WASHINGTON (AP) – In the fight against violent extremism, President Barack Obama has argued the U.S. has one thing going for it that Europe doesn’t: a long tradition of warmly embracing its immigrants, including Muslims.
With the Islamic State group spreading and terrorists gaining strength in the Mideast and Africa, Obama has sought to use this week’s White House summit on violent extremism to urge the world to broaden its response far beyond military interventions. U.S. airstrikes have managed to blunt some of the militants’ gains in Iraq and Syria, but they don’t address the extreme ideologies that underpin deadly groups such as IS, al-Shabab and Boko Haram.
“If we’re going to prevent people from being susceptible to the false promises of extremism, then the international community has to offer something better – and the United States intends to do its part,” Obama told the summit Wednesday. He planned to speak again Thursday when delegates from about 65 countries gather for the summit’s closing session at the State Department.
But not all Muslim-Americans feel like full members of American society, and security experts warned against assuming that the U.S. is impervious to those who seek to recruit and radicalize.
Since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the U.S. has largely been spared the terrorist assaults that have hit cities in Denmark, Belgium and France, growing out of radical interpretations of Islam. In the weeks since the Charlie Hebdo newspaper shootings in Paris, Obama and other U.S. figures have portrayed the U.S. as being at a lower risk. After all, America is known as the “Great Melting Pot,” where minorities of all stripes are made to feel at home.
“In the U.S., you can be 100 percent American and 100 percent anything else. In Europe, you have to reduce the percentage of anything else to be more European,” said Ahmed Younis, a prominent Muslim-American leader participating in the summit. “People burn and destroy what they perceive to not be their own. They do not burn and destroy what they perceive to own.”
Ample evidence suggests that Muslims in America do feel more integrated into society than those living in Europe. Often marginalized and relegated to poorer neighborhoods in European cities, many Muslim immigrants to the U.S. have flourished as doctors and scientists and in other white-collar professions. Middle-class, predominantly Muslim or Arab-American enclaves have cropped up in places such as Dearborn, Michigan, and Minneapolis, allowing immigrants to carve out their own stories.
“That’s the story extremists and terrorists don’t want the world to know: Muslims succeeding and thriving in America,” Obama said.
There’s also reason to believe that sense of successful assimilation has offered a degree of protection against the allure of extremism. In 2011, a Pew Research Center survey of American Muslims found that just 2 in 10 Muslims in the U.S. thought there was a great deal or a fair amount of support for extremism among Muslim Americans. Roughly 80 percent said suicide bombings and other violence against civilians was never justified to defend Islam from its enemies, compared to just 8 percent who said it was sometimes or often justified.
Europe, where many Muslims or their ancestors emigrated from former colonies, is host to a much larger Muslim population. There were about 1,350,000 self-identified Muslims in the U.S. in 2008, the last date for which Census data is available. France, by comparison, has an estimated 5 million Muslims – about 8 percent of the total population. In the U.K., 2011 census data counted about 2.7 million Muslims out of a population of 63.1 million.
But within America’s smaller Muslim population, not everyone feels they’ve been fully embraced by society.
Jamila Nasser, a high school junior, said she rarely sees good news about Muslims in the American media. She doesn’t expect a positive reception once she ventures outside of Dearborn, which has elected Arabs and Muslims to many local offices and has one of the largest concentrations of Muslims in North America.
“For being a Muslim American growing up in America, I really don’t feel a part of it,” she said.
For decades, Abdirizak Bihi has been a leader in Minneapolis’ large Somali community, but his work in countering terrorist recruiting didn’t take hold until his nephew, Buran Hassan, was recruited by the al-Qaida-linked terrorist group al-Shabab and was killed in Somalia in 2008. Bihi said that without a doubt Somali expatriates in the U.S. have fared better than their counterparts elsewhere in the Somali diaspora.
“We have done well – better than Europe – but we have not done as much as we ought to do,” Bihi said. “We are not where we’re supposed to be.”
As Islamic State militants have seized control of a major swath of Iraq and Syria, the global community has taken alarm at how alluring the group’s brutal ideology has proven for individuals outside the Middle East. U.S. officials have said roughly 20,000 volunteers from around the world have joined IS or other extremist groups fighting in Syria. Of those, about 150 are believed to be Americans, according to the National Counterterrorism Center.
But William McCants, a Brookings Institution scholar and former State Department adviser on countering violent extremism, said the Obama administration’s own response has indicated it believes the Muslim-American community poses a risk.
“The effort to build up rapport with Muslims in the U.S. is predicated on the idea that you’re worried about the community and you want them to trust law enforcement more and be more willing to give information about people who may be radicalizing,” McCants said.
Associated Press writers Emily Swanson, Jesse Holland, Alicia A. Caldwell and Eileen Sullivan in Washington, Jeff Karoub in Detroit, Steve Karnowski in Minneapolis, Verena Dobnik in New York, Gillian Flaccus in Los Angeles, Jennifer Kay in Miami, Kourtney Liepelt in Des Moines, Iowa, Lori Hinnant in Paris, Greg Katz in London and Kirsten Grieshaber in Berlin contributed to this report.