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In search of the triggers to Muslim radicalization

Is there any way to pinpoint which factors lead to radicalization of Muslims, or to predict which countries will produce foreign fighters joining groups such as the Islamic State?

These are the types of questions researchers such as Chris Meserole and Will McCants of the Brookings Institution have been studying. The two, who first discussed their research in a Foreign Affairs essay last March, have used powerful computational methods to pinpoint factors that strongly correlate with the radicalization of Muslims. They sifted through large amounts of data related to foreign fighters in Syria and socioeconomic parameters, and found that four of the five countries that have the highest foreign-fighter index score – Tunisia, Lebanon, Belgium and France – are francophone (i.e., they have, or have had, French as a national language).

The researchers also found that the lingua franca is the biggest factor that correlates with radicalization – almost twice as much as youth unemployment and urbanization. At first glance, it seems absurd that French is tied to extremism. However, they postulated that the French language is a proxy for French political culture, commonly known as laïcité, which imposes strict limits on the public expressions of faith.

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A follow-up study by the two researchers probed deeper into laïcité, and found that the banning of the hijab/niqab, and the divisive public debate surrounding such edicts, seemed to trigger a jump in the number of Muslims leaving to fight in Syria. In 2010, not long before the start of the Syrian civil war, both France and Belgium passed laws banning the face veil. France had also banned the hijab in public schools in 2004, putting basic religious freedom into question, according to research by Melanie Adrian, a Carleton University professor. Tunisia began strict enforcement of a law banning hijabs in 2006, which remained in place until 2011.

In all three countries, public debates framed the issue as one of incompatibility between laïcité and Muslim expression of faith. This was the exact message that Islamic State propagates: One cannot be Muslim and live in the West. The Islamic State strategy is to eliminate the so-called grey zone, a space for meaningful co-existence between Muslims and non-Muslims, and a melding of values and ideas for the enrichment of society.

The idea that toxic rhetoric surrounding Muslim identity can serve as a trigger toward radicalization was given credence by the debate about the Quebec Charter of Values, introduced in the fall of 2013. The bill would have placed restrictions on the hijab and niqab in public spaces. The public debate at times descended into xenophobia about Muslims, and whether they belonged in Quebec. Amarnath Amarasingam, who researches extremism at the University of Waterloo and George Washington University, unearthed compelling information: Before September, 2013, only two Quebec Muslims had left to fight in Syria, whereas 14 left soon after the bill was introduced. Mr. Amarasingam, cited in the Brookings follow-up study, said that interviews with families and friends of the fighters confirmed that those who left "had experienced a general sense of discrimination and racism in the Quebec context, but the Charter was kind of the straw that broke the camel's back."

Last month, the Montreal-based Centre for the Prevention of Radicalization Leading to Violence issued a report suggesting that a number of factors affect vulnerable Quebec youth in the radicalization process, such as social identity, psychology, family dynamics and external factors. The latter seems to confirm the findings of the Brookings researchers, namely that polarizing government stances, toxic debates and extremist propaganda that feeds into alienation combine to trigger certain individuals.

The timing of toxic rhetoric is predictable: Elections now bring forth politicians who seek office by preying on the fears of voters. They calculate that alienation of Muslim communities is worth the votes gained elsewhere. They also know that this feeds into the Islamic State narrative, and vow to get tough on terrorism. Such a political strategy contributes to the pool of disaffected youth who struggle with questions of identity and belonging. This damages social cohesion, and is highly dangerous. Citizens should demand better from the political class, and work themselves to strengthen the common ties of humanity that bind us.

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