Last Sunday’s unity rally in Paris’ Place de la Republique demonstrates the resiliency of the French and their democracy, which solemnly expressed its solidarity and intent to respond to terrorism with strength and defiance.

Depending on the nature of this response, French Muslims — particularly their inclusion in French society — may not recover.

Since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Western countries have enacted policies that prioritize counterterrorism and populism at the expense of social cohesion. Governments have implemented search and surveillance practices that target people based on their appearance or names; exceptional rules that alter detention standards for those held on charges pressed predominantly against certain minorities; citizenship criteria that discriminate against residents of certain origins or faiths; and cultural policies that prohibit certain religious practices and traditions but not others.

Critics have shown how such actions fail to secure societies. Far more worryingly, my research shows that such actions amplify a much greater threat for Western Muslims: their political withdrawal.

In writing “Apart: Alienated and Engaged Muslims in the West,” I spent six months interviewing over 100 people while immersed in the Bangladeshi community of London’s East End and in the Moroccan community of Southern Madrid, and have since analyzed surveys of European Muslims in the context of other immigrant groups and natives. My objective was to explain why people subjected to similar disadvantages respond with different political behavior — why some advocate, some rebel, and many others withdraw.

And while rebellion gets headlines and old-fashioned advocacy is commonplace, withdrawal is quiet, pervasive and may hold the gravest consequences.

The path from Islamist terrorism to Muslims’ withdrawal proceeds in three steps:

  1. IMPLICATION:   By characterizing their message as Islamic, terrorists implicate millions of otherwise peaceful Western Muslims as being inherently different from other immigrant-origin minorities and worthy of special, cautious treatment by policymakers.
  2. ISOLATION:   This differential treatment alters the nature of Muslims’ relationship with their government and countrymen. Facing external scrutiny and accusations of negligence, sympathy and complicity, Western Muslim communities have been cornered into coerced patriotism or a careful defense of their embattled faith, performances that every Western Muslim has now recited countless times.
  3. MARGINALIZATION:   The continuation and intensification of their unequal status inspires some Muslims to withdraw. Withdrawal initiates a cycle in which social and political marginality leads to low civic participation, which leads to a lack of legislative responsiveness to citizens’ needs, which leads to institutionalized disadvantage, which fosters further withdrawal.

Political systems can rebound from physical destruction and fear; they cannot function well if vast segments of their population are disengaged from a system perceived to be morally bankrupt and discriminatory. When elections are subject to low voter turnout, observers question the validity of the results. When public squares are quiet, governments cease to be consultative.

In explaining Western Muslim political behavior, I find that those I interview:

  • advocate when they perceive governments and societies to at least somewhat fulfil their political and social expectations;
  • engage in rebellious behavior when these expectations go unfulfilled; or
  • withdraw when expectations of governments and society are extremely low.

This suggests that societies are more politically inclusive when they find ways to engage Muslim communities to address doubts about the political system and when they illuminate democratic channels of creating change — all while acknowledging democracy’s imperfections so as not to inflate expectations to unattainable heights.

In addition to its obvious ills, terrorism distracts us from discussion of the pervasive problems of social and political inclusion and instead motivates security and immigration regimes that potentially isolate millions of Western Muslims.

In poll after poll after poll, this scrutinized population states that they want to adapt and live harmoniously in their societies, but they are often distrustful and dissatisfied.

And while dissatisfaction may be the mother of activism, dissatisfaction with no hope of change produces withdrawal.


Justin Gest is an assistant professor at George Mason University’s School of Policy, Government and International Affairs. He is the author of “Apart: Alienated and Engaged Muslims in the West” (Oxford University Press/Hurst 2010).