The recent terror attacks in Paris have resulted in an increased focus on Islam in Europe, particularly the conflicting identities of young Muslims in an age where technology has opened new pathways for radical groups half a world away. Sadly, it often takes a tragedy of this scale to alert the public to something which has been taking place for years. Those who devote their careers to studying the issue of radicalization have been concerned about this growing trend for at least two decades.
Not all of us can be experts on the subject, and unfortunately even those who are so-called “experts” are sometimes dead wrong. Take, for example, the now infamous statement by Steve Emerson on Fox News Channel, in which he claimed that there are places in Europe where the secular governments “don’t exercise any sovereignty, so you basically have zones where Sharia courts are set up, where Muslim density is very intense, where police don’t go in”.
However, the cherry on top of Mr. Emerson’s pile of verbal – well, you know – was his assertion that, “In Britain, it’s not just no-go zones. There are actual cities like Birmingham that are totally Muslim, where non-Muslims just simply don’t go in.”
This particular statement caught my attention, because I actually visited Birmingham back in January 2008. Not only did I go to Birmingham, but I actually went to Birmingham looking for Muslims. I was spending a short time in the United Kingdom studying Islamism (meaning a political ideology which focuses on implementing Islamic principles in government at some level) with a PhD student from the School of Oriental and African Studies. He encouraged me to make an investigation of Islam within Britain, particularly as it affected young Muslims.
Birmingham is the second largest city in the UK, but its history is not as long as many of the old cathedral towns. It rose to prominence during the Industrial Revolution, when workers flocked from across the country – indeed, from around the world – to work in its factories. This history still shapes Birmingham’s identity today. You could say it is England’s answer to Detroit or maybe Chicago.
Immigrants came from the far reaches of the British Empire to work in England’s factories, many of them ending up in Birmingham. A large percentage of these immigrants were from the Indian subcontinent, including the current countries of Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh. The result of this mass movement was that some of the biggest cities in the UK do have significant Muslim populations. If you get off the “tube” at Whitechapel in East London, expect to see women in full niqab, restaurants proclaiming that their food is halal, and perhaps even some gentlemen handing out fliers declaring that Islam is the solution for all of England’s woes. (Yes, that actually happened to me.)
Still, Muslims are a clear minority in London, as in a slightly more than 12% minority in 2011, and they are far less prevalent in the nation as a whole. The 2001 census indicated that Muslims account for 2.7% of the national population, though more recent numbers suggest it may be as much as 5%. It is true that this number is well above the Muslim population in the United States (which is not more than 1% according to a 2012 Pew Forum survey), but it is hardly overwhelming. Yet, the city of Birmingham was found in the 2011 census to have a 21.8% Muslim population, about half the amount of self-identifying Christians in the city and slightly higher than the percentage who claim to have no religion. Birmingham also has significant numbers of residents who identify as Hindu or Sikh.
While these numbers are high, they do not approach Mr. Emerson’s assertion that the city is “totally Muslim”, nor do they justify the comment that non-Muslims “simply don’t go in”. After all, I was a non-Muslim, and I “went in”, a story which I will now share with you.
I “went in” as a 21-year-old foreigner woman who had not spent a large amount of time either in big cities or around Muslims. I suppose you could label me as “vulnerable” or at least an “outsider”. Yet, the only thing my host family told me to watch out for before I left was people with a “Brummy” accent, and that was merely as a curiosity.
Upon arriving at the train station, I hopped in one of those renowned black cabs and asked the driver to take me to Birmingham Central Mosque, one of the largest Islamic centers of worship in Europe. I think the cabby was a bit taken aback by this request, but he dutifully set out away from the city center. I had made no real plan for what I would do or who I would talk to when I got there. My experience with these things was that you just kind of show up and see where events lead.
Upon my arrival, I went inside and was able to speak with an employee in the office and explain that I was a student researching Islam who just wanted to stop and see the mosque. He was very polite and explained that they were about to start afternoon prayers. However, I would need to wear a head scarf if I wanted to go into the prayer hall itself. (For the non-initiated, this is standard procedure.)
I had come unprepared, perhaps not thinking that I would even be invited to sit in on prayer time. This was the last time I visited a mosque without bringing my own scarf along with me. Unfortunately, all the employee was able to find was a scarf suitable for an infant girl, so I agreed to sit in an observation room in the balcony area. I watched as the men filed in, and they were all men, as women rarely go to the mosque to pray except on Friday. Some were dressed in “regular” clothes while others wore the kind of long shirts typical in Pakistan or India.
Some definitely had the look one might expect of a “serious Muslim”: their heads covered in a white skull cap and their faces covered in busy black beards. One or two of them looked up in the direction of where I was sitting and I thought they might have seen me through the glass window. I found myself pulling up the hood on my jacket, worried that they might be offended by my uncovered head. What can I say? I was more open-minded and daring than the average American, but something inside me still felt that they looked a little bit aggressive. It was likely imagined more than anything.
After the service, the same employee invited me to come into the now empty prayer hall and take photos, since I had mentioned before that I might like to. However, when it came down to it, I said that was not necessary. I had begun to feel like an intruder, rightly or wrongly.
I left the mosque and walked back to the center of town, where I was able to enjoy visits to the city’s art museum and a large shopping center in the middle of town. This part of Birmingham was little different from anywhere else in the UK, or anywhere in America for that matter. I did see a high number of South Asian-looking people at the mall, more even than I would have seen in London, but they were just out shopping as I was, even the Sikh men in head turbans and the Muslim women in hijab. Nothing about it felt particularly odd.
From my own visit to Birmingham, I would have to conclude that it is not the sharia-enforcing “no-go zone” that Emerson and others like him would have us believe, though to be fair, he and Fox News both retracted the statements after even British Prime Minister David Cameron declared, “This guy is clearly a complete idiot.” Yes, that is an exact quote from the leader of Her Majesty’s Government.
Yet, it would be equally idiotic to suggest that there are not real problems in Europe’s Muslim communities. In Britain alone, the past decade has brought us multiple terrorist plots and a few successful attacks, most notably the deadly bombings on London’s transportation system on July 7, 2005. The perpetrators of that atrocity grew up in the UK and could be heard on their “martyrdom” videos in Yorkshire accents.
Europe has also served as a kind of breeding ground for some who targeted the United States, and here the obvious example is the “Hamburg cell”, out of which came many of the instigators of the 9/11 attacks. News reports have told of hundreds of French citizens going to fight with ISIS as part of a supposed jihad, a trend that is hardly new: Al-Qaeda came into existence largely as a result of Arab fighters traveling to Afghanistan to fight the Soviets in the 1980s.
Why would these young Muslims, who have derived substantial benefits from living in the relatively free and open western European society, turn against that very society and identify instead with a radical brand of Islam that, in many cases, is not practiced by their own family? Many will say that prejudices within European society make these men (and some women) feel like outsiders. Whereas Americans are largely concerned about immigration from Hispanic countries, Europe is more worried about Muslim immigrants: in Britain they are often South Asian, in France mostly African, and in Germany mostly Turkish.
And while Americans mostly object to illegal immigration, the issue goes much deeper in a country like Britain where the national identity is often one and the same with an ethnic identity. German, Dutch, Italian, and French are all ethnic designations as well as national ones, whereas America has always been a land of diverse immigrants: first primarily from European nations, and then eventually from every nation on earth. Thus, while there are certainly some in America who want to preserve the country as “white”, the issue of ethnicity (and the related issue of religion) go even deeper across the pond.
Whether it is the arguably racist British National Party in the UK, or rules against minarets in Switzerland, or rules against face veiling in France, or insults shouted at Muslim players during soccer matches, young Muslims see all kinds of evidence that they are not accepted in the countries where they live. More to the point, Muslims in these countries are more likely to come from poor backgrounds than the “white” population. If there is one thing I have learned from my study of radicalization worldwide, it is that young people without good prospects in life are prime targets for terrorist recruiters, because they feel as if they have little to lose. They have essentially not “bought in” to the ideals of their society, because they do not feel that society works for them.
I would personally not blame everything on European prejudice, however. I think it is unwise to ignore the powerful pull of religion for many people, particularly forms of religion that provide simple answers to complex problems, and which promise the believer a radically new and better life. Some find it paradoxical that many Islamic terrorists, including many of the 9/11 hijackers, seemed to live rather “bad” lives from a Muslim perspective. Some regularly drink alcohol, others go to strip clubs, and still others live with their girlfriends. In many cases, they show few signs of religious devotion before falling in with a terrorist organization.
I believe that these young people are looking for a kind of redemption. They feel themselves floating along, enjoying temporary pleasures but finding nothing lasting. They want to do something big – something that will make them, in a sense, immortal. They want to take all of their restless desires and use them as tools to achieve something of lasting value. And then someone comes along and is very friendly to them, mentoring them and showing them a new way to live. Sooner or later, they become attached, and inevitably their family will be left saying, “We don’t know what happened. He was such a good boy. We never thought he would get involved in something like this.” Sometimes the change is so fast and drastic that the family cannot accept that they were replaced by a new kind of “family”, and they go into denial instead.
There is no quick fix for the problem of radical Islam in Europe, because it is rooted in things which are fundamentally human: the tendency to associate with others like ourselves, the desire to make something of one’s life, the immaturity of young people attracted to extremes, the appeal of being a victim, the injustice still prevalent in our societies, and the intoxicating power of vengeance. We do not have good reason to despair, but we do have good reason to be concerned. For the sake of our whole society, we have an interest in making sure that society works for all of its members.
Amy Mantravadi works for the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Science Research and was previously employed at the Press Office of the Egyptian government in Washington, D.C. She received her B.A. from Taylor University and her M.A. from King’s College London. She lives in Dayton, OH with her husband, where she enjoys research, writing, and cheering for the Ohio State Buckeyes.
Featured Image Courtesy of Saudi Artist Fida Al-Hussan: http://www.alartemag.be/en/en-art/fida-art-saudi-pop-art/