Muslim extremism stems from alienation

The recent arrest of Farooque Ahmed on charges of conspiring with undercover law enforcement officers to bomb metro stations in the greater DC area has once again turned attention to the growing problem of “homegrown” terrorist threats emerging on the fringes of the Muslim American community. While this overdetermined phenomenon lacks a single, discrete cause or simple profile, some rough outlines can be confidently sketched about the nature and motivation of this form of extremism.

First and foremost, these “lone wolf” or spontaneous homegrown eruptions of Al Qaeda-inspired terrorist impulses, like most forms of domestic terrorism, would appear to be principally the result of alienation. This alienation, from mainstream American society and
culture or US government policies, sets the stage in an individual’s mind for an interest in extremist ideology. Particularly when combined with personal crises or meltdowns, alienation, extremist ideology and despair are frequently found at the basis of violent outbursts or impulses.

In the case of domestic Muslim extremism, alienation is almost always not only from mainstream American society, but from the mainstream Muslim American community as well. In almost all recent cases of domestic Muslim extremism, the accused have been little, if at all, known to local Muslim communities, and almost never engaged in local mosque, community or civic activities. This means that while Muslim Americans will collectively and unfairly pay a price for this kind of extremist sentiment or activity, there is very little their community organizations can do to protect against it.

Such extremists do not have a theology as such, and are largely driven by political rather than religious ideas, although their sense of the political may be expressed through religiously-inflected language. Generally speaking such extremists are motivated by a paranoid and chauvinist worldview akin to ethnic nationalism. This is also true of the more organized self-described “Salafist-Jihadist” groups like Al Qaeda in the Islamic world.

Essentially, this worldview centers on the notion that there is a colonialist and predatory relationship between the West and the Islamic world, motivated by some nefarious purpose ranging from control of the region’s natural resources to a global conspiracy to destroy or defeat Islam as a religious or political force. As with all forms of violent extremism, these individuals see themselves as “fighting back” against an aggressive enemy, although in the Arab and Islamic worlds the fight is focused mainly on local regimes that are seen as either too pro-Western or insufficiently “Islamic,” or both.

The recent spate of cases involving Americans of Pakistani and Afghan origin that seem to be connected to anger about US military presence and activities in Afghanistan or drone strikes in Pakistan demonstrate the connection between some of these extremist sentiments and more widespread objections and even outrage about US policies prevalent in those societies.

This worldview is also the latest soup du jour of an apparently omnipresent appetite for political extremism at the margins of both American society and many parts of the world. It taps into sentiments of alienation, grievance, injustice, righteous anger and implacable opposition to the status quo that would have drawn vulnerable individuals into the orbit of violent ultraleft factions in the 1960s and 70s or the ultraright militia movement in the 1990s, to cite two other recent examples. The apparently disproportionate number of converts to extreme versions of Islam involved in such violent radicalism is another indication of this phenomenon.

The good news is that very few of these cases have resulted in injury or loss of life, and many of them seem to involve individuals with the apparent willingness but not the ability to actually cause harm. In several high-profile cases, undercover law enforcement officers egged these individuals on, sometimes to the point of appearing to border on entrapment.

In other cases, especially involving individuals with military training such as the Fort Hood murder Maj. Nidal Hasan, as with the Oklahoma City bombers Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols, the tragedies have been all too real.

But, while there is no doubt homegrown, spontaneous and “lone wolf” instances of domestic Muslim American extremism are a growing concern, especially for the Muslim American community itself which pays the highest price for such radicalism, the reality is that the actual threat it poses to life and property is, as far as anyone can tell, very limited indeed. As long as it remains, as it is, a marginal phenomenon attracting fringe, alienated and isolated individuals, it will be a challenge with which our society can readily cope.