphasis on collectivism by Islamic households. While exact figures are difficult to find, it is particularly common among migrants from the subcontinent but also occurs among those of Arab and Asian backgrounds. It is an act of resistance to the fear of assimilation and a perceived cultural dissolution.

At its core, it is a rejection of the culture and practices of the adopted homeland, in this case Australia.

Interestingly, Al-Haque's family claim he was in Pakistan to attend the arranged marriage of his elder brother, and not to aid in Kashmiri independence.

Psychologists in Britain have studied youth raised in a similar context there, looking at Pakistani and Bangladeshi teenagers. Their findings have resonance here. In one study, it was found many of the children led compartmentalised lives. Their views of themselves and their roles were utterly separate when they were at home compared to when they were at school. For example, a child could go from prayer at a mosque with their parents to then meet their friends and drink alcohol at a local pub.

The sociologist Stonequist invented the term "marginal man" to explain the situation. While it sounds like an incomplete superhero, it referred to people caught up in the tussle between two distinctive cultural systems. His theory suggests that threats to identity may lead to higher levels of deviance, excessive anxiety and psychiatric instability. The "marginal man" is the person who straddles two cultures in society. The marginal person may be rejected, and feel alienated, by one or both parents, by home or by school.

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The study also concludes that this kind of marginal, compartmentalised life is often difficult to maintain, for the role-conflict can threaten a sense of "ego-identity". In lay terms, they cannot carry their inconsistent selves through to adulthood. They cite some cases of second-generation youth undergoing what they called a "fundamental change" in their late teens or early 20s as some kind of resolution. This often involves a dramatic shift to either side of the cultural divide, perhaps committing to an arranged marriage or seeking refuge in deep religiosity. Or it can occur in the opposite behaviour, such as eloping with a partner against their parent's wishes.

In the current context, it is perhaps prudent to consider that "fundamental change" may involve joining an extremist or terrorist group.

When Mark Latham gave his national identity speech last month, as well as paraphrasing Bill Clinton, he spoke of a new multiculturalism beyond the celebration of diversity. He said that Australians were already more multicultural as individuals and didn't need to have it shoved down their throats. The new emphasis should be on social cohesion, he said. It was what we shared in common and not our differences that needed celebration.

In Britain there is a growing effort among school counsellors and educators to recognise youth caught in a cultural chasm. Funds are being directed to idetify youth at real risk of deviance resulting from a deep conflict between their parental views and those of their school.

The past month has exposed some particularly distressing cases of deviant behaviour, still to be proven in Al-Haque's case, among some Islamic youth raised in Australia. Unique counselling and education methods akin to those undertaken in Britain are of real priority, aimed at both youth and their parents. The attitude among some Muslim parents is that Western culture is to be feared must be countered. Future cohesion may depend upon it.

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About the Author

Dr Tanveer Ahmed is a psychiatrist, author and local councillor. His first book is a migration memoir called The Exotic Rissole. He is a former SBS journalist, Fairfax columnist and writes for a wide range of local and international publications.
He was elected to Canada Bay Council in 2012. He practises in western Sydney and rural NSW.

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