In the wake of the 2011 Arab Spring Uprisings that swept across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), Europe experienced a dramatic spike in Muslim immigrants throughout the continent, followed by the inevitable clash of cultures. The sudden influx of MENA migrants created a swell in an established sub-national identity, predominately along religious and cultural lines, but did not ease integration and assimilation into the host nation’s society.
Moreover, the new population in diaspora inflamed preexisting biases and conflicts between Muslim immigrants and the European native population, resulting in a conspicuous increase in both Islamic terrorism and nationalist movements over a brief period. The following examines what impact radical Islam may have had on the rise of nationalism in Western democracies and provide recommendations based on those conclusions.
Defining Radical Islam and Nationalism
To better understand the source of the conflict and how to mitigate the potential threats posed by both Islamic radicalism and host population nationalism, both radical Islam and nationalism require proper definition within the context of the study. However, delineations of radical Islam and nationalism within contemporary society can be very subjective and largely depend on the cognitive and perceptual biases of both researcher and reader. In this study, the definition of radical Islam has primarily derived from the authors in Petkas and Leman’s (2019) compilation of essays on militant Islam as well as the concept of the religious “Fourth Wave” of modern terrorism as described by David Rapoport (2019). In addition, the article defines the characterization of nationalism by the classifications made by Erika Harris in “Nationalism: Theories and Cases” (2009).
For thousands of years, religious identity has been the foundation of many rebellions, revolutions, insurrections, and acts of terror. Still, it has become more relevant in modern terrorism because it often overlaps with other ethnic or ideological conflicts (Rapoport 2019). The radical component of violent Islamic extremism stems from an inability or unwillingness to accept alternative cultures, religions, or societal norms and respond violently to nonconformity or resistance to their religious ideology and customs (Goli and Rezaei 2011). Radical Islam has been a remarkably resilient wave of terrorism because it has been transnationally unifying in the current geopolitical environment while allowing for decentralization depending on regional and ideological agendas. Examples of this would be the differences in goals between Hezbollah in Lebanon versus the Filipino Abu Sayyaf or Indonesian Jemaah Islamiyah.
A case study examining the influence of Da’esh (ISIS or Islamic State) on European Muslims reiterates the assertion regarding the unification and decentralization of the Islamic violent extremist movement. Many have traveled to Iraq and Syria to join the Islamic State or engage in terror activities at home (Petkas and Leman 2019). The preceding case study and others also show the extent to which the intolerance mentioned above led to brutal savagery, particularly against civilians and non-combatants, who would not conform to violent extremists’ brand of Islam or were simply members of a different faith, culture, or ethnicity. Even in states such as Turkey and Pakistan founded on Islamic mobilization, Islamic radicals are at constant odds with the more secular governments and often push back with violence and acts of terror (Akturk 2015). Finally, there are even sharp contrasts in the ideological agendas between sects of Islam, and Sunni versus Shi’ite rivalry equally can give rise to radicalization and terrorism against fellow Muslims on an international level (Haddad 2019).
Defining nationalism is a little more challenging because of the broad spectrum in which nationalism can manifest itself, such as sub-national identities, diasporic populations, and ethnocentrism. For this discussion, the article views nationalism through the prism representing the imagined shared identity of a people within a nation-state with a shared history, culture, language, and ethnicity (Harris 2009). Contemporary nationalism has become most apparent in native populations’ desire to preserve their culture and heritage and the security of their state from an influx of migrants who do not share the same values or customs.
Perceived threats stem from seeming incapability or unwillingness to integrate or assimilate to the host nation’s society by a migrant community has resulted in a pushback by the native population and hyper-aggressive determination to protect its norms and traditions and own self-identity (Helbling and Traunmuller 2015). Nationalism, therefore, can be viewed not just as national identity and pride but also as a form of self-determination and autonomy from external influences and threats.
Muslim Immigration and Terrorism
The various conflicts and political upheavals stemming from the Arab Spring Uprisings of 2011 caused a massive wave of Muslim migrants from the MENA to travel and settle in European states. Most of these migrants and refugees were left with little to nothing and were immediately dependent on their host nations for support. There was little distinction between economic migrants, political or conflict refugees, and those displaced due to natural disasters or environmental conditions (Swain 2019). The socioeconomic disparities, combined with vastly different cultural, societal, and religious norms, created an environment where conflict was inevitable between the immigrants and local nationals which additionally exacerbated existing biases and sociological altercations.
Outgroup stereotypes of the Muslim migrants related to crime and terrorism further spurned social-identity tensions with the host nation population, leading to higher incarceration rates and radicalization rates within those communities (Hegghammer 2016). Da’esh, like Al Qa’ida before it, exploited the sub-national identities of both native-born Muslims and Muslim immigrants and capitalized on the vulnerable population who often felt disenfranchised and persecuted by both the government and native people. Radicalization of the Muslim community, especially among new migrants and refugees struggling to adapt to Western culture, was made more accessible through social media and other web-based platforms and encouraged more active participation in jihadism at home and abroad (Pfundmair et al. 2019; Silber and Bhatt 2007).
Terror Meets Terror
The rapid rise of Da’esh and the Islamic State gave the diasporic Muslim community an outlet for their frustrations and feelings of injustice. Many Western Muslims, mainly Europeans, traveled to Syria and Iraq to join Da’esh and fight for the new Islamic Caliphate. Many alienated Western Muslims opted to stay in their host countries and provide active or passive aid to Da’esh or other foreign terrorist organizations (FTOs) such as AQAP (Al Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula) or Al Shabaab (Brzica 2017). Domestic Islamic terrorist attacks like in Paris in November of 2015, Belgium in March of 2016, and Orlando in June of the same year renewed the heightened public fear and security culture that had begun to slowly subside after the hyper-vigilance following the September 11, 2001, attacks.
Even relatively minor threats and acts of violence by the Muslim population over Danish, Swedish, French, and American cartoons that depicted the Prophet Mohammed raised concerns within Western democracies about the level of integration possible by that community and the challenges to free speech and societal autonomy (Agius 2016). The physical and cultural threats posed by the Muslim immigrants and their potential long-lasting effects on their society spawned a more intense sense of nationalism within many Western states, particularly in Europe, where the impact was most noticeable.
Nations where the impact of Muslim immigration and radical Islamic terrorism generally saw the most significant increases in nationalism and its form of violent extremism began to emerge and grow; however, they are in contest with themselves over their liberal globalist ideologies and policies (Ericson 2018; Postelnicescu 2016). Economic grievance, resistance to societal change, and political resentment by the native populace derived from the incorporation of a large population of immigrants from a culture vastly different from their own further exacerbate the conflict and gives rise to nationalism and countering category extremism (Piazza 2015).
Contemporary nationalist groups are most commonly associated with right-wing ideologies, and these organizations trend towards being ethnocentric in response to the perceived threat of foreign influence and violence (Parkin, Gruenewald, and Jandro 2017). Mass immigration is the primary concern of most modern right-wing and nationalist groups because of how rapidly it appears to be changing their national identity and societal norms. Many view it as a threat to retaining the heritage, culture, and even language demarcating their homeland as a state (Elgenius and Rydgren 2017).
Groups like the Front National in France, Germany’s PEDIGA (Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the Occident) in Germany, the English Defense League naturally from the United Kingdom, and Sons of Odin predominately active throughout the Scandinavian states all were formed in response specifically to the rise in Muslim immigration. It also is important to note that the foreign terrorism discussed above, although a significant public concern, especially to nationalist groups, and used as a talking point in support of their ideology, these nationalist groups see it as a secondary concern and a byproduct of immigration (Hutchins and Halikiopoulou 2019).
Conclusions and Recommendations
The massive influx of Muslim immigrants into Western democracies following the conflicts and political instability of the Arab Spring Uprisings has undoubtedly contributed to a significant rise of nationalism within the impacted states. Many liberal democracies were already grappling with adversities associated with the integration and assimilation of their resident Muslim population. The rapid arrival of largely destitute migrants from the MENA further exacerbated and intensified these challenges. Moreover, radical Islamic entities already had a foothold in many Western states, the 9/11 hijackers heralding from a cell in Hamburg, Germany, and London and Madrid suffered horrific bombing attacks. The Arab Spring migrant crisis and the formation of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria only intensified the threat from militant Islam. These individuals, groups, and activities spurned greater distrust of the diaspora Muslim community (Petkas and Leman 2019).
The natural response for the populations of these Western states who believed they were under siege by foreign invaders was an elevated sense of ethnocentric nationalism as a means to preserve their heritage, culture, and autonomy. In many nations, nationalism has been largely benign as their governments try to balance liberal globalist policies and maintain their sovereignty and self-identity. Still, those most negatively impacted by terrorism or societal change have produced various violent extremism in response (Postelnicescu 2016). Therefore, the nationalist movement views anti-immigration policies and actions as the best course of action to combat the assault on their respective cultures and societies and stem the increased acts of terrorism within their borders.
In closing, the recommendations to address both the rise in radical Islam and the negative aspects of nationalism in Western democracies begin with better community outreach to Muslim populations, including more intensive strategies for combating violent extremism. “Lone wolf,” homegrown violent extremists rarely have FTO affiliations. Instead, those groups serve as inspiration for radicalization and as a means of belonging and striking out against perceived injustices by an in-group identity (Katon et al., 2020). By addressing some of the issues that result in cross-cultural conflicts and the path to radicalization utilizing outreach and early identification and intervention methods, the Muslim and migrant communities could mitigate the influence of militant Islam. Silber and Bhatt some of these methods in their controversial 2007 report for the NYPD.
Better port of entry controls and screening combined with more stringent entry and immigration policies would also help limit the flow of migrants, Muslim or otherwise. Moreover, these measures would aid in settling public fears about who is entering their country and what their intent may be (Cristea 2015; Maguire, Frois, and Zurawski 2014). Finally, policymakers are ultimately responsible to their citizens in protecting and preserving the states they represent. Therefore, state governments should weigh their decisions carefully to ensure an adequate balance between sovereignty and altruism and not allow good intentions to provoke ideological extremism of any persuasion to take root and fester into violent confrontation.
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This first appeared in The Havok Journal on September 3, 2021.
Ben is a former U.S. Army Mountain Infantry Platoon Sergeant and served in domestic and overseas roles from 2001-2018, including, from 2003-2005, as a sniper section leader. Besides his military service, Ben worked on the U.S. Ambassador to Iraq’s protective security detail in various roles, and since 2018, he has also provided security consulting services for public and private sectors, including tactical training, physical and information security, executive protection, protective intelligence, risk management, insider threat mitigation, and anti-terrorism. He earned a B.A. and an M.A. in Intelligence Studies from American Military University, a graduate certificate in Cyber Security from Colorado State University and is currently in his second year of AMU’s Doctorate of Global Security program.