As we learn more about the brothers Tsarnaev, we are inclined to ask larger questions about their apparent descent into terror. What does it tell us about radical Islam, Russian immigrants, Muslim communities and the breakdown of assimilation? The most accurate answer might turn out to be: not much. Larger phenomena might be at work — but these two young men might not reflect any rise or intensification of trends. It seems they are just two alienated youths who turned toward hate and then, allegedly, to murder.
That was the point the brothers’ uncle Ruslan Tsarni made when he called his nephews “losers.” He was arguing against the notion that the boys represented a larger community. He and his family, after all, were part of the same Chechen migration to the United States and are well-adjusted, law-abiding and thoroughly American.
Since 9/11, foreign-inspired terrorism has claimed about two dozen lives in the United States. (Meanwhile, more than 100,000 have been killed in gun homicides and more than 400,000 in motor-vehicle accidents.) One crucial reason the number of terrorism deaths is so low is that America does not have large pools of alienated immigrants. Polls repeatedly have shown that Muslim immigrants to the United States embrace core American values. The American assimilation machine continues to function well.
What’s surprising is that things have been improving in Europe, where Muslim migrants have often had much greater problems assimilating. Jonathan Laurence of Boston College, who has done extensive research on Muslim communities in Europe, found that before 1990 European countries largely ignored their Muslim populations and allowed the embassies of countries such as Morocco, Algeria and Saudi Arabia to cater to their needs by building mosques and training imams. “This wasn’t multiculturalism so much as indifference,” Laurence wrote recently. Those countries had little interest in helping migrants assimilate; in fact, their efforts were to do the opposite: Maintain ties with the old country and old ways.
Over the past two decades, Laurence argues, European countries have recognized the dangers created by their indifference and have sought to integrate Muslim migrants. Governments at all levels have engaged with Islamic communities, taking steps to include Muslims in mainstream society but also to nurture a more modern, European version of Islam. In effect, many governments are now dealing with Islam as they have other religions, creating Islamic councils, providing funding for cultural activities, representation in public forums and being mindful of religious practices and holidays.
In many countries, Germany most prominently, Muslim immigrants long were perennial outsiders who never stood a chance at becoming a part of the society in which they worked. That is changing. More Muslims are being granted citizenship and becoming more mainstream. Increasingly, their activism takes place within the system. Their leaders, Laurence writes, “have become responsible actors in an institutional setting, and they now have something to lose.” And while it is premature to declare any great successes, it’s worth noting that attacks crediting radical Islam appear to have leveled off or declined in recent years.
The United States can learn from European efforts to integrate Muslims. Historically, assimilation has worked better in the United States, but European countries are dealing with a much more complex, larger problem. Their Muslim populations are much greater — 5 percent of the population in Germany and 7.5 percent in France, compared with 0.8 percent in the United States, according to Pew calculations — and the immigrants often come from places close by and can easily maintain ties to their birth countries.
The lesson from Europe appears to be: Embrace Muslim communities. That’s a conclusion U.S. law enforcement agencies would confirm. The better the relationship with local Muslim groups, the more likely they are to provide useful information about potential jihadis.
An attack — apparently inspired but also perhaps directed by al-Qaeda — was foiled recently in Canada for just this reason. An imam in Toronto noticed one of his congregants behaving strangely and reported the behavior to the police, who followed up and arrested the man before he could execute his plan. Before briefing reporters on their collaboration, Canada’s top counterterrorism authorities invited Toronto’s Islamic leaders to a meeting and thanked them for their help. “But for the Muslim community’s intervention, we may not have had the success,” said the official, according to one lawyer invited to the meeting.
Rather than ostracize or embarrass Muslims in the wake of Boston, the smarter move would be even greater outreach — so that the next time someone began to act strangely, community leaders would pick up the phone and call their friends in the police.