Want to Fight Religious Extremism? Don’t Push Secularism

Marginalizing religion, asserting you can't be part of mainstream society without being secular, pushes both alienated Muslims in Europe and Jews in Israel towards isolation and extremism.

Gershom Gorenberg
Gershom Gorenberg
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A group of settlers protesting against the demolition of a synagogue in the settlement of Givat Ze'ev, November 2015.
A group of settlers protesting against the demolition of a synagogue in the Givat Ze'ev settlement, November 2015.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi
Gershom Gorenberg
Gershom Gorenberg

What possible connection could there be between a country speaking French and producing an unusually high number of people who go off to fight in Syria? That's the question that a pair of American researchers faced after crunching a great deal of data and then staring, surprised, at the results.

The answer they suggest makes sense. That said, it will be more easily accepted in London than in Paris. It also emphasizes the sheer destructiveness of Donald Trump's anti-Muslim incitement. It even sheds light on what creates Jewish religious extremism in Israel.

The scholars, both at the Brookings Institution in Washington, are Will McCants and Chris Meserole. On his blog, Religional, Meserole has just posted a long explanation of their research. (As a work of statistics-based sociology, it's miraculously readable.) He begins with a necessary proviso: The number of Muslims who choose violence to realize their peculiar interpretations of Islam is "a miniscule fraction, far less than one percent of one percent." But the ones who do are causing a great deal of bloodshed. So it would be valuable to have a better sense of what might, for instance, push a few young men to set off bombs in the Brussels airport and one of the city's Metro stations.

Since it's hard to place a number on how many Muslims become radicalized, McCants and Meserole used the number who go to fight in Syria as a proxy — something that can be counted and that serves as a close substitute. They took the number who'd done that from each of 50 countries during 2011-2014. They calculated what this figure was as proportion of the home country's Muslims and as a proportion of all the foreign jihadists in Syria. They multiplied the two, and came up with what they called the "foreign fighter score" for each country. Then they looked at how each country's score compared to the average.

The results aren't evenly spread out. The top five are Jordan and Lebanon, which border Syria, and three more distant countries — Tunisia, Belgium and France. There's a big gap between those five and the rest of the list. Despite the media impact of British-raised Mohammed Emwazi, also known as "Jihadi John," the United Kingdom's foreign fighter score is significantly lower. The United States is well below the average. 

Finally the researchers came up with several dozen variables that, in interaction with each other, might correlate with the jihadist factor. The list included things as disparate as the youth unemployment rate and whether one of the country's official languages was now, or had been English, French or Arabic.

And being Francophone came out on top as most predictive of the foreign fighter score. 

Since it's unlikely that the difficulty of conjugating French verbs drives people into the ranks of ISIS, McCants and Meserole looked at French political culture and how it shaped recent political developments. They suggest the underlying factor is lacité, the French principle of secularism, which bans religious expression in the public arena. It's a product of the anti-clerical upheaval of the French Revolution, and of the subsequent effort to turn Frenchness into the post-religious religion of the country. The recent developments were national debates about banning the hijab (headscarf) or niqab (face veil) in France, Belgium and Tunisia. 

The effect of those debates, Meserole writes, has been to exacerbate the feeling that you can't be both Western and Muslim — or, as I'd reframe this, that you can't be part of mainstream society while being loyal to your faith. And this, as Meserole points out, is explicitly the message of ISIS and similar groups: It's one or the other.

All this, he stresses, is a direction for further research. But I think some implications immediately suggest themselves. When French politicians and public figures attack, even call for boycotts of, fashion firms that create Ramadan collections for the Muslim demographic, they aren't just attacking freedom of expression. They are lending a hand to extremist recruiters. When London elects a devoutly Muslim, proudly British mayor, Sadiq Khan, it delivers a blow to the jihadist fringe. And as an anti-terror policy, it makes much more sense for America to welcome Syrian refugees than to deny entry to Muslims. 

There are also lessons for the place of Judaism in Israel. A considerable portion of our founders were wannabe Frenchman. They saw Judaism as a relic of the past, an illness of the Diaspora, from which the New Jew should be freed. Many Israelis today still feel that way. The hardliners among them blame "amulet-kissers" for all the country's woes. As political scientist Yaron Ezrahi once told me, "The Israeli secular community lacks the understanding that you don't have to secularize individual identity to evolve a secular state."

Coalition considerations prevented the secular founders from imposing Hebrew lacité. But there's a solid historical basis to Mizrahi immigrants' memories of being pressured to give up religious observance. At the same time, the self-interest of Orthodox politicians in preserving separate Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox institutions reinforced the sense that being observant meant being outside the mainstream. 

Secular social attitudes did the same. When I interviewed founders of Gush Emunim, I often heard a desire to get out of the cities and create settlements where they would never be hassled for being religious. But those settlements became hothouses for extremism. At the radical fringe are the few who see no chance of reconciling Judaism with the secular state — and therefore wish to replace the latter, if need be by using violence.

They, too, are a small number, even within an alienated subculture. But one way to contribute religious extremism is to speak as if religion itself is a threat to the "real" Israel, as if anyone religious is an extremist. We need to learn from the voters of London, not the fashion police of Paris. 

Gershom Gorenberg is the author of "The Unmaking of Israel" and "The Accidental Empire: Israel and the Birth of the Settlements, 1967-1977."