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Europe Frets, America Yawns: The Trans-Atlantic Gap on Domestic Islamism
The Islamic organization Hizb ut-Tharir holds its Friday prayer at the Parliament Square on March 21, 2019 in Copenhagen, Denmark. The goal of Hizb ut Tharir is the implementation of the Islamic Sharia law. (Ole Jensen/Getty Images)
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Europe Frets, America Yawns: The Trans-Atlantic Gap on Domestic Islamism

Lorenzo Vidino

In April 2019, in a landmark speech, French President Emmanuel Macron sought to sooth the societal tensions laid bare by the gilets jaunes movement’s violent protests. After speaking at length about the economic malaise plaguing France, Macron introduced another issue: communitarianism. “We are talking,” he explained, “about the communitarianism that has taken hold in certain quarters of the Republic. We are talking about people who, in the name of a religion, are pursuing a political project—that of a political Islam that wants to secede from our Republic. And on that, I asked the government to be intractable.” Macron reinforced this point in a second speech almost a year later in which he detailed a set of initiatives to counter the domestic appeal of Islamism in France. “We must never accept that the laws of religion can be superior to those of the Republic,” he stated. “Islamist separatism is incompatible with freedom and equality, incompatible with the indivisibility of the Republic and the necessary unity of the nation.”

Macron is a staunch foe of populism but, at the same time, a good reader of his nation’s undercurrents. That he chose to highlight the negative impact of Islamism on French society is not surprising to observers of European politics. The French president, in fact, simply articulated concerns that are increasingly expressed by mainstream policymakers in countries throughout the continent. Indeed, if over the last few years much of the attention of European authorities was understandably centered on jihadism, concerns have more recently expanded to non-violent manifestations of Islamism.

Europeans, in fact, increasingly discuss the impact of Islamist groups on their societies. While operating within the law, such groups spread views and behaviors that are highly controversial and at odds with Western values and democratic institutions. Such concerns are not new among Europeans. But it is noteworthy that they are no longer expressed almost exclusively by those on the right of the political spectrum. Today, and much more frequently than in the past, worries about non-violent Islamists are expressed by politicians and commentators of all political persuasions.

This development, which is visible in varying degrees of intensity throughout Europe, is in stark contrast with concerns in the United States. American discussions pay significant attention to the Islamic State, al-Qaeda and jihadism in general, but seldom focus on the many non-violent manifestations of Islamism. When they do, they mostly look at the issue through the lens of U.S. foreign policy, concentrating on how to deal with political Islamist movements in Muslim-majority countries, such as Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. Meanwhile, whatever little discourse exists about domestic Islamism in the U.S. is largely driven by a small group of activists, who tend to be excessive and unsophisticated in their efforts and are therefore often far removed from the mainstream. America arguably does not face a challenge from domestic Islamism or “communitarianism” of the same magnitude that many European nations do. However, the near absence of attention paid to the complex issue of political Islamism by American policymakers is short-sighted, with detrimental consequences for U.S. policy and security.

Europe’s Concerns with Islamism

Europeans have long witnessed the demonstrable impact of political Islamism on their societies. In 1988, various British Islamist organizations agitated local Muslim communities against Salman Rushdie’s book Satanic Verses. A mobilization followed, epitomized by the public burning of copies of the book in Bradford. As a result, the organizations that coordinated the mobilization as well as the British establishment came to understand that Islamism was a force to be reckoned with in Britain and would be so for years to come.

Similarly, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, a similar agitation was stirred up in France related to various bans against wearing the hijab in schools and public places. This caused the French state and public alike to acknowledge that politically-charged Islam was active in the Republic and thus a challenge to some of its norms.

Since these early flashpoints, most European countries have steadily debated how to deal with Islamism. The Islamism Europeans have encountered is diverse and confusing. There seems to be little disagreement that jihadists, who represent the most violent manifestation of Islamist ideology, are a threat—although there remains little consensus as to what factors cause young European Muslims to join their ranks. But the diagnosis becomes significantly more challenging when dealing with Islamist groups that do not advocate violence.

Various currents of the Salafist movement are active throughout the continent. For some of them, the border with violence is a thin one. But most, while remaining peaceful, reject democracy, condemn Western society as immoral, and advocate that believers isolate themselves from it. Similarly diffuse throughout Europe are networks with organizational and ideological ties to the Muslim Brotherhood. Unlike Salafists, they publicly advocate integration and actively seek to engage in politics and society. However, critics argue, their acceptance of democracy is not sincere but tactical; it is simply aimed at obtaining influence to advance their agenda. Meanwhile, many of their beliefs on such issues as religious freedom, women’s rights and homosexuality are both troubling and incompatible with Western norms.

What to do with these groups? Statistically, they represent a fairly small yet very vocal cross-section of any European country’s Muslim community, and an appropriate response to them has been the source of endless discussion. For the most part, the activities of such groups fall within the law; in a democratic society, their right to advocate and work for “Islamic causes” or even for an Islamic order is constitutionally sanctioned. On the other hand, many in Europe have long argued that tolerating the spread of Islamist views among European Muslim communities—even if they do not manifest themselves in violent ways—is a short-sighted approach.

Two particular concerns are generally expressed. First, critics argue that non-violent Islamist groups, while largely operating within the boundaries of the law, propagate an interpretation of Islam that drives a wedge between Muslims and non-Muslims. This contributes to polarization and harms integration. Europeans are concerned about the growing sway of Islamist groups. Through preaching and various forms of social pressure, intimidation and, occasionally, violence, these groups inspire members of local Muslim communities to detach from mainstream society and resort to alternative legal, educational and social systems.

Tellingly, intelligence and law enforcement agencies in various European countries have set up units that specifically focus on the formation of “parallel societies” in which the inhabitants utilize legal and arbitration systems other than the state’s. This phenomenon, to be sure, is not limited to heavily immigrant communities from Muslim countries. But the formation of parallel societies is of particular concern to European authorities when they are not simply the result of cultural traditions but tied to a political project, i.e., to Islamism.

Secondly, critics warn about the potential impact of non-violent Islamists on violent radicalization. They argue that Salafists and Muslim Brothers spread ideas that, taken to their logical conclusion, justify violence—whether in foreign lands, or in Europe—and inspire angry young men to embrace the views of jihadist groups. In the British debate it used to be said that non-violent Islamists “provide the mood music to which suicide bombers dance.” Many are critical of this position and the thorny question of whether non-violent Islamism constitutes a “conveyor belt” or a “firewall” against violent radicalization. Indeed, such disagreements have shaped the Western counterterrorism conversation over the last twenty years. The debate on the issue began in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks on the U.S., but it has significantly increased during the last decade, as some 5,000 European Muslims joined the Islamic State and some 70 attacks directed or inspired by the caliphate movement, such as the November 2014 Paris attacks against the Bataclan and other targets, the March 2015 Brussels airport and metro suicide bombings, or the July 2015 truck-ramming in Nice, bloodied the streets of the continent.1

For obvious reasons, the ongoing debate about non-violent Islamism often takes a back seat to the ideology’s violent manifestations. Terrorist attacks, particularly when as frequent and dramatic as those suffered throughout Europe in recent years, capture the attention of policymakers, security services and the media. Meanwhile, the activities of non-violent Islamists tend to be attention-repellant: they are mostly legal; they rarely flare up in dramatic incidents like the Bradford book burning. And they often bring (sometimes justified, sometimes not) charges of racism and Islamophobia to those who highlight them.

Yet, over the last few years, the significance of non-violent Islamism seems to have gained more traction in several European countries. Macron’s reference to communitarianism is hardly an isolated case. Since entering the doors of the Élysée, Macron has tapped various advisors to come up with a grand strategy to weaken Islamist communitarianism in all its manifestations in France. Macron’s plan, at least in theory, seeks to challenge Islamism through a muscular cultural battle led by the state. On one hand, he seems to have shed the strong assimilationist approach that has conventionally characterized France’s relationship to its newcomers, supporting a growing public recognition of Islam and even encouraging the state’s support for the construction of large mosques. This is not a small feat for a country that sees the concept of laïcité as one of its pillars. At the same time, the Macron government has enacted various policies aimed at cracking down on Islamism, from deporting radical preachers to closing down problematic mosques.

At the same time, serious concerns over non-violent Islamism also have been at the center of political discussions in the United Kingdom, a country that has traditionally adopted an integration model diametrically opposed to France’s. Debates about whether British multiculturalism have led to the growth of parallel societies and created a perfect environment for Islamists—both violent and non-violent—to thrive have periodically surfaced since the Rushdie affair. These British debates over their multiculturalist model (or rather, as some would argue, its excessive or twisted implementations) have only intensified since the 2005 London terrorist attacks.

The UK’s policy changes aimed at diminishing the influence of non-violent Islamists began under Tony Blair, albeit in a somewhat haphazard way. While parts of the British establishment saw the Muslim Brotherhood and Jamaat-e-Islami organizations as useful gatekeepers to the Muslim community and partners in preventing violent radicalization, other Labour leaders began to think otherwise. Hazel Blears, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government in the Blair government was weary of the negative social impact of empowering Islamists. In 2009, she warned that:

The left, in particular, must be vigilant. The liberal-left is historically concerned for the underdog, for oppressed peoples, for taking a stand against racism and imperialism. It is part of our political DNA. The problem today is that these valid concerns can be mutated into support for causes and organisations that are fiercely anti-liberal and populated by people whose hearts are filled with misogyny, homophobia and Jew-hatred. Liberals’ pathological fear of being branded “racist” or “Islamophobic” can lead to ideological contortions: condoning or even forming alliances with groups that are socially conservative, homophobic, antisemitic and violent towards women.

The British government’s revision in attitudes towards non-violent Islamists dramatically accelerated in 2010, when Conservatives were elected to power. In a landmark speech delivered a few months after becoming prime minister, David Cameron clearly outlined his views on the subject:

Governments must also be shrewder in dealing with those that, while not violent, are in some cases part of the problem. We need to think much harder about who it’s in the public interest to work with. Some organisations that seek to present themselves as a gateway to the Muslim community are showered with public money despite doing little to combat extremism. As others have observed, this is like turning to a right-wing fascist party to fight a violent white supremacist movement. So we should properly judge these organisations: do they believe in universal human rights—including for women and people of other faiths? Do they believe in equality of all before the law? Do they believe in democracy and the right of people to elect their own government? Do they encourage integration or separation? These are the sorts of questions we need to ask.

Cameron’s government stopped all funding of Islamist organizations and de-platformed them, removing them from most governmental outreach efforts towards the Muslim community. The government’s concerns were further solidified in 2013, by the emergence of an alleged conspiracy by various activists in the Birmingham area to occupy leadership positions in local schools and to introduce Islamist-leaning classes and ethos. In 2014, Cameron ordered a high-profile government-wide review of “the philosophy, activities, impact and influence on UK national interests, at home and abroad, of the Muslim Brotherhood and of government policy towards the organisation.” This was the first such action in any Western nation.

The process went on for months, not without controversies and difficulties, and a two hundred-page report was presented to the prime minister. While the full report has not been released (because it is based on classified evidence), in December 2015 the British government published an executive summary of its findings. The document provides, overall, a very negative assessment of the Brotherhood, arguing that “aspects of Muslim Brotherhood ideology and tactics, in this country and overseas, are contrary to our values and have been contrary to our national interests and our national security.”

The UK review’s assessment of the Brotherhood and, more broadly of non-violent Islamism, is shared by virtually all intelligence agencies throughout Western Europe. For example, in a case weighing whether or not to grant asylum to a member of the Brotherhood, Austrian intelligence argued in the negative. They stated that the group’s ideology “in its core contradicts the Western democratic understanding of coexistence, equality of men and women, the political order, and the fundamental principles of the Constitution of the Republic of Austria.”2

Dutch intelligence has similarly warned that organizations linked to the Brotherhood are “apparently cooperative and moderate in their attitude to Western society…but the ultimate aim—although never stated openly—is to create, then implant and expand, an ultra-orthodox Muslim bloc inside Western Europe.”3

Arguably the most “pessimistic” point of view in this debate is the one adopted by German security services, both at the federal and state level. Because of its history, Germany has granted its security agencies an extremely broad mandate in focus on all political entities that can disrupt the country’s democratic life. “The Nazis seized power democratically,” German officials will routinely say when explaining this dynamic. And, tellingly, all German security services have units specifically devoted to monitoring non-violent Islamism. They are, invariably, highly critical of its impact on German society.

A 2005 report from the Office for the Protection of the Constitution—Germany’s federal domestic intelligence agency—perfectly condenses these concerns about “legalistic Islamist groups,” a term German authorities use to refer to Islamist groups whose activities are mostly legal. The report argues that these groups “represent an especial threat to the internal cohesion of our society.” “Among other things,” the report continues, “their wide range of Islamist-oriented educational and support activities, especially for children and adolescents from immigrant families, are used to promote the creation and proliferation of an Islamist milieu in Germany. These endeavors run counter to the efforts undertaken by the federal administration and the Länder [states] to integrate immigrants. There is the risk that such milieus could also form the breeding ground for further radicalization.”4

A 2018 report by the security services of North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany’s most populous state, goes even further. “In the long run,” it argues, “the threat posed by legalistic Islamism to the liberal democratic system is greater than that of jihadism, which will always outnumber numerically. They aspire to an Islamist order, but are prepared to allow certain democratic elements within that framework. For this reason, their extremism is often barely recognizable at first glance.”5

America the Silent

Negative opinions about non-violent Islamists held by European intelligence agencies influence, but do not fully shape, governmental policies. Lawmakers and bureaucrats at all levels—not to mention civil society and media organizations—are not bound by these assessments and often, in fact, espouse different ideas. While negative views of “legalistic Islamism” are increasingly predominant, no European country has adopted a cohesive approach to identify, assess and position itself towards Islamist organizations, either at home or abroad.

This situation leads to huge inconsistencies in policies, not only from one country to another but also inside each country, where positions diverge from institution to institution and even from office to office within the same body. It is not uncommon, for example, for the investigative unit of a law enforcement agency to aggressively look into an Islamist organization while the very same agency’s civil affairs division engages it as a reliable partner.

While there are continent-wide commonalities, each European country’s debate has its own dynamics and degree of intensity. But virtually all European nations are discussing Islamism and its impact on their societies. This is in stark contrast with the United States, where concern about domestic Islamism is virtually non-existent, at least when it comes to the mainstream. Violent Islamism has been at the center of attention also in America since 9/11 and, with a renewed energy, since the arrival of the Islamic State. Yet, with few exceptions, there seems to be little to no interest among policy, law enforcement and media circles to examine the varieties and activities of non-violent Islamist networks on American soil.

America, to be sure, does debate Islamism, but the focus is almost entirely beyond its shores. The peak of this debate took place during the first years of the Arab Spring, when the Obama administration and the Washington punditry were confronted with the sudden rise to power of Islamist forces in Egypt, Tunisia and other Arab countries. But this debate seldom acknowledged the existence of Islamist networks in the United States.

Moreover, American concerns about Islamism tend to be framed through the security lens. It is telling that in the United States, from 2014 to 2017, five separate bills seeking to designate the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization were introduced in Congress. These bills were supported almost exclusively by Republicans, and none progressed very far legislatively. Similarly, in May 2019, the Trump administration announced it was exploring a possible designation of the Brotherhood, but there seems to have been little follow through.

In Europe, on the other hand, even though potential security-related angles of non-violent Islamism are not ignored, no country has designated or even concretely discussed the idea of designating the Brotherhood and similar groups as terrorists. The general understanding among Europeans is that these groups, while at times flirting with violence, do not pose a direct security threat to the West. Nonetheless, at the same time, they do constitute a political and social challenge to its societies.

In America, on the other hand, concerns on the social impact of Islamism are largely relegated to two groups. The first is represented by a fairly small cadre of think tanks and activists who have made it their mission to expose Islamist activities in America. Critics have accused this informal network of being bigoted and Islamophobic. They argue that the activists involved seek to unfairly politically undermine active Muslim voices in order to advance a right-wing and pro-Israel agenda. In some cases, the charge of Islamophobia—that is, of unfairly criticizing Muslims and Islam as a whole—is fair. The more extreme voices of this milieu have, for example, accused virtually every prominent U.S. activist or government official of Muslim background of being a closet Islamist. Some even extended the accusation to President Obama.

In other cases, the criticism is unfair. In fact, accusations of Islamophobia serve to silence legitimate concerns about the undeniable Islamist origins and leanings of some prominent U.S. Muslim activists and organizations. Irrespective of where the truth lies, it is apparent that the voices of these critics seldom get any traction in the mainstream policy and media debate. And, even though a handful of them have managed to obtain positions in the Trump administration, their impact has remained negligible.

The second group that frets about Islamism is constituted by fairly large cross sections of the American Muslim population itself. Many staunchly patriotic or secular American Muslims, including conservative Sunnis as well as minority Muslims groups (such as Sufis and Ahmadiyyah), are deeply concerned about the influence of Islamist networks on American Islam. It is not so much a fear of jihadist radicalization that concerns them. Their fear, rather, is the substantial influence of non-violent Islamist networks in social and religious activities at the grassroots level, as well as the position of Islamists as the self-appointed “communal” representatives of other American Muslims. But these critical American Muslim voices remain marginal as they tend to be disorganized and lack the mobilization capabilities and resources of groups that have been dominated by Islamists.

There is indeed a Trans-Atlantic gap regarding Islamism. With limited exceptions, America does not worry or speak about Islamism with comparable energy to the Europeans. And this can be explained by various, overlapping factors. The first is the size of the problem. Both historically and until today, America has not faced the same challenge from domestic Islamism, in both its violent and non-violent forms, that most of its European counterparts have. Yet neither has it been absent from the American landscape.

Individuals and networks adopting violent Islamist ideology have been active in the United States since the heyday of jihadism in the West, from the handful of Americans who joined the mujaheddin fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s to the New Jersey/Brooklyn-based cluster revolving around the “Blind Sheik” Omar Abdel-Rahman that planned attacks in New York in the early 1990s.6 The phenomenon only increased with time and has surged over the last decade, as the FBI arrested some 200 individuals for Islamic State-related activities and saw a similar number depart to fight with the group in Syria and Iraq.7 While this number pales when compared to the levels of radicalization and mobilization in some parts of Europe, it is nonetheless deeply concerning. Jihadism may, at present, be a much smaller phenomenon in America, but it does exist.

While arrests and the number of foreign fighters provide good metrics of the jihadist challenge, it is more difficult to empirically quantify the presence of non-violent Islamist actors. Unbeknownst to many, America has historically been home to relatively large numbers of Islamist movements. Various strands of Salafism, in fact, have long enjoyed a foothold in the country.8 The Houston-based al-Maghrib Institute, for example, has attracted some of the most prominent names of global Salafism—mostly in its quietist and political currents—and reportedly has graduated more than 80,000 students.

Similarly, it is noteworthy that, arguably, the leading contemporary ideologue of the jihadist current of Salafism in the English-speaking world, Anwar Awlaki, was born in New Mexico and preached for years between California and Virginia. Awlaki, who was killed in a 2011 U.S. drone strike in Yemen, where he had become one of the top leaders of the local al-Qaeda affiliate, served as imam in one of America’s most prominent mosques, with close links to the Muslim Brotherhood.

Equally, if not more important is the historical presence of networks linked to various national branches of the Brotherhood. For example, Egyptian president Mohammed Mursi joined the Muslim Brotherhood in the 1980s while studying in California. And Bashir al-Kebti, who was elected head of the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood shortly after the 2011 revolution, had worked as an accountant in the United States for more than thirty years. Indeed, the Islamist presence has been well-established in the U.S. for years.

Some of these Brotherhood networks are mostly focused on their countries of origin, using America as a convenient base of operation and fundraising platform. An example of this dynamic is Hamas, which created a nationwide network in the 1980s, when its now senior leader, Musa Abu Marzook, went to graduate school in Colorado and Louisiana. Other members of the Brotherhood arrived in the United States as early as the 1960s and were pioneers of the movement. Prominent U.S.-based Brothers Jamal Barzinji, Ahmed Totonji, and Hisham al Talib, played a key role in establishing global Islamist organizations like the Saudi-based World Assembly of Muslim Youth as well as some of the first American Muslim organizations such as the Muslim Students Association and the International Institute of Islamic Thought. It is difficult to gauge whether the presence of non-violent Islamist networks in America is as prevalent as it is in Europe, but there is no doubt about its existence.

One important factor to note is that America never had a defining moment, an episode that made its collective psyche confront the existence of domestic Islamism the way Britain did with the Rushdie affaire or Denmark did with the 2006 Jyllands-Posten cartoon controversy. Islamism, despite extensive evidence to the contrary, is still seen by most Americans as a predominantly “foreign” and thus distant threat that only occasionally manages to enter or threaten American soil.

Americans often reassure themselves by arguing that some of the dynamics seen in Europe, whether linked to violent or non-violent Islamism, cannot take place stateside. This is because American Muslims are a success story, a well-integrated community that enjoys a high standard of living and does not suffer the kind of discrimination their European counterparts are subjected to. Part of this argument is correct. It is undeniably true that, whatever benchmark one uses to gauge integration, American Muslims on the whole fare much better than European Muslims. For reasons that range from economic to cultural, America has done a better job at integrating immigrants in general and Muslims in particular

But is good integration Islamism’s kryptonite? Are people who enjoy good economic conditions less prone to embracing various forms of Islamist ideology? This question has been endlessly debated by scholars, without a consensus. It is undeniable that areas with high unemployment and a widespread sense of marginalization—such as the almost mythicized French banlieues or Brussels’ Molenbeek neighborhood—are conducive environments for radical players and views. At the same time, it is incorrect to see all Islamists as disenfranchised individuals motivated by social rage. Whether in the Middle East or in the West, it is hardly uncommon for Islamists to have a good educational level, to live a comfortable life, and to be fully engaged in the very society they want to radically alter. In fact, when it comes to the Muslim Brotherhood, a relatively high social status is the norm for its members. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that some individuals from affluent and well-integrated communities, including American Muslims, also embrace various forms of Islamism.

A different cultural approach to integration also helps explain America’s lack of interest in domestic Islamism. While most European societies have traditionally been fairly homogenous and have had little experience in (and, some would argue, patience for) diversity, America has a long history of tolerating all sorts of views, beliefs and lifestyles. Communities living in self-isolation are not uncommon in America, from the Amish to some Christian and ultra-orthodox Jewish sects. Similarly, the latitudes of speech protection granted by the First Amendment shock most Europeans but are sacrosanct for Americans. Unlike Europe, America is more tolerant of behaviors and words that diverge from the mainstream and, at times, directly challenge it.

Finally, another explanation for the lack of American concern with non-violent Islamism is the country’s lack of a domestic intelligence agency. In Europe, the alarm on Islamism is often raised or supported by the analysis of security services that have a mandate allowing them to look beyond direct threats to national security, and also to monitor more oblique forms of subversion that might threaten the democratic order. In the U.S. there is no equivalent. The FBI is a formidable law enforcement agency with substantial powers to investigative individuals and organizations suspected of engaging in criminal behaviors. But monitoring activities that are within the law, in which most of those of non-violent Islamists engage, falls outside its remit. Reminiscent of its own excesses during the McCarthy era and later, the FBI stays clear of systematically monitoring non-violent Islamists, save for the rare occasions in which they overlap with terrorism investigations or engage in other criminal activities.

All these elements represent an obstacle to the development of a robust and much-needed American discussion on Islamism. Yet, even though a gulf between Europe and America had always existed on the matter, it was not this broad in the past. In the years following the September 11, 2001 attacks, the U.S. policy debate paid closer attention to the role of ideology and non-violent Islamism, albeit often not in a very cogent way. Moreover, for the better part of the 2000s, U.S. federal authorities conducted extremely aggressive counter-terrorism operations against a variety of Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas affiliated charities, entities and individuals.

This changed significantly during the Obama administration. Initially, during the early years of the Arab Spring, the Obama administration’s foreign policy took a cautiously sympathetic approach toward the Muslim Brotherhood parties that came to power, while at home government investigations of domestic Islamist networks came virtually to a complete halt. Moreover, while in the previous decade mainstream media devoted important and mostly balanced coverage to domestic Islamism, the 2010 decade saw the issue slide increasingly to the dark corners of the Internet—where the hyperbole and conspiracy theories of the anti-Islamic fringe have flourished—and away from the eyes of most decisionmakers and legislators.

This overall trend in the U.S. policy discussion has changed little since President Trump was elected. During his campaign, candidate Trump spoke about his desire to establish “a Commission on Radical Islam,” an endeavor he never fully defined but that, some had hoped, might resemble the UK’s Muslim Brotherhood review. However, nothing resembling a commission on radical Islam, or any effort to better understand and craft policy towards the varieties of domestic Islamism and its challenges, have materialized. Instead, the Trump administration has been characterized by a mix of problematic outbursts of rhetoric on Islam and a puzzling lack of coherence and inaction on domestic Islamism. While the president and some in his administration have often used crude and divisive language when speaking about Islam, the White House has hardly taken any concrete political action to counter Islamism domestically. Even at the tactical level no move has been made to, for example, order the FBI and the Department of Justice to aggressively investigate domestic Islamist networks. Rather, quite surprisingly, there are indications that federal funding for American Islamist organizations has actually increased under the Trump administration.9

These dynamics highlight how the American debate on Islamism has increasingly become a function of party politics, driven on both sides by politically-charged rhetoric. On one hand are the foaming-at-the-mouth anti-Islamist (and, often, anti-Islam) activists. On the other are those who seem willfully blind, dismissing any accusation against Islamists—or even the charge that they actually exist—as preposterous fabrications motivated by Islamophobia. One important effect of this has been to drown out any sensible middle-ground and policy debate that is informed by analysis of the varieties of Islamism and its challenges to the American Republic. It has also contributed to the growing Trans-Atlantic divide over Islamism and how to deal with it. While it might be true that the internal Islamist challenge to the United States is smaller or of a different character than the one that parts of Europe are facing, this may not always be the case. It would be wise for U.S. policymakers at the federal and state levels to learn from the European experience, and to initiate a debate and domestic policy changes that incorporate a healthy skepticism toward political Islamism without degenerating into paranoia.

1 The calculation is based on a database of attacks kept by the author and Francesco Marone. See Lorenzo Vidino, Francesco Marone, and Eva Entenmann, Fear Thy Neighbor: Radicalization and Jihadist Attacks in the West, report by the Program on Extremism at the George Washington University and the International Centre for Counter Terrorism (ICCT, The Hague), June 2017. The database has been regularly updated.
2 Landesverwaltungsgericht Steiermark, cases LVwG 70.8-3597/2015-34, LVwG 41.8-37/2016-34 and LVwG 41.8-39/2016-34, Graz, September 9, 2016.
3 The Radical Dawa in Transition: The Rise of Islamic Neoradicalism in the Netherlands, AIVD, February 2008, page 51.
4 Annual report of the Office for the Protection of the Constitution, 2005, page 190.
5 Annual report of the North Rhine-Westphalia Office for the Protection of the Constitution, 2018. Page 221. Available at https://www.im.nrw/system/files/media/document/file/VS_Bericht_2018.pdf
6 For historical overviews of jihadism in America, see J.M. Berger, Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam (Washington DC: Potomac Books, 2011) and Lorenzo Vidino, “Homegrown Jihadist Terrorism in the United States: A New and Occasional Phenomenon?,” Studies in Conflict & Terrorism 32, no. 1 (January 2009): 1-17.
7 See Lorenzo Vidino and Seamus Hughes, ISIS in America: From Retweets to Raqqa, Program on Extremism, December 2015. Available at: https://extremism.gwu.edu/sites/g/files/zaxdzs2191/f/downloads/ISIS%20in%20America%20-%20Full%20Report.pdf
8 https://extremism.gwu.edu/sites/g/files/zaxdzs2191/f/Salafism%20in%20America.pdf
9 Sam Westrop, “American Islamism Flourishes under Trump,” Middle East Quarterly, Winter 2020.

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