Weapons of the weak? On social exclusion and radicalization

Social scientists have increasingly turned, in recent years, to explaining radicalization (Khosrokhovar 2016Gambetta and Hertog 2016). While consensus has been reached that there is no single cause of why an individual would radicalize, we have concurred that marginalization and exclusion does not undermine radicalization. In fact, marginalization from mainstream society is almost always a key factor in fomenting extremist views.  

In a New York Times article celebrated French Sociologist Farhad Khosrovkhovar writes “The typical trajectory of most French Islamist terrorists follows four steps” beginning with “alienation from the dominant culture, thanks partly to joblessness and discrimination in blighted neighborhoods.”

During my own research in European mosques, I too encountered narratives of exclusion cum radicalization, with community advocates explaining a combination of social and economic marginalization met with online communities fostering a novel sense of belonging. A youth worker in the Tower Hamlets neighborhood explained how the online glamorization of ISIS attracts those facing exclusion in their lived realities. It offers an outlet for those who must fear gang fights on their way to school; caught inside of intergenerational webs of poverty; without social supports or future opportunities. One of the three schoolgirls that left East London to join ISIS in 2015, shocking the British capital, wrote on her twitter feed: “I feel like I don’t belong in this era.”

Sociologists have long understood the vitality of belonging for integration and security. There is palpable danger in policies that seek to alienate entire religious or ethnic groups from the mainstream. We have seen this in the Warsaw Ghetto of the 1930s and the Parisian Banlieue of today. But not all walls can be seen. Symbolic or cultural boundaries hardened in our imaginaries can also act determinately to undermine inclusion (Lamont and Molnar 2002). Social psychologists have warned of this threat. For instance, Lyons Padilla et al. (2015) recently found that those who do not identify strongly with any culture and experience discrimination are far more likely to radicalize. Such “cultural homelessness” (Lyons Padilla) or “disenchantment” (Hafez and Mullins 2015) leads to a desperate search for belonging.

And some find themselves at the conclusion of this search belonging—if not to mainstream society, in radicalized circles. These are more often than not individuals without religious education or strong family ties, born Muslims who have suddenly turned or returned to faith (Khosrokhovar 2016). In his celebrated book on Malaysian peasants, Anthropologist James L. Scott designated “weapons of the weak, everyday forms of social resistance.” Faith has become a modern weapon of the weak. Here it is employed as an extraordinary form of social resistance by the most socially excluded.

Fomenting exclusion to undermine terror is not only fallacious but supremely dangerous.

Lines of Exclusion: What Muslim Europeans and African Americans have in common

During an interview barely sustained on the weak wifi network of my family’s rural American farm, a European-Muslim slam poet talked to me about prejudice. “Muslims,” she said, “our blood has become too cheap.” In a 2015 op-ed published in the New York Times, French Sociologist Farhad Khosrokhavar revealed shocking statistics pertaining to  French Muslims—7-10% of the national population, yet nearly half of the prison population. On the other side of the Atlantic, in the United States, African Americans— 13% of the current national populace—make up nearly half of the prison population, according to NAACP, with African American men the primary recipients of police brutality and misguided deaths.

The parallels don’t stop there.

Social science research has exclusively compared the experiences of Muslims in Europe and the United States; or African-origin groups on both sides of the Atlantic. Yet this other comparison proves fruitful for understanding patterns of exclusion. In the United States, we remain fixated on the color line—both explicitly, in institutionalized racism, and implicitly, in our everyday lives. New migrants are cast as “white” or “non-white” to fit with this paradigm. Race simply matters more than ethnicity or religion in how we other entire minority groups. This is not to deny the deep stigma faced by Muslims vis a vis religious identity today. Yet even this politically-fraught religious group faces racialization, as Sociologist Saher Selod shows in her in-depth study of South Asian and Arab Muslim Americans, upon whom the American racial hierarchy has become imposed. The trauma, or what author Toni Morrison terms “rememory” of slave history cuts deeply into the souls of the African American community. We also see it reflected in today’s burgeoning political reality; in the racialized violence of Chicago’s city streets; in the continuous police killings of unarmed African American. In America, African Americans remain associated with fear, threat, violence and volatility.

In Europe, religious identity itself is the means of exclusion. This has developed over time. In the mid-20th century, guestworkers and post-colonials (many Muslims) migrated en masse to Europe. Over time, they became perceived not as migrants, but ethnically—and today religiously—other. The dividing line is not “white”/“non-white”, but rather “secularism rooted in Judeo-Christian culture”/“Islam.” Fear that a Re-Re-Conquista will occur remains eerily present in the once-Islamic geography of Spain, where praying Muslims have been arrested in the Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba. The rise—and success, as we have seen in the case of Brexit—of the far-right wing on “Anti-Islam” platforms points to the pointedness of this boundary to belonging. The Pew Research center has found that concerns related to major refugee migrations relate directly to views of Muslims across Europe. In Europe, Muslims are feared in the form of a terror specter, a worst case scenario of unpredictability, irrationality, willingness to risk life and limb.

Those we fear, we demonize and criminalize. I am certainly not the only one who has recognized this parallel, born in a country of prisons overflowing with African American men, and—in my adulthood—a scholar of Muslim life in Germany, Great Britain and Spain. In fact, Muslim youth in Europe, such as the banlieue of France, have begun to reach out to African American activists.

Former president FDR was right to say that we should fear fear. There is more to fear, however, than fear itself. We must fear divisions. And we must fear, perhaps most of all the myths made to foster divisions that move from clay—soft, malleable—to cemented, man-made walls. These myths displace the hard realities of racial disparity here in America; or across the ocean with our allies, who use the same strategies albeit along another line—of religious identity—to divide. The far-right has driven these divisions home, by leaving us in darkness with the supposed threat of the “Muslim” or “black”, rather than reflecting upon the changing, economically-disparate reality that we must navigate. It is easier to hate than to change, easier to divide than to unite, easier to place the blame outside of ourselves rather than relinquish. Yet these stories that ignore histories come at a dangerously high price. They undermine not just America or Europe as a strived-for idea(l), but the most skeletal form of ethics that humanity ought to hold above enduring entitlement.