The Sunday Magazine·The Sunday Edition

The link between young men who join gangs and young men who join terror cells

After the Paris terror attacks, law professor and community organizer Jamil Jivani travelled to a neighbourhood in Brussels to investigate the parallels between young men who join gangs and young men who join ISIS.
People gather at the scene after raids in which several people, including Paris attacks suspect Salah Abdeslam, were arrested on March 18, 2016 in Sint-Jans-Molenbeek, Belgium. Belgian police arrested three people in raids including key Paris attacks suspect Salah Abdeslam according to Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel. (Carl Court/Getty Images)

In the days after the devastating Paris terror attacks, an all-too-familiar picture of those responsible for the carnage emerged. The attackers ranged in age from 20 to 31. The ringleaders came from a neighbourhood in Brussels called Molenbeek. 

It is a place that has become, in many ways, synonymous with the idea of radicalized young men. Many residents are second-generation immigrants, growing up steeped in anger and alienation and rejected by a dominant society that views them with fear and treats them with suspicion. 

[Changes in employment and educational prospects for men] make for a certain intense experience that groups like ISIS, for instance, or street gangs are experts in dealing with. They have a unique ability and skill in being able to see young men struggling with this new world that they're growing up in and recruit them. And yet our public schools, our police, our politicians, our media, are almost giving up this fight. We're retreating from that battleground. We're saying, we don't talk about men...We are leaving a space here that is being filled by destruction.- Jamil Jivani 

It's a feeling a young Canadian lawyer, community organizer and professor named Jamil Jivani knows well. Anger and alienation are familiar forces in the lives of young men he knows. 

But in his neighbourhood — Toronto's Jane and Finch — the young men join gangs, not terrorist cells.

Jivani is currently writing a book called Why Young Men? about the parallels between troubled young men who participate in local tragedies like shootings, and troubled young men whose acts of violence seize international attention. After the Paris attacks, he spent three months in Molenbeek, the Brussels neighbourhood where many of the attackers grew up, talking to people about common solutions to the challenges facing young men in Molenbeek and young men in his own community. 

Jamil Jivani is a lawyer, professor and community organizer in Toronto. (Wim Van Cappellen)

Jivani grew up in Brampton, Ontario. As a young man, he struggled in school, and early negative experiences with the police had a profound impact the way he viewed his place in society. He says he grew up believing he lived in a rigged world, and it was only after he realized that he would have to be responsible for helping to support his sisters that he started to change his life. He went on to get a law degree from Yale University, and today — at age 29 — he is a visiting professor at Osgoode Hall Law School at York University in Toronto. 

Jivani is also a community organizer in the Jane and Finch neighbourhood in Toronto, and the founder of the Policing Literacy Initiative. He spoke to Michael Enright about why it's so easy for gangs and ISIS leaders to recruit young men, the parallels between police carding and stop-and-frisk policies in North America and police responses to terrorism in Europe, and how to empower young men to think differently about their masculinity. 

Jamil Jivani speaks to Michael Enright about the links between young men who join terrorist cells and young men who join gangs. (CBC)

Click the button above to hear Michael's interview with Jamil Jivani.