09/03/2014 01:19 pm ET Updated Nov 03, 2014

To Fight ISIS, the West Must Do More to Integrate Potentially Alienated Muslims


It is disturbing, to say the least, to hear that an American was killed fighting for ISIS, and that, depending on which estimate one reads, anywhere from a few dozen to 300 Americans may have likewise joined up. Even more disturbing is that there are "twice as many" British Muslims serving in combat with ISIS than there are serving in that country's military, according to Khalid Mahmood, a member of the British Parliament. Think about that.

Let me now make clear what this article is and is not about. It is not an endorsement of any specific level of U.S. military action in Iraq or Syria, or military action by other Western countries. It is also not an argument about the level of military threat posed by ISIS -- irrespective of the horrific, evil nature of their acts -- to the United States. One astute writer warned against overestimating that threat. Nor am I accusing Muslim communities in the West of failing to condemn the brutal violence committed by ISIS. In fact, I wrote just the opposite a little over a week ago.

What I am writing about is this: People leaving Western countries to join ISIS means that there is something wrong in those societies -- both in the mainstream and the Muslim communities -- something that is emblematic of a larger problem. Namely, Western democracies overall are failing to successfully integrate newcomers into the society and the national community. The problem appears to be even worse in Europe -- in particular among Muslim immigrants in Europe -- than in the U.S., despite the heinous 2009 murder of 13 American military personnel by a Muslim American, Nidal Malik Hasan.

Compared to Europe, the U.S. has had much more experience and success integrating immigrants. This includes Muslims, who show a "negligible" level of support for jihadi extremism according to extensive surveys done by Pew in 2007 and 2011. Furthermore, from the 2007 report:

"Although many Muslims are relative newcomers to the U.S., they are highly assimilated into American society. On balance, they believe that Muslims coming to the U.S. should try and adopt American customs, rather than trying to remain distinct from the larger society."

Nevertheless, we, along with our fellow Western democracies, need to do more to help immigrants integrate, and certainly not only because of ISIS.

What is the problem? At a fundamental level, Western societies, in particular those in Western Europe, have simply not reached out and encouraged Muslim immigrants to identify themselves as members of the national community, affiliate with the national identity that binds together the country's citizens, and integrate into the larger culture and society. That was the finding of a comprehensive report from late 2005 that examined the UK, France, Germany, and Spain. The report noted that "social deprivation, discrimination, and a sense of cultural alienation may make some European Muslims -- especially those of the second or third generation -- more vulnerable to extremist ideologies."

British author Kenan Malik has written extensively on the subject of integration as being crucial to countering the appeal of extremism:

Many second-generation British Muslims now find themselves detached from both the religious traditions of their parents, which they often reject, and the wider secular society that insists on viewing them simply as Muslims. A few are drawn inevitably to extremist Islamist groups where they discover a sense of identity and of belonging. It is this that has made them open to radicalization.

[British policies] led to the de facto treatment of individuals from minority groups not as citizens but simply as members of particular ethnic units...result[ing] in the creation of fragmented societies, the scapegoating of immigrants and the rise of both populist and Islamist rhetoric.

We see the failure of integration in the comment made by a radical Muslim cleric in the UK named Anjem Choudary, in response to the ISIS video in which a man with a British accent beheaded American journalist James Foley: "It's not important if it's a British person carrying out the execution because you're Muslim first and British second." One wonders whether someone who leaves the UK to join ISIS remains British at all.

To really understand the situation, we can ask someone who was an active Islamist, who participated in a group that called for the creation of an Islamic Caliphate, i.e., a state governed by religious law that would encompass all the Muslim faithful of the world. Here's what Ed Husain -- who, while remaining Muslim, has since renounced these extremist beliefs and now works actively to counter them -- had to say about why extremism attracts Muslims whom Britain failed to integrate:

On a basic level, we didn't know who we were. People need a sense of feeling part of a group - but who was our group?....Nobody ever said - you're equal to us, you're one of us, and we'll hold you to the same standards. Nobody had the courage to stand up for liberal democracy without qualms. When people like us at [Newham] College were holding events against women and against gay people, where were our college principals and teachers, challenging us?

Western societies must do these things. We must help Muslims feel part of our group, something that Mr. Husain is absolutely right about people needing. That process is a two-way street, but it starts with what the majority does, both on an individual level through personal interactions, and a societal level through policy and the broader culture. That means that going forward we must treat Muslims and all immigrants as well as anyone potentially alienated by mistreatment or discrimination as full members of the community. In return, we expect that they respond by adopting liberal democratic values, and identifying themselves as members of the community as well as with the common interests of the country. Both the mainstream and Muslim communities must challenge extremist ideology by vigorously promoting an affirmative, inclusive vision of the nation. Both sides bear responsibility for integration's success. At this point, integration in Western Europe is clearly failing.

In the U.S., one person who does get these issues is Barack Obama. Although he cannot make integration happen all by himself, he can have an impact. Take a look at these off-the-cuff remarks by the president at a town hall gathering from late July, where he responded to a question about how the U.S. government is "helping American Indian people revitalize their language and culture":

The Bible says without vision a people will perish. And what happens when you start losing your language and you start losing your culture and you don't have a sense of connections to ancestors and those memories that date back generations is you start feeling adrift. And if you're living in a society that devalues that, then you start maybe devaluing yourself and internalizing some of those doubts.

Now, the good news is what we started seeing -- for example, at the pow-wow that existed at the reservation, there was a Lakota language school for little kids, starting very early. They were learning math and science and all the subjects, but they were also in an immersion school, essentially, in their own language to empower them.

Now, the good news is what we started seeing -- for example, at the pow-wow that existed at the reservation, there was a Lakota language school for little kids, starting very early. They were learning math and science and all the subjects, but they were also in an immersion school, essentially, in their own language to empower them.

And part of what I've been talking to Secretary Duncan about and Sally Jewell, who is the head of the Department of Interior, about is how do we incorporate more effectively into the school curriculums, into social programs, et cetera, a recognition of the distinct cultures of these native peoples. Because if young people come up proud of their past, then they'll have a more powerful sense of direction going forward.

Now, one thing I have to just say about all this, though, is the world is what it is. It is a global world. We live in the 21st century...You can't just live in the past; you also have to look to the future--which means that all the young Native Americans are also going to have to learn math, science, computer sciences, engineering. There has to be an adaption to what is increasingly a world culture, even as you are also then connecting it back to your roots. And sometimes that's hard.

And part of what's great about America is the way that we all take these different cultures and we make one culture out of it. And we shouldn't lose that. That is--we're not just a collection of Jews and Irish and Native Americans and black--we're also Americans, so we have a common culture that binds us together. There's no contradiction between knowing your culture--the traditional cultures out of which your families come, but also being part of the larger culture.

This is the formula that multiethnic democracies need. They must allow and encourage all their people -- whether they are immigrants or indigenous folks whose forebearers have been in the land the longest -- to maintain their roots, the ties to their ancestral heritage(s) that provide a sense of connectedness for many. Yet, at the same time, they must incentivize and actively help those very same people become part of what the president called "the larger culture" and, as he has so often spoken of for the United States going back to 2004, our "one American family." When it comes to ethnic and national identities, it's not either/or that we need, but rather the both/and of democratic pluralism.

Ultimately, integration is the key. And integration requires something much more substantive than just "tolerance" and a bland, thin gruel of cosmopolitan humanism that fails to get neighbors who might come from different religious and cultural backgrounds to feel united as brothers and sisters who share a sense of peoplehood. People who feel connected in that way to their fellow citizens will fight for one another, for the rights and liberties guaranteed to them, and for the common good of their country. They certainly won't go join ISIS.