Why American Muslims don't join al-Qaida.

Gossip, speculation, and scuttlebutt about politics.
Feb. 27 2009 8:58 AM

The Melting-Pot Theory

Why American Muslims don't blow things up.

This is the third part in a series of eight exploring why the United States suffered no follow-up terror attacks after 9/11. To read the series introduction, click here.

In "The Terrorists-Are-Dumb Theory" I noted the terrible price al-Qaida paid in Afghanistan for 9/11. To repeat: Nearly 80 percent of its Afghanistan-based membership was killed in the U.S. invasion, according to journalist Lawrence Wright. Two-thirds of al-Qaida's leadership was captured or killed. The terror group's membership may now be down to as few as 200 or 300. Let's assume, as many believe, that this alone has made it very difficult for al-Qaida to stage a follow-up attack on the United States. Couldn't the job still be done by angry jihadis already living in the United States? Where are al-Qaida's sleeper cells?

Sleeping, apparently. Since 9/11, relatively few people have been prosecuted for conspiring with al-Qaida. In 2002, Brooklyn-born Jose Padilla was arrested in Chicago for allegedly plotting to set off a radioactive "dirty bomb," but five years later he would be tried (and convicted) on an entirely different charge concerning plans to commit terrorism abroad. In 2006, seven men from Liberty City in Miami were arrested for plotting to blow up the Sears Tower in Chicago with a Federal Bureau of Investigation informant posing as an al-Qaida terrorist. The FBI's own deputy director termed the conspiracy "more aspirational than operational," and the prosecution ended in a mistrial. In December 2008, the departing Bush administration put the total number of terrorists "and their supporters" arrested and convicted inside the United States since 9/11 at "more than two dozen," which would seem a weak effort but for the fact that no terror attacks occurred here during that time. In the absence of other evidence, we must conclude that inside the United States, homegrown, al-Qaida-inspired terrorist conspiracy-mongering seldom advances very far.

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That record stands in stark contrast to that of the United Kingdom, which since 9/11 has incubated several very serious terrorism plots inspired or directed by al-Qaida. One of these reached fruition—the London Underground bombings of July 7, 2005, which killed 52 people and injured nearly 800 more. A follow-up attack two weeks later was thwarted only because the bombs failed to go off. Richard Reid, the foiled shoe bomber, boarded a Miami-bound plane in Paris but was a British citizen. The 2006 plot that begat airport bans on carrying liquids and gels also originated inside the United Kingdom and reportedly was in its final stages when halted by British authorities. In 2007, a suicide car bomber attacked the Glasgow airport but, fortunately, succeeded in killing only himself; around the same time British authorities found two unexploded car bombs in London's West End. Even when it isn't linked directly to terrorism, Muslim radicalism seems more prevalent—and certainly more visible—inside the United Kingdom, and in Western Europe generally, than it is inside the United States.

Why the difference? Economics may be one reason. American Muslims are better-educated and wealthier than the average American. In Europe, they are poorer and less well-educated than the rest of the population—in Germany, only about 10 percent of the Turkish population attends college. The United States has assimilated Muslims into its society more successfully than Western Europe—and over a longer period. Arabs began migrating to the United States in great numbers during the second half of the 19th century. Western Europe's Arab migration didn't start until after World War II, when many arrived as guest workers. In Germany and France, a great many Muslims live in housing projects segregated from the rest of the population. In the United States, Muslims are dispersed more widely. An exception would be Detroit, which has a large Muslim community but not an impoverished one.

Traditionally, the United States has been seen as less class-bound than Europe and more welcoming to immigrants. "There's something about our national myths," observes Jonathan Laurence, a political scientist at Boston College, "that give the impression of a possibility of political participation that European countries are still catching up to." Christopher Caldwell, author of a forthcoming book about Muslim immigration in Western Europe, notes also that the United States is unburdened by Europe's imperial legacy in the Middle East and South Asia. "Some of these relationships," he observes, "come pre-contextualized due to colonialism." Even so, Caldwell says Americans shouldn't get carried away with self-congratulation regarding their superior ability to bring Muslims into the mainstream. No Muslim ever won a seat in the House of Representatives until 2006, and none has ever won a Senate seat. (James Abourezk, who in the 1970s became the first Arab-American senator, is the son of Lebanese Christians.) At the same time, the seven medical doctors arrested in connection with 2007's bungled bombings in Glasgow and London clearly suffered no lack of educational opportunity or achievement.

The relative dearth of Islamist radicalism in the United States is at least as much a function of American demographics as it is of American exceptionalism. Muslims simply loom smaller in the U.S. population than they do in the populations of many Western European countries. Muslims account for roughly 3 percent of the population in the United Kingdom, 4 percent in Germany, and 9 percent in France. In the United States, they're closer to 1 percent and are spread over a much larger geographic area. As both immigrants and descendants of immigrants, Muslims are far outnumbered in the United States by Latinos. It's quite different in Western Europe. Muslims represent the largest single immigrant group in France, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands (where they constitute a majority of all immigrants), and the United Kingdom (where they constitute a plurality of all immigrants).

Somewhere between one-quarter to one-half of U.S. Muslims are African-American. Historically, American-born black Muslims have felt little kinship with Arab and foreign-born Muslims, and while al-Qaida has sought to recruit black Muslims, "there's no sign" they've met with any success, according to Laurence. (Arabs make up less than half of 1 percent of the U.S. population, and a majority of them are Christian, mostly from Lebanon, Syria, and Egypt.) Among foreign-born Muslims in the United States, nearly one-quarter are Shiite—many of them refugees from the 1979 Iranian revolution—and therefore harbor little sympathy for al-Qaida's Sunni following. Europe's Muslim population, by contrast, is overwhelmingly Sunni, hailing typically in France from Algeria and Morocco; in Germany from Turkey; and in the United Kingdom from Pakistan and the subcontinent.

Whatever the reason, American Muslims appear far less inclined to support the global jihad than their European counterparts. In the United Kingdom, 81 percent of Muslims consider themselves Muslims first, British second. In the United States, only 47 percent consider themselves Muslim first. After 9/11, 58 percent of American Muslims said they approved of President Bush's response to the attacks. In a 2007 Pew survey, 51 percent said they were very concerned about the rise of Islamist extremism, a proportion the report termed "much greater than the concern expressed by Muslims in most of Western Europe, the Middle East, and elsewhere."

All right, then. American Muslims are disinclined to commit acts of terror inside the United States. Why don't American non-Muslims pick up the slack?

Actually, they do. In April 1995 Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols bombed a federal building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people and injuring 500 more. In April 1996, Ted Kaczynski, the "Unabomber," was arrested for killing three people and wounding 22 others. In July 1996, a former Army explosives expert named Eric Rudolph set off a bomb at the Olympics in Atlanta, killing one person and injuring 11; later, he set off bombs at two abortion clinics and a nightclub frequented by gay men and women, killing  a security guard *  and injuring 12 others. In September and October 2001, somebody sent anthrax spores to media outlets and government offices, killing five people. The FBI believes it was an Army scientist named Bruce Ivins who killed himself as the investigation closed in on him. These are just the incidents everybody's heard of. The point is that domestic terrorism inside the United States is fairly routine. The FBI counted 24 terror incidents inside the United States between 2002 and 2005; all but one were committed by American citizens. (The exception was an airport attack that killed two people carried out by an Egyptian limousine driver who'd been living in the United States legally for 10 years.) Except for McVeigh and Nichols, however, these homegrown haters did not commit violence on a large scale. Fourteen years later, Oklahoma City looks more like a one-time event than a trend.

What places this theory one more bead along the worry chain is the unfortunate reality that it doesn't necessarily take very many people, Muslim or non-Muslim, to pull off a terrible attack. Only three people were prosecuted for the Oklahoma City bombing. Even 9/11 required only 19 suicide hijackers. The Melting-Pot Theory can't quiet entirely our anxiety about a hypothetical, statistically insignificant group of people who mean us harm.

[Update, March 4: Gallup and the Coexist Foundation have just released what appears to be the most extensive survey of American Muslims ever conducted. To read a summary click here. (The full report is available if you scroll to the bottom.)]

Next: " The Burden-of-Success Theory," in which we'll consider whether al-Qaida is struggling to top 9/11 with a chemical, biological, or nuclear attack.

Correction, March 2, 2009: An earlier version of this column neglected to mention the death of the security guard, Robert Sanderson. (Return  to the corrected sentence.)

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