After the terrorist strikes in Paris on November 13, 2015, it was said that young Arabs in urban ghettos radicalize themselves because they live at the edge of society and have no future. This is little more than an apology. Other ethnic groups live under similar circumstances everywhere and they do not react this way. Only Muslims turn mass murderer and suicide bomber.
Furthermore, while being poor and marginalized can predispose young people to violence and antisocial behavior generally, it should be pointed out that the most prominent jihadis, Osama Bin Laden and his associates, came from families that were anything but poor, and they certainly were not marginalized, coming as they did from the upper class of their society. The same is true of ISIL leader al-Baghdadi. Still, most jihadis do come from poor families for the simple reason that in the Muslim diaspora (as in every society) the poor vastly outnumber the rich.
If anything, it can be said that jihadism appeals to weak minds. This applies not only to young Muslims, but also to those who convert to Islam because they desperately try to put some meaning into their empty lives. Interviews with people who went to school with al-Baghdadi and knew him as a boy reveal that even as a child he tried to make people listen to him and do as he said.
It would appear that jihadism requires a rigid, authoritarian and narrow-minded personality, which can find expression as either the lead wolf (of which there can be only so many) or the herd of sheep ready to kill and die for something they see as bigger and more understandable than the admittedly complex modern world. They are, however, childish and mistaken, for there are no simple answers to complex problems–not now, not ever.
Supposing for a moment that the West had treated Muslim immigrants as equals from the start, a few of them might have fit in better; but it is likely that even so, or precisely because of it, fundamentalist cores would have formed anyway to counter Western openness and what they perceived as a corrupting influence. The Koran does warn Muslims not even to befriend infidels (Suras 4:145, 5:51, 9:18). Muslim immigrants also would have been less than enthusiastic about letting their children go native and marry outside of the faith. People raised as Muslims are not very open-minded or inclined to respect the opinions of others. Religion is not democracy.
The Islamic position on human and family relations is clearly stated in Sura 64:14, where Muslims are explicitly cautioned: “Believers, you have an enemy in your wives and children: beware of them.” (Similar passages are found in Suras 8:28 and 18:46.) While it would be fair to say that most Muslims do not subscribe wholeheartedly to these dictums–in fact, they may not even be aware of these passages–the basic attitude certainly is ingrained in the culture as evident by the way they treat each and their children. Indeed, many values which make up the bedrock of Islam not only fly in the face of Western civilization, but of secular laws and constitutions as well. Take women’s rights, for example, which conservative Muslims categorically reject as anti-Islamic. “Different but equal” is not something most Muslims can relate to. The Taliban say that “a woman’s place is at home or in the grave.” Then there’s sharia law, which enshrines gender inequality in law and custom, and sets the age of sexual consent for girls at nine years–well before the onset of puberty.
Other objectionable customs include draconic punishments (stoning to death for adultery, cutting off a hand for theft), honor killings, and marrying daughters off without giving them a say in the choice of their mate. Western governments have long avoided addressing these issues, let alone tackled them, out of exaggerated and unwarranted respect for religion, no matter what the religion in question may call for. Yet leaving such a culture to itself not only does nothing to promote integration, but tacitly condones a refusal to fit in and encourages the formation of ghettos.
As for the ghettos, Muslims living in the West tend to isolate themselves because of their ideology. Exclusionary cultures like Islam do best in isolation. However, isolation is often the first step towards fear, and the reason why religious communities, because of the way they define themselves (us vs. them), are at constant risk of turning into hate groups. Moreover, Muslims are often ready to show anger and hate–almost as a form of self-expression. The apocalyptic obsession with war that sets ISIL apart from other organizations like al-Qaida is therefore not a change in kind, only in degree.
The Hasteners (Hojjatieh), a splinter sect of Shia Islam which includes Iran’s former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, believe that a mythical figure called the Twelfth Imam (the Mahdi) can be brought out of occultation with an apocalyptic conflict. Armageddon is therefore a valid and desirable goal for some. This certainly explains why Ahmadinejad was such a strong supporter of Iran’s nuclear program and why, in his function as a head of state, he often and publicly called for Israel to be wiped off the map. The glorification of violence and destruction in the Koran and in Islam generally would necessarily predispose young Muslims to religious anger and violence more readily than those they regard as infidels.
Another important difference, perhaps the biggest difference between Muslim and Western ways, is that in growing up Muslims are taught to be dependent on others rather than to be independent and show initiative. There is no Muslim equivalent to the Protestant work ethic. Instead, five times a day a Muslim must drop everything to pray. The emphasis is on ritual, not results. It also stands to reason that without self-reliance– and the self-esteem that comes with it–Muslims are at a disadvantage when it comes to hustling and making do on their own. To be sure, becoming independent would entail abandoning at least some of the old ways, an action which many conservative Muslims see as heresy and apostasy (both of which are punishable by death).
This disregard of practical matters goes with the Muslim obsession with symbols. It is telling that on 9/11 the primary target was the World Trade Center rather than, say, the nuclear power-plant on nearby Three Mile Island, which would have done far greater and more lasting damage. Yet jihadis regularly forgo hard military targets for symbolic ones. ISIL continues to spend money on the destruction of pre-Islamic sites in Iraq and Syria, just as the Taliban in Afghanistan gave utmost priority to destroying the Bamiyan Buddha statues. One particular object of jihadi hate is soccer, which they see as a worldwide corruption. Boko Haram in Nigeria killed off entire villages to keep them from watching the World Cup on TV. Jihadis also seek to root out knowledge, and not a year goes by without the Taliban in Pakistan and Afghanistan burning dozens of schools to the ground. Hate, rage and violence are an institution in the Islamic world, and as such an accepted form of expression. Needless to say, it is easier to tear down what is better than to try to understand it and learn from it. Indeed, the very idea that something else could be better is considered blasphemy.
All things considered one can only conclude that poverty and marginalization do not explain jihadism. Rather, there is something very wrong with Islam itself. Religions generally are dangerous, and Islam particularly so. This religion, whose name means “surrender,” is a totalitarian, fear-based ideology which prescribes almost everything, resists change, allows no criticism, and fights the pursuit and spread of knowledge. It has been said that a good Catholic is neurotic, but the same can be said of Muslims. They corral themselves in with endless restrictions, prohibitions and taboos. While the mind control that Islamic fundamentalists impose on new members and each other is no different from that which predatory sects the world over are known for, Islam stands out in that it seeks to further its ends by more violence than other religions, comparable only to the atrocities perpetrated by the Catholic Church centuries ago. The latest spate of jihadi violence has made it plain that Muslims urgently need to change and that Islam cannot go on unchecked. Sectarian strife and religious violence were commonplace in Europe until not all that long ago; and the West did not make headway until it secularized itself.
The assertion that religions are dangerous was probably first put forth explicitly by Abu Bakr Muhammad al-Razi [Rhazes] (865-925), an Arab medical writer and the most free-thinking of the major Islamic philosophers. The full quote goes: “Human reason alone can give certain knowledge, the path of philosophy is open to all uses, the claims of revelation are false, and religions are dangerous.” (Hourani, Albert Habib. 1991. A History of the Arab Peoples. Belknap Press (Harvard University Press), Cambridge (Massachusetts, USA): p. 78).