Why Muslims from US, Europe join Islamic State

Hundreds of jihadists with Islamic State come the US and Europe. Most are not driven by a love of Islam but by a desire for a strong social identity. The West can prevent more IS recruits by providing that identity.

AP Photo
Religious figures in France call on Islamic imams to discourage young people from joining the Islamic State. From left, Abderrahmane Dahmane, president of French Muslim Democrats, Anouar Kbibech, president of Rassemblement of Muslims of France, Patrick Karam, President of Coordination Christian of Orient in Danger, Ahmed Ogras, president of Coordination of Turkish Muslim of France, Bishop Athanasios of the Orthodox Coptic Church in France.

The war against the Islamic State militant group isn’t only in Iraq and Syria. For both Europe and the United States, the war also has a home front. Hundreds of IS jihadists have come from the West. They speak English, French, or German. They hold passports allowing them easy entry back into their homelands.

Preventing their return is one task. Another one is keeping more young Muslim men from joining IS.

The US State Department tries to do that by running videos on social media depicting the worst aspects of IS, such as the practice of beheading its enemies. But scholars who have talked to those who have joined terrorist causes say the West must better understand their motives.

Islam, it turns out, is not the primary driver. In fact, a strong religious identity actually protects a person from a violent path. Rather, says John Esposito of Georgetown University, many jihadists are religious novices, driven instead by “moral outrage, disaffection, peer pressure, search for new identity, for sense of meaning, purpose and belonging.”

An estimated 70 percent of jihadists operate outside their home country, having perhaps escaped from a personal crisis. Their lives in the US and Europe lacked a strong purpose. A group such as IS that promises glory, order, and certainty in an idealized Islamic entity (“caliphate”) seems appealing.

“If we want to confront the enemy, we have to understand what they’re providing and what they’re offering,” says Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Institution.

But, says Dr. Esposito, the US and Europe must also look like a better place to live for these young men or “you’re not giving them a reason not to be radicalized.”

Another scholar, Scott Atran at France’s National Center for Scientific Research, says the challenge for democracies is to offer an alternative to IS by creating a strong social identity, or what he calls “sacred values.” Countries that have such values instill commitment and sacrifice in their citizens. For starters, both the US and Europe can shape up their polarized politics and reform their economies to provide hope of fulfilling jobs.

Muslims in the US are far less prone to being radicalized than those in Europe. They are better integrated. Europe has a far greater task to help assimilate its isolated Muslim communities. But the larger task is giving grander purpose to the daily lives of young Muslims. The West may be at war with itself as much as it is with IS.

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