If you're a parent of enquiring minds you've had to face the terrorism question. If you're lucky it was only, What is a terrorist?. If you're less lucky you had to satisfy, What is ISIS? and if you're downright unlucky, your offspring demanded an explanation for, Why does someone kill for ISIS? Honestly, I'd rather have the S.E.X talk than this one.
I've had all three questions and more. My initial reaction was to quote the news of the day and Mr John Kerry in particular with; They are psychopathic monsters. Replacing psychopathic with 'evil' to fend off further enquiry. That about covers it, doesn't it? They're the bad guys - end of story.
I'm not a scholar of terrorism, politics or religion but if that truly was the end of my explanation, I would be failing in my efforts to raise a child that is capable of reasoning with a curious and critical mind. A mind open to the possibility that we are not helpless in the fight against terrorism nor indeed the bully next door.
How can we discuss the frightening yet inscrutable concepts of terrorism with our children? As a parent you know that your beliefs will shape your children's beliefs and actions, which will ultimately shape tomorrow's neighbourhoods and societies. Helping children understand an evil that is foreign yet right in our midst is a contemporary parenting imperative.
So how do you explain the inexplicable to impressionable minds? No matter how true it is, telling your children that terrorists are 'psychopathic monsters' will engender even more fear and more helplessness against the 'bad guys'. Showing our children instead that the problem has a cause, and therefore a solution, will do the opposite. In critical thinking we call this a thought experiments and, with the help of expert knowledge, it goes like this:
Q: What if we knew what makes an ISIS fighter?
What if we knew that ISIS fighters who had been interviewed in prison are generally ignorant about the religion and politics of their paymaster, that they know little of it's most extreme requirements? What if we knew that the average age of a fighter is 27, with 2 children. That they came of age in a war torn Iraq during the American occupation that began in 2003. As teenagers they couldn't go out to parties or even have girlfriends. Many of them grew up without fathers. They blame the Americans for this and leaving them in the middle of a civil war where food, safety and shelter were scarce and fear was plentiful. Violence a way of life. For many of them, fighting for ISIS is seen as a way to avenge that. To take action and not wait for someone else to do it on their behalf.
Armed with information like this, we have a way of making the truly incomprehensible, comprehensible. As uncomfortable as it is to think and talk about, we can only change what we understand.
Q. What about the big question? What is ISIS?
What if we knew that ISIS was formed around ancient texts called the Prophetic methodology. Texts that followers are not allowed to question, for to question them would mean certain death. These medieval texts were written at a time of war when brutality and bloodshed were the norm. Experts like Bernard Haykel tell us that the Islamic State is trying to recreate these earliest days and reproduce its norms of war. They want to create a vast empire filled with loyal subjects who abide by their extreme laws. Much like Hitler and his Nazi party, the Islamic State is committed to purifying the world by killing vast numbers of people who disagree with their beliefs. They see the world in black and white. Their propaganda tells us that they categorically reject peace and aim to bring about the apocalypse in all of its headline hyperboles, even if it means their own destruction. Perhaps this is why we find them so hard to understand yet their propaganda is clear and available.
Q. Why do they commit acts of terror?
It would seem that terrorism is their way of making us (their enemy) feel afraid. They hope that fear will create intolerance and hatred, driving a wedge between different religions and people. Perhaps they've been watching Star Wars' reruns and know that hatred is the path to the dark side. If we are weak, full of hatred and focused on what divides us more than what unites us as people we will be easier to conquer.
Q. Am I powerless to help?
While the the leaders of the free world go to war against ISIS, hunt their leaders and stop young people from traveling to Syria to join them, what can we do? We can fight a movement that is closing young minds to the beauty and potential of a free world by opening our children's minds to their own power. This means giving them information and tools to think critically, to probe and dissect confusing information and the permission to question everything. Everything.
Because physical freedom is nothing without freedom of thought.
1. Lydia Wilson's report at http://www.thenation.com/authors/lydia-wilson/
2. Graeme Wood's study of 'What ISIS Really Wants' as published in the Atlantic, March 2015
3. Bernard Haykel, the foremost secular authority on the Islamic State's ideology.