Many people are asking what, exactly, is causing Muslims to be behind so many acts of terror and whether something could be done to change the situation for the better. The alienation of immigrant youth in Europe, the failure of Arab autocrats to provide a sense of hope to new ambitious generations, the growing disenchantment with the uneven promises of the global economy, and the perceived wrongful occupation of countries in the Middle East are some of the main explanations for the eruption of Islamic extremism in recent decades. Although these reasons play a role, they are byproducts of a disposition that is rarely discussed: the failure of nation-states to inculcate a strong sentiment of patriotism in its citizens.
While Western elites around the world are more interested in the concerns of their exclusive club of privilege, Muslims have weaker attachments to their nations than they do to the idea of an Islamic community, or umma. Whether one is a Muslim in Morocco, France, or China, the lure of Islam is more powerful than loyalty to nation. This is, in a nutshell, one of the major causes of Islamic terrorism today, but it is an issue that has yet to get the attention it deserves.
In their statements and worldview, the children of Muslim immigrants in Europe, as well as jihadis everywhere, seem to care more about larger Islamic causes than they do about their local communities. They embrace abstract and idealized notions of identity and disregard the wellbeing of their own relatives and friends. They spend more time lamenting the fate of other Muslims around the world than they do caring about their fellow citizens, especially non-Muslim ones, at home. These extremists would rather live and die for an imagined Islamic empire than make an effort to improve their social condition at home.
The Muslim jihadis who dream of restoring the caliphate—one strong Muslim community unified under one head of state, or caliph—are harboring dangerous delusions because such a polity has never existed. The political life of Muslims after the death of their prophet is one of gruesome beheadings, dynastic coups, and endless strife. Yet, for some reason, many Muslims see that troubled age as a golden one and a worthy model for a future polity. They think that a united Islamic nation is the only legitimate form of government allowed by their faith. Instead of investing their efforts in the here-and-now, they give their allegiance to something that doesn’t exist and is unlikely ever to be realized.
The fundamentalists’ quest for an ephemeral Islamic entity is reinforced by the use of the Internet and the emergence of powerful media outlets with broad outreach. For a Muslim living in dire or unfulfilling conditions in France or Tunisia, fighting for an Islamic superpower that would force others to show him respect is a sacrifice worth undertaking. If one adds the promise of a princely life in paradise, striving to succeed in the here-and-now becomes an unattractive chore.
We need to disabuse Muslims of these dangerous fantasies and connect them to the ground on which they stand. We could start by getting them socially engaged, giving them a modern education that teaches principles of pluralism, providing them with better employment opportunities, and, more generally, helping them enjoy a more dignified life. This is the only way to turn a potential jihadi into a productive citizen.
For such an approach to work, national leaders and social elites in Europe and the Muslim world must also be moved by strong nationalistic visions. Policies that disenfranchise darker-skinned citizens and people with Arabic names in Europe, or those that consign the poor to a life of unremitting misery in the Muslim world are cruel and myopic and do nothing to serve the cause of peace and global security. Similarly, corporate leaders who only care about their private stocks and neglect building healthier communities are investing in future trouble. An alienated citizen is a wasted resource and a risk we can’t afford.
A robust and enlightened patriotism that gives citizens purpose in the present and hope in the future is not the only solution to the vexing problem of Islamic extremism and terrorism, but it is necessary to counter the propaganda of global jihadist ideologies and the indifference of politicians and business leaders to the plight of their communities.