Why Western attempts to moderate Islam are dangerous

An analysis of the dangers posed when Western governments and the Muslim establishment limit Muslim political activism.

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Muslims gather in Paris in September 2014 to pay a tribute to Herve Goudel, a mountain guide beheaded by fighters affiliated to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant [YOAN VALAT/EPA]

Less than 2 percent of all politically motivated acts of violence committed in Europe are carried out by Muslims. Yet, the media narrative of a crisis with “radical Islam” and “radicalised Muslims” reaches new heights after each major attack in a Western country.

Meanwhile, rational analysis of what constitutes Muslim “radicalism” fails to inform public discourse, which is instead driven largely by sloppy presuppositions connecting religiosity or conservatism to a propensity for violence – despite any credible evidence linking the two.

Promoted by networks of well-funded Islamophobic hate groups, the hazy logic underlying this understanding of extremism is at the centre of Western efforts to moderate Islam.

It is pervasive in government policies and, critics say, it is actively undermining the ability of Muslim communities to confront radicalism by stifling their freedom to openly participate in the democratic processes of civic life, including free expression of political opinions.

The dubious link between conservatism and extremism


The profiles of the vast majority of documented attackers, including the September 11 hijackers and those involved in the recent Paris attacks, clearly diverge from mainstream Muslim communities, with lifestyles – featuring the use of illicit drugs, sex, and alcohol – that would be considered anathema by conservative Muslims.

In spite of the lack of a clear connection with violent extremism, Muslims who adopt conservative or traditional perspectives – on gender roles, styles of dress, and even the permissibility of music and alcohol – are now considered by some governments to be on the path toward violence.

Following the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris last January, the French government released a flyer that pointed out the supposed signs of Muslim “radicalisation”, including a Muslim who stops listening to music, stops participating in organised sports activities, or changes the way he or she dresses.

It was reminiscent of the American writer Asra Nomani’s claim that a Muslim saying “inshallah”, an Arabic phrase commonly used by Muslims and non-Muslims alike and meaning “God willing”, is a “red flag”.

However, even prominent global news agencies sometimes fall into the trap of equating Islamic piety with a propensity for violence. Recently, the AFP casually described one Saudi billionaire as a “devout but moderate Muslim, explicitly implying that one’s piety is normally at odds with one’s “moderation”.

Of course, these are just a few examples of how adhering to even the most basic Islamic beliefs and practices can spur suspicions of violent radicalisation.

Hence, a “good Muslim” becomes one who is least identifiable as Muslim.

Making an industry out of Islamophobia

The media narrative of a crisis with
The media narrative of a crisis with “radical Islam” and “radicalised Muslims” reaches new heights after each major attack in a Western country [Thierry Chesnot/Getty Images]

However, the development of a media and political culture that instinctively sees Islam as an ideological threat to Western liberal values, and equates its conservatism with violent extremism, is no accident, according to author and researcher Nathan Lean.

Lean, who wrote the book The Islamophobia Industry, told Al Jazeera that the massive multimillion-dollar industry began booming following the September 11, 2001 attacks, when “a cadre of bloggers, pseudo-scholars, religious leaders, and activists emerged touting special knowledge of Islam and Muslims”.

Individuals, such as Pamela Geller, Robert Spencer, Daniel Pipes and others “transformed internet activism into on-the-ground action such that by 2010, under the banner of their group, the American Freedom Defense Initiative, they led protests against the Park 51 Islamic Community Center in Manhattan”, he added.

READ MORE: The belief system of the Islamophobes

Spencer and Geller are known to have inspired Anders Breivik, the right-wing Norwegian gunman who, citing them in his manifesto, bombed and shot dead 77 people in a mass attack in 2011 in protest against the alleged “Muslim takeover” of Europe.

Indeed, Lean told Al Jazeera that Islamophobia in Europe has seen “the tentacles of European groups like the Quilliam Foundation [begin] to emerge. Quilliam, which sent McCarthy-esque lists of Muslims to the British government, helped develop software that spied on UK schoolkids, and whose leaders cavort with the likes of the Clarion Fund [which produced the anti-Muslim film, Obsession], has cunningly branded itself as a counter-radicalisation group that is concerned with Islamism”.

“Ultimately, the goals of these various groups are not necessarily the same, though the obvious thread that connects them is their desire to see Islam and Muslims represented and discussed in an expressly negative way,” Lean said.

Fear in Western countries has become so extreme that Muslim citizens are being forced off planes, are facing a skyrocketing number of Islamophobic incidents – including massive local opposition to the building of mosques and community centres – and are regular victims of fire-bombings and other life-threatening attacks.

European far-right parties have called refugees streaming into the region a 'ticking timebomb', a Muslim 'invasion' that will bankrupt nations and undermine the continent's Christian roots. The words on the T-shirt read: 'Anti-Islam militia. Stop Islamization' [Marcin Stepien/Reuters]
European far-right parties have called refugees streaming into the region a ‘ticking timebomb’, a Muslim ‘invasion’ that will bankrupt nations and undermine the continent’s Christian roots. The words on the T-shirt read: ‘Anti-Islam militia. Stop Islamization’ [Marcin Stepien/Reuters]

Such events have most recently been shrouded in a fearmongering discourse about the acceptance and integration of specifically Muslim refugees.

But the social pressures and what researchers like Lean have referred to as the Transatlantic “Islamophobia industry”, cannot be divorced from government policies in Western countries that have actively sought to crack down on, target and control Muslim communities.

Eliminating Muslim political action

In 2007, the RAND Corporation, a US government and corporate-financed think-tank that provides reports to the US army, published one titled “Building Moderate Muslim Networks”. It sought to advise the US government on who its Muslim partners should be.

While the report used Western social values as an indicator of “moderation”, it also emphasised a political dimension. Muslim secularists and “moderate” Sufis, along with largely apolitical “spiritual” Muslims, are shown to be natural allies against those Islamists seen by RAND to be infusing their religion with a political agenda.

There is a trend among Western policymakers to use any form of civil, political activism among Muslims as an indicator of “radicalisation”.

According to Scotland Yard police commander Mak Chishty, Muslims in the UK advocating for the boycott of Marks & Spencer, a corporate chain that has been accused of providing support for Israel’s occupation of Palestine, could be on the verge of radicalisation.

He linked the boycott, a method of protest with a long history of non-violent movements, to attackers shooting 80 people in a concert hall based on the mere fact that both groups are Muslim. Aside from involvement in social justice causes important to many Muslim communities, even increased personal adherence to the basic tenets of the faith, such as abstaining from alcohol, is a sign for Chishty that the Muslims in question are potential “jihadists”.

There is very little effort made to distinguish between 'extreme' and 'moderate' Muslim entities or people when it comes to surveillance and infiltration. The assumption on the part of large parts of the intelligence community is that anything 'Islamic' - groups or individuals - are inherently suspect and in need of monitoring.

by Glenn Greenwald, Journalist

The UK has recently come under fire over its Prevent programme, with a letter signed by hundreds of prominent academics, lawyers and public officials who claim that under British law, “growing a beard, wearing a hijab or mixing with those who believe Islam has a comprehensive political philosophy are key markers used to identify ‘potential’ terrorism”.

‘Targets and suspects at the same time’

Glenn Greenwald, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist known for writing on Edward Snowden’s NSA leaks and cofounding The Intercept news site, explained to Al Jazeera that “there is very little effort made to distinguish between ‘extreme’ and ‘moderate’ Muslim entities or people when it comes to surveillance and infiltration. The assumption on the part of large parts of the intelligence community is that anything ‘Islamic’ – groups or individuals – are inherently suspect and in need of monitoring”.

In 2014, Greenwald released a list of Muslim-American community leaders and activists under surveillance by the US government.

According to him: “The five Muslim-American leaders whom we revealed to be surveillance targets had one thing in common beyond their Muslim heritage: They had expressed criticism of US foreign policy.

“Notably, one of them was a former Bush Homeland Security official and GOP congressional candidate who had largely agreed with the GOP foreign policy agenda, and another was a scholar who was integrated into the highest levels of the US foreign policy community. But even general agreement with US government policy does not insulate Muslim-Americans from suspicion if they utter any critiques at all,” he told Al Jazeera.

Hatem Bazian, a professor at UC-Berkeley and a Muslim-American activist, agreed with Greenwald’s assessment: “The government is operating with a similar strategy that was deployed in the 1960s civil rights era with the [FBI programme] COINTELPRO, which targeted leaders and groups deemed then to be politically objectionable, be [it] directly or indirectly, with the hope of disrupting, redirecting or otherwise neutralising their work.

“The hope of this is to solicit cooperation among some that can be utilised as a voice to support government policies domestically and internationally,” Bazian told Al Jazeera.

In addition to the surveillance of Muslim-American community leaders, mosques, and even Muslim university students, the government has also undertaken initiatives under the headline of “Countering Violent Extremism”, popularly known as CVE.

CVE has received much criticism, as one organisation affiliated with New York University’s School of Law accuses it of focusing “only on Muslims, stigmatising them as a suspect community. These programmes have further promoted flawed theories of terrorist radicalisation which lead to unnecessary fear, discrimination, and unjustified reporting to law enforcement.”

According to Bazian, “The core problem with CVE is that it problematises Muslim normative conduct [and] religious behaviour and attempts to govern ideas and identity markers rather than criminal [and] terrorist intent or behaviour.

“The key factors that are listed have nothing to do with criminal intent, and the key markers in the programme point to praying five times a day, having [a] long beard, frequent complaints about US foreign policy, and expressing [an] opinion about [the] Israeli occupation and Palestinian suffering,” he added.

Thus, along with the secret-but-not-so-secret government surveillance and crackdown on Muslim-American spaces, CVE represents a public governmental outreach meant to pressure Muslims into steering clear of political activity in a manner that could challenge government policy.

“If [the] safety of society is the goal, which is something that Muslims badly need in the US and across the world, then they are victims of terrorism and victims of counterterrorism because, in each way, they are treated as targets and suspects at the same time,” Bazian explained.

Little effort is made to distinguish between ‘extreme’ and ‘moderate’ Muslims [Michael Reynolds/EPA] 

Security of the majority through stigmatisation of the minority

Such policies are not limited to the US. French police operate under a special emergency law subjecting thousands of homes, mosques, and Muslim-owned businesses to regular raids and intimidation. Several mosques have been shut down permanently after the French state determined them to be too “conservative”.

In addition to the government’s crackdown on anything deemed too Islamic, social stigmatisation in France continues to rise unchecked.


According to Marwan Muhammad, a European activist and former spokesperson for the Collective Against Islamophobia in France, “Muslims in France currently live in a state of permanent tension and anxiety. They realise that the ‘feeling of security’, as a political signal sent to the masses, is going to be achieved through their ongoing stigmatisation as a group.

“[French] Prime Minister [Manuel] Valls explained in a speech he gave a few years ago that he ‘does not fear the Muslim vote’, and later on, in a mainstream radio interview, confirmed his views about Muslims: ‘The fight against the headscarf is an essential battle for the Republic.’ In saying so, he confirms the idea that Muslim communities, mainly living in economically and socially deprived areas, do not constitute a political force.” 

The internalisation of collective Muslim guilt

While the media – and government – created a distinction between “good” and “bad” Muslims, and the topic has been written on extensively, there has been less discussion about how Muslim institutions play into that dichotomy.

Although prominent Muslim institutions and community leaders are often criticised by leftists and right-wingers alike for supposedly not doing enough to condemn groups such as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant group, they have consistently done so after every single major attack since 9/11.

The actual problem, some suggest, is these institutions’ overzealous support for governmental policies that have increased the threat of terrorism and created the perfect conditions for radical groups to recruit disenfranchised individuals.

Many Muslim-American institutions have gone to great lengths to distance themselves from the “bad Muslims”, while presenting themselves as the “good Muslim” alternative and finding favour with Western governments.

READ MORE: Tariq Ramadan: The West, terrorism and Islam

Critics say that this internal enforcement of Muslim “moderation” – as defined by Western governments – has isolated those members of the community who might otherwise have found a space to voice their political and social frustrations with governmental policies and societal marginalisation.

In the US, some organisations, such as the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC), have even championed the government’s CVE initiative. MPAC also founded the Safe Spaces Initiative, and has received much criticism for its attempt to “root out extremism in Muslim communities” through this programme, which accepts at face value many of the discredited arguments regarding the “signs of radicalisation”.

Indeed, Muslim-American institutions, in a panic to establish themselves as representatives of “good, moderate” Islam in a climate of Islamophobia, often adopt positions that are controversial in the very communities they are supposed to represent.

For example, many Americans objected to the US’ extrajudicial killing of Osama bin Laden in May 2011 on the grounds that it violated the basic human right to due process and a fair trial.

Yet, it was reflexively celebrated in press releases by Muslim-American organisations, with one group saying they “welcome the elimination of Osama bin Laden. Many who condemn Bin Laden, but also object to their government carrying out an extrajudicial killing, criticised these organisations for obfuscating the ethically grounded criticisms some Muslim-Americans have of their government.

Furthermore, some of the largest Muslim-American organisations have been criticised for repeatedly releasing statements and holding press conferences that succumb to the pressure of being politically acquiescent and apologetic or which demonstrate an aloofness with regards to sociopolitical realities.

For example, in the midst of the massive #BlackLivesMatter protests in Baltimore following the police killing of Freddie Gray, the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) was criticised for inserting itself into the debate by expressing its disapproval of “rioting” without having issued any condemnation of the shooting or a call for justice.

Similarly, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), within mere hours of the San Bernardino shooting, before any confirmation from police that the criminals were Muslim, held a live press conference condemning the attack. The hastily organised event was criticised as “cringeworthy” for featuring a visibly shocked family member of the suspected perpetrators to express his condolences.

Many Muslims saw this as a desperate move to “frame the story as something it is not, effectively indicting the entire Muslim community by presuming to speak on behalf of Muslim-Americans. Such actions, critics contend, only serve to underline the idea that the community carries a unique responsibility to publicly denounce the acts of their co-religionists.

Nihad Awad, CAIR’s executive director, rejected the criticism and told Al Jazeera that “hosting a press conference, nationally covered live on all major news networks, got the family [of the suspected perpetrators of the San Bernardino attack] and community ahead of the story, rather than steamroll[ing] by it”.

But as Zareena Grewal, a professor of American Studies and Religious Studies at Yale University, wrote in her book Islam is a Foreign Country: “By accepting responsibility for ‘bad Muslims’ in the public sphere, Muslim-American spokespeople’s defensive postures not only treat terrorism and fundamentalism as synonyms, they link the rehabilitative strategies necessary for salvaging Islam [their own reform projects] to the project of mainstreaming Muslims in the US.”

Indeed, such positions unintentionally play into the idea that Muslims are a monochromatic entity.

‘Rehabilitated’ imams

Establishment imams who are well-connected with US security officials, such as the extremely popular Muslim-American preacher Hamza Yusuf, who advised the Bush administration, have helped to smear Muslim social and political activism, where it does not suit an establishment agenda – by linking it to the extremism of ISIL.

In a 2014 lecture in Malaysia, Yusuf blamed those who had protested against autocratic governments during the 2011 Arab uprisings for the rise of ISIL. Yusuf preached an obedient political quietism, counselling the audience: “You need to rectify yourselves. But your rulers, you have to obey them … You see what revolutions do? Look at the result of revolutions.”

His efforts to associate Muslim participation in civil disobedience against tyranny with ISIL did not stop there.

In an episode of Al Jazeera’s UpFront which first aired in November 2015, Yusuf lumped a centuries-long tradition of Reformist Islamic thought – which includes a wide range of modernists, conservatives, Sufis, and various other orientations – with the violent movement many would instead argue sprang from the ashes of the US-led invasion of Iraq.

Speaking to those calling for a religious reformation to counter ISIL, Yusuf said of the group: “These are the reformists; this is the fruit of reformation.”

To some, Yusuf has become a prime example of “rehabilitation”– as a laudatory New York Times profile frames his shift from a “history of anti-American rhetoric” – into a “moderate” Muslim.

‘Controlling Muslims’

Meanwhile, in France, the only Muslim organisation recognised by the state, CFCM, has called for Muslim preachers to be licensed by the state in order to operate legally in mosques – despite the fact that no “radicalisation” has been documented in mosques.

According to Marwan Muhammad, the European activist, many French Muslims have criticised CFCM as well as the government for only recognising an institution they do not feel represents them.

“This institution was founded by former President Nicolas Sarkozy, and ever since, has been mainly aligned with the government’s positions, which still deals with Muslims by means of ‘control’,” Muhammad told Al Jazeera.

“The situation is even made worse by how mainstream media represent Muslims, by often inviting ‘native informants’, who will then be used to promote anti-Muslim stereotypes, with the excuse that they ‘speak from within the community’, while they are massively rejected by this very community,” he said.

Hassen Chalghoumi is one imam who is given plenty of air time on French media despite the heavy criticism he receives from the French Muslim community.

Chalghoumi heads the Conference of Imams, an organisation he founded. But most importantly, he has spent much time reinforcing the moderate/radical and good/bad Muslim dichotomy in France and abroad.

In an op-ed written for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, Chalghoumi supported the French interior ministry’s decision to shut down mosques deemed to be Salafist or “Muslim Brotherhood-supported” in an apparent attempt to connect them with the so-called roots of radicalisation,

A naturalised French citizen who studied Islamic studies in Syria and Pakistan, Chalghoumi also bizarrely called for the creation of a training structure “free from foreign sources” that would determine the interpretations of Islamic teachings Muslim preachers in France are allowed to follow.

He has also demanded that the government deport preachers who do not follow what he defines as “moderate Islam” and that it close Muslim spaces and mosques he deems to be “places of hate”.

The shrinking space for Muslim activism

Alienating moves undertaken by Muslims’ own institutions in countries such as the US and France, including those listed above, have led several commentators and activists, such as Bazian, to say that “the community is still missing a strategic vision, a goal-oriented plan, and a cohesive representative body that could put pressure to extract the community’s interest nationally and regionally.

“Proximity to DC, the White House and state department seems to be the only scope that Muslim organisations are considering as the limits of their constitutional and civil rights horizons,” Bazian added.

Grewal told Al Jazeera that although “particular individuals, such as Hamza Yusuf, and organisations, CAIR for example … have earned an enormous amount of goodwill in American-Muslim mosque communities … as they align themselves with the government, religious leaders and organisations risk losing their street credibility.”

UpFront – Reality Check: Spot the ‘terrorist’

Indeed, as Muslims continue to become ever more stigmatised in the US and France, many of their leaders have only proceeded to demonstrate what the model “good Muslim” must appear to be at the risk of adequately addressing the roots of their disfranchisement.

“Much of the ‘war on terror’ has been about disciplining Muslim spaces such that they are depoliticised, or that the politics that is allowed to be expressed is extremely narrow – basically flag-waving patriotism and very mild criticism of the government,” Grewal said.

“Muslim-Americans are taught that they cannot or should not express radical political views as if anything that is radical is automatically terrorist – which, of course, it is not,” she added.

The threat that such a politically and socially numbing policy – imposed upon Muslim communities by governments in conjunction with Muslim establishment institutions – poses to the premise of political and religious freedom in Western countries is clear. But even this sacrifice, apparently for the safety and security of Western nations, quite likely achieves the exact opposite.

The constructed dichotomy of the “moderate” Muslim (as either apolitical and accommodating to power, or “spiritual” within a “private” realm) in opposition to the “extremist” Muslim (which includes anyone challenging government discourse or identified as too “conservative” or “traditional”) leaves little room for Muslims to explore their own political and social consciousness, as well as their personal (and public) relationship to their religion and standard of ethics.

In such a polarising climate, many Muslims feel they have to choose between the two.

“The problem is how could we possibly correct someone who is on the wrong path, so to speak, if we cannot have a frank conversation in the mosque in the first place?” Grewal told Al Jazeera.

“In my view, the shrinking space of political dissent in American-Muslim spaces is one of the most dangerous and concerning developments since September 11, a factor that only drives individuals further into the very cyber networks that could be so potentially dangerous.”

The ease of blaming ‘religious ideology’

The emphasis on the unique capability of Muslims to become “religious extremists” – which, of course, may merely mean being politically active – obscures the political, social, and in many cases economic disenfranchisement and marginalisation often experienced by Muslim communities.

The manner in which such policies can lead some members of the Muslim community to crime and violence has parallels with many other socially marginalised groups, according to Anne Norton, a professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania, including “African-Americans who are disproportional targets of state violence”.

“That kind of vulnerability and that relation to violence – the other side is that they are pointed to as being violent people and the police perception is that they are dangerous. So, that perception, the irony is that: because you are seen as more violent, you are then the target of more violence. So you are not the imagined perpetrator, but the victim,” Norton, who authored the book On the Muslim Question, told Al Jazeera.

“That is certainly the point of common experience between Muslims on the global stage and black Americans on the local stage in the United States.”

At a time when black Americans are attempting to build the largest movement since the 1960s civil rights era, they are being lectured, just as Muslims are, on the merits of non-violence. Minority communities are taught that they are allowed to be upset, but must keep in line with a tradition considered as acceptable dissent. Both communities are thus having their histories framed in a reductive way, as one consisting solely of nonviolence, peace and compromise, in which certain figures are accepted over others.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, the black American author and columnist, put it succinctly during an interview with Democracy Now!: “Notions of non-violence, for instance, when I walked out into the streets of West Baltimore, seemed to have very, very little applicability. Violence was essential to one’s life there. It was everywhere. It was all around us. And then, when one looked out to the broader country, as I became more politically conscious, it was quite obvious that violence was essential to America – to its past, to its present and to its future.”

Norton connected the state violence targeting black Americans to the millions living across the Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia, with whom Muslims in Western countries often maintain contact and identify, watching as US-led and Western-supported invasions, bombings, and drones affect their lives daily.

But it is also the reality of impoverished and marginalised Muslims living in France’s banlieue, those living in the US under a gun culture that leaves thousands of Americans dead each year, and Muslim communities in Western countries facing violent reprisals from the local population and unwarranted state surveillance on the basis of religious affiliation.

The message sent by Western government policies to their minority Muslim populations is the one that has long been directed at black Americans: that their lives matter less. Although Obama defended his recent executive order for tighter gun control by asking “What if we tried to stop even one [act of violence that may take a life]?” the president seems unwilling to apply the same logic to the disastrous use of drone strikes, of which 90 percent miss their intended target, resulting in high civilian casualties, or the selling of arms abroad.

When pictures and video footage of dead civilians, including women and children massacred by US airstrikes, are circulated in social media and Muslims are powerless to express their opposition without fear of suspicion, is it any surprise that a tiny minority turns to violence, willing even to sacrifice their lives, of seemingly no social value, in pursuit of what they see as justice?

Martin Luther King Jr’s remark that “a riot is the language of the unheard”, has been oft-repeated in the context of the Baltimore protests, and is similarly applicable here.

‘Angry white men’

In addition to black Americans and immigrant Muslims, there is another group that sees itself as marginalised, according to Norton: “Angry and alienated white men, like Robert Dear [Jr] who shot people in Planned Parenthood [in Colorado]”.

“Many large acts of terrorism have been committed by people who fall in this category, who I imagine saw themselves as being marginalised and disenfranchised. This last person [Dear] was living in a trailer in the middle of nowhere,” Norton told Al Jazeera.

READ MORE: Chapel Hill shooting and western media bigotry

Norton’s point has been reinforced by the recent armed occupation of a federal building in Oregon by a so-called “militia” comprised of men who might fall into such a category.

“But what’s interesting is instead of looking forward to a country which is more inclusive, they look backwards to a country which was less. They want a country which is smaller, so there is an enthusiasm for Donald Trump, who wants to build a wall between us and Mexico, and for the exclusion of women. They want the old country as they imagine it,” she added. “In France, you see that with [National Front leader Marine] Le Pen, and in the Netherlands with Geert Wilders.”

‘The refusal of belonging’

In France, one certainly encounters a level of social and economic disenfranchisement among the Muslim community that is far more prevalent than in the US, and which does not only lie in the refusal to recognise Muslims as a political force.

Following the November 13 Paris attacks, when the names of the terrorists were beginning to be known, the media presented them with phrases like 'of Moroccan origin, with French nationality' to avoid saying that these terrorists are French. This underlines the determination to exclude this category of the population.

by Ali Saad , French sociologist and media critic

“In many ways, I’d argue that the most powerful alienating effect is the refusal of belonging, the refusal to recognise these people as French. This is enhanced very much by things like the Paris attacks or earlier attacks. Those [attackers] were French citizens and that is not recognised. The failure to see these people as French is not recognised,” Norton said.

Ali Saad, a French sociologist and media critic, agreed: “Following the November 13 Paris attacks, when the names of the terrorists were beginning to be known, the media presented them with phrases like ‘of Moroccan origin, with French nationality’ to avoid saying that these terrorists are French.”

“This underlines the determination to exclude this category [Muslim, yet French nationals] of the population,” Saad told Al Jazeera.

“It’s not just economic marginalisation,” Norton added. “How often during the day are you seen by other people as not being one of them? It could be a specific kind of naming, or having what you eat or your practices to be considered alien to the country.”

When asked about the factors that can contribute to a marginalised people committing acts of violence against the state or society seen to be disenfranchising them, Saad told Al Jazeera that as marginalisation causes a society to grow inward, “it is often in these moments that the extremist temptation is strongest, especially if the international context is full of conflicts and wars as is currently the case”.

And when combining social and economic disenfranchisement with other factors more prevalent in such marginalised communities, such as dysfunctional family relations, psychological issues, and a bloody colonial history, radicalisation can be far more persuasive, Saad explained.

“In this sense, the most common factor in the process that leads to radicalisation is that of delinquency (which most often affects the unemployed, without qualifications and inadequate housing), which in most cases leads to incarceration, an environment where new prisoners fall prey to extremists seeking to indoctrinate them, knowing that these young people have no social or professional future outside prison,” Saad said.

The intended outcome

Though the connection between the social, economic and political stigmatisation and the so-called “roots of extremism” may seem quite obvious, Western media and governments have yet to highlight the issues, insisting instead on focusing on ideological components within Islam that may lead perpetrators to commit attacks.

Even when the socially disenfranchised population, for instance in France, do attempt to participate and make their struggles known, the issues they shine a light on are often “Islamised” in a caricaturistic manner.


Following massive social unrest in a French banlieue in 2005, an event that triggered a significant amount of analysis, media coverage reduced the issue to focus on the idea that much – though certainly not all – of these disgruntled, economically disenfranchised protesters were Muslims with identity complexes.

More recently, several media outlets have attempted to blame the call to boycott companies associated with the Israeli occupation of Palestine – activism which is illegal in France for reasons that have been criticised as discriminatory – for the November 13 Paris attacks.

Thus, as the lines between “moderate” and “extremist” have become so utterly blurred, the space for a Muslim to be politically active has been significantly reduced.

In the US as well, programmes such as CVE and the massive surveillance network possibly only serve to dissuade Muslims from even attempting to be politically and socially active, which, according to Greenwald, is most likely the intended result.

“Historically, the motive in the US for subjecting political and thought leaders to surveillance was to gain leverage over them and monitor what they’re doing so as to stop any meaningful political activism,” he told Al Jazeera. “That seems to be the case with these sorts of surveillance targeting decisions now.”

Meanwhile, as social and political activism is controlled, the ability for Muslims to be outwardly religious in Western societies continues to dwindle.

“Whoever sets the terms of debate controls the outcome. Thus, all these terms are loaded into the Muslim-Muslim discourse and into the Muslim-external discourse in such a way that what is said or to be said is already paradigmatically ascribed so as to produce the needed outcomes,” Bazian said. “This discourse produces the needed imperial control structure which is founded upon divide and conquer or divide and shape the discourse so as to control the outcome from all fronts.”

Ultimately, the issue lies in the obsession with trying to “create” a specific type of Islam, rather than allowing Muslims the space to simply live Islam – with all its various traditions, references, cultures, practices and beliefs.

What this is actually meant to achieve is the stifling of political, social, and economic grievances in the name of “moderating” a religion which, if you accept this premise, seems to have a unique capability of being taken to an “extreme” far too easily – without this governmental (and establishment Muslim) assistance to “moderate” it.

Source: Al Jazeera