Islamophobia and Radicalization: Roots, Impact and Implications

  • John L. Esposito


ISIS recruits from Western societies have triggered a global emphasis on countering violent extremism. This chapter will address the connection between Islamophobia and radicalization: the cultural construction of Islamophobic discourse, role of media and social media on Islamophobia and radicalization, legitimacy of purported theological roots and their impact on domestic and foreign policies.


Islamophobia Radicalization Media Extremism Violent extremism 

Like anti-Semitism, xenophobia and racism, Islamophobia has long and deep historical roots. Its resurgence was triggered by the Iranian revolution, hijackings, and hostage-taking, as well as the 9/11 attacks and subsequent terrorist attacks in Europe by Al Qaeda and more recently ISIS. The global response to terrorism has included an emphasis on countering radicalization and combatting violent extremism (CVE). At the same time, Islamophobia, fear of Islam and Muslims has grown exponentially and become normalized in popular culture in America and in Europe. What is the relationship of Islamophobia to radicalization and militant movements like Al Qaeda and ISIS? Where do we go from here? What is the way forward?

Iran’s Islamic Revolution: A Powerful LENS

The Iranian revolution or Iran’s Islamic revolution 1978–1979 stunned religious and political leaders, academic experts and the media alike. The toppling of a powerful Shah, who had the second largest modern military in the Middle East and an ambitious modernization program and Western allies (US, Great Britain and other European countries), by the aged Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and a broad-based opposition was totally unexpected. The subsequent call by Khomeini for the export of Iran’s “Islamic revolution” and the invasion of the American embassy and taking of hostages became the “Lens” through which many in the West encountered Islam and Muslims. Fear of Iran’s export of “radical Islamic fundamentalism” was reinforced by Shiah uprisings in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Kuwait, the assassination of Anwar Sadat, Egypt’s president by Egyptian Islamic Jihad militants in 1981.

By the 1990s and the Fall of the Soviet Union, fear of “the Green Menace” (Islamic fundamentalism) had replaced the Red Menace as a major international threat. Fears of radical Islam, its threat to the Middle East and to the West, loomed large: Saddam Hussein’s call for the world’s Muslims to rise up and wage holy war against Western Crusaders during the Gulf War of 1990–1991 was a chilling reminder of Ayatollah Khomeini’s threat to export Iran’s Islamic Revolution. It confirmed fears of a militant, confrontational Islamic threat or war against the West. The support that Saddam enjoyed from leaders of Islamic movements in Algeria, Tunisia, the Sudan, and Pakistan reinforced the arguments of those who view Islam and the Muslim world as on a collision path with Western priorities and interests. Critics also warned that fundamentalist terrorism had been exported to new battlegrounds, America and Europe. US Vice President, Daniel Quayle in an address at the US Naval Academy, warned that “radical Islamic fundamentalism” was a major threat to the United States—comparable to those posed by communism or Nazism in the twentieth century.

The bombing of New York’s World Trade Center in March 1993 reinforced fears that a global “fundamentalist” holy war had been exported to America. Islam was portrayed as a triple threat to the West: political, civilizational and demographic. Samuel Huntington’s “The Clash of Civilizations” in 1993 warned of the dangers of an impending clash of civilizations between Western and Islamic civilization and blurred the distinction between Islam and mainstream Muslims using phrases like, “Islam has bloody borders.” 1 The article and subsequent book became an international best seller and became part of the political vocabulary of many policymakers, political commentators, and media.

Belief in an impending clash between the Muslim world and the West was also reflected by media headlines and television programs in America and Europe with provocative headlines and titles: “A Holy War Heads Our Way,” 2 “Jihad in America,” 3 “Focus: Islamic Terror: Global Suicide Squad,” “Algerians in London Fund Islamic Terrorism,” 4 and “I Believe in Islamophobia.”

Fear of militant Muslim terrorist attacks obscured the extent to which Islam and the vast majority of mainstream Muslims had been brush-stroked by the horrific actions of religious extremists and terrorists. November 1997 proved a watershed moment. Britain’s Runnymede Trust report identified and named the elephant in the room, the existence of bias and discrimination towards Muslims. Islamophobia: A Challenge for Us All, named and defined anti-Islam and anti-Muslim bias, Islamophobia, as “the dread, hatred and hostility towards Islam and Muslims perpetrated by a series of closed views that imply and attribute negative and derogatory stereotypes and beliefs to Muslims.” 5 It results, the report noted, in exclusion (from economic, social, and public life), discrimination, and the perception that the religion of Islam has no values in common with and is inferior to the West and that it is a violent political ideology rather than a source of faith and spirituality like the other Abrahamic religions, Judaism and Christianity.

Terrorism and Popular Culture

The 9/11 attacks in the US, subsequent terrorist attacks in Europe and beyond were used to legitimate fear not only of the terrorists but also of Islam and of Muslims.

We should invade their countries, kill their leaders, and convert them to Christianity. We weren’t punctilious about locating and punishing only Hitler and his top officers. We carpet-bombed German cities; we killed civilians. That’s war. And this is war. 6 (Ann Coulter, National Review)

Islam is something we can’t afford any more in the Netherlands. I want the fascist Qur’an banned. We need to stop the Islamisation of the Netherlands. That means no more mosques, no more Islamic schools, no more imams. 7 (Geert Wilders, Dutch politician and leader of the Party of Freedom)

Western European societies are unprepared for the massive immigration of brown-skinned peoples cooking strange foods and maintaining different standards of hygiene.… All immigrants bring exotic customs and attitudes, but Muslim customs are more troublesome than most. 8 (Daniel Pipes, Columnist and Political Commentator)

In the aftermath of 9/11 and the attacks in Europe, the relevance and viability of multiculturalism as a policy in the United States and Great Britain were challenged by France and others who charged that it contributed to domestic terrorism: retarding Muslim assimilation and civic engagement, perpetuating foreign loyalties, and providing a space for militant radicals. The process of integration, in which immigrant citizens and residents could retain their religious and ethnic differences, was rejected by many, in particular the Far Right in Europe, which demanded total assimilation.

In 2002, the European Monitoring Center on Racism and Xenophobia (EUMC) published The Summary Report on Islamophobia in the EU After 11 September 2001, which documented increased and widespread acts of discrimination and racism against Muslims in fifteen EU member countries and warned that Islamophobia and anti-Semitism were becoming acceptable in European society. 9

In 2004, the Runnymede Trust, in a follow to its earlier report, concluded that Islamophobia was a pervasive feature of British society and characterized media reporting on Muslims and Islam as biased and unfair. 10 It noted that far-right anti-immigrant political parties and political commentators in Europe demonized Islam and Muslims, and the net result was a virulent form of cultural racism. 11

Underscoring recognition of the international dimension of Islamophobia, Kofi Annan, then Secretary General of the United Nations, in 2004 convened an international conference at the UN. “Confronting Islamophobia: Education for Tolerance and Understanding.”

[When] the world is compelled to coin a new term to take account of

increasingly widespread bigotry—that is a sad and troubling development. Such is the case with “Islamophobia.” … Since the September 11 attacks on the United States, many Muslims, particularly in the West, have found themselves the objects of suspicion, harassment, and discrimination.… Too many people see Islam as a monolith and as intrinsically opposed to the West. 12

In the US, a 2006 USA Today–Gallup Poll found that substantial minorities of Americans admitted to having negative feelings about or prejudices against people of the Muslim faith and favor using heightened security measures with Muslims to help prevent terrorism. 13 Fewer than half of the respondents believed US Muslims are loyal to the United States. Nearly one-quarter of Americans, 22%, said they would not like to have a Muslim as a neighbor; 31% said they would feel nervous if they noticed a Muslim man on their flight, and 18% said they would feel nervous if they noticed a Muslim woman on the flight. About four in ten Americans favored more rigorous security measures for Muslims than those used for other US citizens: requiring Muslims who are US citizens to carry a special ID and undergo more intensive security checks before boarding airplanes in the United States.

Despite this data in contrast to Britain’s Runnymede, the extent of bias and discrimination in America towards Islam and Muslims was under-reported and remained unidentified and unnamed. It was not until August 2010 and the debate and mobilization against the building of the so-called mosque at ground zero that for the first time a major news outlet used the term Islamophobic, Time Magazine’s cover story asked “Is America Islamophobic?” 14

The Normalization of Islamophobia

Park 51, a plan to build a $100 million 15-story Muslim Community Cultural Center and luxury condos at 49–51 Park Place in Manhattan two blocks from the site of the World Trade Center revealed the depth of anti-Islam and anti-Muslim sentiment, attracting national and international attention. Although approved by local government and community officials, it suddenly became a national focal point for protest and demonstrations led by outside anti-Islam activists, Robert Spencer and Pamela Geller, founders of Stop Islamization of America, who called it the “Ground Zero Mosque” even though it was not at Ground Zero.

Time magazine cover story “Is America Islamophobic?” reported a poll finding that twenty-eight percent of voters did not believe that Muslims should be eligible to sit on the US Supreme Court and nearly one-third believed that Muslims should be barred from running for President. 15

In the subsequent fallout, efforts to erect or expand existing mosques across America met with fierce and at times violent backlash and were often labeled “command centers for terrorism.” In many US states, a movement to prevent anti-Sharia legislation was introduced despite the fact that there has been no significant attempt to introduce Sharia in America and that it is impossible to do so under the US Constitution.

By 2015–2016 Islamophobia had grown exponentially and negative media coverage of Islam and Muslims hit an all-time high. Domestic and international terrorist attacks (AQ, ISIS), mass and social media coverage and American and European national politics and elections were major catalysts in the growth of Islamophobia. Fear of Islam and Muslims (not just militant extremists and terrorist) became normalized in popular culture. According to Public Religion Research Institute, “no religious, social, or racial and ethnic group [was] perceived as facing greater discrimination in the U.S. than Muslims.” 16 One could say the same thing for conditions in many European countries.

The exponential growth and normalization of Islamophobia in turn has had a significant impact on domestic policies that threatened Muslim civil liberties, influenced the radicalization of Muslim and non-Muslim militant extremists, and informed and legitimated Western foreign policies: from US and EU responses to the Arab Spring and Arab Winter and US and EU acceptance of a military coup, July 3, 2013, led by General Abdel Fattah El Sisi which overthrew the democratically elected government of Mohamed Morsi and subsequent support for authoritarian allies in the Middle East in the name of a securitization to assure the stability of governments and Western interests in combating violent extremism.

American and European Elections

American political elections became a major driver or trigger in the 2008 and 2012 Obama presidential elections and 2016–2017 American and European elections. In primary battles for the 2016 US presidential election, Republican candidates like Donald Trump, Ben Carson, Ted Cruz, Rick Santorum, and Newt.

Gingrich raised questions that underscored an Islamic or Muslim threat or incompatibility.

Donald Trump advocated a temporary freeze on all foreign Muslim immigration, as well as the monitoring or even the forced closure of American mosques. When CNN’s Anderson Cooper asked Trump if “Islam is at war with the West.” He responded “Islam hates us….There’s tremendous hatred there… We have to get to the bottom of it. There is an unbelievable hatred of us…” 17 Trump then continued, “And we have to be very vigilant. We have to be very careful, and we cannot allow people coming into this country who have this hatred of the United States and of people that are not Muslim.”

In a Republican debate hosted by CNN the following day, Jake Tapper asked Donald Trump if he meant “all 1.6 billion Muslims.” He responded, “I mean a lot of them.” 18

Ben Carson declared that a Muslim would have to reject the tenets of Islam to become president of the United States. 19 Republican presidential candidates and some thirty-one, more than half, governors called for a freeze on accepting Syrian refugees fleeing the civil war.

The Trump administration reflected the anti-Islam beliefs of Trump and his appointees. Members of the Trump cabinet and administration, like Steve Bannon, White House Chief Strategist, Rex Tillerson, Secretary of State and James Mattis, Defense as well as Jeff Sessions, the Attorney General and Mike Pomeo, Director of the CIA and later replacement for Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State, all had one thing in common: a track records of saying Islam is not a religion but a dangerous political ideology.

In Europe, anti-Muslim prejudice was closely linked to the “War on Terror” with an anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim drumbeat about the impending demise of Europe’s religious (Christian) identity and cultural heritage. Soon, critics warned the continent will be transformed into “Eurabia,” or in Great Britain, “Londonistan.”

The institutionalization of anti-Muslim prejudice was illustrated by anti-hijab and/or burqa and burkini (Muslim women’s swimsuit) bans in France, Germany, Belgium and Austria, a ban on building mosques in Switzerland. Surveys in France reported that 68% of French citizens believed Muslims were “not well integrated into society,” 55% said the “visibility of Islam is too large,” and 60% were concerned about Muslim’s refusal to integrate into French society. In a survey in Germany 79% of those surveyed said that Islam was “the most violent religion.” 20

Far-right political parties, like the British National Party led by Nick Grifin, the Netherland’s Party for Freedom of Geert Wilders, Marine Le Pen’s National Front and other right-wing nationalist and populist parties espoused anti-immigrant and in particular anti-Muslim policies and fanned the flames of Islamophobia with unbalanced and inaccurate narratives about Muslims and Islam. The BNP warned that Islam “presents one of the most deadly threats yet to the survival of our nation” 21 and Wilders maintained “The Koran is an evil book that calls for violence, murder, terrorism, war and submission…. We need to stop the Islamisation of the Netherlands. That means no more mosques, no more Islamic schools, no more imams.” 22

The net result of xenophobic, anti-Muslim and racist far-right extremism in Europe and America could be seen in the rhetoric and attacks on Muslims and mosques and significant election performance of far-right political parties in Europe and election of Donald Trump in America, and their common opposition to Muslim immigration, specifically to the tens of thousands (part of the 4.7 million of Syrian refugees) of immigrant victims of Syria’s brutal civil war.

Media’s Powerful Role

Media (mass and social media) have played a critical role in the exponential growth of Islamophobia, providing a platform for anti-Islam and anti-Muslim statements, accusations and condemnations by political leaders, media commentators, and a host of “preachers of hate” as well as hate speech and hate crimes.

Mass media with its penchant for explosive, headline events, rooted in the common maxim, “If it bleeds, it leads.” Far right political, media and religious commentators spoke out publicly and often indiscriminately not only against militant Muslims but also brush-stroked Islam and the vast majority of mainstream Muslims, asserting with impunity what would never appear in mainstream broadcast or print media regarding American Jews, Christians and established ethnic groups. Huntington himself retained in his book a controversial statement he made in his article that “Islam has bloody borders.”

A comparison of media coverage in 2001 vs. 2011 demonstrated the shocking disparity of coverage. A study by Media Tenor, “A New Era for Arab-Western Relations,” 23 found that out of nearly 975,000 news stories from US and European media outlets, networks significantly reduced coverage on events in MENA to actions of Muslim militants.

In 2001, 2% of all news stories in Western media presented images of Muslim militants, while just over 0.1% presented stories of ordinary Muslims. In 2011, 25% of the stories presented militant image, while 0.1% presented images of ordinary Muslims, their faith, beliefs, attitudes and behaviors. 24

The net result was an astonishing imbalance of coverage: a significant increase in coverage of militants but no increase at all over the 10 year period in the coverage of ordinary Muslims. By 2015–2016 Islamophobia had gotten worse, became normalized: for example—80% of American, British and German coverage was negative. 25

At the same time, social media became a major source for news and information and with it an exponential growth in anti-Islam and anti-Muslim websites and diatribe with international and domestic consequences. An Organized Islamophobia Network (OIN) , with major funding and engineered Islamophobic campaigns and messages, anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant emerged. A cottage industry of pundits, bloggers, authors, documentaries, and elected officials were cultivated by ideological, agenda-driven anti-Muslim polemicists, and their funders.

An August 2011 Center Report, Fear, Inc., documented that $42.6 million flowed from seven foundations over 10 years to support Islamophobic authors and websites. 26

A CAIR Report in 2013, “Legislating Fear: Islamophobia and its Impact in the United States,” 27 reported that the inner core of the US-based Islamophobia network enjoyed access to at least $119,662,719 in total revenue between 2008 and 2011.

The Complex Sources of Radicalization

The causes of radicalization and violent extremism are more complex than ideological indoctrination, they include: bias and discrimination, xenophobia and racism as well as political and socioeconomic causes. Studies of Islamophobia and of terrorist groups and individuals have confirmed that authoritarian regimes in Muslim countries and US and European foreign policy towards Muslim-majority countries, not religion, are the primary causes or grievances of most militant groups and of homegrown terrorists.

A 2011 study, “Homegrown Islamist Terrorism: Assessing the Threat,” 28 assessing the motives of homegrown terrorist attacks in the US from 2001 to 2011 concluded that the number of attacks were greatly exaggerated and that the main motive was US foreign policy, reported that “Most Homegrown Islamist Terrorists Believe that the United States is at War with Islam.”

While there is no definitive generic “homegrown jihadist terrorist” profile, similarities do exist. Links to Foreign Terrorist Organizations were not directly involved with the vast majority of “homegrown jihadist terrorist” plots. A study of the four attacks by American Muslim terrorists in the Army identified that they were all loners. Two of them had mental illnesses, but most importantly, after analyzing their statements during interrogations, Marc Sageman concluded that:

The wars against Muslims had transformed their dual American-Muslim loyalty into a divided loyalty, American versus Muslim. Imminent negative change in status, such as impending discharge, detention, or unwanted deployment abroad, catalyzed their anger into action. 29

Their actions were driven by identity, a feeling of a lack of belonging, and personal anger at being unjustly treated. Other American violent extremists believed that they were defending their community, the global Muslim community (ummah). “Many attribute this change to specific events, such as watching the mass murder of Muslims, invasion of a Muslim land, unfair prison time, or learning about egregious injustice against comrades.” 30

A study of more than 140 terrorist plots in Europe found that although Islamist terrorist attacks in Europe in 2015 made major headlines, there had been a long history of jihadist terrorism in Europe, dating back in 1980s, mostly influenced by the increasing involvement of Europe in conflict zones in the Middle East. 31 This involvement, usually supporting one group against another, led to more organized transnational sense of identity and networks of jihadists in Europe.

Today diverse terrorist groups are connected through loose networks, often part of a transnational, evolving, and expanding network. The cells are usually self-financed and rally around charismatic local leaders. Because the network is complex, intelligence communities often have difficulty keeping track. The primary catalysts that brought Al Qaeda and ISIS to life were political, economic and social grievances, rather than religion. Islam was used to buttress and legitimate militant extremist ideologies and acts of terrorism.

“Online recruiters and organizers of terrorist organizations have sought people who have problems, and often do not know much about religion. A typical candidate for recruitment is often someone who is isolated, who does not have a healthy family life and finds solace in cyberspace. Young girls, for example, who did not interact well with parents, were abused at home, didn’t have good friends, or were bullied at school were drawn to ISIS by the promise of marriage, a good life and are therefore predisposed to religiously indoctrinated by ISIS.” 32

Sources of Alienation and Radicalization

While the majority of American and European Muslims are mainstream and moderate, a small minority have been alienated by their country’s domestic and foreign policies. A minority, in most countries a very small minority, are radicalized.

In contrast to most American Muslims, who despite difficulties, can and have pursued the American dream, the experience of many European Muslims has been different. Whereas Muslim migration to America often consisted of well-educated immigrants seeking a better life, leaving authoritarian regimes, or Muslims pursuing better educations and professional careers, many of Europe’s Muslim immigrants have been laborers or refugees with minimal educations and language skills welcomed by “host countries” to fill lower paid jobs. Many came with the intention of eventually returning to their homeland and their host countries were not anticipating the majority would stay and become permanent citizens.

American and European Muslims have struggled with a crisis of identity (Where do I belong in this society?), a double identity: national and religious. Often younger generations find themselves alienated both from their American or European identity and from the traditional national and religious identities of their parents. Media’s disproportionate coverage of Muslim terrorists and their acts of terrorism, Islamophobic writings and statements by anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim far-right political parties, political leaders, media commentators and the exponential growth of Islamophobic websites as well as ill-conceived anti-terrorism legislation, bias discrimination, hate speech and hate crimes have reinforced among Muslims in the West that their multiple identities were and are incompatible and that they will never be accepted as full and equal citizens in their societies.

The role and results of Islamophobia in fostering radicalization helps explain the susceptibility and desire of potential recruits for an alternative or more “authentic” identity. It is a reaction by some against living in a culture where young second and third generation Muslims feel like misfits, alienated both from their immigrant parents’ or grandparents’ cultures and from that of their adopted homelands where anti-Muslim and anti-Islam bias and discrimination marginalizes and alienates them.

Homegrown extremist Muslim militants often feel marginalized, demonized for something they can’t control (i.e. their Muslim identity and background). Militant Islam is presented as an escape into a new and more authentic identity. It promises and offers a weapon to “fight” back against the hate they feel from society—the more Islamophobic the environment, the more pressure there is to radicalize out of self-preservation.

What most people watch in the media is completely different from what many potential young recruits watch. They watch online platforms such as on YouTube. They are attracted to conspiracy videos, which are so professionally produced and use the Islamophobic discourse of the western leaders, and the acts against Muslims, to catch the attention of the youngsters.

Leaders of militant Muslim organizations and YouTube sheikhs provide a basic Manichean good-evil dichotomous worldview and sense of community. They show and exploit the abuses at Abu Gharib and Guantanamo and use these facts to foster radicalization, violence and terrorism. They condemn Western societies’ Muslims who live as minorities, often victims of the Islamophobic rhetoric and policies of Western governments leaders and political parties, of white nationalist violent rhetoric and actions, of bias and discrimination and hate crimes. They offer an imagined religio-political community without borders, one with a regional or global vision, mission and goal. New followers are drawn to this militant global ideology with the zeal and vigor of new converts to an ultra-patriotic transnational ideology and a commitment to violent militancy.

While European countries have provided a land of socioeconomic opportunity for some Muslims, many have struggled in low paying jobs, living in depressed ghetto areas, lacked access to a good education and had limited job skills and/or were unemployed with little hope for a better life. These conditions feed and reinforce a sense of social exclusion, marginalization and alienation second-class citizenship, contributing also to problems with crime and drugs. A minority have then become vulnerable to recruitment by jihadist groups and their militant interpretations of Islam. The Molenbeek community in Brussels, Belgium, a community that many Muslim jihadists have come from including one of the 9/11 plotters, is a prime example. The similarities among many young jihadists there is striking. Their parents were and are traditional, rural Muslims, who immigrated to Belgium, usually living in Brussel’s ghettos, earning just enough to make ends meet. Many were and are non-practicing Muslims and some turned to a life of crime and dealing with drugs. 33

Muslim youth from stable economic and social backgrounds, well educated, and employed are not exempt from becoming radicalized, especially when they see a double standard not only in their economic status, civil liberties and future but also in the foreign policies of their country and/or other Western governments such as a reluctance or selective espousal of democracy and human rights and support for authoritarian regimes in the Muslim world.

Is Religion the Primary Catalyst for Radicalization, Political Violence and Terrorism?

Major polls by Gallup, PEW and others have consistently reported that Islam is a significant component of religious and cultural identity in Muslim countries and communities globally. Gallup World Polls of Muslims (2001–2008) in some 35 Muslim countries reported the most frequent response by those polled as to what they admired most about themselves and associated with Arab/Muslim nations was “attachment to their spiritual and moral values is critical to their progress.” 34

Pew polls and others have continued to confirm these findings. Thus the use of Islam by violent extremists as an instrument for legitimation and mobilization is not surprising. However, the most frequently cited reason for joining violent extremist groups has not been religion but authoritarian, unrepresentative and repressive governments. A power vacuum in Syria and Iraq enabled separatist movements, particularly the self-named Islamic State or ISIS, to garner supporters, and take hold and govern large swathes of territory. This was exacerbated by Sunni-Shia sectarian conflict and exploitation by Iran and some Gulf countries like Saudi Arabia in proxy wars.

For groups like the Islamic State, religion has been a tool to legitimate narratives of marginalization, anguish and discontent, and to recruit and mobilize followers in the Muslim world and from the West. ISIS execution videos, initially released (October 2006–April 2013 Al-Furqan Media Foundation) underscored the importance of political and socioeconomic grievances as motivations to join: Western military invasion, occupation and support for authoritarian regimes, the Iraqi and Syrian governments’ killing of tens of thousands of civilians and “crimes” committed by individuals/groups (Iraqi soldiers, police, and government workers), Islamophobia and its impact on the lives and civil liberties of Muslims.

An imprisoned Iraqi jihadist in Europe explained his motive to join ISIS as “The Americans came… they took away Saddam, but they also took away our security. I didn’t like Saddam, we were starving then, but at least we didn’t have war. When you came here, the civil war started.” 35 Many Iraqi Sunnis’ joining ISIS had very little, if at all, to do with religion, or a caliphate. They blamed the coalition (America and the UK) for the invasion and for handing over Iraq to the Shia, the loss of their positions, livelihood and the secure life of their community. 36

Many returnees from Syria and Iraq have stated that the first impetus to join ISIS was not due to religious belief or indoctrination or blind hatred of the West, but because of media materials, in particular social media, the coverage of the carnage, in particular of the slain Muslim children and women in Syria at the hands of the Assad regime. Moral outrage at these atrocities enhanced sympathy and sense of solidarity and identification with an “imagined community.” 37

While the main recruitment venue of ISIS in Europe has been cyberspace, the venues for recruitment process have included prisons, mosques, and sports facilities. 38 For some, the main motive was political, for others social discontent, social networks, or militant religious preachers. Political grievances include foreign involvement in the Middle East and broader Muslim World, Western support for authoritative leaders and repressive governments. Some, when faced at home with the bias, discrimination, hate speech and hate crimes of Islamophobia have become radicalized and turned to violence and terrorism.

A distinctive difference between Al Qaeda and ISIS has been their use of Islam. Al Qaeda leadership and propaganda machines have used Islamic discourse. Whereas ISIS leadership and propagandists have relied heavily on pop-culture and the promise of “a better life.” Recruiters do not speak about the religion of Islam when they initially recruit for ISIS. They speak about how Western governments Islamophobia, their hatred and discrimination against Muslims, their inequality and marginalization in society; issues of poverty, education, and employment. ISIS recruiters strongly emphasize the caliphate as a utopian government that sees and treats everyone equal and is a just community and society.

Emphasis religion or religious extremism as the primary cause for militant Muslim movements like Al Qaeda and ISIS ignores the real causes: political and socioeconomic conditions and grievances, reinforces Western foreign policies that strengthen and prop up authoritarian Arab and Muslim governments like Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates regarding them as sources of stability and security.

ISIS recruiters do not recruit Muslims who have considerable knowledge of Islam, practicing Muslims with no family or law enforcement issues. ISIS targets have been youngsters who have a troubled past and lack a strong self-identify as Muslims. Polls have shown that generally the two groups that don’t become victims of recruitment are: practicing Muslims who are literate in Islamic teaching and secular Muslims who have good friends, good community, and functioning families. Whereas the vulnerable recruits are those who do not have good friends, have had problems with law enforcement, were bullied when they were little, alienated, have family problems, and do not have good knowledge or practice of Islam. 39


The exponential growth of Islamophobia and anti-immigrant policies in recent years and its impact on American and European politics and societies enhances the political influence of anti-Muslim politicians, activists and organizations, It enables the passing of legislation and security measures that threaten the safety, security and civil liberties of mainstream Muslim citizens and immigrants in general. It also increases a sense of marginalization, alienation and outrage and thus the danger of radicalization among a distinct minority.

Rampant unchecked Islamophobia in American and European societies and the political rhetoric and actions of some Western governments predictably make Muslim minorities feel that they have no place, no level playing field, and are second-class citizens who are demonized and too often seen as guilty until proven innocent. Despite this reality and the barbaric acts in Europe and America as well as in Muslim countries by terrorists and organizations like Al Qaeda and ISIS, the numbers of their followers have remained small relative to the 1.6 billion Muslims in the world. Moreover, major polls in the Muslim world and the West have consistently shown that despite the efforts and propaganda of militant groups like Al Qaeda and ISIS, majorities of Muslims have rejected the violence and terror and are loyal citizens who like their non-Muslim counterparts become and wish to be part of the mosaic in their countries.

A Pew Research Center report (November 2015) found overwhelmingly negative views of ISIS across Muslim majority countries including Indonesia, Senegal, Turkey, Nigeria, Burkina Faso and Malaysia. 40

The Doha Institute’s 2015 Arab Opinion Index (December 2015) reported that approximately 89% of the Arab public—spanning from Saudi Arabia to Mauritania to Jordan to Kuwait to Palestine to Egypt—viewed ISIS negatively. 41 Its few supporters’ grievances were rooted in the region’s politics and conflicts. The strategies cited by respondents to combat ISIS included: (1) support for a democratic transition in the Arab World (28%); (2) resolving the Palestinian cause was the second most common response (18%).

According to a Zogby poll (2016) in eight Muslim majority countries, “Muslim Millennial Attitudes on Religion and Religious Leadership,”—three-quarters of those polled believe groups like ISIS and Al Qaeda are a complete perversion of Islam. 42 This included 9 in 10 respondents in the UAE and Morocco as well as 83% of those in Egypt, 65% in Bahrain, 61% in Jordan, 58% in Palestine, and 57% in Saudi Arabia.

Like it or not, Western countries have become and will continue to become more and more multicultural and multi-religious. Diversity must be seen and fostered as a potential strength not an inevitable threat. A true and inclusive multiculturalism must be embraced, one that has a place for people of all ethnic backgrounds and faiths. America and Europe must pursue a more robust policy of inclusion of its Muslim citizens, their equality and civil liberties, and eschew Islamophobia as they do anti-Semitism and racism. Islam and the vast majority of Muslims are not the problem.

Muslims must be recognized and treated as equal citizens and neighbors not regarded as tolerated guests or foreigners in host countries. The exponential growth of Islamophobia and the media’s disproportionate coverage of violence and extremism and failure to adequately cover the broader contexts of mainstream Muslim lives and beliefs reinforce a sense of second-rate citizenship and marginalization as well as fuel the growth of xenophobia, white supremacy and racism. These conditions not religion can lead to radicalization.

Muslim religious leaders and communities through their schools, mosques, community centers, non-government organizations must continue to reformulate and reassert their faith in Western societies, incorporate those attitudes and values that enable them to blend their religious and cultural identity and values with a healthy sense of nationalism and citizenship. Where needed, they must continue to be active representatives and witnesses of their faiths to non-Muslim fellow citizens and partner with national and local religious and civic organizations.

Finally, America and Europe need to break the ISIS brand. ISIS established a brand, they had marketing and propaganda strategies, including very well-made productions, and they keep building on it, mostly citing Islamophobic discourse and using the problems that Muslims are facing in the West. Richard Stengel, Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs at the State Department during Obama Presidency, said that according to their research 80% of ISIS fighters don’t know much about Islam and ideology or religion are not their driving force. Rather, 80% of ISIS messages were about positive things, about how beautiful life in the “caliphate” and how the Muslims should “migrate” there. Their videos are of ISIS members playing with kids, giving food and fruits to children, nice infrastructure etc. Unlike Al Qaeda, ISIS called for doctors, engineers, architects, plumbers, and others, to migrate there to help build a state. They are not only calling for fighters and martyrs. They aim to make Muslims think that life is better in the “caliphate” so they should migrate there instead of being discriminated and marginalized in America or Europe. 43

Basically, America, Europe, and Muslims in the West need to find ways and methods to appeal to the millennial Muslims, breaking what ISIS tried to build, but also building their own brand of justice, anti-discrimination, pluralism and inclusion to counter Islamophobia and radicalization.


  1. 1.

    Samuel Huntington, “The Clash of Civilizations?,” Foreign Affairs, (1993).

  2. 2.

    Fergus M. Bordewich, “A Holy War Heads Our Way,” Readers Digest (January 1995).

  3. 3.

    “Jihad in America: The Grand Deception,” (2013).

  4. 4.

    “Algerians in London Fund Islamic Terrorism,” Sunday Times (January 1, 1995).

  5. 5.

    Islamophobia: A Challenge for Us All, (London: Runnymede Trust, 1997).

  6. 6.

    Ann Coulter, “This is War,” The National Review (September 14, 2001).

  7. 7.

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  8. 8.

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Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Georgetown UniversityWashingtonUSA

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