Thursday, August 10, 2006

These Colors Will Melt

Jim Henley is right to point out that the terrorist plot foiled by British authorities earlier today is yet more evidence that the "flypaper theory" is full of gaping holes. Following up on this point, he posits a question while pondering why the UK has now suffered one massive attack, and narrowly averted another, while things have been relatively quiet on the US homefront. Says Henley:

Both countries have substantial populations of Arab and Muslim immigrants; both countries have domestic-security establishments willing to cut corners; both countries are either stomping all over the Ummah with troops or coddling our enemies as you prefer; the US still has and will always have major holes in its border security. Both countries have those crazy Imams you’re always reading about.

My tentative conclusion is that we’re simply dealing with a kind of law of small numbers here. The population of Muslims motivated to attack Americans in America is small, though current events are pushing the number up rather than down. Megaterror plots take time to mature. Most probably go wrong before execution (e.g. the Millenium Bomb plot in 2000). But could there be other factors?

While numbers matter, and that aspect should not be discounted, I do think there are other influences at play. James Fallows touches on some of those "other factors" in yet another impressive, and timely, piece in The Atlantic [emphasis mine throughout]:

The dispersed nature of the new al-Qaeda creates other difficulties for potential terrorists. For one, the recruitment of self-starter cells within the United States is thought to have failed so far. Spain, England, France, and the Netherlands are among the countries alarmed to find Islamic extremists among people whose families have lived in Europe for two or three generations. “The patriotism of the American Muslim community has been grossly underreported,” says Marc Sageman, who has studied the process by which people decide to join or leave terrorist networks. According to Daniel Benjamin, a former official on the National Security Council and coauthor of The Next Attack, Muslims in America “have been our first line of defense.” Even though many have been “unnerved by a law-enforcement approach that might have been inevitable but was still disturbing,” the community has been “pretty much immune to the jihadist virus.”

Something about the Arab and Muslim immigrants who have come to America, or about their absorption here, has made them basically similar to other well-assimilated American ethnic groups—and basically different from the estranged Muslim underclass of much of Europe. Sageman points out that western European countries, taken together, have slightly more than twice as large a Muslim population as does the United States (roughly 6 million in the United States, versus 6 million in France, 3 million in Germany, 2 million in the United Kingdom, more than a million in Italy, and several million elsewhere). But most measures of Muslim disaffection or upheaval in Europe—arrests, riots, violence based on religion—show it to be ten to fifty times worse than here.

The median income of Muslims in France, Germany, and Britain is lower than that of people in those countries as a whole. The median income of Arab Americans (many of whom are Christians originally from Lebanon) is actually higher than the overall American one. So are their business-ownership rate and their possession of college and graduate degrees. The same is true of most other groups who have been here for several generations, a fact that in turn underscores the normality of the Arab and Muslim experience. The difference between the European and American assimilation of Muslims becomes most apparent in the second generation, when American Muslims are culturally and economically Americanized and many European Muslims often develop a sharper sense of alienation. “If you ask a second-generation American Muslim,” says Robert Leiken, author of Bearers of Global Jihad: Immigration and National Security After 9/11, “he will say, ‘I’m an American and a Muslim.’ A second-generation Turk in Germany is a Turk, and a French Moroccan doesn’t know what he is.

The point is not that all is comfortable between American Muslims and their fellow citizens. Many measures show that anti-Muslim sentiment is up, as are complaints by Muslims about discrimination and official mistreatment. James Woolsey, a former director of the CIA, points out that while very few American Muslims sympathize with Wahhabi-style extremism, mosques and institutions representing extreme views have begun to appear. Yet what many Western nations fear—widespread terrorist recruitment or activity from among their own population—for now seems less likely in the United States.

I would agree with the sources cited by Fallows, that the difference in the assimilation process matters much, as does the comparative fluidity in the employment market. Our popular culture is easily accessible, jobs are easier to come by for newcomers, there is a traditional cultural/historical celebration of the immigrant experience and, along those lines, compared to many European countries (France principal among them) there is less of a well-guarded exclusivity to being a member in "Club America."

It should be noted that these attitudes have progressed over time, and Americans have not always been quite as friendly to immigrant groups of various ethnicities and religions. But after battling with our own internal demons, we are becoming a nation that, at least in substantial part, prides itself on being willing to embrace new citizens, explore new cultural imports and celebrate our differences.

Of course, some would hold such "politically correct" attitudes in disdain as typical liberal self-hatred, or quixotic relativism. But that oft-denigrated spirit of tolerance, acceptance and openness make us stronger as a society. Combating the spread of home-grown terrorists is just one way. It is also through these values that we can stave off many other potentially destabilizing internal divisions and ethnic/religious differences.

While the policies promulgated under his leadership have, in many instances, served to undermine the rhetoric, I do give President Bush credit for repeating in the days after 9/11 that American Muslims were not to blame. This was an important message for the entire nation to hear from the President, and to his credit, he made it a point of emphasis. I recall feeling grateful each time. Even silence on this front could have led to tragic results.

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