The social context of religious extremism.

The phenomenon of the self-radicalized jihadist or home-grown terrorist who launches an attack on his or her own society cannot be understood if viewed solely as a problem with the Islamic faith.  It must be seen in its social context if is to be combated successfully, and the key to that context is that in the minds of these terrorists they are attacking not their own society, but a society that is hostile to them.

Indeed, the semantic debate over whether the terrorists who murdered the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists in Paris properly are referred to as “Islamic terrorists” or “radical Islamists” misses the point entirely.  As profiles of the terrorists emerge, they fit a pattern.  The terrorists did not grow up as particularly devout Muslims.  They “found religion” for the same reason that many people find religion:  To give meaning to lives that they found empty and meaningless.  The terrorists turned to jihad to find purposes in their lives that otherwise were absent.

There is a profound and well-documented disaffection from French society of a significant number of French citizens of North African descent.  As long as that alienation continues France will remain fertile ground for the recruitment of terrorists from this group.

As it happens, the consequences of such disaffection in a society were best described by a French sociologist, Emil Durkheim.  The signs and symptoms of what he described as a state of “anomie” are unmistakable.  With the sense that French society in general has rejected them, these unemployed, hopeless, and angry young men and women are drawn to an ideology that allows them to attack that society without remorse.  Attempts by Muslim clerics to persuade these terrorists that this ideology is contrary to Islam will fall on deaf ears because the terrorists simply do not care.

France and much of the rest of Europe were well ahead of the United States in relations among the races before the middle of the 20th Century.  Discrimination and the denial of opportunity for black Americans eventually were confronted, sometimes violently, but progress was made.  The United States, however, had an advantage not enjoyed by France.

Although Americans tend to identify certain social values as distinctly American, most tend not to suffer from the conceit that there is a singular or superior “American” culture.  As various immigrant groups arrived and were assimilated, bits and pieces of their own cultures were added to the American culture, changing and enriching it.

It was another Frenchman, Alexis de Tocqueville, who first described an egalitarian quality to American culture not present in France.  The various waves of immigrants were both allowed and encouraged to assimilate, although not always without some initial resistance from those already here, and assimilation did not mean abandoning the immigrants’ own religious beliefs and customs.

In the United States, many African-Americans may not feel like full members of American society.  In France, however, too many citizens of African descent do not feel like they are French at all.  In that context, Islam is less attractive as a belief system than as a justification for violence against French society.  It is even more attractive to second-generation immigrants, who view themselves as trapped in an unwelcoming society that they did not choose.

Terrorism has no single cause nor is every terrorist who murders in the name of Allah from the margins of society.  As the late Professor Donald Flaherty of Dickinson College was prone to point out, reality is multi-faceted but issues tend to polarize.  If the discussion about terrorism continues to polarize along religious lines we may lose sight of the reality that the main bulwark against home-grown terrorism in the United States is the acceptance and assimilation of immigrants into American society regardless of their race, religion, or ethnicity.

It is easy to blame mainstream Muslims for not speaking out against the misuse of Islam by these self-radicalized jihadists, and it does seem that Muslims across the globe react more strongly to offensive cartoons than to the senseless murder of innocent people.  The reality, however, is more complicated and the solutions include attention to the manner in which immigrant groups are treated within a society.

January 27, 2015

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