By Paul R. Pillar
What is one to make of the spate of Americans getting involved in violent Islamist extremism? The arrest in Pakistan of five young Muslim Americans from the Washington suburbs—who had traveled to South Asia to fight against U.S. forces—is the most recent of several cases in the past few months with the apparent common thread of Muslims in America turning to violent jihad. Some of the cases, such as the recently arrested quintet, may have never gone beyond unrealized aspirations to kill. Others, such as the Chicagoan David Headley, allegedly played supporting roles in terrorism overseas. In one case, that of Major Nidal Hasan at Fort Hood, the killing was real, direct and inside the United States.
A common, and thoughtful, response to this pattern has been to question the long-held belief that Muslim American communities are not as fertile a breeding ground for extremism as Muslim communities in Europe. The questioning is healthy in that there has indeed been some complacency about the nasty religiously inspired turns that some Muslim Americans might take. The basic belief about the differences between Muslim communities in Europe and the United States is still valid, however, notwithstanding the recent cases. American Muslims really do tend to be better integrated into their national society than their co-religionists in Europe.
The recent cases involving Americans do not say much about community integration. Neither do some of the cases involving Muslims in Europe. The perpetrators of a botched car-bombing campaign in Britain in 2007, for example, were not impoverished denizens of a Muslim ghetto but instead seven physicians and a medical technician. That case, the shooting rampage by the psychiatrist Hasan, and the fact that the alleged ringleader of the Northern Virginia five is a dental student, are almost enough to make one ask whether the medical professions are as fertile a breeding ground for terrorism as are the most deprived banlieues.