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Dissecting Radical Islam

The importance of Representative Peter King’s hearings

Feb 7, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 20 • By REUEL MARC GERECHT
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There are blessedly big differences between the Muslim communities of Europe and America. In Holland and France, for example, where Muslims make up around 6 percent and 10 percent of the populations, respectively, whole towns and vast suburbs of major cities have become majority Muslim. By and large, their Muslim denizens are poor and even when completely secularized—as is often the case—distant from many of the defining features of European culture. Islam in Europe has become for many deracinated urban youth, as it is for many among the urban poor in the Middle East, a political identity. And the identity is exuberantly exclusive, walling out more traditional Islamic tenets and more permissive Western values. In America, where secular sentiments are de rigueur only among the elite, faithful Muslims appear vastly better integrated into the surrounding society. Muslim Americans are more affluent than their European counterparts. Intermarriage with non-Muslims appears easier for those who want it (though, again, the sociological studies are in their infancy, so it’s difficult to say for sure). And the anomie that is so striking in Europe and in the major cities of the Arab Middle East doesn’t seem to be prevalent in the United States. 

Even so, the confidence that American counterterrorist experts had after 9/11 that the American-Muslim community was immune to the virus of radicalization has lessened. There have been too many incidents at home and abroad involving American Muslims. Something is afoot. It is possible that we are seeing, as we do with so many radical intellectual trends, a time lag between Europe and the United States. 

The seeds of Muslim radicalization were planted in Europe in the 1950s, when the Muslim community was small and Muslim organizations, usually inspired and aided by the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, were in their infancy. Although it’s difficult to know with precision (European scholarship and security-service interest in European Muslim communities really started only in the 1980s), the wave of radicalization that struck the Middle East in the 1970s and culminated with the Islamic revolution in Iran in 1979 seems to have hit Europe hard in the mid- to late 1980s. This was the era when Saudi Wahhabi missionary activity, in large part born to counter Iran’s revolution, exploded worldwide. By the 1990s, Saudi cash and Saudi-financed instruction and preachers were everywhere in Europe. When al Qaeda’s missionaries arrived in the late 1990s, they had only to follow the path already cleared years before by the Muslim Brotherhood and the Wahhabi preachers. By the late 1990s, the Brotherhood and the Wahhabis had become nearly indistinguishable. 

Missionary cash from the Gulf states probably didn’t start arriving in the United States until the 1990s. The Internet revolution in the late 1990s and the coming of easily accessible satellite television, which broadcasts an astonishing array of the Middle East’s hard-core Muslim preachers, magnified the influence of Islamic puritanism. Where in the 1980s and much of the 1990s an Islamic radical in Europe needed a mosque to find comrades and fraternity with the larger militant world, a radical in America or Europe today can find communion via the Internet and TV. Although it is still unclear how much spiritual fortification Major Nidal Malik Hasan, for instance, received from militant mosques in the United States, it is crystal clear that the Internet was indispensable to his lethal radicalization. Although American-Muslim associations do not yet have the structure or variety of their European counterparts, they are developing. If they follow the European model, as they grow, their funding and connections to Gulf states and their intolerant creeds will increase significantly, displacing and preempting the need for contributions from local congregations. 

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