What's the Real Goal of Islamic Terrorists? - Pacific Standard

What's the Real Goal of Islamic Terrorists?

Israeli researchers suggest it may be inciting an anti-Muslim backlash.
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People light candles at a makeshift memorial in tribute to the victims of the attacks in Paris. (Photo: Joel Saget/AFP/Getty Images)

People light candles at a makeshift memorial in tribute to the victims of the attacks in Paris. (Photo: Joel Saget/AFP/Getty Images)

As we mourn the victims of Friday night's terrorist attacks in Paris, we're all wondering how—or if—such tragedies can be avoided in the future. One clear risk factor is a local Muslim population that feels marginalized, discriminated against, not really part of society. Young men growing up in such conditions can easily turn bitter and angry, making them prime targets for recruitment by terrorist organizations.

This feeling of outsider status is far more widespread among Muslims in France, and other European countries, than in the United States. Although recent Republican presidential debates may suggest otherwise, we are a nation of immigrants, and the children of newcomers tend to become acculturated quite rapidly.

It is obviously in our interest to keep this dynamic in place. But recently published research points to a factor that can and does disrupt it: anti-Muslim hate crimes.

"Terror groups may try to provoke a backlash against their own ethnic or religious group in the targeted country, in order to halt the assimilation of Muslim adherents into Western society."

Hebrew University economists Eric Gould and Esteban Klor provide the first evidence that such offenses—and the atmosphere of intolerance they reflect—has curtailed the Americanization of Muslim immigrants.

The 9/11 attacks "induced a backlash against ... the Muslim immigrant community in the U.S.," which has "slowed their rate of assimilation," they write in The Economic Journal. This increased insularity, they add, is not due to pre-existing trends. Rather, "Muslim immigrants are reacting specifically to hate crimes against Muslims."

"The Muslim community in the U.S. is relatively new and mostly foreign-born," Gould and Klor write, pointing to a 2007 Pew Research Center survey finding only 37 percent of American Muslims are native-born. That same survey found "no indication of increased alienation" in this population.

However, other research suggests religion is now playing a greater role in American Muslims' lives. A 2007 study concluded that "the process of re-Islamization has accelerated in the aftermath of 9/11, as an increasing number of adolescents and young adults (daughters of immigrant Muslims) are assuming a public Islamic identity by wearing the hijab (headscarf)."

Noting such reports are largely based on interviews, Gould and Klore decided to test their conclusions by using data on a large, representative sample of Muslim immigrants. Using Census figures from 1990 and 2000, and information from American Community Surveys from 2007 to 2010, they looked at a series of metrics that suggest cultural assimilation, or the lack thereof. They compared this with statistics from the Federal Bureau of Investigation on hate crimes, which (not surprisingly) rose dramatically following the 2001 terrorist attacks.

"Our results show that Muslim immigrants living in states which experienced the sharpest increase in hate crimes after 9/11 also exhibit greater chances of 'intra-marriage' (marrying someone who also originates from a Muslim country); higher fertility; lower female labor-force participation; and lower English proficiency," they write.

Those measures all point to a decline in the rate of integration into the wider American culture. The decision to marry someone from one's own religion and cultural background is "widely used to capture the strength of one's ethnic identity and level of assimilation," the researchers note. Higher fertility rates and fewer women working outside the home suggest more families are clinging to the values and traditions of their home countries.

Altogether, these findings suggest "terror groups may try to provoke a backlash against their own ethnic or religious group in the targeted country, in order to halt the assimilation of Muslim adherents into Western society," the researchers conclude.

Indeed, from ISIS's point of view, that's an intelligent long-term strategy, as fully Westernized Muslims are likely to be far less responsive to their abhorrent ideology.

Gould and Klor caution that "although Westerners tend to link a heightened Islamic identification with radicalization and violence, there is no consistent and systematic evidence of such a link." While that's somewhat comforting, a 2013 study found Muslim job candidates apparently face discrimination in Republican states. As we're seeing in France, that sort of unfair treatment can lead to resentment and anger among unemployed youth—hardly a promising pattern.

So there seems to be a circle here. Terrorist attacks produce increased antipathy toward Muslims, which leads to a rise in hate crimes. This atmosphere in turn leads American Muslims to increase their religious identity and slow their assimilation into Western culture. And aggrieved, insular societies are fertile territory for radicals looking for recruits.

Breaking this chain would seem to be a top priority.

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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.

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