Why are European Muslims joining ISIS?
By Akbar Ahmed
The numbers are alarming. The Metropolitan Police Commissioner in London recently said that five British citizens are joining ISIS every week, swelling the ranks of European Muslims believed to number in the thousands.
Despite blanket coverage in the media, the question of why still remains a mystery. Most assessments focus on the role of “jihadist” ideology and “radicalization” in motivating these recruits. These tend to simplify and reduce the complex factors that affect the European Muslim communities, internally and externally. I have repeatedly and publicly condemned the heinous acts of ISIS, but, in order to defeat terrorism, it is imperative we understand the underlying factors motivating European Muslims who support it.
The European Muslims setting off to fight usually belong to the second or third generation of immigrant communities from the Middle East or South Asia. These generations can be vulnerable because they are at the point of losing the culture of their ancestors and yet are not fully absorbed or accepted in the country in which they live, despite being citizens.
Many of the Muslim communities in Europe, unlike the United States, were established through agreements made between the host nation and Muslim countries to provide manual labor to make up for shortages following World War II. Thus, for example, large numbers of Pakistanis made their way to the UK, Turks to Germany, and Moroccans to Belgium. These immigrants and their descendants face substantial structural problems in integrating into society. Invariably they have grown up in economically depressed areas without access to education and employment opportunities.
Making this unfortunate situation worse, the religious leadership in the Muslim community has failed to provide guidance to the youth. When they need to discuss their problems, the youth find it difficult, if not impossible, to speak to the local imam in the mosque. Too many imams, arriving recently from abroad, have little idea or interest in European history or culture. They are often unable to speak the local European language fluently. So when young Muslims approach them to talk of the social problems facing European youth—alcohol, drugs, sex, bullying—they have no idea how to effectively advise them. They are not even able to give clear cut advice on the definition of jihad itself. In short, they have made themselves almost irrelevant to the Muslim community in the context of this discussion. The parents as well, in their desire to establish themselves economically in European society, have become disconnected from the next generation as is evident from their shock and horror when their sons and daughters are charged in terrorist cases.
There are also external factors which are equally potent in motivating young Muslims to join ISIS.
The most significant of these is the general Islamophobia that has steadily grown since 9/11. This ensures that Muslim youth grow up in an environment where they have to constantly be on the defensive. The media ridicules the religion of Islam, its God, its Prophet, its Holy Book, and customs. Worse, commentators have made it a practice of attributing non-Islamic customs—like honor killings and female genital mutilation—to Islam. Islamophobia pushes the young, who may already be angry at their social situation given the structural problems discussed above, away from society and further feeds into their sense of alienation. Already feeling suspended between several cultures, they can fall prey to those who advocate fighting in the Middle East or the idea that far from their problems in Europe there is an “Islamic State” promising a better life.
As if this is not enough, vigorous, growing, and raucous right-wing movements apply further pressure, from Britain First in the UK to Golden Dawn in Greece. These groups target immigrants but specifically focus on Muslims. They are often violent and have challenged Muslims in their mosques and homes. They are a constant source of anxiety, fear, and anger in the Muslim community.
While condemning ISIS, we need to acknowledge that many Muslim youth who join it are also subject to what we could call the Hemingway factor. In the late 1930s, Ernest Hemingway, like many Americans, found himself in Spain fighting against Franco’s Fascist government. For Whom the Bell Tolls is perhaps the most famous literary account of the conflict. In order to resist Franco, the rebels were involved in some of the activities we are familiar with in the Middle East today—suicide bombings, indiscriminate killing, blowing up of bridges, and random acts of sadism. Americans like Hemingway and Europeans like George Orwell were driven by a sense of fighting for the underdog, fighting for a “cause”. Similarly, many Muslims see what Assad has been doing in Syria—over 200,000 people slaughtered and millions displaced—and the indifference and inaction of the West. They have lost faith in their governments.
This is not the first time the Hemingway factor has been seen among European Muslims. In the 1980s, Europeans traveled to Afghanistan to fight against the Soviets. In the 1990s, youth from places like Britain traveled to Bosnia as they saw the genocide of Muslims and what they perceived as the deliberate indifference of Europe. Many Muslims went to provide health and social services and some to participate in the fighting in one form or another.
A combination of these factors explains why so many young Muslims today are prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice.
So what is to be done? There is a key role for European governments. They can provide specific initiatives designed to allay the fears of young Muslims, incorporate them into various programs, and provide employment opportunities. While ensuring that law and order is maintained, governments should take every opportunity to respect and honor the larger Muslim community. Governments must never forget that these are full-fledged citizens. European governments also need to work closely with Muslim leaders in local communities to create trust.
This problem cannot be solved without consideration of all the factors mentioned above. The solutions are long term and holistic but it is imperative that Muslim community leaders and European governments begin to devise ways of solving the problem together.
Ambassador Akbar Ahmed, the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University, is conducting field research for the forthcoming book Journey into Europe: Islam, Immigration, and Empire.