The Radicalization of Muslim Communities in Europe: Local and Global Dimensions

By Azzam, Maha | The Brown Journal of World Affairs, Spring 2007 | Go to article overview

The Radicalization of Muslim Communities in Europe: Local and Global Dimensions


Azzam, Maha, The Brown Journal of World Affairs


THE RADICALIZATION OF MEMBERS of Muslim communities in Western Europe is part of a complex web of political, religious, and ideological currents. While alienation and lack of integration play an important part in the radicalization process, they may not be the main factors motivating Europe's jihadists to resort to terror; one needs to posit the issue of integration of Muslim immigrant communities within the framework of a Europe that is more ill at ease with immigration than is the United States.1

The much-discussed link between such radicalization and the West's foreign policy in the Muslim world remains an area of contention. It is difficult to untangle shared political and religious views among the Muslim community. For example, while the overarching belief of most Muslims is that Western foreign policy has been anti-Muslim in nature (either in what Muslims believe to be unwavering support for Israel, or the Western countries' support for authoritarian regimes, particularly in the Middle East) it is difficult to delineate between Muslims who harbor such views but are non-violent, and those who are willing to resort to violence. This distinction can be frustrating for the political establishment, as evidenced by the Muslim community's reaction to the 7 July bombings in the United Kingdom, where the leaders of the Muslim community condemned the atrocity but seemed to insinuate that they understood the anger of the terrorists.2

Radicalization in the context of this article is about the resort to terror as opposed to the kind of radicalization that rejects terrorism and violence. Muslims in Europe and elsewhere tend to fit the latter category.

In attempting to understand the ideological basis of this radicalization, Western analysts and policy makers have become mired in trying to untangle the various theological strands within Islam, notably Wahhabism and Salafism, often misinterpreting the nuances that distinguish these doctrinal concepts. The best example of this confusion stems from the issue of Salafism. Simply put, Salafism is an attempt to practice Islam as it was practiced by the earliest generations of Muslims. The problem for analysts is disagreement over the practical use of the term; an Azharite theologian opposed to terrorism would consider himself a Salafi, as would a young radical who supports the use of terror but whom the theologian would believe to be theologically misguided.3 The influence of Wahhabism has been equally misunderstood for similar reasons.4 In both cases theology has been harnessed for political and ideological ends.

While there are shared political concerns among the Muslim community in the West (mainly to do with opposition to Western foreign policy in the Muslim world), as well as, in many cases, a sense of alienation and isolation from the host community, what drives the radicalized minority is ideology. Political disaffection may provide terrorist groups with fertile recruiting grounds and theology may provide an accessible lexicon for political discourse, but it is their "revolutionary" ideology that allows terrorists to step outside their adopted societies and engage in violence.

INFLUENCES ON THE RADICAL FRINGE

Among terrorists, what confronts us is not a single profile of a jihadi who resorts to terrorism as a legitimate method of resistance or warfare, but rather several profiles. There are those who have connections with causes or organizations in the Muslim world; there are the second- and third-generation Muslims living in Western societies who are "homegrown" and who may be disaffected and moved by a different motivation pertinent to their own conditions in Europe; and there are the new converts to Islam whose motivation draws on a number of these elements. There is also the common denominator of shared ideological and political positions, which tend to be subsumed in the analysis of radicalization. An awareness that the orientation of radicals is rooted in concerns shared by others in society needs to be central to our understanding of radicalization. …

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