Europe is yet to recover from the shock of the ISIS attacks in Manchester. What makes Europeans terrified is not just the threat of future attacks, but the strange fact that the identified “soldiers of the Islamic State” are young insiders to the continent. Like all other recent terrorist assaults, the 22-year-old Manchester attacker is a second-generation European Muslim, born to a Libyan refugee family. British Muslim leaders, amid fears of an Islamophobic backlash, have raised concerns about the radicalisation of urban youth.

The periodically recurring suicide bombings — alongside the “lone wolf” truck attacks on the crowd and shootings attacks on Charlie Hebdo magazine — frighten many Europeans into thinking that their open and multicultural society cannot flourish in the presence of a substantial Muslim population. Even secular people have started questioning the compatibility of Western liberal values with the ‘inherent’ fundamentalism in Islam.

The terror attacks, unleashing against the backdrop of a large influx of Syrian refugees, raise a question that resonates well with the growing far-right politics of Europe: ‘What’s wrong with Islam?’ That is a conspicuous shift from the old, established question: “What’s wrong with the Islamic terrorists?”.

Interestingly, the common man’s perception of homegrown terrorism in Europe is in line with what political scientist Samuel Huntington calls the “clash of civilisations”. In 1993, Huntington predicted that “the conflicts of the future will occur along the cultural fault lines separating civilisations”. He theorised that foundational differences between Islamic and the Western civilisations would be a perpetual source for surging conflicts. This controversial proposition needs to be scrutinised; specifically whether the homegrown terror in Europe have its roots in the ‘incompatibility’ of Islam, or rather the result of socio-economic imbalances between different social groups.

Second-generation question

The first generation Muslim immigrants in Europe, mostly from the erstwhile colonies, are either guest workers filling the labor shortage or political refugees. Many of them hail from remote villages; have less schooling, quite conservative, and deeply religious. Even after settling down in Europe they maintain a meagre living, quite secluded from the mainstream society.

The values they can relate themselves are naturally the Islamic ones. The succeeding generations of those immigrants are brought up in the so-called free society with liberal values, assimilating well into the modern Western life. In major European cities such as London or Amsterdam, which imbibe a heterodox way of living, it would be hard to distinguish second generation Muslims from the natives just by their lifestyle alone.

If Europe’s homegrown terrorism is the product of clash between Islam and the western liberal values, one would expect the first-generation Muslim immigrants with deep ties to their culture, religion and home country, behind most of these terror attacks; and not the second-generation. But it is now clear that the perpetrators of recent attacks are Muslim youths in their 20s and early 30s. So, what drives these second-generation Muslims, in spite of their liberal upbringing, to choose a path of terrorism?

Loss of identity at home

Racial and ethnic discrimination have negative effects on the life chances of a European Muslim youth. France, a country with one-third Muslim population, is best indicative. France has a divided society, as the renowned French political scientist Myriam Benraad points out. Her research showed that the culprits involved in Charlie Hebdo shootings were “ostracised from society and felt deprived and unwanted and have been vulnerable to being radicalised and being promised a better life”.

An important study titled France and the Unknown Second Generation: Preliminary Results on Social Mobility (2003) showed that even though social mobility does exist from one generation to another, the social status of second-generation immigrants remains that of the previous generation. “High dropout rates from school combined with the very high levels of unemployment among these groups draw attention to their subordinate position in the social hierarchy and point to a systematic discrimination”, to quote from the study.

Another study focusing discrimination in the workplace, published in 2006, showed that the chance for a getting a job interview in France for someone with a Muslim name is six times less than that of a Franco-French name despite identical credentials.

No cultural fault lines

Multiple research works have conspicuously shown the absence of a cultural fault line between the European and the Islamic ways of living. A cross-country survey involving 14 000 participants, conducted by the Bertelsmann foundation in Germany, showed that most European Muslims have a staunch belief in democracy and religious diversity.

Bertelsmann’s special study on Islam (2015) indicate that the “Muslims in Germany feel closely connected to the German state and society”. The research, however, revealed that a very high percentage ethnic Europeans (up to 61 per cent) think that Islam is not compatible with the Western liberal values.

A comparative study (2012) in Ethnic and Racial Studies looked into the religiosity and social integration among Turkish second-generation Muslims across the four major European capital cities. They concluded that Islam is compatible with a secular, multicultural social fabric. The study, however, identifies that the second generation Muslims carry with them the “widely shared perception that Muslims as a group are treated unfairly in European societies”.

The homegrown Islamist terrorism in Europe is therefore, to a great extent, the tragic product of marginalised Muslim youth finding their identity in barbaric and destructive religious fanaticism. Its roots essentially lie in the socio-economic imbalances and the lack of political will to recognise and ensure the social status of different ethnic groups. It has very little, if any, to do with the incompatibility of European Islam with a modern liberal way of life.

Sajan is a social anthropologist. Idicula is a consultant neurologist and researcher at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, Trondheim