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How to Radicalize a Young American Muslim

Discrimination and isolation can send troubled immigrants on a search for personal significance, which can lead them to radical groups.
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(Photo: George Pickow/Three Lions/Getty Images)

(Photo: George Pickow/Three Lions/Getty Images)

When terrorists indiscriminately kill scores of people, as in the recent attacks in Brussels and Lahore, Pakistan, we tend to assume they are monsters. Anyone who could do this, we tell ourselves, is someone we can't possibly understand, let alone relate to.

But is that really true? Haven't you ever felt that you don't fit in anywhere? That you're being victimized? That you can't find your purpose in life?

Recently published research suggests those are precisely the feelings that make American Muslims susceptible to the lure of extremism.

A study of 198 Muslims in the United States "found that immigrants who identify with neither their heritage culture, nor the culture they are living in, feel marginalized and insignificant," reports a research team led by Stanford University research psychologist Sarah Lyons-Padilla. "Experiences of discrimination make the situation worse, and lead to greater support for radicalism, which promises a sense of meaning and life purpose."

Writing in the journal Behavioral Science and Policy, the researchers note that there is much evidence that religion "is not the primary motivator for joining violent extremists like ISIS." They note that "two young British men jailed in 2014 on terrorism charges had ordered Islam for Dummies and The Koran for Dummies before going to fight in Syria."

But if it's not religious fervor, what exactly is driving them? In an attempt to find out, Lyons-Padilla and her colleagues conducted a detailed survey of 198 Muslims between the ages of 18 and 35, all of whom were first- or second-generation immigrants to the U.S. A bit more than half of the participants had family roots in Pakistan.

"Anti-Muslim rhetoric is likely to be counterproductive. Exclusionary policies reinforce the ISIS narrative that the West is anti-Islam, increasing its appeal for Muslims who are feeling marginalized."

They responded to a series of questionnaires designed to measure their sense of acculturation, perceptions of discrimination, and degree of support for a radical interpretation of Islam and the often-violent groups that operate in its name.

First, participants expressed their agreement or disagreement with such statements as "I wish to maintain my heritage cultural values and also adopt key features of American values"; "I wish to maintain my heritage culture values rather than adopt American customs"; and "Sometimes I don't feel part of American culture, or part of Muslim culture."

They then addressed questions such as "Have you ever experienced hostility or unfair treatment because of your religion?" Participants answered by marking a scale of one (never) to five (all of the time).

Another set of statements measured what the researchers call "significance loss"—the sense that one has lost a sense of meaning in life. Participants noted their level of agreement with such statements as "I feel hopeless," "I feel like an outsider," and "I feel rejected."

Analyzing their responses, the researchers found a diminished sense of personal significance "stemming from personal trauma, shame, humiliation, and perceived maltreatment is associated with increased support for radicalism."

"Experiences of discrimination exacerbate this process," they add. The experience of being discriminated against "amplified feelings of a loss of significance, which in turn predicted support for fundamentalist groups and causes.

"Marginalization and discrimination are particularly potent when experienced in tandem," they conclude.

The study contains recommendations to policymakers, which are pretty much the opposite of Republican presidential hopeful Ted Cruz's recent proposal to "patrol and secure Muslim neighborhoods before they become radicalized." (It's easy to see how such a policy, with its overtones of stigma and suspicion, could heighten the negative emotions the study pinpoints as contributing to radicalization.)

"Our data suggest that anti-Muslim rhetoric is likely to be counterproductive," the researchers write. "Exclusionary policies reinforce the ISIS narrative that the West is anti-Islam, increasing its appeal for Muslims who are feeling marginalized and discriminated against and looking for opportunities to regain (a sense of personal) significance."

Rather, they write, young Muslim Americans at risk of radicalization should be "guided toward nonviolent groups" that can potentially provide them with a sense of meaning in life that does not involve violent jihad. And other Americans should be encouraged to treat them as equals and welcome them into the larger society.

The need to feel included, respected, and, in some small way, important is common to pretty much everyone. If other avenues to that end remain open, there will be no need for young Muslim immigrants to go searching for it on jihadist websites.


Findings is a daily column by Pacific Standard staff writer Tom Jacobs, who scours the psychological-research journals to discover new insights into human behavior, ranging from the origins of our political beliefs to the cultivation of creativity.