Immigration, Assimilation, and Terrorism

Matthew Schofield wonders why the UK continues to be targeted by al Qaeda despite the fact that “the preferred villain is the United States.” His premise is likely untrue (the UK really hasn’t been the subject of a more al Qaeda activity than the US) but his answer is nonetheless interesting.

Karl-Heinz Kamp, the security policy coordinator at Germany’s prestigious Konrad Adenauer research center, said it was easy to understand why. “The U.S. has a historical advantage; America is still the land of opportunity to the whole world. The people moving there believe the American dream of social mobility,” he said. “In Europe, we’ve historically treated our immigrants as hired help, and waited for them to finish the work they arrived for and go home.”

Bob Ayers, a security and terrorism expert with London’s Chatham House, a foreign-policy research center, thinks that immigrants to the U.S. actually become Americans, giving the United States a huge advantage in avoiding homegrown al Qaida terrorists. Europeans encourage immigrants to retain their native cultures, causing them to be ostracized more readily. “The Islamic population in the United States is better assimilated into the general population, whereas here, in Germany, in France, they’re very much on the outside looking in,” he said. “When people get disaffected, sadly, there’s not much loyalty to country in that sort of situation.”

Fareed Zakaria alluded to this well over a year ago

Many Americans have become enamored of the European approach to immigration — perhaps without realizing it. Guest workers, penalties, sanctions and deportation are all a part of Europe’s mode of dealing with immigrants. The results of this approach have been on display recently in France, where rioting migrant youths again burned cars last week. Across Europe one sees disaffected, alienated immigrants, ripe for radicalism. The immigrant communities deserve their fair share of blame for this, but there’s a cycle at work. European societies exclude the immigrants, who become alienated and reject their societies.

One puzzle about post-Sept. 11 America is that it has not had a subsequent terror attack — not even a small backpack bomb in a movie theater — while there have been dozens in Europe. My own explanation is that American immigrant communities, even Arab and Muslim ones, are not very radicalized.

As I noted at the time,

While Steve Emerson and others can certainly point to radicalized Muslim communties in the United States (indeed, I pass by such a mosque on my way to and from work) the severity is nothing approaching what we’ve seen in Europe. Of course, assimilation is a two way street, requiring respect for the cultural norms of on the part of immigrant communities just as much as welcoming on the part of the receiving society.

In fairness, though, there are some significant differences at work aside from immigration systems. The proportion of foreign-born Muslims is much higher in both France and the UK than here, owing to their colonial legacies and we enjoy some advantages owing to our geographic isolation as well.

Matthew Shugart also notes some demographic issues:

Most of the Islamist terrorists are Pakistani or Arab Muslims. Arabs in the US are disproportionately Christians; there are very few Arab Muslim communities in which potential terrorists might be bred and hidden. Most American Muslims are either native-born African-Americans or are from South and Southeast Asia (where radical Islam is less established). There are hardly any Pakistani communities in the US.

Meanwhile, the UK has a huge Pakistani immigrant population and it is within those communities that most of the cells have formed or hid. There are also substantial communities from the former British colonies in the Arab world.

So, it’s far from an apples to apples comparison. Still, while our institutionalization of assimilation into the culture is surely at least part of the explanation. And it’s so fundamentally part of our culture that it appeals across the ideological spectrum, from Steven Taylor to Kevin Drum to Shaminic to Steve Benen. Yet most of the momentum seems to be behind those who want us to make our immigration system more like France’s.

UPDATE: SoccerDad emails that Daniel Pipes is making precisely the opposite argument.

Thanks to the war in Iraq, much of the world sees the British government as resolute and tough and the French one as appeasing and weak. But in another war, the one against terrorism and radical Islam, the reverse is true: France is the most stalwart nation in the West, even more so than America, while Britain is the most hapless.


The British have seemingly lost interest in their heritage while the French hold on to theirs: As the British ban fox hunting, the French ban hijabs. The former embrace multiculturalism, the latter retain a pride in their historic culture. This contrast in matters of identity makes Britain the Western country most vulnerable to the ravages of radical Islam whereas France, for all its political failings, has held onto a sense of self that may yet see it through.

It strikes me that both extremes are problematic. Certainly, though, the French have not solved their “Muslim problem” by this approach.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. kenny says:

    “there have been dozens in Europe”

    Outside of the UK which has 3 (or 4 depending on if you classify the glasgow car torching as separate from the london attempts) and madrid, when and where were these ‘dozens’ of terror attacks ?

  2. G.A.Phillips says:


    A foiled attack is counted the same as a successful one in my book, when keeping count of terrorist activity. Not sure but do we get dozens that way?

  3. kenny says:

    “do we get dozens that way?”

    Doubt it.

    And anyway that was not how Fareed Zakaria was counting it as he was clearly not counting foiled attempts in the US.

  4. Michael says:

    Certainly, though, the French have not solved their “Muslim problem” by this approach.

    Was I the only one disturbed by the historical connotation of having “Muslim problem” in quotes?

  5. James Joyner says:

    Was I the only one disturbed by the historical connotation of having “Muslim problem” in quotes?

    Allusion intentional, since it’s being made by many. I do think there is a legitimate reason to be concerned about radicalized, unassimilated Muslims in Europe but think it’s being wildly overblown.

  6. I’m all for immigration and all for assimilation. I’ve always thought it impractical and immoral to tell people motivated enough to improve their lot in life and that of their families that they need to remain in the squalid conditions there were born into. But whether increased immigration and assimilation as goals are compatible and possible with our lax borders, rampant multiculturalism, rumored amnesties, and the sheer volume of people to be assimilated is unclear. Fortress USA cannot possibly be the answer.

    In other news, the French and the Quebecois have official government entities to protect their language and culture in ways we find abhorent. Much of Europe has official state sponsored religions and individual rights are seemingly always secondary to the interests of the state. Nonetheless, we are regarded as the barbarians. It is passing strange.

  7. Andy says:

    “when and where were these ‘dozens’ of terror attacks ?”

    Mark Steyn has a terror attack whenever a European Muslim woman has a baby. So it must be in the hundreds of thousands by now.