Is Chicago more dangerous than Riyadh?

It's not strange for a student to travel to the U.S. with long hair and return from there with a thick beard

Abdulrahman al-Rashed
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It is the height of contradiction to be a Saudi, a Kuwaiti or an Egyptian and worry that your children who are studying or working in the United States or Europe may turn into extremists who desire to join organizations like al-Qaeda and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

This strange paradox is not abnormal if we are to follow up on the status of exchange students in foreign countries and of those who emigrated to live in the West. Fears that a Saudi student may turn into an extremist while studying at a university in Chicago or Birmingham is perhaps more well-founded than fears that a student in the university of Umm al-Qura in Makkah or in the Imam Muhammad ibn Saud Islamic University in Riyadh or al-Azhar university in Cairo may do the same. This is, of course, a hypothesis and it doesn't yet mean that we're confronting a phenomenon. However there's general political and social worry. Saudi cultural attaché in the United States Doctor Mohammed al-Issa reflected this worry as he urged Saudi students there to avoid extremist circles and suspicious groups. There is concern over those who move to a completely different society than theirs as they become completely responsible for themselves and for their character development in a society that more scope for freedoms. However, and despite this freedom, plurality and individualism, people in these societies arm themselves with a culture which protects them from dangerous risks like getting involved in violent groups.

Early youth

Early youth is an experimental and character building phase. It's not strange for a student to travel to the U.S. with long hair and return from there with a thick beard as he goes through several intellectual changes as a result of his presence in an atmosphere that's very different than that in which he was raised in - an atmosphere of individual responsibility, independence and freedoms. Some of the most important characteristics of studying in a foreign country are learning outside one's local support systems, trying things, making decisions, building character, depending on one's self and co-existing with others. These are all positive characteristics in addition to the qualitative education one was sent abroad to acquire.

It's not strange for a student to travel to the U.S. with long hair and return from there with a thick beard

Abdulrahman al-Rashed

It only becomes worrying when the individual cannot deal with this new phase and thus fails to understand and distinguish danger. This is where one may commit the mistake of falling into prohibitions like drug addiction or joining an extremist group that believes in violence.

As to how this may happen, it's linked to the atmosphere of freedoms, and it requires a long perios of education on how to stay within the limits of order. The Saudi society mostly has consistent traditions and ideas while the west is free with less dominance of traditions. The former is conservative while the latter is open. There's a difference between what's conservative and what's extremist as some people confuse the two together and get mixed up. American universities don't push their students towards extremism in anyway whatsoever, however they grants them freedom of thinking and associoation and a space for independent activities and this is behind the boom of extremist organizations we've known since the 1970's - Baathist, nationalistic and Islamist groups developed and grew in American and European university campuses a lot more than they did in those of Arab universities. There's no problem in students practicing their rights and interests but the challenge lies in their insufficient understanding of liberal culture and this is why concepts become unclear to them. For example, freedom to them may mean the right for violent partisanship without taking into consideration the concept of individual responsibility and social co-existence.

Muslim immigrants

Muslim immigrants seem to suffer from this problem more than students who are busy with their educational commitments and who temporarily stay outside their country as they return home after finishing their education.

A news story published this week in the U.S. shows the problem between the two different cultures. Zarin and Shafi Khan are a Muslim American couple of Indian origin being interrogated in Chicago. They have succeeded at protecting their children from social deviance by banning T.V. and monitoring the internet but one day they woke up to FBI agents knocking on their front door with a search warrant after three of their children were arrested in the airport as they tried to go to Turkey to join ISIS in Syria's ar-Raqqah. The parents were shocked when after 30 years of their immigration from India, they realized that they failed at understanding the possible threats posed on their children. They feared the western culture in their own neighborhood, however they realized that harm came from across the borders. It turned out that their oldest son who's 19 years old, their daughter who's 17 years old and their third son who's 16 years old were the victim of a man who goes by the name Abu Qa'qa. Abu Qa'qa misled all three via the internet on their mobile phones at a time when the father thought he was smart by monitoring his children's internet activity on the home computer. Abu Qa'qa convinced them that there's an Islamic state and that they must go to Syria and he gave the daughter the name Umm al-Bara. She said she was not going to Syria to fight but to marry one of the fighters!

All this real drama took place in a Chicago suburb under the nose of the father whose fear for his children centered on porn sites and television programs! We think Pakistan or Saudi Arabia can be more dangerous for youths at a time when the intellectual problem we Muslims suffer from transcends borders.

This article was first published in Asharq al-Awsat on December 11, 2014.


Abdulrahman al-Rashed is the former General Manager of Al Arabiya News Channel. A veteran and internationally acclaimed journalist, he is a former editor-in-chief of the London-based leading Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat, where he still regularly writes a political column. He has also served as the editor of Asharq al-Awsat’s sister publication, al-Majalla. Throughout his career, Rashed has interviewed several world leaders, with his articles garnering worldwide recognition, and he has successfully led Al Arabiya to the highly regarded, thriving and influential position it is in today.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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