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Islam: Radicalism In Europe Reflects 'Spiritual Void' --> What makes converts to Islam, such as two of the suspects recently arrested in Germany, so susceptible to radicalism? (epa) September 16, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- The recent arrest in Vienna of three alleged Al-Qaeda sympathizers -- all Austrian citizens -- has again raised concerns across Europe about the threat posed by homegrown Islamic extremists.

Edwin Bakker, head of the Netherlands Institute of International Relations and an expert on the subject, spoke with RFE/RL correspondent Valentinas Mite about the threat of Islamist terrorism in Europe and about why some Europeans choose to convert to radical Islam.

RFE/RL: There are millions of Muslims in Europe who have either migrated to the continent or are the children of earlier migrants. In their overwhelming majority, they have no connection to extremism. But a few appear to be turning to radical brands of Islam. Who are they?

Edwin Bakker: [They are] youngsters who are attracted to a very strict interpretation of Islam, a very militant Islam, partly as a consequence of discrimination, their backward socioeconomic position, but most of all by their search for identity. They are in Europe. They are very much integrated -- they speak Dutch, Danish, German or whatever [is] the language of their country, but they are not accepted as Dutch, Danish, German, etc. So many of them are seeking a new identity as being a Muslim, not a Moroccan, not a Turk or whatever. They go and look for material on the Internet and they find this very radical and very appealing Salafi stream of Islam, which is very strict, very extreme.

RFE/RL: The problem of religious radicalism does not seem to exist among other immigrant groups, like the Chinese or Vietnamese communities. What makes people with Islamic roots potentially more radical than other migrants?

Bakker: There is this idea in the air, there is this hype, there is this 9/11 appeal to youngsters; this ideology is there. And it is not the case for China. If you are Chinese in Europe, you still can be proud to be from China. China does not have this perception [that a] crusade [is being waged] against China or this perception of a fight. These Muslims identify themselves as Muslims and then they identify themselves as victims of aggression against Muslims, for instance in Chechnya, Afghanistan, Iraq. So this identity is linked to identifying with [perceived] fights against Islam.

RFE/RL: But Iranians living in Europe, who are Muslims, seem to integrate well in European society and generally have not isolated themselves as much as people coming from the Middle East or Pakistan. Why is there such a difference?

Bakker: The Iranians who came to Europe are mostly highly educated. So there are many professors, doctors among them. And that is how they integrated better. They integrated into their new communities, communities of scholars, communities [of other professionals], and so on. And their numbers are a little bit smaller so they cannot organize themselves in such close-knit communities. There is also a big difference between Iranians and other [Muslims in Europe], Moroccans and Turks, for example. Most Moroccans [although they live] in Europe [tend to] marry somebody from their [home] village. Iranians marry either Iranians who also fled to Europe or they marry local [Europeans].

RFE/RL: How can you explain the fact that some Europeans by origin are converting to radical brands of militant Islam? Can we speak about some tendencies in this case?

Bakker: We have good contacts with, for instance, local police working in troublesome neighborhoods [in the Netherlands], so they see the same problem among Muslims but also among non-Muslims. This is a sense of [lack] of identity, purpose [in life] -- these kind of things. I think that this holds [true] for many Western European countries.

There are also quite a number of women, actually, who convert to Islam. It's of course something new. It is an underdog religion, so it has an appeal to some people, who are attracted by such a religion, that is so much bashed and therefore perhaps more interesting to them.

RFE/RL: What trends in Islam do converts usually choose?

Bakker: I studied [the cases] of all those [Muslims] who have been arrested and have been convicted of terrorism in Europe and about 5 or 6 percent are converts. Actually, many groups have at least one or two converts among them. In general, there is a problem with converts in that they want to overcompensate for the fact that they are new to a community. They want to be "holier than the pope." And this is a general phenomenon with radicals or with converts.

RFE/RL: But radicals make up only a very small part of all Muslims. Why don’t more European converts choose mainstream Islam?

Bakker: Because they are new to the religion, they are very susceptible to very radical interpretations. They don't know the other interpretations. So if you are new to Islam, you are not familiar with the fact that Islam is a very complicated religion, that it has a lot of different approaches. And if you are in the hands of the Salafi -- this very fundamental, traditional, puritan group -- you have no checks and balances, and there is nobody who would tell you, "But that's not true." So you are falling into the hands of the most radical views or radical preachers. So being new to religion also does not give you the mind-set and the knowledge to resist very extreme views.

Who Speaks For Islam?

Young Muslims at a movie theater in Tehran (AFP file photo)

CROSS-CULTURAL DIALOGUE: On June 13, RFE/RL hosted a roundtable discussion entitled "Who Speaks For Islam?" The event was hosted by U.S. Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Karen Hughes and featured scholars of Islam from the United States, Europe, and the Middle East.


Listen to the entire briefing (about 2 hours and 15 minutes):
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