Why Home-Grown Islamic Terrorism Isn't A Threat

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Since the moment cable news anchors first announced the name of the shooter at Fort Hood military base in Texas, there's been a clear and ever-growing undercurrent to coverage of Major Nidal Hasan's crime. Is there a threat of home-grown terrorism in America? Hasan, after all, was deeply troubled by America's two wars in Muslim nations. He exchanged e-mails with Anwar al-Awlaki, an American-born imam living in Yemen with ties to al-Qaeda. Could there be more Hasans?

In recent days, pundits have been consumed with the question of whether the shooting qualifies as terrorism. Whether Hasan is a Muslim whose radical beliefs caused him to take up domestic terrorism, or whether he is a psychotic nutjob who grasped for radical Islam during his mental decline, the matter is academic. What commentators are really debating is whether we should be worried about home-grown terrorism among the sizable population of American Muslims. After all, Western Europe, like the United States, has a growing Muslim population. While the United States has been mostly immune to home-grown Islamic terrorism, Western Europe has been plagued with it for years. But a serious examination of the American Muslim community, and how it differs from Muslim communities in Western Europe, shows that we have little to worry about. Indeed, free and prosperous American Muslims may be among our greatest assets against Islamic terrorism.

Since the 1970s, instances of political turmoil and economic depression from Morocco to Pakistan have sent Muslim migrants fleeing to Western Europe. As Anne Applebaum explains, the complicated legacies of colonialism and World War II led Europeans to adopt unusually lax immigration policies. Lacking the education or wealth to join the middle class, many immigrants languished for generations in the same urban ghettos they arrived in. The homogeneous and increasingly secular cultures of Western Europe, though well intentioned, had difficultly incorporating Muslims into their society. The result has been decades of awkward legislating as European governments seek to reconcile secular society with the growing Muslim minorities -- just see the political disaster over France's banning of the hijab.

In 1979 and the 1980s, politicized Islamic extremism swept through the Middle East, inspiring fundamentalist anti-Western movements. One such group included Algeria's Islamic Salvation Front, a religious fundamentalist political party that earned wide popular support and then was driven from the country in a massive civil war. Some of the group's leaders ended up in Europe, and no doubt many of the Algerians fleeing the violence were sympathetic to its cause. Many other Muslim countries saw similar violence and ensuing exodus to Europe. The disaffected and resentful Muslim refugees that ended up in Europe were prime targets for the handful of extremist leaders -- such as the recently formed al-Qaeda -- who sought holy war against the West. By the 1990s, instances of violent protest and even terrorism marked Europe.

European governments that neither especially understood nor seriously sympathized with Muslims reacted harshly. France launched spot ID-checks of Muslims and regular, sweeping arrests of anyone thought to associate with Muslim gangs. Western European governments have all instituted similar measures, including constant surveillance of religious groups and restrictions on religious dress. The result has been an entrenched cultural divide. In Germany, plans to build a mosque in Cologne were nearly halted by a national outcry. The past decade has seen several high-profile attacks in Europe, such as the 2005 bombings in London and the 2004 bombing in Madrid, but it has also seen many preventative arrests.

As fear of home-grown terrorism rises in the United States, some will no doubt point to Western Europe as a model for domestic counterterrorism. But even if we were to accept the risks and trade-offs of its tough approach, that would misunderstand the nature of Islam in America. European and American Muslims are different groups with different views and different concerns. The destitution and political isolation among some European Muslims, sometimes exploited by extremist clerics seeking global jihad, is simply not a part of the American Muslim community. A 2007 Pew report titled "Muslim Americans: Middle Class and Mostly Mainstream" shows a community far more integrated than those of Europe. In the U.S., 47% think of themselves as Muslim first and American second, but that proportion increases to 81% in Great Britain and to about two thirds in Germany and Spain. U.S. Muslims are economically comparable to the general population; they are just as likely to be middle class and are only 2% more likely to be lower class. But Western European Muslims are much more likely to be lower class. In Britain, 61% of Muslim families make less than ₤20,000. In Spain, 73% make less than €14,500.

This alienation becomes more problematic when one takes into the account the relative sizes of the communities. The United States has 2.5 million Muslims, about 0.8% of the population. But France and Germany have around 3.5 million and 4 million each, or about 6% and 5% of their respective populations. Having more Muslim residents isn't a bad thing, of course, but a larger community is going to experience economic disparity and social alienation more severely than a small population. It's also going to be more prone to extremism from within and, just as worrisome, tension with the non-Muslim majority without. Germans and Spaniards, after all, are twice as likely as Americans to view Muslims unfavorably.

Concerns about the loyalty of Muslim-Americans have little basis. U.S. Muslims are even happier with America than the average American. In fact, 71% of American Muslims believe they "can get ahead with hard work" -- an important sign of faith and investment in the American system -- compared with only 64% of Americans overall. Similarly, 38% are satisfied with the state of the United States, true of only 32% of the general U.S. population. Encouragingly, that number rises to 45% among foreign-born Muslims, who are more optimistic than their native-born counterparts on every measure. (Native-born African-Americans, one fifth of U.S. Muslims, poll more pessimistically because they are, like the general African-American population they come from, on average poorer. Their population has no ties abroad and is not receptive to influence by foreign militants.) U.S. Muslims, unlike the anti-globalist extremists elsewhere, are devout capitalists: they are 13% more likely to be self-employed or small-business owners than the general population. Muslims, sometimes misunderstood as hyper-religious, are not unusually so for America. Gallup polled 80% of U.S. Muslims as calling religion important to them, compared to 76% of U.S. Protestants. Both groups are equally observant: 41% say they attend their place of worship weekly or more.

Like so many American immigrant groups before them, Muslim-Americans willfully traveled to the U.S. seeking freedom and prosperity. They are heavily invested in an America they want to make their own. This is no doubt true of many Muslim Europeans, but unfortunately many others traveled not by choice but by necessity as they fled poverty and violence in neighboring regions. Arriving in Europe with less money, less education, and less language, it is unsurprising that they have difficulty adjusting. It is just as unsurprising -- and just as tragic -- that Europeans, struggling through an economic recession just like Americans, are not always welcoming to the ever-rising immigrant population.

It's important to keep perspective. In even the most violent corners of the Middle East and South Asia, terrorism is caused by a tiny minority fringe of extremists. This fringe sometimes finds its way into Europe, where it exploits an impoverished and isolated population of immigrants. In America, that fringe has little more than a handful of jihad-preaching websites that are as discredited among Muslims as the Westboro Baptist Church is among evangelical Christians.

Yes, sometimes deeply disturbed individuals cling to Christian fundamentalist extremism or jihad as a way to justify their unhinged and explosive anger. But the cause they pretend to adopt is incidental to their crime. Critics who point out that Scott Roeder was also called a terrorist are absolutely right to compare him to Hasan -- neither is any more than a lone madman. No one has seriously suggested, say, banning the pro-life evangelicals who protest regularly at the Supreme Court. They certainly haven't suggest the FBI monitor all evangelicals in the military or block them from deployment. Far from it: the U.S. military remains a hotbed of evangelical Christians.

America's free and prosperous Muslim population remains our most effective deterrent against Islamic terrorism. Al-Qaeda can recruit among the angry and desperately poor Muslims of Spain, or it can incite violence against the hijab-banning French, but it has difficulty convincing comfortably middle-class small-business owners to declare jihad on America. It's important that the United States avoid the pitfalls of Europe and not alienate or restrict its Muslim population. To do so would more than just risk our greatest anti-terrorism weapon; it would threaten to incite the very violence we seek to quell.

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Max Fisher is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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