Since the tragic attacks in Paris earlier this month, voices on the right and left have been vigorously debating the issue of Muslims’ assimilation in the West. But this focus on assimilation is at best misleading and at worst disingenuous. What has attracted young men to the global jihad is not necessarily their incomplete assimilation, but rather estrangement from the values and aspirations of mainstream society and ruling elites.
Commentators on the right have long argued that Islam is incompatible with the values of the Christian West. In fact, some have loudly claimed that Muslims living among them are demanding the majority’s assimilation to their way of life. Those on the left counter that experiences of racism and discrimination encourage extremist beliefs among Muslim youths. However, neither argument has explained why the “unassimilated” have turned almost exclusively to these radically new interpretations of Islam, or why conversion to jihadist ideology has only been a relatively recent phenomenon.
First off, concerns about Muslim assimilation are not well-founded. Large-scale surveys conducted over the past decade have revealed that the vast majority of Muslim immigrants in Europe and the United States identify quite positively with their “host” society. Indices of cultural assimilation are even higher for second-generation immigrants. Moreover, researchers claim generally declining levels of religiosity among Muslims in the West (the same can be said about Christians). Even the biographies of jihadists often work against lack-of-assimilation arguments: many live fairly normal lives before their “born-again” moments.
Members of the global jihad are often portrayed as desperate losers and loners. But these movements don’t necessarily attract antisocial individuals who are alienated from family and peer groups. To the contrary, people often learn about and join jihadist movements with friends and relatives. Indeed, one of the more surprising aspects of jihadist movements has been their skilled use of social media.
The predominantly young men who are drawn into the global jihad are not exactly retreating from the impenetrable world around them, but rather are looking to engage with it. Jihadist movements have expended substantial resources on proselytizing, to the extent that some experts have claimed al-Qaida to be the fastest growing strain of Islam in Europe. Jihadists are not seeking refuge in their parents’ or grandparents’ religion and culture (of which they often know very little) but in a new Islam that is very much of this world and is making use of (some would say perverting) the ideas and technologies supporting it. Jihadist movements challenge the institutions of mainstream society, but they do so through their mastery of them. The global jihad’s appropriation of social media alarms many not just because this is how young people communicate, but also because jihadist use of social media undermines its supposedly apolitical and consumerist character.
The “assimilation” debate, then, is not just about making Muslims more French or American. In fact, some government officials and terrorism experts have recognized cultural integration without ideological assimilation as a potential problem, with their warnings of “sleeper cells.” When the left and right talks about assimilation, they also mean the acquiescence of the “assimilated” to current hierarchies of power in the world. If we set aside the religious pretensions of the global jihad and take seriously its claims to eliminate global inequalities and the oppression of ordinary Muslims (especially in the Middle Eastern “heartland”), then the movement’s popularity starts to make sense. One begins to see parallels emerge with past youth movements claiming to defend fundamental human values against powerful countervailing forces in the world, like the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War.
At its core, the global jihad presents itself as a challenge to the status quo, to a global order where the cultural, political, and economic positions of ruling elites in the West prevail, at least in part because of Western military might. The irony is that the West’s victory in the Cold War helped to create the conditions for the rise of political Islam as a leading voice for change by dismantling everywhere the socialist oppositional model that had mobilized previous generations.
For all the talk about greater outreach to the Muslim community, politicians in the West have generally dealt with the challenge of the global jihad through the use of military force or counter-propaganda (including torture). There is no quick or lasting military or intelligence fix. If we recognize the global jihad as part of a longer history of youth movements seeking to challenge the aspirations of ruling elites, then we can begin to address the causes rather than the symptoms.
American University professor Pedram Partovi is a historian of the medieval and modern Muslim world. His current research focuses on the mass media as a vehicle for popular “civil religion” in modern Iran.