This is an excerpt from Chapter 2 of my book The Myth of the Muslim Tide.
Claim: Terrorism is a natural and inevitable extension of fundamentalist Islamic faith.
It’s not merely that there’s a global jihad lurking within this religion, but that the religion itself is a political project—and, in fact, an imperial project—in a way that modern Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, and Buddhism are not. Furthermore, this particular religion is historically a somewhat bloodthirsty faith in which whatever’s your bag violence-wise can almost certainly be justified.
- Mark Steyn
Apologists would tell us that militant Islam is a distortion of Islam, but that is not true; it emerges out of the religion, constituting a radically new interpretation. It adapts an age-old faith to the political requirements of our day.
- Daniel Pipes
Jihadist terrorists are religious believers: that much is undeniable. They invoke Allah and the Koran, they denounce their targets for being unholy, they speak of a divine calling and a scriptural obligation to avenge the “crusader” and the “infidel.”
This leads to a widespread belief that al Qaeda and its offspring must be religious movements—which carries the frightening implication that any devout Muslim could potentially become a jihadist. Therefore, if a large percentage of Muslims are literalist believers, and they all are required to embrace the same violent and vengeful passages in the Koran with equal intensity, what is to stop any of your devout Muslim neighbours from strapping on an explosive belt? This logic has led to one of the core ideas behind the popularity of the Muslim-tide movement: the idea that Muslims are all at least tangentially party to a war of conquest, and that the devout and the violent are part of the same larger cause.
This, however, is one area where a decade of counterterrorism research, the analysis of volumes of extremist literature and dialogue, and interviews with thousands of current and former jihadists and terror-cell members by large groups of scholars have produced two unambiguous conclusions. First, it is not generally devout or fundamentalist Muslims who become terrorists. Second, terrorists are driven by political belief, not by religious faith. The Muslims who support violence and terrorism are not the Muslims who are the most religious or fundamentalist in their views; in fact, the two rarely have anything to do with one another, and the latter are usually opposed to the former.
Perhaps the most detailed and comprehensive profile of Islamic recruits to terrorism was conducted in 2008 by the British intelligence agency MI5, whose behavioural science unit performed in-depth case studies on “several hundred individuals known to be involved in, or closely associated with, violent extremist activity,” including jihadist fundraisers and would-be suicide bombers. The conclusion is that Muslim terrorists in the West “are a diverse collection of individuals, fitting no single demographic profile, nor do they all follow a typical pathway to violent extremism.” As in other countries, they tend to be either converts or second-generation, native-born children of legal immigrants.
Significantly, extremist Muslim clerics generally have no role in the indoctrination or recruitment of these jihadists. “Far from being Islamist fundamentalists,” the report concludes, “most are religious novices.” Very few have been raised in strongly religious households; in fact, MI5 concludes, “there is evidence that a well-established religious identity actually protects against violent radicalization.”
Some recruits, the agency notes, “are involved in drug-taking, drinking alcohol and visiting prostitutes.” But they don’t appear to be mentally unstable, lone-wolf characters; in fact, a majority of those over 30 have steady relationships, and most have children. They also tend to be well educated and employed, albeit typically in low-income jobs. Rather than intense monastic religious devotees, they tend to be non-faithful individuals who are drawn to radical peer groups for political or personal, but not religious, reasons. The study concluded that four factors were leading to terrorist radicalization: “trauma,” such as the death of a loved one (10% of terror suspects had experienced this); immigration without family members (a third of extremists had “migrated to Britain alone” as students or labourers); “criminal activity” (two-thirds had criminal records); and “prison” (many were radicalized while serving time).
Indeed, religious devotion simply does not correlate with violent radicalism. In one study, the Gallup organization examined the 7% of Muslims worldwide who are considered “radical”—that is, who condone the September 11 attacks and view the United States unfavourably—and found that they are no more religious than the general population of Muslims. Pew, in 2008, found that the proportion of non-religious German Muslims who said that “attacks on civilians cannot be morally justified” (94%) was identical to that of religious believers who said the same (94%). In France, it was 94% of religious French Muslims and 82% of the nonreligious; 90% of religious British Muslims and 87% of the nonreligious disapproved of attacks on civilians.
Jihadist terrorism became a phenomenon in the West starting in the early 1990s as an extreme political response to the presence of Western soldiers in Islamic lands. It has continued to follow this political path. While this means that adherents must believe in the existence of an inviolate “land of Islam,” it does not mean that they are otherwise the most devout religious believers.
“Religious orthodoxy and political radicalization are very different things and respond to very different mechanisms,” says Rik Coolsaet, the Belgian scholar who has led some of the most detailed studies of Muslim radicalization. “Religious orthodoxy starts from a quest for identity, especially demanding in highly uncertain times. Political radicalization starts from opposition to injustice. The former can develop into a challenge for social cohesion if it leads individuals and groups into a cultural ghetto. The latter can eventually become a security threat if some individuals move further down the path to extremism that—for an even smaller number—eventually ends up in using violence as their preferred tool of political action.”
Researchers at Demos spent two years studying Islamic religious radicals and convicted terrorists in Britain and Canada, and found that radical religious believers and terrorists were very distinct and different people. “[Religious] radicals also felt genuine affection for Western values of tolerance and pluralism, system of government, and culture. Terrorists, on the other hand, were unique in their loathing of Western society and culture. Interestingly, radicals were more likely than terrorists to have been involved in political protest, to have studied at university (and studied humanities or arts subjects) and to have been employed.” The terrorists also “had a simpler, shallower conception of Islam than radicals—that is, their degree of interest in the actual teachings of the Koran was fairly minimal.”
Or, in the words of Olivier Roy, the French scholar of Islamic societies: “The process of violent radicalization has little to do with religious practice, while radical theology, as salafism, does not necessarily lead to violence.” The radicalization process, Roy notes, “is not linked with the outspoken condemnation of Western sexual liberalisation that is pervasive among conservative Muslim circles … AQ [al Qaeda] recruits are not specifically puritanical and often live or have lived the usual life of western teenagers.”
Mark Fallon, a former US counterintelligence officer who heads the International Association of Chiefs of Police and oversaw the prosecution of dozens of high-level terror suspects, conducted a study of hundreds of ex-terrorists and found that neither theology nor larger political ideology played significant roles. “The one thing that we found everywhere is that the trigger that turns someone to violence is a very personal one and is usually based on local conditions. The global environment is used to recruit these people, but it’s generally some local condition or individual event in that person’s life that turns them. It wasn’t about ideology; it wasn’t about theology; it was about identity.” Of course, people who join terrorist cells, however political or personal their motives, have become religious believers, and most of them hold broadly fundamentalist or Salafist views of the world, however vague. In some cases they are recruited into jihadist organizations through evangelical Islamic movements such as Tablighi Jamaat, which are not themselves violent but are used by jihadist organizations seeking eager and vulnerable recruits. While this means that these religious orders should be watched closely, it does not follow that terrorism is a product of their religious doctrines.
Indeed, fundamentalists and religious Islamists are often the most effective forces among Muslim immigrants in opposing terrorist movements. In Britain, London’s Metropolitan Police successfully purged the Finsbury Park mosque of al Qaeda–linked sympathizers and activists by working closely with Salafist groups prevalent in the community. Scotland Yard found that the Salafists (who seek a theocratic Muslim state through political means) had both the most detailed knowledge of fellow immigrants who were susceptible to terrorist radicalization and also the strongest determination to keep violent and jihadist tendencies out of their mosque. This was a controversial approach, as it involved working intimately with religious extremists whose social views were abhorrent and whose ultraconservative views of women and homosexuality were being battled by other sections of the Muslim community. But from what I witnessed, it did appear to be effective in ending the violent extremist influence on the neighbourhood. Still, if terrorism is not a natural outgrowth of extreme Muslim religious beliefs, even those held by fundamentalists, couldn’t it be a product of the dense clusters of poor, segregated Muslim immigrants in our cities? That, too, is a much-examined question.
Claim: The growth of Muslim populations is accompanied by a growth in Islamic extremism and terrorism.
The jihad is coming quietly to America by the intentional building of Muslim populations in small to medium American cities.
- Pamela Gellar
What is the societal benefit of bringing in throwbacks, some of whom are no doubt terrorists, and some of whom are gonna produce children who will become terrorists?
- Michael Savage
Islamist terrorism in the West has generally been declining. In Europe, the number of people charged for Islamist terrorism offences dropped from 201 in 2007 to 187 in 2008 to 110 in 2009. It then rose slightly to 179 in 2010, largely as a result of a sweep of arrests in France related to a cell of North Africans preparing to fight in Afghanistan, but this does not appear to be part of an upward trend.
In the United States, there has been a false perception that Islamic terrorism is on the rise, in large part because of three high-profile incidents. These incidents were unrelated to one another but occurred in quick succession: the November 2009 Fort Hood shooting, in which a lone gunman killed 13 people on a military base; the December 2009 “underwear bomber” case (committed by a wealthy Nigerian man travelling to the United States); and the unsuccessful May 2010 Times Square bomb plot, committed by a lone Pakistani-American with apparent ties to the Pakistani Taliban. But Islamist terrorism remains rare: the number of Muslim-American terrorism suspects and perpetrators apprehended each year averaged around 14 annually between 2001 and 2008 — then spiked to 47 in 2009, in large part because a group of 17 Somali-Americans were arrested for joining the al-Shabaab militia in Somalia. Some observers, looking at this figure, together with the headline attacks of 2009 and 2010, feared that it meant jihadism was on the increase. But then the number of terror arrests fell back to 26 in 2010, and to 20 in 2011. There does not appear to be a larger movement.
In the West, jihadist attacks are not as prevalent as other forms of terrorism. For example, 2010 saw 20 non-Islamic terror attacks in the United States (most of them right-wing). In Europe, there were three Islamist attacks with one casualty that year (all in Scandinavia) while there were 160 separatist attacks, 45 left-wing and anarchist attacks, and 41 other attacks (mainly about a single issue). All told, there were 65 jihadist terrorist incidents in Europe from 2001 to 2009, involving 336 people; this represents less than 1% of all terrorist incidents on the continent during those years. None of this detracts from the seriousness of the Islamic terrorist threat, or the importance of countering radical ideologies in immigrant communities. Terrorism remains a grave problem, and has the potential to threaten international security. But it is not becoming epidemic, nor is it rising with the Muslim populations in the West.
The more important question is whether clusters of Muslim immigrants and their offspring—especially those who are living in high-density, ethnically segregated, poverty-stricken urban neighbourhoods—are becoming breeding grounds for anti-Western violence. By tolerating Muslim immigration, are the countries of the West welcoming more terrorists into their midst?
In short, this doesn’t appear to be the case. High concentrations of Muslims are not generally a source of terrorism. Geographers Nissa Finney and Ludi Simpson analyzed the addresses of all British Muslims charged with terrorism offences in the mid-2000s decade, around the time of the London Underground bombings, and found that 77% of them came from neighbourhoods where fewer than 11% of the population was Muslim and more than half (56%) came from neighbourhoods with fewer than 6% Muslims; the lone Muslim living in a largely white neighbourhood is a closer fit to the terrorist profile. A similar effect was found in the United States, where only 17% of terrorism suspects between 2001 and 2011 were found to be residents of high-concentration Muslim neighborhoods such as Dearborn and Los Angeles. The majority were from lone Muslim families in mixed neighbourhoods. The former CIA counterterrorism specialist Marc Sageman, in his classic study of terrorist recruitment, found that the great majority of terrorists were neither poor and isolated nor from broken homes or criminal backgrounds: “Three quarters of my sample came from the upper or middle class. The vast majority—90%—came from caring, intact families. Sixty-three percent had gone to college, as compared with the 5 to 6 percent that’s usual for the third world. These are the best and brightest young people of their societies in many ways.”
This result was confirmed in Britain by the MI5 report, which found that two-thirds of the terror suspects the spy organization had watched during the decade were “from middle or upper-middle-class backgrounds, showing that there is no simplistic relationship between poverty and involvement in Islamist extremism.” A 2011 Whitehall report found that 45% of English terror suspects had attended university, college or some other form of postsecondary education, a far higher proportion than the general English or Muslim population—and a strong indication that the poor Muslim neighbourhoods are not breeding grounds of terrorism. These suspects had come to their political convictions based on reading, internet communication and contact with other political radicals in universities and prisons, not by way of influence from existing bodies of thought within Muslim communities or districts.
The image of the self-ghettoized Muslim living in a parallel society dissolves once you encounter the actual terrorists. When Edwin Bakker at the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism at The Hague scrutinized the data on hundreds of Muslim Europeans convicted of terrorism, he found that almost all were the European-born children or grandchildren of immigrants, and 305 out of the 313 suspects he identified were legal residents of a European country. Only eight had ever lived in a country outside Europe. Less than a fifth were raised in religious Muslim households; almost half had largely secular upbringings; and more than a third were converts to Islam, mainly from Christian backgrounds.
The convicted terrorists were reasonably well educated: 70% had finished secondary school, and the rest had graduated from college or university; there were no dropouts or illiterates. Of the 93 for whom economic data was available, 5 were upper class, 36 middle class and 52 (more than half) were lower class; another 14 were entrepreneurs such as shopkeepers. Two-thirds were employed at the time of their arrest, the largest group in unskilled labour. While their ages ranged from 16 to 62, they were typically in their mid- to late twenties. Almost half were married, engaged or divorced, most of them with children; a fifth were single. Significantly, almost a fifth of them had already been convicted in a court for a non-terrorist offence.
A number of major studies of the demographics and psychology of terrorist recruits have shown that adversity, including poverty and violence, is rarely a significant factor in radicalization or terrorist recruitment. If anything, it is the opposite, as middle-class, well-educated Muslims are drawn into jihad. These individuals are more likely to perceive a sense of shame or humiliation, and to have hopes and aspirations that they come to believe have been thwarted by the same Western forces they believe are invading the lands of Islam—as well as a desire for self-glorification that can be accomplished through martyrdom.
“Clearly, absolute material conditions do not account for terrorism; otherwise, acts of terrorism would be committed more by the poorest individuals living in the poorest regions, and this is not the case,” a major study of the psychology of terrorist recruitment concludes. “Psychological research points to the fundamental importance of perceived deprivation… . This groundswell of frustration and anger has given rise to greater sympathy for extremist ‘antiestablishment’ tactics among the vast populations on the ground ?oor.” People suffering actual deprivation do not have the time or inclination for terrorist organizing. Many of the most famous jihadists, including Mohammed Atta and Osama bin Laden, were university-educated technicians and engineers.
“All of them are integrated, Westernized and educated,” Olivier Roy says of the Western terrorists. “They do not have any particular social background that would explain their political radicalization because of poverty or exclusion. Most of all, almost all of them become ‘born again’ in the West… . The source of radicalization is the West and not the jihad or the conflicts in the Middle East. None became a radical after attending religious studies completed in a Muslim-majority country. Finally, for almost each one of them, the time between their return to religion and their transit to political radicalization has been very short, which shows that they are as much, if not more so, interested in politics as in religion.”
Has Islamist terrorism been a natural outgrowth of the conservative religious and political beliefs of the immigrants and their children? Or has it been something more like the wave of left-wing terrorism that swept across the United States and Europe in the 1960s and ’70s, in which thousands of mainly middle-class young people joined a dangerous movement that saw itself in opposition to the culture around it and committed hundreds of bombings through organizations such as the Weather Underground in the United States and the Red Army Faction in Germany?
The Demos researchers, in their study of religious extremists and violent radicals, found that al Qaeda’s appeal in Europe was neither its theology nor its larger ideology but rather its image of antiauthoritarian radicalism: “An increasingly important part of al Qaeda’s appeal in the West is its dangerous, romantic and counter-cultural characteristics… . It is becoming a combination of toxic ideology and youthful radicalism, something inherently anti-establishment which some young people find appealing… . Al-Qaeda inspired terrorism in the West shares much in common with other counter-cultural, subversive groups of predominantly angry young men.”
Jihadist terrorism, Olivier Roy notes, “shares many factors with other forms of dissent, either political or behavioral.” Most radicals have broken with their families; they don’t mention traditions of Islam or fatwas, but rather act on an individual basis and outside the usual bonds of family, mosque and Islamic association. Modern Islamic terrorism is “an avatar of ultra-leftist radicalism—its targets are the same as the traditional targets of the ultra-left—US imperialism, symbols of globalization.”
The sons of immigrants who turn to violent jihad are, ironically enough, driven by a world view that is exactly the same as that of the Muslim-tide activists. They believe that there are two irreconcilable civilizations, one trying to dominate the other by infiltration and aggression, and that they must fight to protect their traditions and values from the outsiders. This vision, from either perspective, is false and dangerous. Extremism remains a serious enough threat that we need to invest care and attention in combating its underlying philosophies and psychological causes. We now know that the terrorists’ “civilizational” vision is not shared by other Muslim immigrants and their children, that it does not emerge from their ethnic neighbourhoods, and that it does not spring from their practice of religion, however strict.
What we are left to contemplate is a group of new immigrants, large but not the largest, who come from poor and religious backgrounds, who are settling into the social, political and reproductive patterns of their new homes, but whose progress is sometimes interrupted economically and educationally, and therefore socially, by institutions that deny them the same opportunities as their native-born neighbours. This may feel like an unprecedented phenomenon. But, as we shall see in the next chapter, it is far from unprecedented. We have been through all of this before.