WASHINGTON – In the fight against violent extremism, President Barack Obama argues the U.S. has one thing going for it that Europe doesn’t: a long tradition of warmly embracing its immigrants, including Muslims.
With the Islamic State group spreading and terrorists gaining strength in the Mideast and Africa, Obama has sought to use this week’s White House summit on violent extremism to urge the world to broaden its response far beyond military interventions. U.S. airstrikes have managed to blunt some of the militants’ gains in Iraq and Syria, but they don’t address the extreme ideologies that underpin deadly groups such as IS, al-Shabab and Boko Haram.
During the summit’s closing session Thursday at the State Department, Obama urged delegates from 65 countries to “confront the warped ideology” espoused by terror groups, particularly efforts to use Islam to justify violence.
“These terrorists are desperate for legitimacy and all us have a responsibility to refute the notion that groups like ISIL somehow represent Islam, because that is a falsehood that embraces the terrorist narrative,” Obama said, using an acronym to refer to the Islamic State.
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The president urged Arab nations in particular to take steps to quell sectarian violence and boost economic and educational opportunities that could provide young people in particular options beyond joining terror groups.
But even in the U.S., not all Muslim-Americans feel like full members of American society, and security experts warned against assuming that the U.S. is impervious to those who seek to recruit and radicalize.
Since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the U.S. has largely been spared the terrorist assaults that have hit cities in Denmark, Belgium and France, growing out of radical interpretations of Islam. In the weeks since the Charlie Hebdo newspaper shootings in Paris, Obama and other U.S. figures have portrayed the U.S. as being at a lower risk. After all, America is known as the “Great Melting Pot,” where minorities of all stripes are made to feel at home.
“In the U.S., you can be 100 percent American and 100 percent anything else. In Europe, you have to reduce the percentage of anything else to be more European,” said Ahmed Younis, a prominent Muslim-American leader participating in the summit. “People burn and destroy what they perceive to not be their own. They do not burn and destroy what they perceive to own.”
Speaking Thursday morning, Secretary of State John Kerry told participants: “There’s been a silly debate in the media in the last days about what you have to do. You have to do everything. You have to take the people off the battlefield, who are there today.”
“But you’re kind of stupid if all you do is do that and you don’t prevent more people from going to the battlefield,” he said.
Ample evidence suggests that Muslims in America do feel more integrated into society than those living in Europe. Often marginalized and relegated to poorer neighborhoods in European cities, many Muslim immigrants to the U.S. have flourished as doctors and scientists and in other white-collar professions. Middle-class, predominantly Muslim or Arab-American enclaves have cropped up in places such as Dearborn, Michigan, and Minneapolis, allowing immigrants to carve out their own stories.
“That’s the story extremists and terrorists don’t want the world to know: Muslims succeeding and thriving in America,” Obama said during separate remarks at the summit Wednesday.
There’s also reason to believe that sense of successful assimilation has offered a degree of protection against the allure of extremism. In 2011, a Pew Research Center survey of American Muslims found that just 2 in 10 Muslims in the U.S. thought there was a great deal or a fair amount of support for extremism among Muslim Americans. Roughly 80 percent said suicide bombings and other violence against civilians was never justified to defend Islam from its enemies, compared to just 8 percent who said it was sometimes or often justified.
Europe, where many Muslims or their ancestors emigrated from former colonies, is host to a much larger Muslim population. There were about 1,350,000 self-identified Muslims in the U.S. in 2008, the last date for which Census data is available. France, by comparison, has an estimated 5 million Muslims – about 8 percent of the total population. In the U.K., 2011 census data counted about 2.7 million Muslims out of a population of 63.1 million.
But within America’s smaller Muslim population, not everyone feels they’ve been fully embraced by society.
Jamila Nasser, a high school junior, said she rarely sees good news about Muslims in the American media. She doesn’t expect a positive reception once she ventures outside of Dearborn, which has elected Arabs and Muslims to many local offices and has one of the largest concentrations of Muslims in North America.
“For being a Muslim American growing up in America, I really don’t feel a part of it,” she said.
As Islamic State militants have seized control of a major swath of Iraq and Syria, the global community has taken alarm at how alluring the group’s brutal ideology has proven for individuals outside the Middle East. U.S. officials have said roughly 20,000 volunteers from around the world have joined IS or other extremist groups fighting in Syria. Of those, about 150 are believed to be Americans, according to the National Counterterrorism Center.