A conversation with Jytte Klausen about European Islam

Jytte KlausenJytte Klausen, Brandeis University professor of comparative politics, recently led a discussion at the Council on Foreign Relations, in Washington, DC, on “European Islam and Transatlantic Relations.” Council discussions are conducted on a not-for-attribution basis “to promote a frank and open exchange of views,” according to council officials, but Professor Klausen gave her views on some of the subjects taken up at the roundtable in the following interview. Klausen’s most-recent book is “The Challenge of Islam: Politics and Religion in Western Europe.” Her next book, “The Little Drawings that Shook the World,” about editorial cartoons of the prophet Mohammed that were published in Europe in 2006 and became the focus of an international uproar, will be published next autumn.

BrandeisNOW: You said in your recent presentation at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington that jihadism is a youth movement. What do you mean by that?

Jytte Klausen: When we look at the people who have been recruited in Europe and North America to fight as holy warriors abroad in Afghanistan and Chechnya, and in recent years in Iraq, or to participate in terrorist attacks in the West, they have been young people, sometimes as young as 15, 16 years old when they have first gotten involved. The reason I call it a youth movement is that the ideas and the support for global jihad – with the glorification of martyrdom, the new just state for Muslims, and all that sort of revolutionary utopian ideas – appeal to very young people.

BrandeisNOW: So you’re saying it is kids or almost kids doing it because they feel they are doing something pure and good, not something that comes from anger or resentment?

JK: Yes. There is no evidence that they are socio-economically deprived. Often when it comes to public attention or to the courtroom you will have teachers and others say `But they were excellent students….’  At some point in time they turn against their parents and are lost to the family, and often it is even the family that first calls police. Young women are involved as well, not as much as suicide bombers but they play very important roles in the networks, developing the websites, and since girls are better at languages running the chat rooms.

BrandeisNOW: The day before you were at the Council for Foreign Relations, the director of the FBI was there and spoke about recruitment of Somali American youth in Minneapolis. So you’re suggesting we should understand this recruitment as the appeal of jihadism to youth, not as indication that Muslims are in a bad way in Minneapolis and it makes Minneapolis a fertile recruiting ground.

JK: That’s right. In fact, the scenario in Minneapolis is very comparable to the scenarios we have had in Europe. I do not think that there is a European exceptionalism or American exceptionalism.

BrandeiSNOW: Yet many people believe Islamic extremism in the West is rooted in feelings that Muslims are discriminated against and, particularly in Europe, systematically isolated.

JK:  Well, people have thought that, based on the 9/11 plotters, who were, for the most part, sitting around in an apartment in Hamburg complaining about their life in Germany and plotting. But they were recruited and managed by operatives from Al Qaeda and primed in Afghanistan. In retrospect, we can now see that all of the conspiracies we have had that have been really important have consisted of young people recruited by veterans of the Islamist revolutionary movements in the Middle East, Bosnia, Afghanistan or Pakistan, often dating back to the mid-1980s.

BrandeisNOW: Are there valid reasons for regarding the Muslim populations of America and North America differently from any other immigrants?

JK: Yes and no. Muslims who came to Europe in the ‘50s and ‘60s until legal labor immigration immigration was officially ended with the oil crisis in 1974 came directly from villages and rural areas in Turkey, Morocco or Bangladesh.They brought the practices and the habits of peasants with them. Therefore, we see the most concentrated socioeconomic disadvantage in those groups. The descendants of people who came in the first waves do much worse than the people who came later, who were much more middle class and educated. And Muslims who migrated to the United States, generally speaking, came after 1985 and were much better educated or professionals. They came with college degrees, university degrees. And you see in income statistics, they’re on average wealthier than the average American.

BrandeisNOW: So you’re sort of suggesting that the poorer ones who came, we need to be concerned with this poverty to make them good citizens, but not because they have any connection to the potential for terrorism?

JK: Terrorism in Europe does not grow out of the disadvantaged pockets. Generally speaking, if you look at what happens at most, you get gangs or you get the usual, dysfunctional youth groups because of poor housing, poor education, high drop out rates. And yes, the Paris riots.

BrandeisNOW: It seems to me that there is some resistance to accepting this. I think you’re making a very good case for it. Is there official resistance to this analysis and if so, why?

JK: No. What I’m saying here has been the operating understanding among police in Europe and the United States in the past couple of years, if not more.

BrandeisNOW: Do the governments and the diplomats accept it too?

JK: Many politicians do not. The political debates are in a different place. Particularly in Europe, the hostility to Muslims actually predates both 9/11 and the March 2004 Madrid train bombing attack and the July 2005 attacks in London. Europe has always scored quite high on our measurements of inter-religious dislike and those numbers have in recent years gotten much, much worse. I believe you can thank politicians for that. There are votes to be had by saying that immigrants and Muslims in particular are the source of the collapse of national mores.

BrandeisNOW: When you say that there was anger at what Muslims were doing that predated 9/11 and the Madrid attacks, you mean what they were doing by maintaining separate religious identities and asserting their own traditions and religion?

JK: Wearing the headscarf, having strange foods – all those things that Europeans are not terribly tolerant of.

BrandeisNOW: You have a new book coming out in the fall about the February 2006 uproar over depictions of the Prophet Mohammed in European newspaper cartoons. What are your core findings about what this was all about?

JK: There were many different angles and different actors. But, at the core, it started out as a diplomatic protest organized by the Egyptian government, which wanted to turn the tables on the United States human rights agenda by showing that Westerners discriminate and do not practice what they preach. The goal was to defeat the strategy of promoting democracy in the Middle East as a forward strategy for US interests. The Egyptians were feeling the pressure very hard in 2005 and wanted to teach the United States about what happens if you start having elections in the Middle East. The lesson came home, and we subsequently had Hamas’s victory in Gaza in January 2006. There was also the Lebanese election in June 2005 [in which Hezbollah gained strength], and so by the end of 2006, the United States pretty much gave up on the promotion of elections as a measure of reform and change. The international mobilization over the cartoon issue went from a diplomatic protest in fall 2005 to one that was primarily engaging the religious authorities, and then into the violent street protests that we saw starting in February 2006. The cartoon issue lives on in the UN, where the Islamic countries are pushing to make criticism of religious figures – a neutral-sounding term for Islam and The Prophet Mohammad -- human rights offense.

BrandeisNOW: So since 9/11, we’ve had Madrid and London and the cartoons and Hamas and Lebanon. We’ve also had these sorts of constructive meetings that you are talking about in Europe, and you made reference in your Council of Foreign Relations remarks to good relations engendered by the American diplomats having more consultations with Muslims in Europe. So on balance, what’s happened since 9/11? Are things much changed in terms of the quality of relations between Muslims in the West and their Jewish and Christian neighbors, for better or for worse?

JK: Yes. First of all, socioeconomic mobility works. On the one hand, we have deep pockets of poverty in Europe among Muslims and other immigrants, but we also have the development of a Muslim middle class. And you see a lot of young professionals who have gone to a university, gotten degrees and gotten good jobs. They report the highest rate of Islamophobia and fears of discrimination. But the reality is that they have those fears because they’re knocking on the doors and they want to be let in. There are now about 25 to 30 Muslim parliamentarians, members of Europe’s parliaments. There are Muslim [government] ministers. People have started to have Muslims as friends. There’s inter-marriage. So all the bad news that you see actually misrepresents [the situation], which is a new social reality of tremendous integration and some measure of success. It’s become clear to everybody, I would argue, that international jihadism is a plague on both houses. Muslims are the first victims of this murderous movement.

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