It’s one of the go-to cliches for anyone over the age of about 27.
It has been since BC times, when Plato worried, “what is happening to our young people … what is to become of them?”
For centuries, humankind has been beset by the niggle that young people don’t share the same values as the generations that came before them. Along with the rather unsettling idea that they are out of control.
As Uncle Plato put it: “They riot in the streets, inflamed with wild notions.”
But while we can file concerns about shaggy haircuts and tuneless music under “uncool oldies”, anxiety about young people has taken a sickening twist in Australia recently with increasing reports of teenagers turning to terrorism.
Over the past year, we have seen an 18-year-old shot dead while trying to attack police in Melbourne and men of the same age killed after travelling to the Middle East to fight with ISIS. As the Australian Strategic Policy Institute notes in its recent report Gen Y Jihadists, the average age of the 20-odd Australians publicly known to have died fighting in the Middle East is just under 25 years old.
Then, of course, comes the 15-year-old baby-faced boy who shot and killed police accountant Curtis Cheng last Friday. The teenager, who was previously seen as quiet and a talented basketballer, was reportedly recruited by a group of local extremists to carry out the Parramatta attack.
Suddenly, we are not just worried about “extremism” or “home-grown terror” but “the radicalisation of young people”.
Mercifully, the Turnbull government is staying away from talk of “Team Australia” in response. Amid the more measured rhetoric, Assistant Minister for Multiculturalism Concetta Fierravanti-Wells stood up in Canberra this week to stress that Australians should see the issue as a social one – not just a national security problem.
Fierravanti-Wells and Philip Ruddock spent several months this year (at Tony Abbott’s behest) talking to community groups about how to counter violent extremism. They have since made findings and are waiting for a spot in amongst all the recent political upheaval to present them to Malcolm Turnbull.
In the meantime, it’s fair to say Fierravanti-Wells wants to see a shift in the way the government tries to head off extremism. “It’s very clear that we now need to review what we are doing, reset the agenda,” she said.
Schools, homes and communities should be better mobilised to support vulnerable kids. Young people, she explained, “can go off the rails for any number of reasons”. If they are disengaged from society, they can be susceptible to extremist ideology, just as they might be susceptible to gangs, drugs or other worst nightmare scenarios.
Western Sydney University’s Jan Ali agrees that the issue can’t just be looked at through a sweeping national security lens. The senior lecturer in Islam and Modernity cautions that we often put a blanket “radialisation” label on things that are far more complex.
“We don’t have a good grasp of what radicalisation is. We often mix this phenomenon with criminality [but] I think the media and politicians fail to recognise this,” Ali says.
Griffith University associate professor in Islam-West relations Halim Rane adds that we should also be paying more attention to things other than Islam, like mental health, home life, socio-economic conditions, education and plain old rebellion.
“We have to start focusing on the human factors,” he says. “We tend to reduce all Muslim actions to their religion. Muslims are people, like other people.”
This is not helped by the fact that Muslims are often featured in the media in mostly negative contexts, like crises and conflicts.
“The Muslims who make the news tend to be the extremists, criminals, terrorists.
“This results in the extreme minority as the representatives of the faith and its followers,” Rane says.
He notes that with estimates law enforcement agencies have about 400 potential extremists under active investigation for violent extremism and with about 150 having travelled overseas to terrorism zones, this means far less than 1 per cent of Australia’s 476,300-strong Muslim population is engaged in extremist behaviour.
“We have to put all of this in perspective,” he says.
This should include less pressure on the wider Muslim community to somehow take responsibility for attacks like last Friday’s. As lawyer and anti-Islamophobia advocate Mariam Veiszadeh posted on Twitter during the week: “If you’re asking me to condemn X, Y or Z, you’ll have better luck trying to get pigs to fly. I don’t need to condemn crimes I didn’t commit.”
This is not tangential to a teenager walking into a police station with a gun. Or taking responsibility away from the individuals involved. It’s about making sure society is set up so that significant sections of it don’t automatically feel alienated.
Obviously, the way we talk about and perceive Muslim Australians has flow-on effects.
Australian National University researchers have found that people with Middle Eastern-sounding names have less success with job applications than those with Anglo-Saxon ones. Muslim Australians have higher levels of unemployment compared to the general population – even though they have higher levels of year twelve completion, and Muslim men have higher levels of university education.
It’s this kind of thing that Ali says can lead to young Muslims feeling like there might not be a future for them in mainstream Australia.
He heartily agrees that “radicalisation” (in all its complexity) is a social problem.
“Deviant behaviour is a product of society itself. It doesn’t fall from Mars or Venus. We create it.”