by Shireen T. Hunter
The attack on the offices of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, by Muslim extremists reportedly affiliated with or sympathizing with al-Qaeda, is symptomatic of the many ills afflicting Muslim immigrant communities in France and other European countries. The killing of 10 magazine staff and two police officers as well as the deaths connected to the hostage-taking operations that followed both reflect and contribute to the growing tensions between considerable segments of European populations and Muslim immigrant communities.
These violent acts also underscore the failure of integration on the part of both Muslim immigrants and the receiving societies. Europeans generally find distasteful the insistence of many Muslim immigrants on practices such as wearing the hijab headscarf (or, even worse, the full-veil niqab), treating their women as if they were still in their countries of origin (and occasionally engaging in honor killings), or demanding that Sharia law should be applied to their actions. Even in the absence of such practices, some Europeans would still not be well-disposed toward Muslim immigrants. Of greater concern, ultra-nationalist and rightist parties focus on the behavior of some Muslims to inflame public animosity toward all Muslims. To create greater fear of the purported Islamization of Europe, some ultra-nationalists and rightists engage in actions designed to elicit negative and even violent Muslim reaction.
Further, the relative failure of the integration process means that many Muslim communities in Europe are economically and educationally far below the indigenous populations. For instance, the rate of youth unemployment among Muslim immigrants, even the third generation, is at least twice that of native Europeans.
The primary responsibility for some of these shortcomings rests with the Muslim communities themselves and their leadership. But European governments have also been slow in removing the barriers many Muslims face in getting jobs or a better education. Studies show that even assimilated Muslims find it harder to find jobs suited to their expertise, since many employers are more reluctant to hire Muslims as opposed to non-Muslim immigrants from non-European countries.
Consequently, Muslim immigrant youth, even those who are not particularly religious or observant, have succumbed to a deep sense of alienation. The combined effect of this acute sense of alienation and the lack of economic opportunities is a propensity to become involved in criminal activities and a receptivity to all kinds of anti-establishment ideas, which at the moment means extremist Islam. Moreover, these two factors tend to strengthen one another: involvement in crime, even petty crime, leads to imprisonment, and imprisonment often leads to radicalization. Studies have shown that a considerable number of immigrant youth have become radicalized while in prison.
Middle East Conflicts
Another factor greatly contributing to the radicalization of European Muslim youth has been the almost uninterrupted warfare in one form or another over the last 25 years directly or indirectly involving Muslim states or groups and one or several European/Western countries. These conflicts involving Muslims have in general exacerbated Europe’s immigration problem and contributed to the polarization of European societies over the issue of Muslim immigrants. Every wave of conflict—from Bosnia to Afghanistan, Iraq to Libya, and now Syria and again Iraq—has meant the arrival of new waves of refugees and immigrants already traumatized by war and conflict and hence mentally and psychologically vulnerable. Their arrival in European countries has also meant that immigrant enclaves have grown and the financial burden of providing for them has increased.
The end result has been an increase in unease on the part of local people, especially those who themselves are less well-off and hence prone to believing tales that the immigrants receive free housing and even cars while they themselves cannot make ends meet. As the recent debate in Britain indicates, these concerns even extend to non-Muslim immigrant workers coming from other European countries.
Recent wars have enabled radical groups, such as al-Qaeda, to expand their areas of influence, as happened in Iraq after 2003, and provided opportunities for new groups to emerge, as illustrated most dramatically by the rise of the so-called Islamic State. In short, war of any sort is not conducive to more participatory political systems and stable societies. On the contrary, the destruction of existing systems leads almost inexorably to fragmentation and conflict and thus creates ideal conditions for extremisms of all sorts to flourish.
These local wars and conflicts feed the sense of alienation of Europe’s Muslim youth. In order to find a sense of belonging and worth, these young people mistakenly gravitate toward the simplistic and one-sided explanations of extremists about the causes of their problems. They even risk their lives by either going to fight in local conflicts like Syria or engage in despicable acts of terror as happened in Paris. Often, the reaction to these acts is more war, in the form of a “war on terror,” and thus the cycle of violence continues.
In most cases, Middle Eastern states and actors have initiated this cycle of violence. For example, Saddam Hussein’s attack on Kuwait in 1990 sparked both the Persian Gulf War and later the Iraq war of 2003. Similarly, if al-Qaeda had not attacked the United States in 2001 by bombing the Pentagon and the Twin Towers, there would not have been the Afghan war. Similarly, if some countries had not spread their obscurantist vision of Islam or their excessively paranoiac view of the world, supported some radical groups as the instruments of their ambitions, and funded radical clergy who preach to Europe’s innocent Muslim youth and feed on their sense of alienation, we would not face the current situation.
Exiting the Cycle of Violence
The pressing question now is how to stop this cycle of violence, protect innocent people, and prevent any further killings, whether in the center of Europe or in the conflicts of the Middle East.
The first step, especially for European countries, is to realize that the problems of their Muslim neighbors and those farther afield are no longer those of distant lands. They have a direct bearing on European security and peace of mind, because these problems play out within their own societies, through their Muslim communities. Therefore, these problems can no longer be treated as merely external issues.
The second step is the realization that wars and the instrumental use of certain Muslim groups in particular cases have not solved Europe’s and indeed the West’s security dilemmas. On the contrary, this method has only created new dilemmas.
Once these first steps have been taken, the third step would be to concentrate on finding feasible solutions to problems bedeviling many Muslim lands. The West, in other words, should abandon its all-or-nothing quest for the absolute transformation of the Middle East. For their part, Muslims must realize that violent actions and wars are no more effective in solving their problems than military action has been in eliminating the West’s security problems. Muslims must also acknowledge their own responsibility in bringing about the miseries that have befallen them. If both sides are willing to take these steps, there’s a chance they can stop the cycle of violence and extremism and begin the phase of reconciliation and reconstruction.