President Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron held a joint press conference last month in which they reaffirmed the famous "special relationship" between the two countries, cemented with an admission by Cameron that Obama occasionally calls him "bro."
Amid the harmony, though, Obama made a surprising admission of his own -- his belief that the U.S. has a special lead on Europe when it comes to thwarting the recruitment of angry young men into Islamic terrorism.
Our big advantage is that "our Muslim populations -- they feel themselves to be Americans," he said. "There are parts of Europe in which that's not the case. And that's probably the greatest danger that Europe faces."
Obama may have been speaking too soon about an American advantage. Consider the case of José Padilla, the Chicago gang member who came under the influence of the charismatic teacher Adham Amin Hassoun while in jail. Padilla was arrested for plotting to detonate a "dirty bomb" of radiological trash and later sentenced to 21 years in prison.
But his larger point about seduction of the marginalized is all too true. The recent massacre at the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris offers similar stories of delinquency and subsequent radicalization. The Kouachi brothers, who carried out the attack, lived miserable lives in a violent Parisian ghetto even before they were orphaned at 10 and 12 years old and abandoned to the streets and to inefficient social services. A social activist who befriended them told a reporter the brothers "found in religious fanaticism, the family that they never had."
The French sociologist Hugues Lagrange studied the problem and noted the resurgence of religiosity among Muslim immigrants in France was strongest among those who were born there or who arrived before the age of 16. The most religious youth lived in segregated immigrant neighborhoods. Such facts more recently led the French prime minister, Manuel Valls, to denounce the "territorial, social, and ethnic apartheid" that presents a challenge his nation.
But what narratives does the West offer to counter the seduction? Touting "freedom" as a value that we cherish and live by reminds us of the historical and cultural bonds that unite us, and when, in the aftermath of terrorist violence, our statesmen urge us to recall and defend such values, their intention is to calm our fears and create the kinds of solidarity that would lead to effective antiterrorist measures and policies. When the language of freedom is employed in this manner, it shifts from being about social policies to a more abstract, vague, and politically pliable concept. This usage is meant to seduce the non-criminal listeners but not those who engage in terrorist plots against us.
We fail to counteract the seductive narrative of violent extremism because we do not engage it on its own terms. We talk above it and around it, but not straight at it. Reducing our values to war cries in the mouths of statesmen is an ineffective way to bring those among us who might be seduced by a distorting narrative about one of the world's most significant religions back into the fold.
Who in their right mind, for example, would willingly oppose freedom in the abstract? Effective integration means incorporating and strengthening beneficial policies that would address fundamental discrepancies between the opportunities to prosper that western societies promise and the inequality of access to these opportunities. For some disillusioned youth, jihadism offers an appealing way out of the destitution and hopelessness that pervade economically segregated communities. If "freedom" is meant to combat extremism, it should do so by being unequivocally linked to economic integration. So long as inequality persists to the point of being perceived as an injustice that is endemic to our societies, this perception, real or not, will continue to prime potential terrorists to be seduced, recruited and radicalized.