This article was originally published on The Huffington Post.
By Alon Ben-Meir
One of the most troubling developments resulting from the escalation of violent extremism in the Middle East is the rise in the number of Muslims from the West who are joining the ranks of jihadist groups, notably IS. Western governments are struggling to find out what motivates young Muslims to leave their sheltered lives—many are well-to-do and educated—only to join radical organizations that offer an elusive goal and the prospect of violent death.
It appears that the determining factor behind this phenomenon is the absence of integration, by choice or design, of young Muslims into the mainstream of their respective Western countries. For this reason, integration must be the engine that propels deradicalization, and of necessity it takes a whole range of socioeconomic, religious, and political measures to mitigate the vulnerabilities in these areas that young Muslims experience.
The rise of violent extremism is only at the early stages, and if the West wants to stem the flow of volunteers to these ruthless groups, Western countries should make a concerted effort to engage and understand the nuances of their Muslim communities, especially the families from which these volunteers are coming. Unlike assimilation, where an individual stands to lose his identity by absorption into the mainstream culture, integration involves a mutual recognition and respect of the other—a harmonization that includes difference rather than denies it.
Lewis Mumford put it best when he stated: "Integration proceeds by… a deliberate heightening of every organic function; a release of impulses from circumstances that irrationally thwarted them; richer and more complex patterns of activity; an esthetic heightening of anticipated realizations; a steady lengthening of the future; a faith in cosmic perspectives."
The threat emanating today from IS, al-Qaeda, and other Islamist groups is inspired by religious teachings, distorted under the guise of defending purist Sunni Islam, which ultimately aim to infect susceptible Muslim youths to whom religion provides an escape and a sense of belonging.
Many of the young men and women who live in Western countries feel increasingly marginalized economically, socially, and politically and are particularly vulnerable as they are often in transitional stages in their lives, whether as immigrants, students in search of friends, job seekers, etc. On the whole, they are in need of an outlet to vent their frustration, and consequently, they become easy prey for extremists seeking new recruits in mosques and online.
However, there is a common denominator behind most of the causes that radicalize Muslim youth, which is the lack of integration into their new social milieu, caused by:
- Lack of interest in being integrated, as many young Muslims are living in a bubble where they feel comfortable and secure and are not encouraged to step out beyond their immediate circle of peers and family.
- No deliberate effort by governments to integrate Muslim youth into general society, a condition further aggravated by entrenched prejudices in most West European societies, such as Britain and France. Citizens of foreign descent in these states are often identified and remain as "foreigners," regardless of how long they have been living in their adopted countries, even if they are second- or third-generation citizens.
- The growing pervasiveness of Islamophobia among Europeans, precipitated by the rise of violent extremists of all colorations and the seemingly endless bloodshed between Muslim communities and against Westerners, which has produced a conscious and unconscious repudiation of anything related to Muslims in general.
- A deeper, growing sense of alienation, which is the antithesis to feelings of inclusion, leading young Muslims in particular to find ways to resist and defy rather than seek new opportunities to integrate and become loyal nationals of their adopted countries.
Interestingly enough, the number of young American Muslims joining violent extremist groups remains proportionately considerably less than the number of British and French Muslims joining IS.
This perhaps can be explained by the fact that the U.S. is essentially a country of immigrants, and having foreign roots is part of American culture. Therefore, the incorporation of foreigners into the social mainstream, with some exception, is left up to the individual and is generally constrained only by the person's qualifications and ambitions. West European Muslims in particular seek to maintain their identity and can do so through integration, where their identity as a Muslim is not lost, rather than through assimilation.
If West European countries are to subscribe to Mumford's notion of integration, they must develop a comprehensive strategy that would prevent young disenfranchised Muslims from being lured to join the ranks of violent extremists.
Before they can develop such a strategy, they must avoid generalizations and understand why young Muslims and converts are joining and why many of them come back. Only then should governments take specific steps to ensure that those who joined and return are deradicalized and become useful citizens who can dissuade others from following their path.
To successfully counter violent extremism, West European countries, together with Muslim leaders and educators in their respective communities, must investigate who is embracing radical views through field studies, raise awareness, and analyze the real root causes in different Muslim communities, which was and still is missing. This approach would enable them to present credible counterarguments with candid, transparent, and open-ended dialogue that could change the socioeconomic and political dynamics to create a new atmosphere that would single out young Muslims in a positive light. To that end, West European governments must:
- Adopt a new public narrative by using a strategic way to communicate utilizing every conceivable media outlet to counter extremists with facts, avoid moral preaching, and address the perception of Western nations assailing Muslims.
- Develop community service programs to introduce young Muslims to the larger community of their Western peers and begin a process of integration.
- Invite credible and respected voices from the Muslim world to discredit the messages of the extremists.
- Encourage young Muslims to join sport activities and provide opportunities to show off their talent and ability to excel.
- Prevent prisons from becoming incubators for new terrorists by rehabilitating prisoners through community programs, and schooling, professional enhancements.
- Foster the desire of young Muslims to participate in local political discussion groups, be involved in the decision-making process from the bottom up, and be part of any positive changes to advance the interests of their communities and enhance their self-esteem.
- Develop international exchange programs to expose young Muslims to what is happening in other communities, areas of social and economic progress.
Finally, all these programs require a commitment for long-term funding. No country directly or indirectly affected by violent extremism can afford to be long on talking and short on funding. Given that the violent turmoil sweeping the Middle East—especially the Sunni-Shia conflict and the civil wars in Syria, Yemen, and Libya—is unlikely to settle anytime soon, a growing number of young Muslims will join the ranks of extremists, posing an ever-greater national security menace for Western countries.
For this reason, we must distinguish between what's possible and what's impossible to achieve, and what might become more probable if circumstances change. Western governments must develop a long-term deradicalization strategy to stem the flow of Muslim volunteers with the objective of substantially reducing the threat they pose upon their return to their respective countries.
Failure is not an option, as the consequences will be extraordinarily dire. A state of constant alarm, emergencies, and terrorism will become a way of life, haunting Western democracies and violently destabilizing the Middle East for decades to come.
Dr. Alon Ben-Meir is a professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He teaches courses on international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies.