Reports that the culprits in the London terrorist
attacks were in fact homegrown British Muslim
lads are reverberating throughout the U.S. Muslim
community. They are forcing Muslims to focus on
how to prevent such incidents in this country. The
way to do this, it is clear, is to combat the Muslim ghetto
mentality that is proliferating in Western
countries these days. This has so far been mostly a
European phenomenon, but it could easily take
The word "ghetto" comes from the name of the island near Venice where Italian Jews were made to
live in the 16th century. A ghetto is a section of a city occupied by a minority group whose people
live there largely because of social, economic or legal pressure. Make no mistake: British Muslims
are by and large living under such conditions. And it should come as no surprise that residents living
in isolated, homogenous pockets -- such as Leeds, where the suspects resided -- do not feel a sense of
belonging to their nation or the West. Social and economic isolation of minority communities makes
them more prone to political and religious radicalization.
Throughout Europe, cultural barriers separate Muslim ghettos from mainstream society. In general,
European Muslims belong to the underclass. British Muslims are mostly Indo-Pakistani; French
Muslims are largely Algerian, Belgian Muslims are immigrants from Morocco, etc. In many of these
countries where Muslim populations are largely homogenous, the forces of isolation are stronger
than the forces of integration, partly because of the socioeconomic status of Muslim communities
throughout Europe and partly because of self-imposed isolation.
In the United States, it has been a different picture and a different reality. Because American
Muslims are relatively more educated and affluent than European Muslims, they are typically far
more interested in integrating into mainstream society. That American Muslims do not have a
"ghetto problem" may be one reason U.S. officials consider al Qaeda more of a threat in Europe than
within the United States.
But that doesn't mean some American Muslims don't find themselves on the fringes of society.
While social forces in Europe may alienate Muslims, it is political forces in the United States that
repel many. Although the vast majority of American Muslims do not live in economically depressed
physical ghettos, many live in a psychological ghetto caused by the lack of acceptance they feel from
their neighbors and colleagues, especially in the post-Sept. 11 era. This psychological ghetto may
prove the largest challenge in the war on terrorism.
Those of the ghetto mentality experience a kind of self-righteous schizophrenia. Outside home and
the mosque, they abide by the rules and work for their economic improvement. But elsewhere they
fall prey to the extremist recruiters who present no more than a forgery of Islam. As American
Muslim leaders, our aim is to neutralize the nexus of radical ideology with the ghetto mentality.
The challenge for all of us is to prevent the stigmatization of people who feel disowned by
mainstream America. This social ailment should concern all of us Americans who want to see an end
to the evil of terrorism and who wish to pursue the ideals of pluralism. It is both a law enforcement
and a sociopolitical problem.
American Muslims can stem the tide of isolation by articulating a message of Islam that is
American-based, not Arab- or South Asian-based. U.S. political leaders, from the president down to
mayors, can do more to isolate the terrorists by embracing mainstream American Muslim
communities, instead of isolating those communities by excluding them from serious conversations
about the security of our country.
Muslim leaders in the United States, as in Britain, have established a partnership with law
enforcement. That partnership needs national attention to illustrate that the walls of pluralism are
impenetrable to the ideologies of hate. It is the turn of American Muslims, like other religious
minorities in the United States before them, to overcome stigmatization by clearly demonstrating to
all that America is home and that no foe, domestic or foreign, will change that.