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Lessons from Both Sides of the Atlantic on Tackling Islamic Radicalization

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I recently had the honor of being invited to the Pentagon to meet the US Assistant Deputy Secretary of Defense and the Deputy National Security Adviser from the White House.

Although I have been to Congress and met a sitting President, I had never, until now, visited the Pentagon. I have to confess that my first impressions of it were that it was just like it is portrayed in the movies! You walk past guys looking at big screens with maps of who-knows-where, huddled round multiple computer screens in rooms with ominous-sounding names like 'Central Operations Command.'

But whereas the Pentagon of the movies is always about massive military force, we were there to talk about the less glamorous threat of homegrown radicalization in the Muslim American community, and specifically the South Asian diaspora.

I had given a briefing to Congress on the topic, because of my experience here in Scotland. Because the reality is that the challenge of Islamic radicalization is one which Europe and the US both face in common. There are important differences, of which more later, but the dynamics of radicalization are the same on both sides of the Atlantic.

What is more, over the past few years, scholars have built up an impressive array of research into how radicalization works in practice on the streets. We now know a lot more than we used to about how kids come to be radicalized.

For example, a former CIA operations officer called Marc Sageman conducted the largest ever survey of radical Muslims to date, in order to understand why kids radicalize. In a groundbreaking study, he analyzed over 500 profiles of Islamic terrorists. He concluded that radicalization normally happens in four distinct stages.

It is sparked when the individual reacts with moral outrage to stories of Muslims suffering around the world. Some move on from that to the second stage, in which that spark is inflamed by a radical Manichaean interpretation which explains such suffering in the context of a wider war between Islam and the West. A few move on to the third stage, in which that resentment is fueled by negative personal experiences in western countries (e.g., discrimination, inequality, or just an inability to get on despite good qualifications). And of those, some make it into the fourth stage, in which the individual joins a terrorist network which becomes like a second family, albeit one closed to the outside world. This situation stokes the radical worldview and prepares the initiate for action and, in some cases, martyrdom. The crucial stage is reached when a young Muslim begins to believe that Islam justifies violence and closes his or her mind to other viewpoints.

Remember, this explanation - the four stages - are not a product of speculation. They are the patterns detected in the hundreds of cases of radicalization which Sageman studied.

Another trend which has been noticed by those who study Islamic radicalization is the correlation between radical extremism and lack of Islamic education. Researchers estimate that almost 90% of violent Islamists have had no authentic religious education at all. For example, none of those who carried out the 9/11 attack on the United States or the 7/7 attack on London had received such education. Even al-Qaeda's leadership lacks credibility. Osama Bin Laden never attended a religious seminary and has no formal religious training. Most of its leaders have backgrounds in medicine, engineering, or business.

The fact that the vast majority of radicals have received no such education makes it look very much like authentic Islamic education prevents violence. So the best way to prevent such violence is to teach young Muslims what real, authentic Islam actually says.

I am pleased to say that this is the approach that the US is beginning to take. They are planning the Presidential Summit on Entrepreneurship, which, by encouraging both economic and social entrepreneurship, will both bypass the disenfranchisement which Sageman identified as being the third step on the path to radicalization, and use social entrepreneurship as a mechanism to build capacity within Muslim communities.

But on this topic we can learn from each other. The US still has much to learn from the UK. For example, any Islamic education programs in the US will need to understand how centrally important it is to find teachers who are knowledgeable in both secular and Islamic law and who can synthesize their knowledge of both. The teachers also need to be personally credible to potential young radicals.

The best people for this are often young teachers who are a few years older than their students, who have at one time been tempted towards radicalization themselves, and so who can empathize with the pull their charges may feel, whilst also being able to explain why it is wrong. Lastly, they need to understand the inadequacy of relying solely on Mosque-based education programs.

But there is also much that we in Europe can learn from the US.

Despite a lack of formal education programs, the demographics of Muslims in the US tend to be different from European Muslims. Compared to the Muslim minorities in Europe, those in the States tend to be more educated, and to work in the professions. That means they tend to be more integrated into US society, which prevents them reaching the third stage of the process Sageman identified.

US Muslims also tend to see themselves as much more American than European Muslims see themselves as European. I think this is because, more than Europe, many see the US as less of a nation and more of a set of ideals, like freedom, equality, and democracy. If you subscribe to them, you can have a stake in society. We, unfortunately, do not have an equivalent in Europe. Perhaps that is why many European Muslims still find themselves being treated as immigrants. In many, particularly continental European countries, the Islamic minority is treated essentially as a problem and an object of suspicion and disdain. We should perhaps not be so surprised that so many have serious identity crises.

I came away from the meeting inspired by the way that the US sought to solve its societal problems. The US, like the UK, is willing to listen and learn, make an effort to understand the problem of Islamic radicalization, and work out how to solve them. On this front, the work has begun.

Azeem Ibrahim is a Research Scholar at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, Member of the Board of Directors at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding and Chairman and CEO of Ibrahim Associates.