My memories of the 1960s and '70s are vague by choice, but I seem to recall that there was a legitimate popular concern back then about quasi-religious cult recruitment of youth. Almost immediately, there was a reaction to it known as “deprogramming.” Then, there was a reaction to deprogramming in the name of individual freedom and religious liberty. Eventually, all of that nonsense slipped below the level of acute public concern (more than anything because most of the mystical charlatans were exposed or went back to their own countries or both). Just as well to forget these things, I’m inclined to say; but maybe not, since we missed a chance to protect ourselves from really vile extremism among alienated youth.
Reading a World Affairs Journal piece by Alan Johnson on interviewing young British Islamists about how they were recruited took me back to the cult recruitment of those dubious decades. This, because Johnson’s point with regard to Islamist radicalization was, “there’s always a recruiter.” From what Johnson had to say, Islamist recruiting seemed to me to be a lot like good old cult recruiting. It’s not the substance that matters so much as the personal engagement, the access given to lonely and confused youth to an embracing community with a seemingly noble purpose. Johnson says that Islamist recruiters tend to become “operationalizers,” “handlers,” in due course. Cult recruiters functioned in the same way, although they were mainly interested in getting hold of their recruits’ money, not their bomb-delivery skills and willingness to don suicide vests.
Thinking about the foregoing and the Zeitgeist of the ‘80s and ‘90s, it might occur to one that something happened other than the departure of charlatans that prevented really addressing what needed to be done to protect “alienated” youths. And I would suggest that the same “something” is preventing us from addressing now the problem of Islamist recruitment.
I’m talking about the coming to political correctness of multiculturalism. As it’s been applied to all sorts of communities in the United States, foreign-born or otherwise, multiculturalism stresses the duty of “ordinary” Americans to leave those people who are “different” as they are, to affirm or at least advocate tolerance of their values, to encourage them to remain unassimilated, to teach their children in their native languages, etc. The paradoxical effect of this is to leave these communities unembraced, without the civil affirmations and protections available to the assimilated in American society, and to isolate their troubled youth vastly more than the youth of the general population.
Recent immigrant communities will exist for obvious reasons: One’s own kind beckon in a strange land even when one’s relatives are not part of the community, though they most often are. But not genuinely engaging them—making them live with the rest of us—is a recipe for trouble, for alienation, crime, and general unhappiness, both theirs and ours.
For our multiculturalists, it’s not the circumstances of relative isolation that cause trouble, of course: It’s the rest of us—our intolerance, our attachment to our own identities, even the simple fact that we manage to live lives of affluence and security that new immigrants cannot. The contradictions in this way of thinking are clear: How can we help with the isolation of immigrant communities without actually sharing life, good, bad, and indifferent with them?
The New York Police Department has come under every sort of criticism for the way in which it has engaged the city’s Muslim community. Yes, this is to be able to spot trouble brewing. However, it is a far more intimate and salutary engagement than the PC types care to acknowledge. The NYPD knows the Muslim community, speaks with it, listens to it. Effectively, the NYPD is actually part of it.
Accordingly, when elements within the Muslim community are threatened, the police are far better able to protect them, and they do so. Respectable members of the community know that someone other than themselves cares about their safety. That the safety of the rest of us is a consideration is not seen as a nasty ulterior motive. What is obvious to them is that Muslims are being treated like the rest of us when it comes to safety. In New York City, moderate Muslims cooperate with authorities, whereas elsewhere they dare not, being unprotected as they most often are and thus vulnerable to their own extremists.
Someone who knew whereof he spoke said that Boston’s Chechen community felt more threatened (not to mention disgraced) by the Tsarnaev brothers than the denizens of the rest of the city. During the manhunt he said that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev had better hope that the local Chechens wouldn’t get hold of him before the police did. The police would just arrest him: The Chechens would kill him. This suggested to me that Boston had an obligation to protect the Chechen community that the Chechens themselves did not expect or feel.
Real engagement of immigrant communities is not an easy matter: It’s fraught with all sorts of difficulties. But those difficulties are far less problematic than PC-style “respectful” disengagement. One wants to ask the PC types whether they would like to go back to deprogramming of would-be jihadis. Sometimes it almost seems as though they would regard this sort of thing as possible. After all they believe that they can and should “deprogram” the rest of us. However, for the PC-type there’s no “what” to deprogram an alienated Muslim youth to, that is, besides the same old isolation, segregation, and alienation from the rest of us.
The bottom line is that Islamist recruiters and alienated youths need to be identified and watched closely if we are to head off jihadist terrorist episodes. This cannot be done without the cooperation of Muslim communities. That cooperation cannot be had without the embrace of those communities not only by our custodians of public safety but also by all of the rest of us. That’s a real counterterrorism policy.
Ken Jensen is associate director of the American Center for Democracy for its Economic Warfare Institute.