Islamic Radicalism in Europe: Demographics and disenchantment

While the attacks in Paris were not unexpected, they highlight an issue that very few wish to confront, simply because no easy solutions are available—Europe’s demographic problem.

Statistical analysis of terrorism has shown that political violence is even more dependent on demographics—specifically on the percentage of unemployed young men in a population—than it is on ideology.  Both factors have come together in France to produce an explosive mix.

Expectations and Returns

The attacks in Paris were shocking, but not unexpected, given the complicated sociological situation in France. The country has the largest Muslim minority population in Europe—and arguably, the least integrated. For years, young French Muslim men have been leaving the country in a steady trickle to fight in Jihadi conflicts in Afghanistan, Yemen, Iraq and Syria. French authorities have long feared that some of these young men would return to put their training into practice in the cities of France.

But now there’s a new threat: Jihadi propagandists are urging would-be Jihadis to stay home and ply their trade in their own countries. Jihadi training manuals and “virtual courses” abound. Connections are made online, and recruits are taught where and how to acquire the weapons they need to carry out attacks.

Jihadists see themselves as fighting a global war defending pure Islam against the forces of decadent Western civilization and its puppets in the Islamic world. Ironically, Western countries have come to see this conflict in virtually the same terms as do the Islamists—as a clash of civilizations. However, it would be more accurate to view this as a “clash of globalizations”: the Islamist “Dar al-Islam” versus the Western free-market liberal-democratic system.

But ideology is only part of the picture. An even more crucial element is one which is often too controversial to mention—demographics.

The demographic puzzle

Over the course of twenty years at the Institute for Counter-terrorism, we tracked individual “militants” as they formed connections with each other and with different organizations. One of the first things to surface out of the statistics was the fact that most of these people fit into clear demographic profiles. The rank and file tended to be males between 16 and 25, usually from lower economic echelons with little hope of jobs or family, and thus no real empathy with stable society. The elites tended to be males between 19 and 40 from middle class families, well-educated and often married with children.

But what was especially of concern was the fact that a certain portion of the first demographic became radicalized in virtually all societies we surveyed. Affluent countries were no exception; it’s just that the overall percentage in this demographic was lower in those countries. But once the number in that demographic reached a certain percentage of the population, law and order began to disintegrate and violence became increasingly acceptable.

And then came the real shocker: these profiles were the same across all organizations—from militant Marxist groups in South America to homicidal futurists in Japan to Jihadis in Iraq. Ideology was not the main driver—demographics was.

But why? Why did young men in this age bracket go in for such a variety of radical causes—from Marxism to Islamism? One conjecture was that these causes promise a certain degree of risk for the sake of something greater than the self. That type of risk is particularly attractive to males of a certain age, probably for solid biological reasons. These young men are acting on something far more basic than simple ideology. The ideological component is merely the rationalization, which is why the same people will seize on any available ideology to get their fix.

Organizations that counter radicalization, such as the Quilliam Foundation, don’t try to dampen the attraction of “noble causes”; they know the effort would be doomed to failure. Instead, they attempt to substitute a different—less violent—version of the same cause.

An ideology of Nihilism meets a Nihilism of Ideology

But if ideology is irrelevant in the case of who, it is of supreme relevance in the choice of whom to attack, and how.  It is no coincidence that media outfits are on the front lines, both as actors and as battlefield. In a sense, this war is being waged at the “expression” level of society, rather than the “existential” level; it is a war between rival narratives. Violence is the trademark expression of the Islamist culture. It is not just a means to an end, but an end in itself. Satire, cynicism, a sense of unease at deeply-held beliefs…all are expressions of the Western culture with which Islamism sees itself at war.

Of course, terrorism has always been a form of psychological warfare—an attempt to sway public opinion rather than defeat the enemy in open combat. Classical terrorism is analogous to a virus, which transmits its “genetic message” through the legitimate means of information transferal of the society on which it preys, thus altering the society’s perception of itself and the world around it. In essence, classical terrorism aims to replace a society’s worldview with its own, just as a virus replaces the host’s genetic material with its own.

The threat is compounded by the fact that our society is more connected and more information-based than any society of the past. The media have become a fragmented battlefield of opinions and perceptions, where the truth or falsehood of any particular idea is less important than how often the idea gets repeated or passed on.

The increasing media-dependence has also impacted the way immigrants integrate (or fail to integrate) into their new countries. In the past, immigrants were effectively isolated from their former countries, and faced a pressure to adopt the cultural values of their host society. The Internet has eliminated much of this isolation, and thus considerably reduced the informational and social pressures leading to assimilation.

In addition, the “echo chamber effect” of relying on insider-approved sources of information encourages intra-group solidarity and renders group members increasingly impervious to contrary sources of information.

And yet, even in today’s informationally-fragmented world, the larger society’s media images still have an impact. There was a time when young men who wanted to seem “bad ass” would join biker clubs or street gangs. Those were the cultural icons of power and danger at the time, and attracted exactly the same demographic as we saw in our terrorism database.

Every culture has its own image of the “bad boy”—the anti-social misfit out to change the world. But it’s the culture at large that chooses what images it projects onto its at-risk youth.  Paradoxically, the media hype around al-Qaida and the Global Jihad has added to the movement’s mystique, marking it as the political cause of choice for a generation of disenchanted young people.

The fact that Western society has largely lost faith in the idea of the nation-state—thus tacitly agreeing with part of the Jihadi agenda—probably has had an impact as well. Western culture has lost its sense of mission, while at the same time keeping the spotlight on those whose sense of mission is all too real.

The media is not to blame for this state of affairs; it is merely the projection of our own hopes, fears, and desires. If it appears to have acquired a life of its own, that life comes from us.

About the Author
Yael Shahar has spent most of her career working in counter-terrorism and intelligence, with brief forays into teaching physics and astronomy. She now divides her time between writing, off-road trekking, and learning Talmud with anyone who will sit still long enough. She is the author of Returning, a haunting exploration of Jewish memory, betrayal, and redemption.
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