“If you tell a typical Frenchman that third-generation immigrants in the banlieues don’t have running water—if you tell him that many are illiterate and have no hope of finding a job or being a productive member of French society—he simply won’t believe you,” says Akbar Ahmed, a former Pakistani ambassador to the UK and now a professor of Islamic studies at American University in Washington, DC. “He’ll insist that they’re French citizens with the same opportunities as everyone else.”
Ahmed and his team are working on the first comprehensive, continent-wide study of Muslim communities in Europe. “Thirty percent of the population of Marseilles are immigrants,” he says. “They have no central mosque, they live in ghettos and most are unemployed. They don’t have decent schools. And exactly the same conditions exist in Belgium. They have very poor education, very poor lifetime prospects. Social rejection is the norm—they are not considered part of the fabric of their society—and this is enough to drive any community up a wall.”
Up a wall, and for some, into the hands of radical Islamism.
The contrast between Muslim communities in Europe and the United States is stark and telling. American Muslims tend to be prosperous, well-educated and deeply invested in their country. As a group, they’re politically active and comfortable living in a pluralistic society, and there’s no evidence that they embrace extreme religious views or commit acts of violence at a higher rate than Christians or Jews.
But in Europe, life on the economic and social margins creates fertile ground for radicalization. None of this is news to sociologists, or unknown to counter-terrorism experts on either side of the Atlantic. But European politics constrain the conversation. Ultra-nationalist parties are on the rise across the continent, and political leaders who call for addressing the profound social problems that are fueling Europe’s home-grown extremism are accused of being “soft on terrorism,” or “coddling extremists.”
As a result, there’s a lot of focus on radical theology, and not enough on the conditions that allow it to take hold. European law enforcement, says Ahmed, “are analyzing this through the prism of theology. They’re studying the Koran for explanations, but what we’re seeing is nothing more than disaffected, disenchanted, illiterate young people who are not adjusting to society. Look at these young idiots who are blowing things up—they’re looking at ISIS videos with a beer in one hand and a joint in the other.”
In a telling incident in 2014, two Britons who pleaded guilty to terror charges purchased a copy of Islam for Dummies before traveling to Syria to fight with ISIS. Olivier Roy, a professor at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy, and the author of Globalized Islam, writes that what Europe faces today “isn’t about religion or politics,” it’s a “youth revolt.” The problem, Roy argues, is “not the radicalization of Islam, but the Islamization of radicalism.”