Few people realize how deeply responsible Britain is for Islamic extremism in South Asia. During 18th and 19th centuries, the British recklessly exploited Hindu and Muslim communities to entrench and perpetuate their colonization of India. The policy was so successful that it culminated in the partition of India into India and Pakistan; India for Hindus and Pakistan for Muslims.
In Pakistan, the British colonialists created a country, which, for most of its life, has been ruled by dictators who rely on Islamic fundamentalists to keep their claws entrenched in the throne of power. This reliance and exploitation of Islam is amazing in light of the fact that the general population has never supported religious parties in Pakistan. Unfortunately, Pakistan’s secretive spy agency ISI created and supported the Taliban, it hides major al-Qaeda figures in the northwestern lawless territories of Pakistan, and, despite a facade of support to “war on terror,” trains jihadis and Islamic terrorists in Pakistan. And, ironically, Pakistan is also one of the nations that has contributed a large Muslim immigrant population to Britain and the West. Now a small but rather vocal minority of Islamic extremists in England is creating social division. What a neat example of blowback.
Anyway, my smugness was quickly followed by a deep foreboding and realization of how close every Western society is to danger posed by Islamic extremism. If the British are concerned about failure of their Muslim immigrants to assimilate, if the French are concerned about searing anger of their Muslim and African immigrants that resulted in bloody riots in 2005, if the Dutch are concerned about murder of their artists by Islamic extremists, if the French are anticipating a repeat of the 2005 riots, and if minor issues, such as cartoons published by a Danish newspaper are taken up by Islamists as a challenge to their religion and justification for violence, what does that portend for America?
Traditional Islam followers have a difficult time accepting cultural differences between their native societies and the West; however, they also prefer Western societies to their own. After all, as a rule, people don’t migrate from the West to live in Saudi Arabia or Pakistan. Yet, majority of the immigrants are law abiding and manage to integrate within the wider society with considerable success. The most orthodox components of such immigrant populations, despite their reservations about the Western society they live in, also manage to survive by living in insular communities by limiting contacts with the wider culture.
In absence of grievance against the world, this failure to integrate could be rather benign. However, real and perceived grievances of immigrant Islamic populations, including a blanket labeling of “Islamic terrorism” on entire Islamic communities, have brought a new complexity to the already complex process of integration. They hold the Western society responsible for their grievances, from support of Israel to war in Iraq and Afghanistan, to perceived persecution of Muslims. This love-hate relationship between the immigrants and their adopted nations has caused much bloodshed and social upheaval in recent years.
Terrorism by Islamic extremists has its origin in a complex matrix of historical, economic, political, and cultural evolution of the last century. Decline of the Ottoman Empire and abolition of Caliphate, post-colonial transformation in the Middle East and Indian subcontinent, replacement of colonial powers with autocratic native regimes, crisis of legitimacy, failure of development despite oil wealth, failure of Arab nationalism to deliver better lives to all or liberate Palestine, nostalgia for the glory days of Islam, fantasy of pan-Arabism, changes wrought by the Iranian revolution and its consequences, and the West’s support of brutal dictators in the Middle East. Add to this mix the sinister combination of injured identity and exclusion and you find terror.
Furthermore, as a result of labor immigration of the last several decades, the West was faced with an unintended religious pluralism. After Sept. 11, serious questions have been raised about integration of religious minorities in the West, especially in relation to what is perceived to be a failure of Muslim minorities to develop tolerance to Western ideals of free speech and equality. The Madrid train bombings on March 11, 2004 and the July 7, 2005 bombings of the London Underground reinforced perceptions that Islam constitutes a threat to the European social and political system. With almost 15 million Muslims in Western Europe, concerns regarding integration have become heightened.
Robert Leiken’s study on Islamic jihadis disclosed a close link between immigration and jihad. Of the 373 Muslim terror suspects in Europe and North America between 1993 and 2004, 87 percent were found to be immigrants.
It would be unfair to tar all Muslim immigrants with the same brush and lump them in a set of opponents of all things Western. We don’t have the level of Muslim extremism in the Unites States as exists in Europe and even Canada. However, implications of Islamic fundamentalism for America are no less serious because of certain facts. It is no secret that European Muslims have brought their political agendas with them from the Islamic countries. Same conditions exist in the United States, too. Many of Europe’s Muslim associations are Trojan horses for the banned Islamic organizations in the home countries, and although such predicament is of a far less serious nature in the United States, potential for such exploitation exists. Far more serious to the United States is Muslim political activism in Europe that is driving and will continue to drive a wedge between the United States and Europe on important foreign policy issues.
U.S. Muslims are far more integrated than their European counterparts. However, two disturbing trends portend serious potential for terrorist recruitment and sowing of discord between Muslim communities and the rest. The U.S. Muslim population is concentrated at the higher and lower ends of the income and educational scales. The second trend is extremely orthodox clerics (imams) in mosques. Imams are mostly recruited by local mosque councils through kinship networks in the home country. They are not only extremists, they are out of touch with the younger immigrant Muslims, their worldview limited to Quran and devoid of any understanding of Western societies. Majority of imams do not speak English and since Muslim community elders tend to recruit from the villages that they came from, imams arrive in the West with a Neanderthal worldview, as they were educated in madrasas. The transmission of extremist Islamic ideology into political action requires individuals who recruit Muslims to their cause. Imams have been identified as such carriers of extremism, and the less educated they are the more likely this is to occur. Almost two-thirds of imams do not have an undergraduate degree. In addition, when it comes to building mosques and practicing Islam, U.S. Muslims encounter little government resistance. This constitutes a major problem. With increased law enforcement focus, recruitment of extremists in mosques and terrorist plots hatched with the assistance of clerics may eventually come to an end; however, this is an area that would require careful oversight.
Muslim immigrants in the United States are wealthier and more educated than their European counterparts. Their grievances are also fewer as compared to European Muslims. This shouldn’t result in complacency. Unfortunately, middle-class socioeconomic status and high level of education, as the London bombers proved, is not a predictor of susceptibility to terrorism.
The Islamic terrorism of our times is based upon an Islamic utopian theory that justifies indiscriminate killing as a means to power. In that, it is no different from terrorism resorted to by extremist Hindu Tamils in Sri Lanka, Catholics and Protestants in Ireland, and fundamentalist Sikhs in India during Khalistan terrorism days. Unfortunately, similarities to other religious terrorist movements don’t lessen the dangers or lessen the pain to the victims of terrorist violence. It is difficult to draw the line between theology that leads to political extremism and political extremism that assumes the guise of doctrine. It would be dangerous to assume that European Muslims are more susceptible to extremist theology than Muslims in North America or elsewhere. This is the reason we have to be eternally vigilant in the United States to the threats posed by Islamic extremism. The new political ideology of Islamic terrorism has showed a remarkable adaptability and transformative abilities to respond to our anti-terrorism efforts. The extreme polarization and socioeconomic disadvantage, combined with the generalized escalation of violence against Jews, Muslims, and Christians, provides a fertile ground for recruitment to the extremist cause. Second-generation youth from middle-class and educated Muslims from the West have participated in bombings of their adopted nations. These are serious reasons why we can’t simply downplay social upheavals due to Muslim extremism in European nations.
In the end, the issues can be boiled down to Muslim discontent, orthodoxy, insular behavior, strong identification with religion above country of residence (Islam above nation), and illiberal attitudes that don’t favor assimilation in Western societies. Opinion polls indicate that Middle Eastern immigrants are highly dissatisfied with U.S. policy toward the Arab-Israeli conflict and wish to see a tilt away from support for Israel. Second, a large Middle Eastern immigrant population makes it easier for Islamic extremists to operate within the United States. The Sept. 11 hijackers used Middle Eastern immigrant communities for cover. If we don’t confront these issues, we would be creating two societies in our nation: a democracy for Westerners and an autocracy for Muslims.
We have to deal with the terrorist threat in a manner consistent with our democratic values, and consistent with the notion that we investigate people only when we have reasonable suspicion that they might be engaged in terrorist activities. We cannot target entire groups of people because we think the terrorists might be among them. That would be profoundly anti-democratic, ineffective, and counterproductive. We also would have to reconsider our dark contribution to fanning of the flames of Muslim discontent by resorting to the illegal war in Iraq and its occupation, our blind support for Israeli policies, and support for Middle East oil tyrants.
It is also paramount that we reduce illegal immigrant population within our society. This is where illegal terrorists can hide. It is next to impossible to identify people who entered the United States illegally with the purpose of engaging in terrorist activities. Not the least, we have to focus on methods that lead to cooperation with Muslim immigrant community instead of alienating it. A failure to seriously engage in these prophylactic measures may result in more terrorist acts on U.S. soil.
Sunil Dutta, Ph.D., is a scholar of South Asia, terrorism, and law enforcement-related issues. He works for the Los Angeles Police Department.