Hearts and minds
Drawn to ballots not bombs, America's Muslim community shows few signs of the radicalism seen in Britain. But with anger over US policies at home and abroad, a younger generation may be up for grabs.
Students outside Fordson High School in Dearborn, Mich., a Muslim American enclave. (Corbis Photo / Ed Kashhi)
AFTER 9/11, foreign policy scholars quickly took to describing terrorism as the dark underside of globalization. Al Qaeda was like a multinational corporation, the thinking went, and the money and men that had been used to such murderous effect were simply part of a larger tide of goods and capital streaming across national borders and overwhelming the governments within them.
In retrospect, there's something almost reassuring about that model. After last July's London subway bombings, in which 4 native Britons, acting largely on their own, killed 52 of their countrymen, the West started worrying in earnest not just about imported terrorism, but the homegrown kind.
The news a week and a half ago that British intelligence services had thwarted a plot to blow up 10 airliners over the Atlantic once again pricked those fears. All 23 suspects were native-born British Muslims. Only two months earlier, Canadian authorities had arrested 17 Canadian Muslims and charged them with plotting to attack various government buildings and behead the country's prime minister.
The United States has not been entirely immune to these trends: Intelligence and law enforcement agencies have broken up a handful of what they have called domestic terror cells. (Though there have been questions raised about the danger actually posed by some of these purported terrorists.)
Yet, as both terrorism experts and scholars who study the American Muslim community point out, the United States has proven notably unfavorable to the growth of domestic terrorism (at least of the radical Islamic variety: Timothy McVeigh's Oklahoma City bombing, of course,was the second most deadly terrorist act ever committed on American soil). American Muslims, by and large, are wealthier and better integrated into American society than their European counterparts, and feel freer to practice their religious faith than Muslims in the more avowedly secular nations of Western Europe. And the blend of different ethnicities and sects in the American Muslim community has lent its beliefs a more ecumenical and flexible cast than those of Europe's Muslim immigrants.
``The risk is much, much greater in Europe than it is here, on the order of 30 to one," says Mark Sageman, formerly a CIA case officer in Afghanistan and now a psychiatrist who studies the formation of terrorist networks. ``The US is a very, very different environment from Europe, anyone who's lived in both places immediately knows it."
But if America's Muslim community shows little evidence of the kind of radicalism that elsewhere has bred terrorism, there are other signs that attitudes within the community-so far as one can generalize-may be shifting. And while the sort of cultural and socioeconomic forces that have helped American Muslims assimilate into the mainstream haven't changed, the political landscape has. The years since 9/11 have bred in America's diverse Muslim community a greater sense of group identity, but also estrangement from the larger American culture, especially among the young.
``I don't see radicalization," says Salam Al-Marayati, executive director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, a Muslim American advocacy group, ``but I do see a sense of frustration. It's not a mainstream problem in the community, but if it's not handled in a healthy and effective way it could lead to radicalization in the US."
Unlike in Europe, where France's Muslim population, for example, is overwhelmingly North African, England's Pakistani, and Germany's Turkish, no one sect or country of origin can claim a majority of America's 2 million to 3 million Muslims: There are significant numbers from the Middle East, South Asia, North Africa, and Iran, as well as native-born African-Americans, who have been estimated to make up nearly one-third of the country's Muslims.
This diversity makes generalizing about American Muslims a tricky endeavor. But more importantly, according to Peter Skerry, a Boston College political science professor working on a book about American Muslims, ``because there's so much fragmentation of Muslims...it's more difficult and less likely that any one group is going to come to dominate."
That is not to say that radical ideologies are unavailable to American Muslims-a recent study by Freedom House pointed to the ease with which radical Wahhabist literature can be found in many American mosques. But Skerry argues that these sorts of ideas hold less appeal here. Being Muslim in the United States, he says, demands a certain theological flexibility that undercuts absolutist theological strains.
``In other countries, mosques tend to be much more homogeneous," says Skerry, ``but here different groups come together in a given mosque and have to get along and accommodate each other and build a thriving institution, so differences get downplayed."
American Muslims as a whole also tend to be better off financially, not only than European Muslims but than the average American. Whereas Europe imported its Muslim population mostly as cheap labor for the 1960s building boom, American immigration policy favored educated, professional Muslim immigrants. According to research by John Logan, a Brown University sociologist, instead of living in the sort of ethnic ghettos one sees on the outskirts of Paris or London, American Muslims, like the rest of the professional class, tend to live in the suburbs (with the notable exception of African-American Muslims). In the United States, predominantly Arab Muslim cities and neighborhoods like Dearborn, Mich., and the Bay Ridge section of Brooklyn are rare.
Muslim Americans' mainstream sensibility is reflected in polling data. One of the more complete sources of information about American Muslim attitudes is a pair of surveys that Zogby International conducted for the Muslim Public Affairs Council. The first survey took place two months after 9/11, the second almost three years later, in August and September of 2004.
The portrait that emerges is of a deeply civic-minded and socially engaged community: In 2001 and 2004 American Muslims almost unanimously said they thought it was important to participate in the American political process, to donate to non-Muslim social service programs, and ``participate in interfaith activities." The most dramatic shift between the two polls was a mass migration into the Democratic Party (immigrant Muslim voters had actually favored Bush in the 2000 election) in response to the war in Iraq and what they saw as the civil liberties infringements of the war on terrorism at home-hardly a radical response.
A few scholars, though, do caution that integration doesn't necessarily translate into political and religious moderation. ``There's a hidden assumption," says Robert Leiken, director of immigration and national security programs at the Nixon Center, ``that assimilation is an antidote to radicalism." But, he points out, many of the men arrested in the most recent thwarted plot, as well as the alleged plotters in Toronto and the July 7th London bombers were considered ``very well assimilated, very well integrated people."
Leiken describes a phenomenon he calls ``adversarial assimilation," where an immigrant comes to identify not with a country's mainstream culture, but an adversarial subculture within it.
Peter Skerry makes a somewhat different point about the shortcomings of assimilation. He argues that it can sometimes work as a generational boomerang. ``I'm of the view that assimilation itself is what creates a lot of discontents among second- and third-generation immigrants, whether we're talking Latino or Muslim," he says. He calls it the ``born-again-at-Berkeley syndrome," where post-adolescent rebellion takes the form of a return to the more socially conservative culture of the old country.
If the Zogby polls are any indication, what Leiken and Skerry describe is not widespread: In both polls the most popular choice of political self-identification among American Muslims was ``moderate." But John Zogby, the eponymous polling firm's president and CEO, is quick to point out that his surveys wouldn't do a good job of finding radical views. To do so it's necessary to focus on 18- to 25-year-old men, and the MPAC studies weren't big enough to say much about that age group.
Zogby claims, though, that he has seen evidence of a sharpening of attitudes in some of his other work. He mentions in particular a set of focus groups he did for the US Army to help it figure out how to recruit more Arabic speakers. At first, he recalls, the young Muslim Americans he spoke to were guardedly receptive to the Army's pitch. Between the first and second focus group, however, the images of torture at Abu Ghraib were made public. For the second focus group, he says, ``It was `Forget it.' Forget about the patriotism, the sense of duty. The war to them was evil."
Of course, such views are hardly the inevitable prelude to terrorism. But some leaders in the American Muslim community have noted a sense of anger and disaffection among their constituents. Khaled Abou El Fadl, a professor of Islamic law at the University of California, Los Angeles, and an outspoken Muslim moderate, has noted ``a sense of increased alienation and sadness," among Muslim Americans he knows. The war in Iraq, the heightened scrutiny from domestic law enforcement and intelligence officials, most recently the Bush administration's staunch support for Israel during the fighting in Lebanon, all have put a strain on their sense that they can be both Muslims and patriotic Americans.
``I wouldn't call it radicalization," says El Fadl. ``I'm thinking of many cases of people who have thus become extremely depressed or withdrawn. I know a lot of individuals who have lived in the US for a very long time, and decided to go back to Egypt or Lebanon."
MPAC's Salam Al-Marayati found a similar tendency when he surveyed 200 young Muslims at a recent conference. Fifty percent, he says, responded that being American ``compromised" their Muslim identity.
For his part, El Fadl says he hears from imams and the directors of Islamic centers that young Muslim men, in small but significant numbers, have started meeting in secret outside of mosques (places the FBI and police departments have started paying closer attention to) to discuss religion and politics. It's a ``marginal trend," he says, but a real one nonetheless. A few groups, he says, even go to remote campsites to participate in military training regimens that they've devised.
To El Fadl, these young men are as pitiful as they are frightening. ``They just sit around and say, `How can we defeat this massive conspiracy against Islam?' and wait, basically, until a line is extended to them to get them from the stage of loose organization and radical daydreaming to action."
Drake Bennett is the staff writer for Ideas. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.