May 25, 2016

May 25, 2016 | Commentary on Terrorism, Inequality

The Real Reason the Islamic State Successfully Recruits Fighters

Which country has the highest percentage of its Muslim population fighting for the Islamic State as foreign recruits? Algeria? Afghanistan? Indonesia? Nope.

Try Finland. No. 2 is Belgium, followed by Ireland and Sweden.

What do these countries have in common, besides being European? They're wealthy, democratic and have high levels of education, health and income. They also have very low levels of economic inequality.

These findings appear in an eyebrow-raising report by the National Bureau of Economic Research, an economic research nonprofit, whose recent work also identified another important factor driving radicalization: a lack of assimilation. In other words, the Islamic State draws heavily from groups who do not adopt the culture of the country in which they live in and do not truly become a part of it.

These conclusions fly in the face of conventional wisdom: that radicalization flows from economic inequality. "Our results show that ... economic conditions are not the root causes of the global development of ISIS foreign fighters," the report says, using another common name for the Islamic State.

In fact, the report finds strong positive correlations between Islamic State recruitment and high gross domestic product per capita as well as high rankings in the Human Development Index and the Political Rights Index, two composite economic measurements. In short, most Islamic State recruits come from societies replete with comforts and rights.

So what convinces young men in such advanced societies to join the Islamic State? A failure to assimilate, according to the National Bureau report. To measure that, the organization looked at indices for ethnic, linguistic and religious fractionalization developed by Harvard researchers and calculated the probability that two random individuals in any society would not share the same ethnicity, religion or language.

European countries have low fractionalization levels and lack an assimilationist ethos, which means that Muslim immigrants do not acculturate. "The difference with America is the melting pot," one of the report's authors, Efraim Benmelech, said in a phone interview.

In other words, the report supports the common-sense proposition that a disgruntled population that does not feel it is part of something greater than itself is likely to have members who will fall prey to itinerant snake-oil salesmen such as Islamic State recruiters. I and others have written about this link for some time.

Some European leaders also make this point. British Prime Minister David Cameron has said repeatedly that terrorism is not really caused by Western foreign policy, poverty in the Middle East or the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. "Even if we sorted out all these problems," he once said, "there would still be this terrorism."

Many who believe those three causes are to blame, however, persist. The French socialist economist Thomas Piketty -- whose 2013 bestselling book, "Capital in the Twenty-First Century," warned about gaping wealth inequality in the West -- laid blame for the Islamic State on all three in an article in Le Monde written just after the November terrorist attack in Paris. "Only an equitable model for social development will overcome hatred," he wrote.

The authors of the National Bureau paper, however, write their findings "directly contradict the recent assertions by Thomas Piketty. ... The large number of foreign fighters coming from highly equitable and wealthy countries like Finland, Belgium, and Sweden ... run contrary to those claims."

Benmelech told me on the phone: "Public housing could lead to segregation, because you are placed in a neighborhood with people just like you," he said. Inequality, where mobility exists, can spur striving.

He later added in an email: "There is growing awareness, at least anecdotally, of the lack of assimilation as an important cause in terror recruiting. However, it is yet to be determined whether income inequality promotes or degrades assimilation. Some European countries may be more generous than the U.S in providing social benefits, but it is unclear whether this social safety net increases the likelihood of assimilation.

"While the U.S. is infamous for its high degree of income inequality, its 'melting pot' culture that promotes assimilation may be one of the best deterrents against radicalizing people to join ISIS -- and may explain why the United States ranks a distant 36 in the number of ISIS foreign fighters compared to its Muslim population."

Considering the anti-assimilation bent of current U.S. immigration policy, however, this is cold comfort. Is a European-like atmosphere in our future? It's a question worth asking, sooner rather than later.

About the Author

Mike Gonzalez Senior Fellow
The Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy

Related Issues: Terrorism, Inequality

Originally published in Tribune News Service