Radicalized and Marginalized

Could the integration of Europe’s Muslims into mainstream society slow the rise of Islamic radicalism?

"Europe has a general problem with integration, and a problem with integrating Muslims in particular", said Fidel Sendagorta at The Nixon Center on Thursday. Sendagorta, the director of policy planning at the Spanish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, observed that few in Spain had taken heed of this problem until recently. The March 11, 2004 bombings in Madrid violently shook the country out of its complacency, prompting the popular realization that Spain had become an "immigrant country", Sendagorta said. Despite its relatively recent emergence as a destination of choice for immigrants, Spain already has an immigrant population of four million, one million of whom are Muslim. The vast majority of Spain's Muslim population is foreign-born, making it unique in Western Europe.

The March 11 bombers, for example, had been in Spain only ten years on average. These particular individuals, who still had strong ties to their places of birth, serve as counter-examples to theories that link radicalization and identity.

Some scholars have suggested that young Muslims in Europe lose their ability to identify with their parents' countries of origin, yet fail to relate to European society. This overwhelming sense of rootlessness and hopelessness makes these disaffected youth especially susceptible to the ideology of radical Islam. In addition to imbuing otherwise-nihilistic individuals with a sense of purpose, radical Islam provides them with a "new sense of belonging to a group of fighters who treat each other as brothers", Sendagorta said.

Yet the results of Sendagorta's Europe-wide research undermines the conventional wisdom that "there is [an] automatic relationship between more integration and less radicalization." The policy-planner believes that the "ideological side of radicalization is more important than [social] conditions", as it allows "young people to choose an identity that takes them away from the mainstream." In other words, the inability of European societies to integrate immigrants is not entirely to blame for the increased prevalence of Islamic radicalism in Europe.

However, Sendagorta acknowledged, "The moment I say ‘ideology', I get nervous", since ideology, by itself, cannot explain the rarity of Islamic radicalism in the United States. Muslims in the United States may be better integrated into mainstream society than their European counterparts, but this fact alone, the Spanish official believes, does not fully account for the disparity. There is an "idea of loyalty to nation that we in Europe are not conveying", but that "seems to be in the genes of immigrants to [the United States]", he said.

Therefore, European society should not only seek to be more inclusive, but should also promote the concept of civic identity, the policy-planner suggested. Gaining citizenship to a European country, Sendagorta said, must be more than a boring bureaucratic process; it must oblige immigrants to embrace the most basic values of their new home. He pointed to British Chancellor Gordon Brown's discussion of "Britishness" as one step towards the formation of a national identity.

Of course, there is no exact formula for creating a national identity. As one discussant pointed out, immigrants to the United States usually blend successfully into the "melting pot", despite the lack of U.S. policy regarding immigrant integration. Like the United States, Great Britain is a multicultural society-but one that has failed to mold its disparate parts into one whole. The British children of Pakistani immigrants have been become particularly vulnerable to the temptations of Islamic radicalism.

In fact, three of the four bombers involved in the July 7, 2005 attacks in London were of Pakistani descent. One of the bombers, Mohammed Sidique Khan, might have been described as an integration success, noted Robert Leiken, director of the Immigration and National Security Programs at The Nixon Center. For instance, Khan, a teacher's assistant at an elementary school, went by "Sid" rather than Mohammed, spoke English fluently and once visited the House of Commons.

Although Khan may have seemed to be part of British society, it is now clear that he was not psychologically assimilated in the mainstream. As such, it may be more appropriate to "take alienation as a starting point [towards addressing the problem of radicalism]", a commenter advised.

The thorny issues of immigrant integration are made all the more complex by another serious problem: Europeans themselves-as one commenter observed-may be undergoing an identity crisis too.

Marisa Morrison is an apprentice editor at The National Interest.