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To Defeat Islamic State, Treat Muslims Better

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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It is intuitively appealing to connect the number of fighters a country sends to the Islamic State with poverty and inequality. The more desperate and economically downtrodden people are, the more likely it is that they'll join a terrorist group, right? Wrong, recent research indicates: It's much more likely that the reasons for the Islamic State's recruitment success are cultural.

The terror militia has between 25,000 and 30,000 foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq. Disproportionate numbers of these radicals hail from Muslim nations: Tunisia alone is responsible for 6,000 of them, according to the Soufan Group.

Geography of Terror
Top-20 countries by number of Islamic State recruits per million of population
 
Source: Benmelech, Klor, 2016

Thomas Piketty, probably the most fashionable economist since the 2008 financial crisis, has linked the phenomenon to the high income inequality in Middle Eastern nations, which he argued the West had helped foster by letting oil sheiks get rich and share little of their wealth. He also wrote that austerity policies applied in the wake of the crisis drove up unemployment levels and with them "national egoisms and identity tensions" that make immigrants feel unwelcome in countries such as France, which is the biggest Western supplier of Islamic State fighters.

Efraim Benmelech of Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management and Esteban Klor from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem tested Piketty's hypothesis in a recent paper and found it inconsistent with the data.

They looked for correlations between the number of Islamic State recruits and indicators of countries' social, political and economic health and discovered that the terrorists' success rate at drawing in a country's citizens is higher in wealthier, not poorer countries. A 10 percent increase in a nation's per capita economic output is linked with a 1.5 percentage point increase in the likelihood that its citizens will join the Islamic State. Among non-Muslim countries, it is associated with a 5.1 percent increase in the number of recruits. A higher Human Development Index is also positively correlated with the militia's success in a country. There are, however, no such correlations with inequality or unemployment. Otherwise countries such as Austria and Sweden wouldn't be among the top 20 countries by per capita Islamic State recruitment.

Benmelech and Klor suggested a different explanation for recruitment success: It's positively correlated with homogeneity in a society. The less ethnically diverse a society is, the more likely outsiders such as immigrants or second- or third generation Muslims are likely to turn to terror. The economists wrote of the Western European nations that supply a relatively high number of fighters:

"The more homogenous the host country is the greater difficulty immigrants such as Muslims from the Middle East experience in assimilating. As other research has shown, isolation induces some of them to become radicalized."

In other words, people don't join the Islamic State because their countries are poor or in crisis or because bad economic conditions increase the pressure on outsider groups. They join when a wealthy society fails to integrate them so that they could share in the wealth. Resentment, a feeling of being left out appears to be a stronger motivation for the recruits than economic hardship. 

One could  argue that Piketty's argument still stands: Native-born citizens might grow xenophobic for economic reasons regardless of their country's relative wealth -- it is perhaps more important how they perceive the change in their own living standards. That's beside the point, however. Benmelech and Klor's findings support an empirical finding that often surfaces in reports on the foreign fighters. "In almost all cases," says a 2015  report from a task force formed by the U.S. Congress' Homeland Security Committee, "suspects feel excluded from society or think they have failed to live up to expectations."

Benmelech and Klor's work could provide ammunition to those who argue Muslim immigrants don't really integrate into host societies. The economists show that in a non-Muslim country, the likelihood that its residents will join the Islamic State increases with the size of the Muslim population. Besides, every European country reports higher unemployment and lower incomes among Muslim immigrants than among the general population or most other immigrant groups, so it may well be that the inequality that breeds terrorism is not the kind measured by the Gini coefficient but the ethnically-driven one, which is harder to measure. 

It's easy to say a certain group can't be integrated. Yet it's clear that some countries are more successful at making Muslims feel at home than others. The number of Islamic State fighters relative to a country's Muslim population is indicative of that. Finland, Ireland, Belgium, Sweden and Austria have the biggest number of terrorist recruits among their Muslim communities. Denmark and Norway are not far behind. These countries are economically and culturally advanced, as well as economically equitable, and they rank among the happiest in the world. Yet Muslims there are far more likely to turn to radical groups than, say, in the U.S. or Canada.

Where Muslims Radicalize
Number of Islamic State fighters per million of Muslim population*
 
Source: Benmelech, Klor, 2016
*Most of these countries have fewer than a million Muslims

Societies with a strong social fabric and a long history of homogeneity, like the Scandinavian ones, are hard for immigrants to break into. They often feel as though they're banging their heads against an invisible wall -- until they stop and, in some cases, pick up a gun. Traditional countries of immigration have less radical Muslim populations. So do countries with Mediterranean cultures that are somewhat closer to the Middle Eastern one -- Italy and Spain. 

The foreign fighter problem is one of the costs for traditionally homogenous countries of trying to operate in a multicolored, unstable world in which the freedom of movement has dramatically expanded in the last 50 or 60 years. This is not a problem that can be solved by security measures or a change in government policy: It may take decades for the prevailing cultures in these countries to become more receptive toward diversity. It's a complex process that's not easy to monitor or describe with data, but it makes much more sense to study it in greater depth than to dismiss the radicalization of Muslims as economically driven or inherent in their culture.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Therese Raphael at traphael4@bloomberg.net