The European Problem

How American Muslims could become as alienated as European Muslims.

This article appears in conjunction with a special weeklong series on Islam published by On Faith, the Washington Post’s religion blog. To read more, visit On Faith.

The two terrorist attacks known worldwide by their dates—9/11 and 7/7—inspired suspicion of Muslims in communities in both Europe and America. But each one also symbolizes the different relations each continent has with their Muslim populations. On 9/11, America was attacked by Muslims who came here solely for the purpose of attacking it. On 7/7, London was bombed by British Muslims who were products of their own society. What lessons Europe and America each draw from this will determine the future of their Muslims and their national identity.

The Muslim communities of North America and Europe are often compared, with the conclusion that American Muslims are better integrated, less likely to be radicalized than their European counterparts. But as the war on terror proceeds, racial profiling, the lack of direct communication between Muslims and the government, and the use of paid confidential informants to monitor the Muslim community are all causing an increasing rift between American society and Muslims. In the end, these issues could undo the integration that American Muslims have previously achieved and create the same marginalization and exclusion from society facing European Muslims. This alienation became painfully evident two years ago, when the suburbs of Paris were burning in protest after two French Muslim youths were killed trying to run away from police. The barrier of suspicion made it virtually impossible for French authorities to quell the violence. In response, European countries have been busy trying to create “moderate” Muslim organizations for them to interface with. But these organizations carry very little legitimacy among the Muslim communities they supposedly represent. America is fortunate enough to have a strong civil society from which indigenous Muslim organizations are already emerging. But the strained relations that helped cause the French riots could be developing in the United States if America is not careful to avoid Europe’s missteps.

The color-coding of our threat level has not been very good at telling us how to deal with or prevent the actual threats. What has been shown to fight terrorism is local police working with local communities. In last year’s Toledo, Ohio, terror plot, where three men were accused of building bombs to aid the insurgency in Iraq, the Muslim community was credited by the local FBI office with stepping forward to support the terror investigation. But these community/law-enforcement relations are strained, particularly because of the increased use of informants—one of the causes of greater alienation of European Muslims. Europe has a longer history of using informants as a surveillance tool in its Muslim populations.

But there is little evidence that this technique works. The case of Shahawar Siraj Matin illustrates the potential problem of using informants. He came with his family to the United States from Pakistan while in his teens. He worked in his uncle’s Islamic bookstore in Brooklyn, where he began to speak out about his views on Palestine, the Iraq war, and America’s role in the world. Matin was 21 when he was arrested during the 2004 Republican National Convention in New York for plotting to blow up the Herald Square subway station. During his trial, conversations taped by the government informant showed the informant egging him on, saying that the “Brothers”—a fictional terrorist cell created by the NYPD—were counting on him planting the bomb, while Matin is heard saying that he had to go home and ask his mother whether he could do it. This “mama’s boy terrorist” had only a high-school education.

In February 2003, the U.S. District Court had granted the NYPD’s request to modify the Handshu Agreement, which put limits on police surveillance, to allow, among other things, sending police informants into religious institutions, which is already common practice in Europe. This has had a profound impact on Muslims by substantially increasing domestic surveillance of mosques in America. The 2006 conviction of Matin may have been its first public result. Many Muslims felt that Matin’s comments against U.S. foreign policy were being used to paint him as a potential terrorist and that a paid government informant who was decades older than him was pressuring him to plant a bomb in the subway station. The conclusion was that Muslims could not afford to voice their political beliefs.

Historically, the American Muslim immigrant population falls into a higher socioeconomic background than their European counterparts. But like Matin, the next generation of diversity visa winners and others are more similar to European Muslim immigrants. And many of the recent U.S. “terror plots” involve immigrants similar to European ones. While there might not be actual radicalization in the American Muslim community, there is a danger of increasing frustration leading to alienation. In June 2005, Hamid Hayat, a 23-year-old Pakistani-American farmhand with a sixth-grade education, was charged with attending an al-Qaida training camp in Pakistan and being a part of a terror cell in Lodi, Calif. Later that year, Tashnuba Hayder, a 16-year-old Bangladeshi girl who grew up in Queens, N.Y., was accused of being a suicide bomber—though she was ultimately only charged with immigration violations and deported. To the Muslim American community, these cases represented a witch hunt against young Muslims who were being targeted for their interest in Islam and who had limited education or socioeconomic means. They certainly did not demonstrate proof of “homegrown terrorism.” Rather, they were symbols of the disenfranchisement or disillusionment of these young Muslims from the mainstream society. Hayder herself illustrated this tension when she told the New York Times, “The F.B.I. tried to say I didn’t have a life—like, I wasn’t the typical teenager.” While the vast majority of Muslim youth are wondering how they can be civically minded Muslim Americans, the government seems to be stuck on the theme of the radicalization of Muslim American youth. Perhaps they have received too much training in Europe.

European Muslims and American Muslims have not had much in common until now, but if we unreflectively adopt the European view of Muslims as the perpetual “other,” we risk making this true. “Equality not integration” is the rallying cry of European Muslims. Ours is “due process.” Some of our worst laws were passed and later regretted at times of reaction against ethnic communities, from the Palmer Raids of 1919 to today’s Patriot Act. In a land founded by immigrants and the rule of law, our nation’s strength lies in its resilience; our way of life depends on equal opportunity. Europe and European Muslims are suffering from the inability to bring Muslims into the economic and political mainstream. Will America turn its back on its rich heritage of celebrating diversity? Will we start to see Muslims as a “law and order” problem as Europe does, rather than as the next wave of dream-seekers?