Some activists trying to counter jihadist recruiters across Europe worry that they are slowly losing the battle for the continent’s Muslim youth. One reason, they say, is that neither they nor the Muslim community have enough to offer.
“This youth, they need something every day,” said Yousef Bartho Assidiq, an activist with the Project on Radicalization and Extremism at Norway’s MINOTENK think tank.
Speaking to VOA via Skype, he said mosques in particular are having a difficult time providing appealing youth programming.
“In Norway, it’s just a place of prayer and religious affirmation,” Assidiq said. “It’s not a daily center or anything where you can hang out."
It’s a problem that offers an opportunity to extremist groups seeking fresh recruits.
“I usually describe these leaders of these groups as the world’s best social workers because they will know how it is to be a troubled youth,” Assidiq said. "They know all the struggles."
It’s a struggle that experts say is not limited to Norway. Muslim communities in other European countries are facing similar challenges.
By some measures, they are losing.
A recent study by the International Center for the Study of Radicalization at King’s College in London found that of the more than 20,000 foreign fighters in Iraq and Syria, almost 4,000 are from Western Europe.
U.S. intelligence officials put the number of Western passport holders joining the ranks of the jihadists slightly lower, estimating there are at least 3,400. Notably, though, U.S. officials say they are tracking only about 150 Americans who have gone or have tried to go to Syria or Iraq. Based on the numbers in the ICSR study, France, Germany, Sweden and Britain have all sent more.
'Better established' community
Experts say the lower number of American jihadists can be traced to a number of factors, including the possibility that American Muslim communities offer stronger and more comprehensive youth and community programming.
“Yes, [the Muslim] community here does have a much longer history,” said Kelly Pemberton, an associate professor of religion and women's studies at the George Washington University in Washington, D.C. “It is much better established. Economically speaking, Muslims on the whole have done much better in this country.”
Pemberton said that success has allowed American Muslims to spread beyond insular enclaves, establishing connections and pooling resources from a much broader community.
“The kind of solidarity that we see among [American] Muslims today, among different types of Muslim communities of different ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds, doesn't exist in Europe, certainly not to the same extent,” she said.
Sayyid Syeed at the Islamic Society of North America’s Office for Interfaith and Community Alliances believes European Muslim communities can make the same leap as America’s Muslim communities, though it will not be easy.
“Those [Muslims] who migrated to Europe, they were never accepted by the whole society as equals, as partners, as co-citizens,” he said. “They would always talk as they belonged somewhere else.”
'A major journey'
Syeed said the more Europe’s Muslim communities remain insular and split along ethnic lines, the more they will look toward their countries of origin for religious leaders and the more they will struggle with reaching out to troubled youth.
“Today we have American-born imams, leaders, lay leaders,” he said. “We have slowly and gradually been able to replace those earlier imams who could not talk to our teenagers, to our wives, who could not help us integrate with the rest of the people, who did not have that kind of experience.
“It is a major journey that we have taken.”
To get to the same place, both Syeed and Pemberton believe Europe’s Muslim communities will need help from European governments to address discrimination and a lack of economic opportunities. But Pemberton is not optimistic.
“In fact, I see quite the opposite happening,” she said. “France’s government has stepped up its policing of Muslim communities. There have been anti-Muslim demonstrations in various countries in Europe, including France and Germany.”
The angry and sometimes violent anti-Islam protests in Europe stand in sharp contrast to the safety and inclusion felt by American Muslim children at the All Dulles Area Muslim Society in Sterling, Virginia, on a recent Friday night.
While many adults crowded into the prayer hall for an interfaith vigil for three Muslim students shot and killed in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, the children crowded into the center’s classrooms for Boy Scout and Girl Scout troop meetings.
Hasan Altalib, whose son was learning to tie different types of knots, was grateful.
“It’s definitely very comforting as a parent,” Altalib said. “It makes us really feel that we’re secure and we have reach-back into the things that we need.”