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An outsider's take on 'terror'

Clash between Islamic extremism and Europe will affect the US, says a surfer.

india Updated: Jan 12, 2007 14:32 IST
Sunil Dutta
Sunil Dutta

I can't deny a smug feeling of schadenfreude. Britain, a nation with a colonial past, responsible in large part for genesis of Islamic fundamentalism during her imperial rule, is facing divisiveness due to the attitude of some of her Muslim immigrants.

Few people realise how deeply responsible Britain is for Islamic extremism in Southeast Asia. During 18th and 19th centuries, the British recklessly exploited Hindu and Muslim communities to entrench and perpetuate their colonisation of India. The policy was so successful that it culminated in partition of India into India and Pakistan; India for Hindus and Pakistan for Muslims.

In Pakistan, the British colonialists created a country, which, for most of its life, has been ruled by dictators who rely on Islamic fundamentalists to keep their claws entrenched in throne of power. This reliance and exploitation of Islam is amazing in the light of the fact that the general population has never supported religious parties in Pakistan.

Unfortunately, Pakistan's secretive spy agency ISI created and supported the Taliban, it hides major Al-Qaeda figures in northwestern lawless territories of Pakistan, and, despite a facade of support to "war on terror", trains jihadis and Islamic terrorists in Pakistan. And, ironically, Pakistan is also one of the nations that has contributed a large Muslim immigrant population to Britain and the West.

Now a small but rather vocal minority of Islamic extremists in England is creating social division. What a neat example of blowback!

Europe, its immigrants and the US

Anyway my personal feelings of smugness were quickly followed by a deep foreboding and realisation of how close every western society is to danger posed by Islamic extremism. If the British are concerned about failure of their Muslim immigrants to assimilate, if the French are concerned about searing anger of their Muslim and African immigrants that resulted in bloody riots last year, if the Dutch are concerned about murder of their artists by Islamic extremists, if the French are anticipating a repeat of last year's rioting by immigrants, and if minor issues, such as cartoons published by a Danish newspaper are taken up by Islamists as a challenge to their religion and justification for violence, what does that portend for America?

Traditional Islam followers have a difficult time accepting cultural differences between their native societies and the West; however, they also prefer western societies to their own. After all, as a rule, people don't migrate from the West to live in Saudi Arabia or Pakistan. Yet, majority of the immigrants are law-abiding and manage to integrate within the wider society with considerable success. The most orthodox components of such immigrant populations, despite their reservations about the western society they live in, also manage to survive by living in insular communities by limiting contacts with wider culture.

In the absence of grievance against the world, this failure to integrate could be rather benign.However, real and perceived grievances of immigrant Islamic populations, including a siege mentality due to a blanket labeling of "Islamic fascism/terrorism" on the entire Islamic communities, have brought a new complexity to the already complex process of integration, especially the western society they consider responsible for Muslim grievances, from support of Israel to war in Iraq and Afghanistan, to perceived persecution of Muslims.

This love-hate relationship between the immigrants and their adopted nations has caused much bloodshed and social upheaval in recent years.

Understanding the complex matrix of Islamic extremism

Terrorism by Islamic extremists has its origin in a complex matrix of historical, economic, political and cultural evolution of the last century. Decline of Ottoman Empire and abolition of Caliphate, post-colonial transformation in the West Asia and Indian subcontinent, replacement of colonial powers with autocratic native regimes, crisis of legitimacy, failure of development despite oil wealth, failure of Arab nationalism to deliver better lives to all or liberate Palestine, nostalgia for glory days of Islam, fantasy of pan-Arabism, changes wrought by the Iranian revolution and its consequences, and support of brutal dictators in West Asia by the West. Add to this mix the sinister combination of injured identity and exclusion and you find terror.

Furthermore, as a result of labour immigration of last several decades, the West was faced with an unintended religious pluralism. After 9/11, serious questions have been raised about integration of religious minorities in the West, especially in relation to what is perceived to be a failure of Muslim minorities to develop tolerance to western ideals of free speech and equality. The Madrid train bombings on March 11, 2004 and the July 7, 2005 bombings of the London Underground, reinforced such perceptions that Islam constitutes a threat to the European social and political system. With almost 15 million Muslims in western Europe, concerns regarding integration have become heightened.

Robert Leiken's study on Islamic jihadis disclosed a close link between immigration and jihad. 87 per cent of 373 Muslim terror suspects in Europe and North America between 1993 to 2004 were found to be immigrants.

It would be unfair to tar all the Muslim immigrants with the same brush and lump them in a set of opponents of all things western. We don't have the level of Muslim extremism in the US as exists in Europe and even Canada. However, implications of Islamic fundamentalism for America are no less serious because of certain facts. It is no secret that European Muslims have brought their political agendas with them from the Islamic countries. Same conditions exist in the US. Many of Europe's Muslim associations are Trojan horses for the banned Islamic organisations in the home countries, and, although such predicament is of a far less serious nature in the US, potential for such exploitation exists.

Far more serious to the US is Muslim political activism in Europe that is driving and will continue to drive a wedge between the US and Europe on important foreign policy issues.

US Muslims versus European Muslims

The US Muslims are far more integrated than their European counterparts. However, two disturbing trends portend serious potential for terrorist recruitment and sowing of discord between Muslim communities and the rest.

The US Muslim population is concentrated at the higher and lower ends of the income and educational scales. Second trend is extremely orthodox clerics (imams) in mosques. Imams are mostly recruited by local mosque councils through kinship networks in the home country. They are not only extremists; they are out of touch with the younger immigrant Muslims, their worldview limited to Quran and devoid of any understanding of western societies.

Majority of imams do not speak English and since Muslim community elders tend to recruit from the villages that they came from, imams arrive in the West with a Neanderthal worldview, as they were educated in madrassas. The transmission of extremist Islamic ideology into political action requires individuals who recruit Muslims to their cause. Imams have been identified as such carriers of extremism, and the less educated they are the more likely this is to occur. Almost two-thirds of imams do not have an undergraduate degree. In addition, when it comes to building mosques and practicing Islam, US Muslims encounter little government resistance.

This constitutes a major problem. With increased law enforcement focus, recruitment of extremists in mosques and terrorist plots hatched with the assistance of clerics may eventually come to an end; however, this is an area that would require careful oversight.

Muslim immigrants in the US are wealthier and more educated than their European counterparts. Their grievances are also fewer as compared to European Muslims. This shouldn't result in complacency. Unfortunately, middle class socio-economic status and high level of education, as the London bombers proved, is not a predictor of susceptibility to terrorism.

The Islamic terrorism of our times is based upon an Islamic utopian theory that justifies indiscriminate killing as a means to power. In that, it is no different from terrorism resorted to by extremist Hindu Tamils in Sri Lanka, Catholics and Protestants in Ireland, and fundamentalist Sikhs in India during Khalistan terrorism days. Unfortunately, similarities to other religious terrorist movements don't lessen the dangers or lessen the pain to the victims of terrorist violence. It is difficult to draw the line between theology that leads to political extremism and political extremism that assumes the guise of doctrine. It would be dangerous to assume that European Muslims are more susceptible to extremist theology than Muslims in North America or elsewhere.

This is the reason we have to be eternally vigilant in the US to the threats posed by Islamic extremism. The new political ideology of Islamic terrorism has showed a remarkable adaptability and transformative abilities to respond to our anti-terrorism efforts. The extreme polarisation and socio-economic disadvantage, combined with the generalised escalation of violence against Jews, Muslims and Christians, provides a fertile ground for recruitment to the extremist cause.

Second-generation youth from middle-class and educated Muslims from the West have participated in bombings of their adopted nations. These are serious reasons why we can't simply downplay social upheavals due to Muslim extremism in European nations.

In the end, the issues can be boiled down to Muslim discontent, orthodoxy and insular behaviour, a strong identification with religion above country of residence (Islam above nation), and illiberal attitudes that don't favour assimilation in western societies. Opinion polls indicate that West Asian immigrants are highly dissatisfied with US policy toward the Arab-Israeli conflict and wish to see a tilt away from support for Israel. Second, a large West Asian immigrant population makes it easier for Islamic extremists to operate within the US. The September 11 hijackers used West Asian immigrant communities for cover.

If we don't confront these issues, we would be creating two societies in our nation: a democracy for westerners and an autocracy for Muslims.

Why the US needs to worry

We have to deal with the terrorist threat in a manner consistent with our democratic values, and consistent with the notion that we target and investigate people who we have reasonable suspicion to be terrorists. We cannot target entire groups of people because we think the terrorists might be among them. That would be profoundly anti-democratic, ineffective and counter productive. We also would have to reconsider our dark contribution to fanning of Muslim discontent by resorting to illegal war in Iraq and its occupation, our blind support for Israeli policies and support for West Asian oil tyrants.

It is also paramount that we reduce illegal immigrant population within our society. This is where illegal terrorists can hide. It is next to impossible to identify people who entered the United States illegally with the purpose of engaging in terrorist activities. Not the least, we have to focus on methods, which lead to cooperation with Muslim immigrant community instead of alienating it.

A failure to seriously engage in these prophylactic measures may result in more terrorist acts on US soil.

Sunil Dutta is a Davis Southeast Asia Scholar at the University of California. He can be contacted

All views and opinions presented in this article are solely those of the surfer and do not necessarily represent those of

First Published: Jan 06, 2007 14:56 IST