How hyper-secular laws create instant terrorists

If you were forced to nominate the most important political story of 2016, you’d have to look far and wide to find a better nominee than the election of Sadiq Khan, the Muslim son of a Pakistani immigrant, as the mayor of London.

Khan’s triumph is more than a story about diversity conquering bigotry. His political success amounts to more than integration succeeding where efforts to marginalize have failed. That one of the world’s most identifiably Western cities has democratically elected a Muslim is not only a historical milestone for multiculturalism, it’s also a major blow to the hypnotic yet erroneous ISIS/jihadist narrative.

“Khan will be a figure of global significance,” declares The New Statesman. “His election is a rebuke to extremists of all stripes, from Donald Trump to Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, who assert that religions cannot peacefully coexist.”

As such, it’s impossible to overstate how big a blow Khan’s electoral success is to ISIS’ effort to convince Muslims living in Western countries that the countries of their residency or citizenship don’t want them. ISIS have called this recruitment strategy “eliminating the grayzone” i.e. forcing Muslims in Western countries to make choice between identifying as Muslim and identifying as Western.

When Western governments overreact to ISIS led terror attacks by targeting Muslim communities with surveillance, harassment, and informants, thus undermining the state’s legitimacy, Osama Bin Laden high-fives the Devil and al-Baghdadi welcomes another batch of foreign fighters.

A critical new study into radicalization by ISIS experts Will McCants and Chris Meserole bears out exactly how important integrating Muslims in Western societies is to defeating the “Islamic” terror threat.

Using data compiled on every known foreign fighter who has travelled to Syria during the period 2011-14, and using a variety of subset data that includes analytics about the country from which each foreign fighter traveled to Syria from, the authors of the study were able to compile a list of the most probable indicators for radicalization.

Excluding those fighters who traveled to Syria from bordering countries, on the understanding that it only makes sense for those bordering countries a conflict to be drawn to it, the study found that the countries that scored highest with what the authors call the “foreign fighter score” to be Tunisia, Belgium, and France – meaning each of these countries produced the most fighters relative to total population divided by Muslim population, and added alongside other societal indicators.

Not only are the three countries – Tunisia, Belgium, and France – clustered well above the remaining countries, but also all, as the authors note, have suffered terror attacks in which thirty or more were killed by “Islamic” terrorists.

Taking this data, McCants and Meserole then sought out to determine what each of these countries had in common. Noting that Tunisia, Belgium, and France are all Francophone countries, the authors dismissed this as “random” rather than meaningful. Instead the authors fed more than 40 “variables that scholars have theorized might have something to do with radicalization” into what’s called a BART algorithm.

Some of those variables included unemployment and poverty rates, literacy rates, average income, GDP, rates of urbanization, forced secularism, and data on political institutions and culture. “The data we used for political institutions included what you might expect, such as how democratic a country is, or how well it protects civil liberties and political rights,” notes Meserole. “However, because we are interested in a form of religious extremism, we also included data on the degree to which the state imposed secularism on its populace, and the degree to which it discriminated against Muslims.”

Of all the variables, it turns out the three most reliable predictors for radicalization equal highly urbanized, French speaking countries that have high youth unemployment rates. “But we don’t believe speaking French has any real effect, and certainly not a negative one. ‘Francophone’ is a proxy for something else. We think that something else is happening in French political culture, specifically the French approach to secularism or laïcité,” observes Meserole.

During recent years, France, Belgium, and Tunisia have each passed a variety of bills that either ban or restrict the wearing of Islamic clothing – notably veils and headscarves.

Twelve months ago, my column argued that France’s hyper-secular laws are increasingly making French Muslims feel like outsiders. Thus partly explaining why a majority of ISIS’ European fighters are French. In fact, a recentreportshows that nearly half of all militants who have travelled from Europe to join ISIS in Iraq and Syria are from France. More than 1,430 French citizens have made their way to the territory held by ISIS, representing 47 percent of militants from Europe.

“What we think matters most here is not the bill or law itself, but the political discourse around it – particularly the way it heightens, for a time, popular conceptions that it is not possible to have both a Western or secular nationalist identity, and also a Muslim one,” says Meserole.

The respective Paris and Brussels attackers were not radicalized on foreign battlefields. They were radicalized at home – in France and Belgium. Moreover, not one of them came from highly religious backgrounds. All were the “bitter fruits of alienation.” All were the products of disadvantaged communities that face absurdly high unemployment rates, and even higher rates of police surveillance and incarceration.

Hyper-secular laws that only further the alienation of Muslims living in European communities feed directly into the ISIS recruitment narrative. Agnes de Feo, a French sociologist who has studied the impact of France’s 2010 ban on the burqa, says the law “created a monster” and noted, “Those who have left to go and fight in Syria say that this law is one of the things that encouraged them. They saw it as a law against Islam. It had the effect of sending a message that Islam was not welcome in France.”

The democratic election of Sadiq Khan to the office of London Mayor sends the exact opposite message – that Islam and Muslims are welcome in European societies – and that they have a political voice. This is why Khan’s success is the most important political story of 2016 thus far.

This article was written by CJ Werleman for American Herald Tribune on May 11, 2016. CJ Werleman is a journalist, political commentator, and author of ‘The New Atheist Threat: the Dangerous Rise of Secular Extremists.

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