After the terrorist attacks Friday night in Paris, it did not take long for anti-Muslim forces to lash out around the world.
A mosque in Canada was deliberately set on fire Saturday, Ontario police say. In Oregon, anti-Muslim protesters held a rally outside the Portland Rizwan Mosque, one of them with a shirt that said “Proud to be an infidel. Islam is a LIE.” In Florida, the Islamic Center of St. Petersburg received a bomb threat over voice mail: “We are tired of your [expletive] and I [expletive] personally have a militia that is going to come down to your Islamic Society of Pinellas County and firebomb you and shoot whoever is there in the head,” the caller said, according to News 13.
And in France, while politicians stressed national unity, local news outlets reported several incidents of mosques, kebab restaurants and halal butcher shops being vandalized with hate messages. A tribute in Lille for the victims of the attacks was disrupted by demonstrators carrying a banner that read: “Expel the Islamists.”
This is what the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, wants.
“This is precisely what ISIS was aiming for — to provoke communities to commit actions against Muslims,” said Arie Kruglanski, a professor of psychology at the University of Maryland who studies how people become terrorists. “Then ISIS will be able to say, ‘I told you so. These are your enemies, and the enemies of Islam.’”
The moments after a terrorist attack are often filled with acts of reprisal. In the six months after the Charlie Hebdo attacks in January, anti-Muslim violence and mosque vandalism more than quadrupled compared with the same period in 2014, according to the Collective Against Islamophobia in France, a watchdog group.
Extremist groups feed off of alienation, some counterterrorism experts say, and Islamist militants deliberately aim to make Muslims in the West feel isolated and turn against their own communities.
According to this line of thinking, acts of terrorism widen the cultural divide by provoking hate crimes against Muslims in the West. This strategy gained traction in the early 2000s after al-Qaeda was sent into hiding by Western military action. Abu Musab al-Suri, an influential jihadi thinker whom the Wall Street Journal called “the new mastermind of jihad,” argued for a distributed network of terrorist cells recruited from the Islamic diaspora, carrying out terrorist strikes in their own communities. These attacks, and the backlash they generated, would inspire other to radicalize.
"What the Islamic State wants to do is to start a civil war,” political scientist Gilles Kepel said Saturday in an interview with French newspaper Le Monde. Kepel, a professor at Sciences Po and an Islamic State expert, has extensively studied the ideology and strategies of modern-day jihadis.
Al-Suri, Kepel said, had a vision: “a proliferation of blind attacks that will provoke lynchings of Muslims, attacks on mosques, harassment of women in veils, and create hotspots of war that will put fire and sword to Europe, seen as the soft underbelly of the West."
The attacks on Paris this weekend seemed to follow al-Suri’s script. Four of the terrorists have been identified as French or Belgian nationals who were recruited in the West. And if these early incidents are any indication, anti-Muslim sentiment will again surge in Europe, further distancing Muslim communities.
A study published last year in the Economic Journal found that the spike in anti-Muslim hate crimes after 9/11 led to a decline in assimilation rates in American Muslim communities. In places where hate crimes increased the most, Muslim immigrants in subsequent years spoke English less fluently, were less likely to marry non-Muslims, and women were less likely to be working.
These trends occurred independently of pre-existing patterns of immigration. As the authors write, the results “suggest that terror groups may try to provoke a backlash against their own ethnic or religious group in the targeted country, in order to halt the assimilation of Muslim adherents into Western society.”
The problem of alienation is particularly acute in Europe, where there are large populations of Muslim immigrants concentrated in ethnic enclaves, who suffer discrimination and lack economic opportunity. “A territorial, social, ethnic apartheid has spread across our country,” is how French Prime Minister Manuel Valls described the situation in January after the Charlie Hebdo attacks. For some youths living in France, the situation can quickly become a recipe for radicalization.
Kruglanski’s research investigates why people join groups like the Islamic State. He argues that recruits are propelled by a need for respect and self-esteem. “It’s the desire to matter, to be noticed, to become a historic figure,” he says. “It’s the most powerful motivation we have.” Kruglanski calls it the “quest for personal significance.”
This craving can be keenest among those who feel lonely and tread upon. “When people feel a loss of significance — when they are humiliated — that propels them to join a radical group,” says Jocelyn Bélanger, a psychology professor at the University of Quebec in Montreal who collaborates with Kruglanski. “A group gives them a feeling of significance. It fulfills a psychological need.”
The researchers see the Paris attacks increasing radicalization in two potential ways. First, the killings project power and prestige, burnishing the Islamic State’s image and attracting those who want to feel potent themselves.
Second, the attacks will escalate tensions between Muslims and non-Muslims. They have already led to some anti-Muslim activity and will probably provoke more. Not only will these events make Muslims in the West feel marginalized, but they will also provide extremist propagandists with examples of Western oppression.
“For people who are already sympathetic to ISIS, who already feel humiliated and discriminated against — this could be the straw that breaks the camel’s back,” Kruglanski says.
In the coming months, Western countries will be forced to address the Islamic State's military presence in the Middle East. But the Paris attacks will also pose a problem at home, challenging governments to maintain a sense of community after a tragedy engineered to sow discord.
“As a society if we are to move forward, we will have to stay united,” Bélanger says. “If we become more self-centered, if we exclude and alienate minorities, we play right into their hands.”