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Roots of Terror

Alex BakstJuly 7, 2007

Europeans face the specter of a growing terrorist threat in their midst. On the two-year anniversary of the London train bombings, Great Britain can no longer ignore its disaffected Muslim communities.

Muslims UK
Muslim communities in Europe: a parallel society?Image: AP

The United Kingdom has faced more attacks than any other EU country or the United States. Since September 11, 2001, Islamic extremists have carried out at least four major terrorist attacks on British soil.

In the US, by contrast, only one successful attack motivated by Islamic jihad was carried out in late 2001, when letters tainted with a lethal strain of the anthrax virus killed five people.

In an effort to explain why the UK has become a more frequent target of terrorism than the US, analysts have cited the failure of European states to integrate their Muslim populations into mainstream society.

"These are not terror cells operating across borders or exporting holy warriors from the Middle East," said Professor Hans Giessmann of the University of Hamburg. The incidents in London, Glasgow, Madrid and other European cities "have been carried out across the board by homegrown terrorists."

"What we are dealing with here is a spill-over of extremist ideologies into disenfranchised communities within our midst," Giessmann said, suggesting that many of the two million Arabs living in the UK have failed to adapt to the British way of life.

Parallel societies

Breeding ground: A tight-knit Muslim community in Leeds, EnglandImage: AP

A security expert at the London-based Limehouse Group, Hazhir Teimourian, blames England's liberal immigration policies. "This government has done enormous damage with its lax policy on immigration," he said.

Teimourian said the Labor government under former Prime Minister Tony Blair "has given Islamists from all over the world the freedom to set up shop in England."

"The result," he says, "is an increasing ghettoization and alienation of these communities," rendering them highly susceptible to radical Islamic ideologies such as the brand of suicidal jihad (holy war) preached by al Qaeda.

Giessmann agrees that a false sense of tolerance in Europe has led to the emergence of parallel societies where many don't speak the national language.

"These communities don't have an integrated existence, and that makes them susceptible to various forms of radicalization," he said.

Especially the second and third-generation immigrants -- children of the original migrants who came to England after World War Two -- have become increasingly sensitized by 9/11 and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Teimourian said some of these youths were even turning on their parents for "not being Islamic enough."

Indeed, none of the seven suspects arrested in connection with last week's attempted car bomb attacks in London and Glasgow are older than 30.

"In Germany, too, we have finally recognized that integration doesn't function on autopilot," Giessmann said. "The 'Clash of Civilizations' is happening within our own fragmented society, and we have not succeeded in defining a collective identity in the context of a multi-ethnic nation-state."

Germany has a large number of Muslim immigrants, most of them of Turkish descent, who often live in secluded and low-income neighborhoods and have little or no contact with their German peers.

In addition, many Muslims come from rural backgrounds. In Britain, Teimourian observes that "they have a high degree of hatred for Western culture because they don't understand it and feel threatened by it."

Teimourian, who himself is an Iranian Kurd who emigrated to the UK over 50 years ago, decided to raise his own children as Christians under the Church of England "so that they feel more attached to the European identity."

No "Islam Town" in America

Muslims USA
9/11 raised the profile of America's 2.35 million MuslimsImage: AP

American Muslim communities are different. "America is much less tolerant of alienation," Teimourian said, adding that American Muslims "are told, at least implicitly, that they must become American."

As a result, American Muslims by and large do not live together as entities, according to Giessmann. In that regard, Muslims are unlike their Chinese, Italian or other immigrant counterparts, who came to the US much earlier and formed isolated clusters -- "Chinatown" or "Little Italy," for example. There is no "Islam Town" in America.

Historically speaking, the American Muslim community is still in its infancy. And it is being shaped by community leaders such as Zaid Shakir, a progressive Imam in California who has gained widespread popularity by preaching a moderate brand of Islam that meshes well with the American way of life.

In a recent interview with US journalist Bill Moyers, Shakir said there was "an American Muslim culture emerging, which is very important, because then you can get a unique understanding of the religion that would allow the American Muslim to take his or her rightful place amongst the various Muslim communities of the world."

But as a percentage of the population, the Muslim minority in the US is far smaller than in the UK -- 2.35 million Muslims live in the continental United States, or less than one percent of the total population. Muslims in Great Britain make up three percent of the population.

Furthermore, America's Muslim population is more affluent than in the UK. "They are more professional and less like peasants," as Teimourian put it. And Giessmann claims that on average, "these people have been better assimilated into American society."