Why are young people from Europe joining the Islamic State?
- Published 6.04.15
It is anomalous that European youth, whether Muslim or non-Muslim, should be attracted to the violent ideology of the Islamic State. That non-Muslim European youth should be beguiled by such an inhumanly violent ideology is baffling. In the case of European Muslims, it is also not easily comprehensible that having been brought up in liberal, democratic and secular societies, they should be attracted to the anti-human freedoms, anti-modern, anti-progress, anti-women, anti-minorities ideology of these jihadi groups that is devoid of economic ideas and does not offer any forward-looking vision of society.
One can object to the policies of one's country, but to join groups abroad that have such little regard for human life is another thing. One can feel strongly about injustice being perpetrated against another people, of violence being inflicted on them in the name of geopolitics, but joining groups that are dubious in their origin and are not led by particularly pious people is difficult to understand.
The problem is limited to forces within the Islamic world wedded to a certain kind of violent theology. There are people belonging to other religions and communities that could have similar grievances against the state of the world today and societal trends, but they are not taking recourse to violence inspired by religious ideology.
Europe has immigrant populations from various parts of the world. No one immigrant community is favoured over another and accorded benefits denied to others. How is it that the radicalization problem is confined to elements in the Muslim community alone?
It is true that the vast majority of Muslims all over the world do not support the kind of inhuman violence that the extremist groups use against others. It is also true that the majority of the victims of jihadi violence are Muslims themselves.
Islam, however, has texts that can be interpreted or misinterpreted to justify violence against others. The religious texts cannot be erased, but they can be interpreted in ways that are compatible with international life and relations between different communities in an interdependent world. Attempts have been made by some prestigious Islamic institutions to erode the religious basis of the ideology brandished by jihadi groups, but with little impact so far.
The core of the problem lies in Salafi or Wahhabi ideology that is the foundational ideology of Saudi Arabia. That country and some other Gulf States have used their enormous oil wealth since the mid-1970s to propagate this highly puritanical version of Islam all over the Islamic world that, in its harshest form, preaches hatred towards infidels, including the Shias and non-Wahhabi Muslims, and holds democracy responsible for all the horrible wars of the 20th century. More moderate local interpretations have been overwhelmed by this Saudi interpretation of Islam.
The ideology of Islamic State in Syria and Iraq is a direct product of this Salafi ideology. It is a different matter that Saudi Arabia itself is being targeted by the Islamic State, which is more a political development than a religious one. Saudi Arabia is an ally of the West. It is too important a country to become the object of meaningful pressures by the West to contain and reverse the Wahhabi forces within and their radiation internationally.
Some would argue that it is the Western military interventions in Iraq, Libya and Syria that have caused the emergence of the Islamic State. President Barack Obama has observed a few days ago that the emergence of the Islamic State can be traced to intervention by the United States of America in Iraq. The intervention in Libya and the chaos that has followed there have opened the flow of arms to jihadi groups in the region. The Western determination to oust Syria's Assad and the support given to opposition groups there has, by creating civil war conditions in the country, made space for extremist Sunni groups to occupy swathes of territory in Syria and Iraq and declare an Islamic caliphate. The anti-Sunni policies of the Nouri al-Maliki government in Iraq too are responsible for the rise of the Islamic State. But Western intervention in Iraq occurred years ago and the US has since militarily withdrawn from that country. The ouster of Muammar Gaddafi was supported by virtually all Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia and Egypt. It cannot, therefore, convincingly be argued that European Muslims are joining the Islamic State today as a protest against these interventions. Significantly, no Palestinians, Iraqis or Afghans, whose countries have been occupied or ravaged by foreign forces, are amongst those joining the jihad.
The Islamic State is a Sunni phenomenon; it is violently anti-Shia. The European Muslims joining the Islamic State are Sunnis, and they may actually be wanting to contribute their might to a Sunni roll-back of the Shia power in Iraq and Syria.
Have European Muslims joined the Islamic State because they have not been integrated sufficiently in the societies they live in and are discriminated against in terms of employment and the like? While discrimination and racial prejudice may be a ground reality, it is hard to believe why these elements would therefore want to join the Islamic State to kill Yazidis, Kurds and Christians, besides beheading Western hostages.
There is introspection in Europe whether radicalization denotes a failure of multiculturalism and that the answer lies in greater integration of the Muslim communities with the rest of society. Actually, one can argue that multiculturalism gives the Muslim community space to live their lives as they want to, within certain bounds. Integration means a more focused effort to make this community accept the values and culture of the host State. The adoption of a jihadi ideology, however, cannot be ascribed only to the failure of either policy.
Those radicalized are educated, are often professionals and many are adept at using the latest communication technologies. They do not fit in with the profile many have in mind of uneducated, unemployed youth with no future veering towards these destructive ideologies. The Charlie Hebdo massacre shows, in the view of some experts, that Islamic recruiters focus on certain personality traits and not employment status to radicalize young men and women.
About 2,000 Westerners are believed to be fighting with militant groups in Syria and Iraq, including 1,600 from Britain, France and Germany. There is deep anxiety in Europe about European jihadis returning home from Iraq/Syria to engage in terrorist attacks in their home countries.
The challenge to Western democracies posed by the radicalization of their youth is complex. No easy answer is available. It is a foreign policy problem at one level, in that it is linked to policies towards Muslim countries and regarding how to deal with the external sources of disruptive Islamist ideologies. The role of Turkey in supporting the Islamic State and keeping the doors open for European recruits to jihad to move into Syria and Iraq needs addressing. Whether the phenomenon of radicalization will end with the elimination of the Islamic State is not clear. The threat from al Qaida has not disappeared either.
It is a domestic problem as it involves the proper handling of Europe's immigrant population. It involves monitoring the social media without compromising the right to privacy and freedom of expression. It means tighter anti-terrorism legislation without diluting the rule of law.
The author is former foreign secretary of India