Young Muslims: 'The better integrated, the higher the risk of radicalization'

A Dutch research study on the radicalization of young Muslims discovers what it calls the “integration paradox.” It is not disaffected, impoverished young Muslims who are at greatest risk of turning radical and going to fight for ISIS. Rather, it is young Muslims from families that are comparatively affluent and well integrated into their host societies in Europe who have the highest proclivity to turn radical. (hat tip: Pamela Geller).

The view that it is the impoverished that turn to Islam is based on a Marxian, materialist notion of the nature of man as exclusively an economic being. Marxists hate religion (“the opiate of the people”) and their influence in academia and elite culture is pervasive, so any consideration of the spiritual needs of people is dismissed, or usually not even on the radar screen. But even if intellectuals shun the spiritual dimension, young people trying to make their way in the world do have spiritual needs; they want to find meaning in life beyond material goods, sensual pleasures, and free time.

Europe has been won by the secular left, and has little to offer young Muslims from families whose spiritual roots lie in a culture premised on a deep commitment to Islam, an all-encompassing faith. One their families can provide them computers, smart phones, cars, and leisure, they naturally ask themselves if this is the meaning of life. And it doesn’t surprise me that many find Western secularism unfulfilling.  Those from poor (un-integrated, in the terms used by the study) families are preoccupied with gaining a foothold, while those with leisure to consider higher questions are the ones with more dissatisfaction and a desire to seek something else.

Here is the summary of the study, via, as translated from Dutch by Thomas from Standaard:

The better integrated, the higher the risk of radicalization.

Author: Dr. Marion van San, Senior Researcher at RISBO, an independent research institute, active in the field of learning and society that is affiliated with the Faculty of Social Sciences at Erasmus University Rotterdam. Since 2009 she has conducted ethnographic studies of families of radicalizing youths.

Since we know that many young people left Belgium, but also from other European countries, to join the armed conflict in Syria, a fierce debate has erupted. However, the debate as conducted in Belgium is permeated by a series of stereotypes, that are not consistent with what is known from international literature, and that block a proper analysis of the phenomenon.

That young people from Europe who leave for Syria are victims of a society that does not accept them, and does not offer them sufficient opportunities – a proposition that Rik Coolsaet has supported in an earlier edition of this newspaper – is however not supported by empirical evidence. Not only in literature on Islamic extremism, but also on terrorism in general and terrorism of any kind, the conclusion is always the same: it does not always concern people with low socioeconomic status. Neither does it always concern the marginalized and the frustrated, or people with a psychiatric disorder. The Belgian families from which the young people have left, are not all from the lower classes, and the young people who left are not all unskilled and frustrated. For the discrimination they are suggested to be victims of, there has usually been little empirical evidence. In recent years, a lot of international research has been conducted on radicalism and extremism. What it shows is that young men and women who radicalize and sometimes indulge in extremism, often come from middle-class families. There are also a few examples of young men and women who belong to upper class families. Keep in mind that the hijackers in the September 11 attacks, mostly came from prominent families. There is another important point to remember. Low socioeconomic status and lack of opportunity are a reality for a very large group of people, but only very few of them take the extremist path. And if lack of opportunity would indeed lead to extremism, the poorest countries in the world would supply most extremists. And we know that this is not the case. Are there no destitute ones amongst those who leave? Of course there are, and those are the ones Coolsaet writes about. But again, the group that left to join the armed conflict in Syria, is much more diverse than he suggests.

Another common stereotype in the debate in Belgium is that, despite research that refutes this, radicalization is still far too often misunderstood as a process resulting from failed integration. Research however suggests that it is the so-called integration paradox that is a breeding ground for radicalization. What is meant by this paradox is that the children and grandchildren of immigrants, who were born and raised here, focus heavily on Belgian society. They seek social acceptance and mobility, and do everything possible to integrate. The result is that they have higher social expectations than others and are often more sensitive to exclusion and (alleged) discrimination. Negative experiences can turn them away from society and cause them to seek refuge in a deviant group identity.

I therefore dare say that the better young people are integrated, the greater the chance is that they radicalize. This hypothesis is supported by a lot of evidence. Often young people who have been radicalized were very Western-oriented before their radicalization; they were drinking alcohol and would often use soft drugs. In a later stage of their life they started to concern themselves more and more with their faith, or converted to Islam and consequently radicalized in no time. In many cases they completed their education or held a job and have friends from mixed ethnical backgrounds.

What stands out in the debate of these recent weeks and months, is that not only standard explanations are given for the departure of so many young people, but also only standard solutions are brought forward; solutions that are actually meant for different problems. It has become too risky to persevere in such false solutions now that the problem has become a matter of life and death. The fact that the group that we are dealing with is so diverse, immediately shows the difficulty of finding a suitable solution. We know that fighting poverty is not enough to counter radicalism and extremism. We should also not expect too much from proposals to address youth unemployment. This is not a plea to change the fundamentals of current policies to address poverty, or to stop combatting racism in the workplace and in the job market. But we should not cherish the illusion that these measures will curb radicalism and extremism. To really understand the group that we are dealing with here, we need a deep understanding of the young people and the families they come from, in order to gradually distance ourselves from the stereotypes that too often dominate the debate. Everything else is a waste of time and energy.

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