By Kamran Bokhari
Summary While jihadists are waging war against the West, they are engaged in a far more profound conflict with the majority of their fellow Muslims. It is this war within Islam that will shape not just Muslim-majority countries but the relations between the West and the Muslim world. Muslim communities in the West that straddle both geopolitical realms form a critical element in this complex triangular struggle. American Muslims will likely play a critical role in the war against the jihadists both in the West and in the Muslim world.
Last week, the Islamic State issued a hit list of 21 prominent Western Muslim figures. In an article titled “Kill the Imams of the Kufr [Disbelief] in the West” published in the latest issue of its online magazine, Dabiq, IS listed its targets, the majority of whom are American Muslims along with a few from Canada, the U.K. and Australia. The list includes Democratic Congressman Keith Ellison, former senior counterterrorism official at the State Department Rashad Hussain, top aide to U.S. presidential candidate Hillary Clinton Huma Abedin and former Department of Homeland Security advisor Mohamed Elibiary. The religious figures targeted hail from diverse sectarian and ideological backgrounds and include a number of Salafists.
That this list largely targets American Muslims suggests that IS does not expect to find much support in Muslim communities in the United States. This is in contrast to Europe, where it has been able to make far greater inroads for recruitment purposes. Thus, IS feels it has little to lose by attacking a large group of American Muslim leaders, as opposed to singling out a few from other Western countries who have taken a strong stance against the jihadist group. It understands the Western Muslim landscape and is cognizant of the differences that exist within this broad population.
Muslims in Europe
IS knows that American Muslims are better integrated into their national mainstream – much more so than their counterparts in other Western countries. However, IS has still managed to find recruits in the United States. A December 2015 report by the Program on Extremism at George Washington University’s Center for Cyber & Homeland Security details the scope of IS-related radicalization. However, the scale of jihadist and other radical Islamist influence in the United States and Canada is nowhere near that in Europe.
There are a number of reasons for this. Foremost is the fact that, in Europe, ethno-nationalism seriously limits immigrants from joining the mainstream and fosters an identity crisis within immigrant communities. European countries lack the civic nationalism that is the hallmark of the United States and allows immigrants from diverse backgrounds to become part of the American mainstream. Nationalism in European countries is deeply connected to the dominant ethnic group (French, German, Spanish, Italian, etc.), which facilitates isolation of immigrant communities.
In addition, economic conditions as well as the European political economy add to the alienation. Unemployment and the generous welfare systems create the time and space in which disaffected individuals can turn to radical ideologies. Moreover, although immigration laws are now being tightened, especially in the wake of the migrant crisis, historically loose regulations allowed radicals and even violent extremists to settle in many European countries, including the United Kingdom.
For Muslim immigrants, European secularism serves as another key arrestor to integration. Perceived as an irreligious creed, Muslim communities seek to insulate themselves from secularism and in the process tend to swing towards deeply conservative interpretations of Islam. By no means is this uniform across the various European Muslim communities, but it is disproportionately the case. Many Muslims on the Continent find it difficult to balance their religious and national identities.
It is important to note that American secularism, with its emphasis on religious neutrality, has allowed for better integration of Muslims into mainstream American life. In a recent report on countering violent extremism, I detailed how American Muslims constitute a very diverse group of communities. Therefore, there are variations in the extent to which different Muslim groups are integrated into the American mainstream. The war on terror, now in its 15th year, has had an impact on this process, but by and large Muslims in the United States, where “American Muslim” is emerging as a distinct identity, remain better integrated than in Europe.
Unsurprisingly, IS has threatened American Muslim leaders more directly than those in other Western countries. Not only has the group had less success in gaining followers in the United States, but it also sees American Muslims as a threat to its objectives. Its entire worldview is premised on the Islam versus the West narrative, which runs into deep problems if Muslims in the United States do not see any contradiction between their American and Muslim identities. More important, the Islamic State is unable to dismiss the American Muslim experience as an exceptional case of Muslims vehemently disagreeing with its radical interpretation of Islam.
Despite the problems across the Muslim world, even Muslim-majority countries are seeing growing efforts to tackle religious violence and intolerance. The United States, and American Muslims in particular, are deeply involved in these efforts. At a time when Islamist radicalism is flowing from Muslim-majority countries to Western nations, Western ideas – particularly democracy – are also flowing in the other direction. This is happening at a grassroots level, in contrast to the top-down imposition of secularism by post-colonial autocratic Muslim regimes, which created the social, political and economic conditions that facilitated the rise of Islamism and jihadism.
Given the geopolitical conditions, it is understandable that this latter flow of ideas and values is not getting enough coverage. It is natural for the focus to be on the spread of Islamist radicalization in the West. Secularism remains a difficult concept for many Muslims to adopt, even in the United States. A good deal of the modern Muslim religio-political discourse continues to privilege medieval jurisprudence and theology. The Muslim world continues to struggle with the role of religion in politics. In many ways, this issue is at the heart of the internal conflict among Muslims.
However, the magnitude of radical Islamism cannot be fully understood without looking at the arrestors in its path. The American view of secularism, which emphasizes state neutrality toward religion yet allows ample space for religions to flourish in civil society, is something that many Muslims find acceptable.
In fact, this conception of religion in public affairs is being seen as a potential model to combat religious violence and manage doctrinal diversity in Muslim countries. The Islamic State and other similar forces in the Muslim world fear the spread of this viewpoint. The degree to which this concept will gain currency in Muslim-majority countries depends on how American Muslims are perceived, both in terms of their economic and ideological status. Therefore, the anti-Muslim rhetoric coming out of the American presidential election campaign works well for IS and like-minded forces whose political aims are based on polarization between the Muslim and Western worlds.
The Complex Triangular Conflict
What we have is a triangular conflict between jihadists and their opponents, with the majority of Muslims caught in the middle. On one hand, there is the war that the jihadists are waging against the West. On the other hand, an intense struggle is taking place between jihadists and their Muslim opponents. These two wars are as much physical as they are ideological. Furthermore, they are intertwined in a complex way.
The Islamic State is in the process of building on al-Qaida’s strategy of attacking the United States and the West to effect change in Muslim-majority countries. In this way, it is simultaneously fighting on two fronts against the West and the Muslim majority. Just as fighting the West is a key tool for the jihadists to enhance their position in the Muslim world, Muslims fighting jihadists is a critical component in the West’s efforts against jihadists.
The majority of Muslims are caught between these two wars. Since most Muslim-majority states are as much part of the problem as they have to be part of the solution, the United States cannot solely rely on the governments in the Arab/Muslim world. This is where American Muslims have a critical interlocutor role to play. To what extent this will actually happen remains to be seen but for the Islamic State, American Muslims are perhaps the most dangerous of all its enemies. The war within Islam will be much more signifiant in determining the success or failure of the struggle against jihadism than the war between radical Muslims and the West.