With France in the spotlight again regarding its struggle to integrate French Muslims, the question of marginalization is once again on the table.
In the wake of the recent terror attacks, no matter how unique or spread across the map those attacks might be, the same template is set out for how to view the events in question. Instead of looking at the radicalization process and ideological drivers along with social and cultural critique, the West leans into gaslighting itself.
Between the self-victimization of many Western Muslims who blame nations like France and Britain for not better accommodating their minority populations and our liberal Western leaders’ hand-wringing over just how to do that, the spotlight of blame mistakenly lands squarely on countries like France, while absolving Muslims of both the responsibility and the opportunity to act in their own self-interest by evaluating and better securing their place in the world and their adopted countries.
Of course, marginalization exits and makes it more difficult to integrate segments of a population. But unless the situation is extreme (think China), marginalization itself is not responsible for Islamist extremism. The root cause of Islamist extremism is a combination of self-imposed alienation (through viewing oneself through a narrow identity framework) paired with strains of supremacy (based on that identity).
When those two variables unite — feelings of alienation and superiority — a failure to derive a sense of belonging to the larger, national collective (along with the philosophy of superiority over that collective) gives way to radicalization.
Once a segment of the population is radicalized, a percentage of that segment will be disposed to violent extremism. The route from radicalization to violent extremism is not a linear pathway, but rather a reinforcing cycle. The segment that is activated as violent extremists continues to receive either active or passive support from the larger radicalized segment of the group. This continual support, in turn, fosters more violent extremism.
The question is, why does marginalization continue to be blamed almost exclusively by some for Islamist extremism?
Speaking as a Muslim, I believe the reason is us.
Another word for marginalization is exclusion. Yet, unless measures are enacted by legislated policy to exclude a group based on their religious or ethnic identity, the group first has to believe there is some truth to the idea that they don’t belong to the national collective.
This is a pattern of behavior that will only be exacerbated in the generations to come given that Western nations on both sides of the Atlantic are each embattled in culture wars on what it means to be American, British or French.
In other words, what defines a national collective is also narrowing. If nothing else, 2020 has proven that to be true.
Prior to 2020, second- and third-generation Muslims living in Western nations engaged in a reversion process. That reversion wasn’t a return to faith so much as a return to faith and culture — more specifically, a return to an imagined faith and culture, given that many of the self-declared marginalized Muslim youths have not: (a) studied Islam and/or (b) visited their countries of ethnic origin.
This is an issue that Dr. Ali Rashid Al Nuami raises in a recent article in The Jerusalem Post titled “From nation-state to national state,” Nuami writes:
“The Western world continues to battle the challenge of disenchanted young Muslims, rooted in a ‘home country’ that in many cases they’ve never visited, and to which they have no real ties. Yet they remain feeling like outsiders in the countries that have allowed them to take refuge within their states.”
Nuami notes that among this demographic there is a failure to understand the faith as well as an almost rigidity in holding on to a sense of “Old World” cultures. These cultures are then often used as a template for their re-imagining in a Western state.
Nuami then pointedly asks, why has there been no imagining of an American, European or Australian version of Islam?
Actually, there has been — from how Islam was practiced by some of the first Americans (slaves) to how Islam found a renaissance in the United States through Ahmadi Muslims in the last century, to the hundreds of small ways American Muslims have carved a unique hybrid identity for themselves.
I would say the issue isn’t whether there’s an American Islam. Historically, Islam has always been practiced uniquely based on the community in which it flourished. That is why, in part, there is no concrete, centralized way to practice Islam beyond the pillars and ethics Islam suggests.
That said, Nuami is correct to urge new models of education, and that “education is a future-oriented process and project, not just a way to recreate history and squeeze ourselves into past glories that we can no longer replicate.”
This is key. What it means to be Muslim must be pushed out of the narrow sense of belonging and into the larger collective. Unless the situation is extreme as we see in China, inclusion is a choice and so is alienation. Muslims are not victims, but creators in the next chapter of what it means to understand and practice Islam.
Taking Nuami’s argument another step, the mention of “Old World cultures” is noteworthy. The killing of Samuel Paty in France brought a number of Muslims forward in a new way. From Pakistan to Indonesia — both of which represent “Old World” Muslim cultures in some sense (at least in comparison to the Islam practiced in the West) — there has been a deviation from the standard template reaction.
Leaders in niche communities from academia to content creators have rallied around the issue of Paty’s killing, engaging in new debates about blasphemy. Whether in the form of webinars, videos or articles, these debates have been enlightened conversations in alignment with the small faction of Muslim reformers and human rights-oriented activists in the West.
Moreover, these Muslims are no less part of the Muslim collective (based on the Islamic concept of the ummah or global community of Muslims united in brother/sisterhood) than the self-identifying marginalized Muslim of the West. Yet, they are rejected by these “marginalized” Western Muslims who claim they want to return to “Old World” cultures.
Yet, if there is a Muslim desire to return to Old World glories, what is more glorious than Muslims in Islamic civilizations carrying the torch of scholarship and inquiry into the future? What is more relevant than Muslims across the globe activating a sense of community around navigating faith and identity in the 21st century?
Clearly, the map of identity and belonging shows there’s evidence of a larger collective Muslim identity that doesn’t fall into patterns of victimhood.
Muslims in the West who feel marginalized self-alienate from this broader, forward-moving Muslim collective (ironically meaning they are indirectly marginalizing other Muslims).
Why this happens is a combination of two factors. First, it’s what Nuami identifies as a failure in education — a failure to understand one’s own faith and its dynamic adaptation and evolution in a new millennium.
The second reason circles back to the supremacist undercurrents found in Western Muslims who cite these marginalization grievances. When these grievances are cited but left unsubstantiated (particularly in light of the ample evidence which is ignored of counter-narratives among Muslims globally), feelings of supremacy are rooted less in the reality of what it means to be Muslim and more in the animosity toward the West as the “out-group.”
This is a really important concept to understand: The “marginalized” group alienates the “marginalizer” as an “out-group,” essentially saying, “You do not belong.” Across the board, the vein of any supremacist ideology runs through the heart of exclusionary acceptance, and this is no different.
In this case, if the national collective (France, Sweden, the UK, etc.) cannot fold into the perceived superior culture of the identity group (Western Muslims who interpret faith as an a-la-carte menu based on their own limited understanding of it and who refuse to understand that even their ethnic cultures in their “homelands” are not fossilized in time, but in fact are moving forward), then the national collective is seen as less than the “in-group.”
This is how supremacy and alienation covertly operate beneath the grievance of “marginalization.”
Finally, if we’re going to discuss the experience of being Muslim, we have to discuss a fundamental principle of our faith. The pattern of victimhood forfeits faith by believing instead that there is a greater force over our lives than God. Yet this goes against Islam, which believes there is no higher power than God.
So who controls our lives and offers us belonging in the world? Is it God and our faith in this Divine power, or is it Western policymakers whose occasional unkind words or unwanted actions hold so much power over our lives that we feel crushed and rejected when that power is exercised unfavorably?