It’s hard for many people to fathom why a young Muslim raised in Europe or the United States would essentially abandon hope of returning to the only home they’ve ever known in order to join ISIS in Syria or Iraq.
But it’s happening by the hundreds, even if some security experts say recruitment has slowed since ISIS’s meteoric rise to international notoriety around 2013, when the so-called caliphate took over broad swaths of Iraq and Syria.
There are some differences in motivation between American and European Muslims, in large part because American Muslims hew closely to the rest of the country in terms of income and education, and hold positive views of their communities and believe by a wide margin that they can ascend the economic ladder through hard work, according to Pew.
With the U.S. Congress estimating in September 2015 that about 250 Americans have joined ISIS abroad, there are also generally fewer Americans among ISIS’ foreign-born ranks. In Britain alone the number is an estimated 750.
So the rest of this article will apply more to Europeans, which have far different Muslim populations by virtue of different patterns of migration and other factors.
In a nutshell, why are Europeans joining ISIS? We’ll dig deeper in a minute.
- A sense that the economic system is less open to them – this comes from gaps in employment between Muslims and non-Muslims and documented job discrimination, both of which feel even worst when the country as a whole is suffering from higher-than-normal unemployment
- A sense of isolation and inadequate integration – Muslims flooded into Europe to rebuild the continent after World War II through guest worker programs that existed in many countries, but they retained a stronger sense of their original culture in part because they were clustered in the same places with fellow Muslim immigrants.
- A sense that their religious practices are persecuted – it’s not just backlash over prohibitions again wearing hijabs in public but far more numerous and far less visible ways as well.
- Then, there’s simply the effectiveness of ISIS as a recruiter. It plays on existing connections between fighters and their old communities, uses the Internet well to reach young people, and promises something that many crave – a strong sense of identity with a cause, which has even helped it attract women.
A Belgian economist named Philip Verwimp recently came out with an interesting study that finds it’s not actually poverty among European Muslims that drives ISIS recruitment but exclusion from the labor market. It’s not the only factor, but it is one among many.
Verwimp found that it’s actually the gap in employment between immigrants and nationals that drives ISIS recruitment. Belgium, Sweden, and Denmark have strong social safety nets in terms of preventing abject poverty but massive gaps in employment between 20 and 30 percent. They all have between 30 and 50 fighters in ISIS per million inhabitants.
In the suburbs of Paris, where many Muslim immigrants live, unemployment is over 50 percent, according to a 2015 Al-Jazeera article. A paper from the Migration Policy Institute has found that many of these immigrants struggle in the labor market even after a decade of living in France, attributing these problems to discrimination and too few resources for integration.
2. Isolation and poor integration
American Muslims entered a massive, spread-out country that was built on immigration; most European Muslims came only after World War II, joining cramped and homogenous communities and often with little welcome. There was also a stronger pull to maintain culture in these enclaves, particularly for North African immigrants, according to Robert S. Leiken of the Council on Foreign Relations.
Resentment built as economic opportunity never came for that first generation, which arrived to rebuild a Europe that desperately needed labor. Leiken, quoting the French academic Gilles Kepel, puts it well:
“…neither the blood spilled by Muslims from North Africa fighting in French uniforms during both world wars nor the sweat of migrant laborers, living under deplorable living conditions, who rebuilt France (and Europe) for a pittance after 1945, has made their children … full fellow citizens.”
3. Conflict over Religious Practices
It goes beyond the infamous bans or partial bans on hijabs, burqa, and niqab in France and Belgium. But those are majorly important because they tend to stigmatize and drive Muslim women out of the workforce, according to the Migration Policy Institute.
Governments, rightly or wrongly, also try to restrict some religious practices through citizenship and integration tests, and arrival contracts, according to the Migration Policy Institute. In Denmark, for instance, immigrants have to sign a statement promising to respect individual freedoms and gender equality.
There are also restrictions on religious dress in some public professions and from bearing religious symbols in schools.
There may be good reasons for all these things, but they inflame tension as well with more traditional-minded Muslims.
4. ISIS’ Power as a Recruiter
The importance of this last factor is not to be understated. ISIS’ web savvy through social media and video production allows it to exploit the alienation and economic dislocation already mentioned.
Statistics have also found, according to the BBC, that in most cases people are ultimately persuaded to join by an influential peer. ISIS exploits connections between its fighters and their immediate friends and family back home.
ISIS also has powerful strategies to attract women, where blogs detail the beauty and romance of becoming a jihadi bride, a way to leave one’s past behind and start over, and this is how they have convinced so many teenage girls to join. A famous ISIS recruiter who went by the name Bird of Jannah operated a blog that was extremely well written and her experience seemed like a wonderful experience. For the vast majority of women, it is unlikely to be like this, but once you get there, there is no coming back. These blogs address the issues that Muslim women in Europe face. For example, in one post, the Bird of Jannah writes, “People don’t mock at you just because you’re wearing Niqab. They respect and honor you. People take your advice and don’t tell you not to judge them. When they see you commit an err, they advice you with love. People around you often reminds you of Allāh.” The recruiter makes it seem like a paradise of kindness and love, which by all accounts is very different from reality.
But ISIS does a good job of branding itself as a heroic, life-affirming enterprise for people who are looking for a sense of meaning.
While men may be more attracted to the “macho” side of ISIS – brandishing an automatic weapon and so on – many ex-recruits find that a big part of the appeal for women is a sense of purpose.
“A lot of the guys are idiots – they’re attracted to the macho side of it – whereas women tend to have given it much more sober thought and made a very conscious choice,” said former radical Shiraz Maher to the Guardian UK.