Why the US doesn’t have a Muslim problem, and Europe does

I’m first generation American, with a Pakistani-born father. My dad and his older brother both left Pakistan at the same time, but that is where their similarities end. My uncle, an engineer working for the German Space Agency, never felt German. His son avoided mandatory German military service and struggled with finding his identity. My father, on the other hand, came to the United States on a Fulbright scholarship, ran a successful business, raised two sons (one of whom joined the United States Navy), and proudly votes in every election be it local, state or federal. The contrast between these two brothers is why Europe has a Muslim problem. It’s not the influx of Muslims; rather, it’s Europe’s inability to welcome and assimilate immigrants. The resulting racial tension creates a perfect recipe for ISIS recruitment among disenfranchised young men. America is doing it right, and we cannot repeat the European model.

Officials believe that over 5,000 Western Europeans have made their way to Syria to support ISIS. However, the actual number is considerably higher according to the Soufan Group, with several European countries contributing a disturbing number of fighters to ISIS: France (1700), Russia (2400), UK (760) and Belgium (470)[1]. For a country like Belgium with only 11 million citizens, having almost 500 citizens join ISIS is a shockingly high number. Furthermore, large pockets of Muslims are concentrated in cities like Brussels where more than a quarter of Belgium’s Muslim population resides. These heavily concentrated Muslim enclaves, according to a 2007 report from the Centre of European Policy Studies, are more likely, than the EU general population, to be poor, segregated and crime-prone neighborhoods[2].  But the question remains, why is this trend of European Muslims joining ISIS happening now?

With the crisis in Syria, Europe has received a massive influx of Muslim refugees. However, with 19 million Muslims in Europe, have the refugee numbers contributed to ISIS’ recruiting efforts? The short answer is no. Of the UN reported 4.2 million Muslim refugees, only 850,000 have fled to Europe. While this is a large number of refugees a large number are women and children, with only 62% being men[3]. The reality is that the Muslim migration started long before the crisis in Syria. In fact it grew as a result of an influx of foreign workers taking advantage of lax guest worker programs after the Second World War. Originally meant to be temporary, these workers became permanent and brought with them waves of descendants. Once settled these immigrants did what first generations immigrants do: they had babies. As a result the Muslim population has been steadily growing, not from immigration but by births. The increase in the number of Muslims is a pattern that is expected to continue through 2030, when they are projected to make up 8% of Europe’s population.  Even though the population has been steadily growing the consistent poverty has contributed to racial tensions between Muslims and Europeans even well before the Paris attacks.

Unlike Europe, the US has a very different track record with Muslim immigrants. According to the Pew Research Center there are 3.3 million (or 1% of the population) Muslims living in the US. Furthermore, in the US Muslims make up 10% of US physicians, are the 2nd most educated group after the Jewish population, are as likely as other American households to report an income of $100,000 or more, and over 6,000 serve in the military[4].  The report found that Muslim Americans are “highly assimilated into American society and . . . largely content with their lives.” Unlike European Muslims the report also found that 80 percent of US Muslims were happy with life in America, and 63 percent said they felt no conflict “between being a devout Muslim and living in a modern society.”[5] Furthermore, this integration into American culture and society, according to the report, is evident in the rates they participate in various everyday activities such as following local sports teams or watching entertainment TV — all similar to those of the American public generally. Lastly, most telling of their loyalty and sense of inclusion, according to the Pew report, is that half of all Muslim immigrants display the US flag at home, in the office, or on their car.[6] It is this sense of inclusion that in large parts contributes to the fact that only an estimated 250 Americans have joined ISIS – a number far less than the number of Belgium citizens who have gone to Syria and Iraq.

My uncle was one of the immigrants who came to Europe under the guest worker program. Unlike current refugees, neither her nor my father were fleeing war; instead they left to pursue professional careers. My uncle was an educated and a skilled worker who climbed the ranks of German’s fledgling space agency to hold a senior scientist post. While he was professionally successful, his children, who were both born in Germany, struggled. They still feel they are outsiders, not quite German but definitely not Pakistani — a feeling that is repeated as they have children of their own. This experience juxtaposed with that of my father shows a clear difference. Even though I was raised in a predominantly white New York City suburb, I was never considered anything other than American. It is treatment that is extended to my children who, like the subsequent descendants of immigrants, are only aware of the ethnic roots as a distant fact. This is the fundamental difference between European and American Muslims: the ability for American Muslims to assimilate. It is an ability that is key to winning the battle with ISIS, which relies on a steady stream of volunteers. As such, as long as Europe continues to make it difficult for Muslims to integrate and assimilate, ISIS will have a pool of disenfranchised and angry young Europeans from which to recruit.

Naveed Jamali is a Senior Fellow in the Program on National Security at the Foreign Policy Research Institute and an author of How to Catch a Russian Spy: The True Story of an American Civilian Turned Double Agent.


[1]The Soufan Group, “Foreign Fighters: An Updated Assessment of the Flow of Foreign Fighters into Syria and Iraq”, http://soufangroup.com/wpcontent/uploads/2015/12/TSG_ForeignFightersUpdate_FINAL3.pdf, (December 8, 2015).

[2]Richard Youngs and Michael Emerson, “Political Islam and European Foreign Policy: Perspectives from Muslim Democrats of the Mediterranean”, https://www.ceps.eu/publications/political-islam-and-european-foreign-policy-perspectives-muslim-democrats-mediterranean,  (28 November 2007).

[3] FactCheck.org, “Facts about the Syrian Refugees”, http://www.factcheck.org/2015/11/facts-about-the-syrian-refugees/, (Posted on November 23, 2015).

[4] Pew Research Center, “Muslim Americans: Middleclass and Mostly Mainstream”, http://www.pewresearch.org/files/old-assets/pdf/muslim-americans.pdf, (May 22, 2007).

[5] Pew Research Center, “Muslim Americans: Middleclass and Mostly Mainstream”.

[6] Pew Research Center, “Muslim Americans: Middleclass and Mostly Mainstream”.

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Donald Trump and the Case of Tairod Pugh

Last Thursday Republican Presidential Candidate Donald Trump told CNN’s Anderson Cooper “I think Islam hates us…we can’t allow people coming into this country who have this hatred of the United States.” It is rhetoric he has stood by since unveiling his Muslim banning plan in December. As a first generation American born to a Pakistani father, an intelligence professional and an American, I am bewildered and disturbed that such a comment can be uttered, let alone taken seriously in 2016. Not only have those on both sides of the aisle called Trump’s plan offensive and un-American, how would it work practically? Nowhere else does the massive hole in Trump’s plan show through then in the case of one Tairod Pugh.

Pugh, a Muslim convert from Neptune, New Jersey, served in the United States Air Force as a mechanic from 1986 to 1990. After leaving the Air Force he held a series of positions in the aviation industry—he even worked as a DynCorp contractor in Iraq. But on January 10, 2015, Pugh’s life took a dramatic turn. Shortly after losing his job, Pugh flew from Egypt to Turkey where he caught the attention of Turkish authorities. While no evidence has emerged that Pugh was under surveillance by the US, Egypt or the Turks, it is clear he was known at least to US authorities. Pugh was interviewed by the FBI in 2001 after a co-worker told authorities that he made pro-Bin Laden statements. Furthermore, during the interview Pugh “expressed interest in traveling to Chechnya to fight jihad.” In spite of these claims, the FBI let Pugh go, seemingly losing track of him. So when Turkish authorities listened to Pugh’s claims that he was a special operations forces pilot visiting Turkey on vacation, they instead suspected he was attempting to enter Syria and put him on a plane back to Egypt. Alerted by the Turks, the Egyptians were equally weary of Pugh, and promptly returned him to the US. Shortly after landing at JFK Pugh was arrested and charged with supporting ISIS, charges which he was convicted of on March 9, 2016.

So what does Tairod Pugh have to do with Donald Trump? In December 2015 Trump’s campaign released a press statement “calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on.” The problem with Trump’s plan, as Pugh’s case illustrates, is that he was not travelling back to the United States and as such would simply not warrant investigation. In fact, he was forcefully returned to the United States but not before he pleaded with Egyptians to stay because he believed “the U.S. doesn’t like black Muslims.” If it hadn’t been for alert Turkish and Egyptian authorities, either Pugh would’ve been simply returned to the United States undetected or he would’ve been allowed to go on his way. Instead, both the Turks and the Egyptians did what American authorities failed to do, raising the alarm and returning Pugh to the United States. This action demonstrates the capability of the Turks and Egyptians and their willingness to work with the United States. But how would Turkey and Egypt (both Muslim countries) have reacted if Trump’s plan was in place? Might they have agreed with Pugh’s claim that the United States hates Muslims? Surely it would reduce their willingness to cooperate with the US, which would impact detecting and neutralizing threats against the United States—especially those overseas.

From the capture of an ISIS’ chemical weapons operative to the targeting of al-Shabaab fighters planning to attack US and African forces, the US has an effective and pro-active intelligence system which aggressively pursues threats outside of the US border. Pugh’s case illustrate the reliance that the intelligence community, military and law enforcement have on foreign partners as well as the difficulty of identifying, tracking and neutralizing threats. What if Tairod Pugh, an American with a valid US passport, had made it to Syria and then returned to the US? Pugh claimed after his arrest that if he shaved his beard and worn jeans he would have avoided suspicion. Under Trump’s plan Pugh is right. Which begs the larger question: how does the intelligence community determine who is a Muslim? Which then leads to a larger question: is it legal for the US government to determine and track the religion of people? In a country where Americans’ feel uncomfortable with the US government collecting cell phone metadata, can they really be comfortable with database listing the religion of Americans? Thankfully, even as we debate whether Trump’s plan is even viable, the brave men and women in the military, law enforcement and in the intelligence community continue to keep us safe—even without knowing who is and isn’t a Muslim.

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Playing the Long Game: Unrest and Changing Demography in Xinjiang

The latest bout of violence between Muslim Uighurs and Han Chinese erupted in Lukqun, a township in China’s far western province called the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region.  There, about 35 people died last week when, according to Chinese accounts, Uighur protesters attacked a police station, a local government building, and a construction site—all symbols associated with the Han Chinese.  In April a similar incident occurred near Kashi (or Kashgar), Xinjiang’s second largest city; 21 people died.  In fact, almost every other year since the 1990s, Xinjiang has experienced at least one incident in which a dozen or more people are killed.  The most notable case in recent memory happened in 2009 when 197 people perished in ethnic strife that engulfed the provincial capital of Urumqi.


With such recurring violence, little wonder that tensions between the two ethnic groups in the region run high.  Even so, Han Chinese have continued to migrate to Xinjiang since the 1950s.  At first, they came as part of official Chinese government efforts to build a reliable local workforce and defend the country’s western borders.  But since the 1990s, many Han Chinese have willingly moved to the region to take advantage of the economic opportunities created by government spending on infrastructure and commercial investment in the energy and mining industries.  As a result, the province’s cities have boomed and new towns have sprouted from the grasslands that ring the Taklimakan Desert.

So many Han Chinese have migrated to the region that many Muslim Uighurs fear that they could soon become a minority in their ancestral homeland.  Chinese censuses chronicle the rise in Xinjiang’s Han Chinese population from 6 percent in 1945 to 40 percent in 1980.  And though the proportion of Han Chinese living in the region has held fairly steady since then, the population of Xinjiang has risen dramatically, from 13 million to over 21 million.  Plus, one must add the tens of thousands of Han Chinese who travel to the region in search of seasonal or temporary work.  Historically, the vast majority of the Han Chinese in Xinjiang dwelled in its northern part, where most of the energy and mining industries are clustered, while the vast majority of the Uighurs lived in the largely agricultural southern expanse.  But since the new railway to Kashi was completed in 2000, ever more Han Chinese have settled in not only Urumqi, but also southern areas once dominated by Uighurs.  Aware of the new tensions that would be raised, Chinese leaders have focused on economic development as the central way to pacify the local population.

Just one month ago, Yu Zhengsheng, a member of the powerful Standing Committee of the Political Bureau of the Communist Party of China, went on a fact-finding tour of Xinjiang in the wake of April’s unrest.  He travelled extensively across the province, visiting Uighur villages as well as settlements of the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (XPCC).  The quasi-military XPCC has long been Beijing’s vehicle for Han Chinese migration and instrument of control in Xinjiang.  Apart from its farming and industrial work, it maintains a well-armed militia capable of containing local unrest.  When Yu addressed a regiment of the XPCC’s 4th Division, he urged its members to interact with minority groups to locally resolve differences.  Then, he said, provincial authorities could take full advantage of Beijing’s support to further the region’s economic development and ultimately curb the “three evil forces” at work there: separatism, extremism, and terrorism.

Certainly Beijing has encouraged massive investment in the region.  That investment has produced double-digit economic growth in the province over the last decade; even as growth in China’s eastern provinces has flagged.  Both ethnic groups have been made better off.  But Uighurs continue to fare relatively worse than their new Han Chinese neighbors, who reap the biggest rewards from the Uighurs’ native lands.  Moreover, many of these new residents of Xinjiang have chosen to live in segregated communities, particularly in Uighur-dominated areas.  Entirely new Han Chinese towns have popped up adjacent to existing Uighur ones.  Together with often stringent surveillance of Uighur communities and the perception of Chinese contempt for Muslim practices, such separation has fueled resentment among many Uighurs.  They feel that they are gradually losing not only their lands and autonomy, but also their identity.

With such underlying tensions, it is of little surprise that unrest periodically flares up in Xinjiang.  Despite Beijing’s assertions that international separatist organizations are behind the violence, most of the unrest has been local, sparked by local events like an execution or a police roundup of suspected militants.  In any case, Beijing’s hold on the region remains as firm as ever.  While some have roundly criticized the government’s heavy-handed crackdowns on the Uighur population—such as the three-month long “strike hard” campaign in 2011 that entailed 24-hour police patrols, identity checks, and searches of people and vehicles—as being unproductive, they do underscore Beijing’s determination to do whatever it takes to subdue local dissent.  Altogether, the XPCC, the People’s Armed Police, and ultimately the Chinese military—arrayed as they are across the province and made increasingly responsive with new transportation links—remain well positioned to contain any recurring violence, unless of course China itself is thrown into crisis.

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