Why do young Muslim men go to fight in foreign wars? The “Afghan Arabs” were a feature of the resistance to the Soviet Union, then of Al Qaeda’s attack on the United States. Arabs went to fight in Chechnya in small numbers, and now in Syria in larger numbers. What draws or drives these young people to take up arms for a non-national cause?
There is a sensitive discussion of one case in the New York Times. Islam Yaken (1993- ) grew up in a middle-class family in Cairo. Conservatism and modernity co-existed in his family. His mother and sisters wear the veil, yet his parents sent him to a French-language private school, and then on to university. Like many young American men of his age, Yaken fell in love with body-building. He got “ripped” by any standard. He imagined himself as a future fitness instructor. Yet he had not abandoned religious faith.
Obstacles barred his path. For one thing, the conservative cast of contemporary Islam disparages physical pleasure. Both sex and body-building are physical pleasures. Yaken Islam desired women, even talking of emigrating to find a career and a “hot” girlfriend. For another thing, in Egypt or America, it is hard to turn personal training into a decent livelihood. Yaken failed to break into an established gym, and had to make-do with private lessons in smaller gyms.
Leaving Egypt for greener pastures entered his mind. Go where? Make a start how? The answers seemed impossible. A return to the conservative religious values in which he had been raised also entered his mind. Like the 17th Century English Protestant writer John Bunyan, he excoriated himself for “sins” that others would hardly notice. He grew a beard. Still Shaitan tormented him—in the form of girls in Levis and ballet flats.
In early 2012, when Islam Yaken was 19 years old, the Muslim Brotherhood came out in the open as a result of the fall of the Mubarak regime. After years of repression by the Sadat and Mubarrak governments, the Brotherhood had survived. Apparently, they had triumphed over their enemies. Their intransigent defense of strict conservative religious doctrines—something to believe in when secular society offered nothing to believe in—may have seemed like an explanation. They were in full throat. Sheikh Muhammad Hussein Yacoub preached before huge crowds of followers in a Cairo mosque. Yaken Islam became a follower. Religious commitment did nothing to assuage the terrors that haunted him. If anything, they worsened.
In July 2013 the Egyptian military regime re-asserted itself. A heavy hand fell on the Muslim Brotherhood. By August 2013 Yaken Islam had decided for jihad in Syria. He went to Turkey, then crossed the border to join the ISIS fighters. For a year-and-a-half he has been a soldier, physical training instructor, media personality for ISIS. He has found “a life free of [sins].., a greater cause, an Islamic state.”
He was young, foolish, sexually frustrated, living in a puritanical society with little economic growth or political freedom. All true, but not everyone seeks the easy path. There is a lot of will-power and striving in a six-pack.
 For example, there are at least 600 Egyptians fighting with ISIS, probably many more than that.
 Mona El-Naggar, “From Cairo Private School to Syria’s Killing Fields,” NYT, 19 February 2015.
 He used a mat in his room both for prayer and for crunches.
 “Suppose a young man falls in love with a girl in college. He doesn’t touch her or talk to her or send her messages. He doesn’t even look at her. That’s still fornication!”—Sheikh Muhammad Yacoub, video imam.
 The attitude toward women is not so different from that of many American men of his age (regardless of generation).
 Apparently this is common talk among young people. If it ever starts, the tide of Egyptian boat people will vastly out-number the Libyan one.