Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Breeding New bin Ladens: America’s New Western Front

Breeding New bin Ladens: America’s New Western Front

  • Zachary Shore
  • December 14, 2004
  • Center for the Study of America and the West

Two attacks on European soil exposed Europe’s centrality in the war on terror. One was the murder of several hundred in the Madrid train bombings. The other was the assassination of a single man in Amsterdam. Although both assaults were waged on the continent, America was as much the target as was Europe.

The terrorists who blew up Madrid’s commuter train on March 11, 2003, had the political aim of gaining Spanish withdrawal from Iraq in hopes of leaving United States’ forces isolated. The Dutch-Moroccan assailant of controversial filmmaker Theo van Gogh acted partly in revenge for the latter’s offensive, putatively anti-Muslim film, but the murder revealed another motive. In a five-page note, which he pinned to his victim’s bloody corpse, the attacker wrote, “I am certain that you, O America, will surely fall.”

The West has good reason to fear an upsurge in terrorism emanating from the Middle East, but while Iraq may be the present hotbed for Jihad, the future breeding ground of Islamic extremism lies within the West itself. Not since the height of the Cold War has America had such a key stake in Western Europe’s domestic affairs. With troop levels overstretched in Iraq, a crisis looming in Iran, and committed to a global war on terror, now more than ever the United States must wage a sustained, effective hearts and minds campaign. The key battleground in this charm offensive lies on the Western front.

America has good reason to worry about Europe’s Muslim minority. Walk along London’s Edgeware Road, where the shops are mostly Arab-owned, and you will find bookstores with radical literature calling for jihad against America. Enter some Marseille mosques and you can hear preaching against the American way of life. From the Algerian districts outside of Paris to Turkish enclaves around Berlin, one can easily tap into a font of hatred toward America. The Hamburg hijackers of September 11 showed how that hostility threatens American security, and the daily attacks on U.S. soldiers in Iraq-some traced to European Muslims-have reinforced the lesson. Europe has become a breeding ground for Muslim militancy, and America is its prime target.

What’s causing this surge in Muslim anti-Americanism, particularly within Europe? The problem extends far beyond the occupation of Iraq. Most Muslims are of two minds toward America. They are torn between America’s appealing traits-its freedoms, openness, technological prowess, educational institutions, economic opportunities, and some of its cultural exports-and at the same time repelled by many of its other traits, embodied in its perceived consumerism, lack of social justice, sexualization of women, and putative hypocritical foreign policies. These conflicting opinions within individual Muslim minds are held in a precarious balance, but three factors are tipping the scales against the United States: globalization, fundamentalism, and demographics.

Globalization is hindering integration. Stations like al-Jazeera are fuelling a siege mentality. As satellite television and the internet bring the suffering of Muslims to Berlin and Paris living rooms, as Muslim-produced news media graphically depict the embattlement of Muslims from Chechnya to Kashmir, from the Philippines to Afghanistan, and from Palestine to Iraq, Europe’s younger Muslims increasingly identify with those perceived victims, especially as they themselves feel alienated from European society. They commonly see the U.S. as backing their oppressors—the Russians against the Chechnyns, the Israelis against the Palestinians. Their anger and alienation often fuse with a sense of betrayal and the conviction that America is the enemy.

Fundamentalism is also on the march across the continent. Despite being born and raised in Europe, young Muslims are flocking to anti-Western views.[1] In one large-scale study, almost one-third affirmed that Islam must come to power in every country. Even though they live in Europe, 56% declared that they should not adapt too much to Western ways but should live by Islam. Over 33% insisted that if it serves the Islamic community, then they are ready to use violence against non-believers. Perhaps most disturbing of all, almost 40% stated that Zionism, the European Union, and the United States threaten Islam. As their sense of alienation and exclusion from European society grows and their connections to their parents’ countries of origin wane, young European Muslims are being drawn to pan-Islamic principles—tenets that are often strongly opposed to America’s cultural values.

Weak integration and rising fundamentalism would be a dangerous combination even under the best of circumstances, but tossed into the mix is a demographic timebomb. Muslim populations across Europe are burgeoning. Demographic shifts in Europe and other parts of the Muslim world reveal that the sheer number of young Muslims is mushrooming. Conservative estimates project that Muslims will be the majority in major German, French, and Dutch cities within a generation. France is already home to 5 million Muslims, almost 10 percent of its total population. The estimated 23 million Muslims living in the European Union—overrepresented in unemployment, crime, and poverty—are increasingly exposed to zealous anti-Americanism. Europe’s Muslim dilemma is certain to intensify as demographic pressures transform the continent’s ethnic and religious makeup.

Europe’s Headscarf Headaches

The Muslim headscarf itself is not a danger, but its ban in public places surely is. Too often fundamentalism is mistakenly equated with extremism or terrorism. Returning to a religion’s fundamentals in no way makes one a terrorist. Those who commit violence in the name of God have misunderstood their religion’s tenets. The reasons why America and Europe should be concerned about rising levels of fundamentalism are two-fold. First, this trend often indicates a rejection of the society’s mainstream values, customs, and norms, making integration and social cohesion extremely difficult. Second, a minority of those who turn to religious fundamentalism harbor considerable anger at their own societies and are more readily drawn to violence. For Muslim fundamentalists, who are already underprivileged and suffer discrimination in Europe, anti-Western, anti-American messages find fertile ground.

What makes the head scarf issue so contentious is that people see in it what they want to see. Ethnic Europeans tend to look upon the headscarf and see 9/11. What Muslims see is more complex.

On March 15, 2004, under the leadership of President Chirac, France banned all religious symbols from public schools. This ban includes Catholic crosses and Jewish skullcaps, but its true target was the hijab (the Muslim headscarf and veil). Because France was founded on the separation of church and state, the wearing of religious symbols in public places, officials insist, threatens this fundamental French value.

France’s headscarf headaches date back more than a decade. A 1989 survey revealed that 75 percent of French citizens opposed the wearing of veils in schools. Today French support for the new law is roughly 70%, but in the wake of 9/11, reactions have grown even more intense.

Germany, too, has similar headscarf troubles. The issue of scarves in its public schools had been causing controversy for several years before September 2003, when Fereshta Ludin, an Afghan woman who taught school in Germany, refused to remove her headscarf in the classroom. Her case found its way to the German Supreme Court, which ruled that preventing teachers from wearing the veil was illegal under German federal law. However, it permitted German states to make their own rulings on the issue. Four states immediately declared that they would enact headscarf bans, including Ludin’s own state of Baden-Wurtemberg.

Although many believe that the wearing of headscarves represents a rise in fundamentalism, rarely do the headscarf opponents ask what motives lie behind the veil. The motivations for veiling are manifold, sometimes out of religious extremism, but often women don the hijab for safety, class, respect, and even fashion concerns. Some wear the hijab to appear righteous and gain respect within their community. Others find it a coat of armor against jeering comments and sexual harassment in public places. Enough women wear colorful, designer headscarves that instead of being called by its actual name “tchador,” some now call it a “tchadior,” a reference to the renown fashion designer, Christian Dior. Above all, younger Muslim women are choosing to veil as a means of staking out their identity in a highly secular and often alienating society. Perhaps in response to their elders’ lack of religiosity and their society’s failure to integrate them, many younger Muslims are reclaiming their religion, with all the cultural artifacts it entails.

Of course, others are compelled to veil by their husbands and fathers. For these school-age girls, veiling is sometimes the only option, lest their parents forbid them from attending mixed-gender classes. In such cases, headscarf bans could prevent many women from getting an education, further inhibiting their integration into European society.

At the root of headscarf bans lies the fear of Muslim extremism, but laying siege to a symbol will not secure the state. Fixating on the scarf only shrouds the deeper problems from view. Schoolgirls in headscarves do not threaten European stability, but millions of alienated Muslims just might. Instead of curtailing religious freedoms, European leaders should be devising coherent integration strategies for their Muslim millions. If they can focus on the substantive issues now, they can still avoid domestic fragmentation and wrenching social change. Some policy recommendations for both Europe and America will be outlined in this article’s full version to be published in the summer issue of Orbis.


  1. Wilhelm Heitmeyer, Joachim Muller, and Helmut Schroeder, Verlockender Fundamentalismus: Turkische Jugendliche in Deutschland, (Suhrkamp, Frankfurt a.M., 1997).[back]