In the aftermath of the Paris terror attacks, the Islamophobia pervading Western democracies is the best recruitment tool for violent extremists.
Reports abound about anti-Islam protests, assaults of Muslim civilians, and movements to impose greater surveillance on Western Muslim communities, which have already been disproportionately subjected to “national security” measures.
These are precisely the experiences that provide talking points for extremist groups that might otherwise be frustrated.
I interviewed a number of such Islamic extremists during full-immersion fieldwork in the Bangladeshi community of London’s East End and the Moroccan community of Southern Madrid. As part of this research, I also attended over a dozen Islamic extremists’ meetings.
In the East End, extremists from the transnational Islamist group, Hizb-Ut-Tahrir, competed directly against street gangs, schools, sport teams, and mosques for the attention of young Muslim men and women.
For a several weeks, I attended Hizb-Ut-Tahrir gatherings that took place directly upstairs from a government-sponsored youth club, where neighborhood adolescents went to do homework, play video games, or shoot billiards. Each Thursday after school at about 5:00pm, a Hizb-Ut-Tahrir activist went into the club downstairs to recruit attendees for their meeting upstairs. They dangled free snacks and soda, and about half of the young men would oblige.
Meetings were run like talk shows. A member would introduce a guest speaker and they would discuss issues pertaining to Islam and British public affairs. Questions came from planted members in the audience, and the young men would listen while chewing and checking their phones.
If it weren’t for grievances against the British state and society, these meetings would be more like Quranic study with halal fried chicken.
Instead, there was always much to discuss. In the last decade, the British government extended pre-charge detention periods for terrorism suspects, police imposed greater surveillance on Muslim groups, and various Islamophobic groups such as the English Defence League and the English National Alliance attacked mosques and Muslim citizens.
For overseas extremists, Europe and North America appear as a fortress. Advanced intelligence and passport control limit the migration of known extremists. And Western Muslims are largely integrated, law-abiding, content members of society. So it is difficult to find recruits or embed them.
Survey research shows that French Muslims are predominantly secular and far less religious than they are portrayed. A recent poll shows that British Muslims identify more closely as British than most non-Muslim Britons. American Muslims, in particular South Asians and Arabs, are among the United States’ most affluent, well educated minorities. And every year, new generations of immigrant-origin Muslims become more integrated into their societies in the West—adapting, intermarrying, having children and grandchildren.
Extremist organizations appeal to the fringes of these communities, and must seek out ways to advance their agenda and recruit supporters among the few inclined to listen to their ideology.
Terrorists attacks help, but not by triumphantly assaulting innocent people. Rather terrorism produces an anti-Muslim backlash that frustrates and alienates Muslims over time.
And this backlash creates a sense of betrayal and disappointment among second and third generation Western Muslims who believe they are not receiving the equal treatment and justice as the rest of their countrymen.
This backlash corners Western Muslims into a greater awareness of their Muslim-ness. They feel obligated to defend their vilified Muslim identity, when it represents but one facet of their personalities. Muslims are soccer stars and violinists, engineers and drama queens, rappers and politicians. But social scrutiny makes them one-dimensional in the public eye.
This backlash is gold for the Hizb-Ut-Tahrir activist who was previously grasping for something new to inspire the young people sitting in front of him, gnawing on halal fried chicken.
Islamophobia is inherently wrong. But if that is not persuasive enough, it is also an enormous strategic mistake in the struggle against Islamic extremism.
Image Credit: Je_suis_Charlie-18. Photo by Valentina Calà. CC by SA 2.0 via Flickr.