President Obama said the lack of Muslim integration in some areas of Europe is “probably the greatest danger that Europe faces,” echoing the warnings of terrorism experts about the link between Islamist terrorism and a lack of assimilation.
He contrasted it with the Muslim-American community that polls show is largely moderate and hostile to Islamist terrorists and their anti-Western themes.
“Our biggest advantage…is that our Muslim populations, they feel themselves to be Americans. And there is this incredible process of immigration and assimilation that is part of our tradition that is probably our greatest strength,” Obama said.
President Obama is referring to areas in Europe that have high populations of Muslim immigrants that are known for rioting in response to law enforcement actions, outrage over Israeli operations against Hamas and the publication of materials ridiculing Islam. In 2008, it was reported that British troops were instructed not to wear their uniforms in “some ethnic minority communities.”
Yet, the president wasn’t saying anything that the Europeans haven’t said themselves. The European media, especially in France, has reported extensively on the issue. Major European leaders have talked about it for years.
“Our Muslim compatriots should be able to live and practice their religion like anyone else … but it can only be a French Islam and not just an Islam in France,” said French President Sarkozy in 2011.
That same year, British Prime Minister David Cameron said, “Under the doctrine of state multiculturalism, we have encouraged different cultures to live separate lives, apart from each other and the mainstream….We have even tolerated these segregated communities behaving in ways that run counter to our values.”
This lack of integration is a very common facilitator of Islamist radicalization and is more broadly a threat to stability, social cohesion and national identity. Indeed, a 2011 French intelligence report warned of growing radicalization in the city of Marseille that has a 30-40% Muslim population with gangs and very high crime rates.
Former CIA case officer and forensic psychiatrist Marc Sageman studied the biographies of 400 Al-Qaeda terrorists and determined that a lack of assimilation is a central component in the radicalization process. He found that 80% “were, in some way, totally excluded from the society they lived in.”
About 70% of these joined the violent jihad movement after moving to a new country. They go to a mosque to be a part of a community and are radicalized by attendees and/or Islamist preaching. About 68% had jihadists in their circle of friends at the time they became involved in terrorism.
This environment is created by Islamist preaching that alienates Muslims from Western societies, as well as hostility towards Muslims in general such as reprisals against French Muslims after the attacks in Paris. Social strife is almost certainly a consequence intended by Islamist terrorists who plotted attacks on anti-Islamization rallies in Germany.
President Obama is right in pointing out this factor, but he missed a critical element that almost every country has acknowledged except America: The Islamist ideology. The French Prime Minister declared war on radical Islam and the Egyptian government singles out political Islam as the core problem.
Sageman’s study found that the exclusion and socializing with Islamists is followed by the adoption of an ideology that believes in “the creation of a pure Islamist state, which would create the conditions for the reestablishment of such a community, where justice and fairness would reign…”
“As evidence emerges about the backgrounds of those convicted of terrorist offences, it is clear that many of them were initially influenced by what some have called 'non-violent extremists' and then took those radical beliefs to the next level by embracing violence,” he said.
He directly identified the enemy in this way: “Islam is a religion, observed peacefully and devoutly by over a billion people. Islamist extremism is a political ideology, supported by a minority. At the furthest end are those who back terrorism to promote their ultimate goal: an entire Islamist realm, governed by an interpretation of sharia. Move along the spectrum, and you find people who may reject violence, but who accept various parts of the extremist world-view including real hostility towards Western democracy and liberal values.”
A successful strategy for Europe must tackle the intertwined issues of Islamist ideologies and a lack of integration.
One of the problems is that the West has chosen the most convenient Muslim allies domestically instead of the most productive. Partners should not be accepted simply because they have large organizations and meet the minimal threshold of condemning Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State.
Islamists contribute to the integration problem and radicalization with their preaching, even if they condemn actual terrorist attacks on European soil. It is counterproductive to uphold non-Islamists whose preaching demonizes the West.
A U.S. embassy cable from 2006 stated that the British government made “little progress in engaging [the] Muslim community.” It cited a “knee-jerk reaction” from Muslim leaders who characterize law enforcement as abusive towards Muslims and who blame Western foreign policy for Islamist terrorism.
The answer isn’t to endlessly praise these leaders for condemning Al-Qaeda-type attacks in the hopes of changing their minds. The answer is to forcefully respond to their mischaracterizations, hold them accountable and find better Muslim partners to uplift.
“Some organizations that seek to present themselves as a gateway to the Muslim community are showered with public money despite doing little to combat extremism… this is like turning to a right-wing fascist party to fight a violent white supremacist movement,” Cameron said in 2011.
An example is the Muslim Council of Britain, a powerful “moderate” group linked to the radical Jamaat-e-Islami of Pakistan. The British government suspended ties to the group in March 2009 after it endorsed a statement supporting Hamas and violent jihad against Israel and the British military. The relationship was restored in January 2010 after it affirmed its “unwavering support for British troops.”
A better partner would be the Muslim mayor of Rotterdam in the Netherlands who is a fierce advocate for immigrant assimilation. He knew that an attention-grabbing moment was necessary after the Paris attacks so he went on live television and cursed European Islamists who reject freedom of speech.
It will require a systematic study of the community leadership to identify the proper partners to elevate in stature. For example, Dr. Bassam Tibi, an Islamic scholar in Germany is a strong voice for integration, Islamic reform and a rejection of Islamism. There is even a mosque in France financed by an Israeli millionaire.
Paris is home to a mosque led by a gay Islamic scholar who preaches an interpretation of Islam that is not anti-homosexual. The cleric, Ludovic-Mohamed Zahed, also emphasizes gender equality. He says, “Islam is not a totalitarian fascist identity. You should not use Islam to justify your prejudices and try to control the sexuality and gender of individuals.”
This same standard needs to be held for foreign allies.
Saudi Arabia has aggressively promoted Wahhabism in Europe. A scholar of Islam in Bosnia blames this “virus” of “Muslim puritanism” for having “destroyed every chance” of a European Islam being developed. The Saudi-backed Muslim World League continues to finance mosque construction in France.
Qatar is likewise promoting Islamism. In 2011, the Qatari Emir declared his government would “spare no effort” in promoting the preaching of Muhammad Ibn Abdul Wahhab, the founder of Wahhabism, around the world.
Qatar is investing heavily in the non-integrated communities of France and is sponsoring Islamic infrastructure in Italy, Ireland and Spain. A 2006 U.S. embassy cable warns of the Qatari-backed Muslim Brotherhood influence in Ireland. Qatar also paid for Denmark’s first “real” mosque.
Turkey is promoting Islamism and neo-Ottomanism. It is sponsoring Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood. President Erdogan reacted to the Paris attacks with fantastical anti-Western conspiracies. He is challenging Egypt’s Al-Azhar University by building a competing international Islamic university.
In contrast, the governments of Egypt and Tunisia have both expressed their intention to fight Islamism by separating mosque and state and promoting a de-politicized interpretation of Islam.
A European strategy against radical Islam will require refuting false accusations of “Islamophobia” designed to rally the Muslim populations against their host governments and societies. This is understood by French Prime Minister Manuel Valls.
“I refuse to use this term 'Islamophobia,' because those who use this word are trying to invalidate any criticism at all of Islamist ideology. The charge of 'Islamophobia' is used to silence people,” he says.
As Dr. Daniel Pipes writes, political forces in favor of integration and opposed to Islamism should not be unfairly characterized as fascist, anti-Muslim or anti-immigrant. The tricky task is separating Islamists from pro-Western Muslims and anti-Muslim activists from anti-Islamist activists.
Europe must react to the attacks in Paris by asserting Western values, promoting integration, allying with those who reject Islamism and disproving those whose impressions about Muslims have been defined by extremists.
Ryan Mauro is ClarionProject.org’s national security analyst, a fellow with Clarion Project and an adjunct professor of homeland security. Mauro is frequently interviewed on top-tier television and radio. Read more, contact or arrange a speaking engagement.