This week’s standoff between Donald Trump and the parents of slain Muslim American soldier Humayun Khan is the latest example of the Republican presidential nominee’s relentless Islamophobia. But Trump’s divisive rhetoric may backfire and bring about more domestic terrorism, according to one extremism expert.
Why? Because multiculturalism can be a powerful safeguard against radicalization. But when Muslims feel excluded from the country they live in, they are far more susceptible to recruiting by groups like the self-described Islamic State, also known as ISIS.
France and Belgium provide chilling examples of the consequences, according to Christopher Meserole, a Brookings Institute researcher. He describes a “French connection” between disenfranchisement and radicalization in France, Belgium and former French-administered territories like Tunisia and Lebanon ― where he argues that a unique, rigid concept of national identity alienates Muslim residents.
For example, there have been many campaigns against headscarves in French-speaking countries, making it difficult for Muslim citizens to reconcile their religious and national heritage, according to Meserole.
What does that mean for Americans? If rigid national identity spurs radicalization, as Meserole argues, our country’s history of religious diversity may have the opposite effect ― that is, if Trump’s divisive, Islamophobic rhetoric doesn’t win out.
We asked Meserole to tell us more about his research on radicalization and what it could mean for America in the age of Trump.
You have linked Francophone political culture to radicalism in France and Belgium. What exactly is it about the politics of those two countries that may alienate vulnerable youth?
In France, there are widely shared norms about how to best limit the role of religion in public life. Those norms are rooted in a concept called “laïcité,” a term which refers to the strict separation of church and state.
For some Muslims in France, the implication of laïcité is that it’s not possible to be both French and Muslim. Obviously, there are many French Muslims who would disagree with that conclusion. But for Muslims who believe faith is more important than nationality, or even just those who believe their faith demands that they appear or behave a certain way in public, it can be a fraught balance, and lead to alienation from the mainstream of French society.
How does American politics differ from French politics, in a general sense?
The concept of laïcité may sound similar to the secular government we have in the U.S., but it’s actually a bit different. Here, we’ll often talk about maintaining a “wall of separation” between church and state. But that term refers to a phrase Thomas Jefferson used in a personal letter, not to anything in the Constitution.
And in any case, American secularism isn’t about keeping religion out of public life altogether; it’s about making sure the government doesn’t treat any one religion differently another. That’s why you’ll see American politicians simultaneously talk about the importance of secular governance while also stressing, quite publicly, how important faith is to their lives. Think of Hillary Clinton quoting Methodist dogma at length as she accepted her nomination last week.
By contrast, in France, there’s a famous 1905 law separating church and state, which was passed in response to the historical influence of the Catholic Church in French politics. Unlike in the U.S., the law really does strictly ban religious expressions in public life, and over time the “laique” norms underlying the law have come to enjoy enormous popular support. For a French politician to quote religious dogma approvingly in a major speech, as Clinton did, would be unusual.
“It’s not just the jihadists saying Islam and democracy aren’t compatible, but prominent politicians appearing to say it too.”
Besides speaking French, what other variables have you found that correlate with rates of radicalization? Do any of them apply to America at this time?
Youth unemployment is one, but it seems to be more of a problem in Europe and North Africa than the United States. We certainly have pockets of youth unemployment here, but thankfully not quite to the same extent as in other countries.
What do public campaigns against the veil (such as those undertaken in France and Québec, Canada) have to do with ostracizing Muslims?
The main strategy of ISIS is what it calls “eliminating the gray zone.” Its main goal in attacking countries in the West is to provoke Western governments into cracking down on their Muslim populations, to the point where Muslims will be forced to choose between being Western and being Muslim. ISIS thinks that if they can force that choice, then many Muslims will choose them.
The issue with banning the veil is that, at least for the Muslim communities who believe the veil is an authentic expression of faith, it forces a similar choice. If you think piety requires you to wear certain dress in public, and that dress is banned from public places, then you would have to choose between your faith on the one hand, and participating in society on the other. There wouldn’t be room to be Muslim and also a public citizen.
Even if the veil isn’t literally outlawed, does the discourse itself have an alienating effect?
Yes, I think so. The discourse around bans is probably more important than the bans themselves. Even if a headscarf bill doesn’t pass, so long as a major politician pushes the bill ― and defends it by saying that the values it represents are not compatible with democratic values ― then that can be enough to plant a seed. And for the jihadist pitching a new recruit, they just need the seed to already be there in the recruit’s head.
It’s much easier to convince someone to join the jihadist cause if they already have strong prior beliefs that religious and national identities aren’t compatible. Put differently, it’s much easier for a recruiter if their recruits are hearing the same message from the other side, too ― if it’s not just the jihadists saying Islam and democracy aren’t compatible, but prominent politicians appearing to say it too.
What do you think are the effects of Donald Trump’s proposed “Muslim ban” on American Muslims? Is this dangerous?
I started this project around the time Trump floated the idea. At that point, I thought the ban was a bad idea, but mostly on moral grounds ― a ban would go against everything that, in my view, makes America great.
At this point, though, I also think it’s patently dangerous. A travel ban obviously isn’t quite the same as veil ban, but it would play into jihadist recruiter’s hands in much the same way.
How can Americans help blunt the effects of Islamophobia?
Give more voice to Muslims. There are a lot more American Muslims now than there were 20 or 30 years ago. But Muslims are still a small percentage of the population, and they tend to be clustered in major urban areas. As a result, a lot of Americans don’t know any Muslims personally, which means their only exposure to Muslims is through the news ― often in the aftermath of terrible tragedies.
I would love to see more voice given to Muslims. A large part of the attention Khizr and Ghazala Khan have gotten lately owes to the extraordinary sacrifice their family has made, and the way that sacrifice alone pushes back against Trump’s rhetoric.
But I also wonder whether part of the response has to do with it being the first time many Americans have heard two Muslim voices speak with such decency and wisdom and eloquence. That’s not because other Khizr and Ghazala Khans don’t exist. It’s because we haven’t found a way yet to give them a platform.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article misstated that Lebanon and Tunisia were former French colonies. Although they were both part of France’s second colonial empire, Tunisia was a protectorate and Lebanon was under a French mandate.