Recently, a U.S. citizen by the name of Douglas McArthur McCain was killed in Syria while fighting on behalf of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), and just simply the Islamic State. McCain isn’t the only American fighting for this terrorist group, nor is he the first American to die while doing so.
McCain is simply the latest in a long line of Americans who have become radicalized while living within our borders and have decided to go abroad to fight for what they believe to be a just cause. Remember “American Taliban” John Walker Lindh who was captured fighting against his own country in the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan? George Bush Sr. called him a “misguided Marin County hot-tubber” but his Islamic ideology was decidedly more dangerous than that. And as early as 2007 Somali-American immigrants living in Minnesota were being recruited by infamous terrorist organization Al-Shabab. This same community of Somali-Americans have also been recruited to fight for ISIS, with over a dozen doing so in the past two years.
The question many government officials and community leaders are asking is why so many Americans would leave their relatively stable home lives in order to fight halfway around the world for an organization with such a bad reputation. Some of these homegrown fighters might simply crave an opportunity to live in a lawless society, doing as they see fit regardless of the consequences. But most of these fighters seem to be “true believers” determined to defend their faith against all threats, both real and imaginary.
The Islamic State, like many extremist groups, claims that their religion is under attack by global and local forces, and that it is the duty of all of the faith to come to their side and fight against their enemies. We’ve heard similar language from American religious right extremists like Sarah Palin, who claims that Christians are under attack from “angry atheists armed with an attorney who would want to kick out God from the public square.” But while Palin and her allies are merely spewing nonsense, the Islamic State is manipulatively feeding on genuine religious freedom concerns in order to recruit more soldiers for their despicable crusade.
Unfortunately, the United States doesn’t have a great history when it comes to protecting the religious freedom of American Muslims, and the result of this discrimination is the creation of a breeding ground for religious extremism based on victimhood. From xenophobic and racist protests against building a mosque near the 9/11 site, to illegal policing tactics by the NYPD that profiled Muslims and Muslim communities, to the disproportionate number of hate crimes committed against Muslims, America has routinely told American Muslims that they aren’t true citizens deserving of equal protection of the law and equal treatment by those who enforce the law. The result of this double standard is a feeling of isolation from society which is held by those Muslims who have experienced discrimination personally. And when these citizens feel their most vulnerable and unwanted, extremist groups like ISIS swoop in to claim new fighters.
Many politicians around the world are talking about what to do about homegrown extremists who have travelled abroad to fight. British Prime Minister David Cameron has vowed to force British jihadists to attend radicalization programs, while U.S. Rep. Frank Wolf is pushing legislation to prohibit those who leave the United States to train and fight with terrorist groups in foreign countries from returning home. But these measures are inherently reactionary and don’t attempt to solve the underlying causes of radicalization, such as estrangement from mainstream society due to mistreatment.
If our government wishes to prevent U.S. citizens from becoming radicalized fighters, we must first take a look at ourselves and recognize that our behavior may be part of the problem, or at the very least can make for good propaganda for extremist groups. The best way we can make sure that marginalized citizens don’t leave to fight against our interests is to make them invested in our way of life by treating them as equals and ensuring that they have the opportunity to enjoy America’s extensive bounty. Extremist groups will likely always exist, but they need not receive support from within our borders. If we treat our neighbors as neighbors instead of castigating them for their beliefs or background we could find that our country is no longer a recruitment center for groups like ISIS.