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What social science can tell us about the terrorist attacks in Belgium

- March 22, 2016
A soldier stands near broken windows after two explosions at Brussels Airport. (Francois Lenoir/Reuters)

Today’s terrorist attacks in Belgium claimed at least 32 lives. The Islamic State has claimed responsibility for the attacks. After the earlier attacks in Paris, we featured a variety of social science perspectives, beginning with my overview. Below is an elaborated summary of our previous content that bears on the attacks.

Muslims living in Europe

A great deal has been written about Muslim integration in Europe. A number of our posts have addressed the experience of Muslims living in France in particular. Some key facts:

  • Compared with other European nations, France is below average in whether its policies help to integrate immigrants. Note that Belgium is somewhat above average. Here is why inclusion and integration of Muslim immigrants is necessary.
  • About 75 percent of French Muslims say that they feel French. Religious Muslims were less likely to say they feel French than less religious Muslims — but this was true among religious and less religious Christians, too. At the same time, French Muslims are less secular than the average person in France and hold more conservative views about women’s roles.
  • There is strong evidence that French Muslims face discrimination — even when other attributes (country of origin, race, education) are held constant. Comparing Senegalese Muslims and Christians in France, Senegalese Muslims are less attached to France and more attached to Senegal.
  • When you listen to French Muslims talk, they actually sound very … French. (See also here.)

Terrorist attacks may only make Muslim integration less possible. . See also their newly published book “Why Muslim Integration Fails in Christian-Heritage Societies.” I interviewed them about the book here. New research from Valfort is discussed here.

Another perspective is from Jennifer Fredette:

We are sometimes told that Muslims in the West choose to segregate themselves within no-go zones where they gather to reject the values of the nation … however … the radicalization of the Charlie Hebdo attackers actually tracks with their withdrawal from most other Muslims. They met as a small group with a self-styled imam who had actually been kicked out of a local mosque for his radical views. Similarly, youths who are going to Syria to fight for ISIS are being recruited online, not in their local mosques or community centers — and their radicalization is a surprise to their distraught parents. Isolationism is real, but it is exceptional … in these instances, isolationism has meant separation from both the national community and other Muslims.

Here also are broader perspectives on integrating immigrants in Britain and Europe generally.

Islamic State

From our many posts about the Islamic State militant group — which is also known as ISIS and ISIL — here are several highlights:

  • The Islamic State has come to dominate Islamist politics generally: “Indeed, it is through this barbarism and aggressiveness that the Islamic State can attract and persuade supporters to join its ranks and to experience its boldness themselves as if it is an entertaining game.”
  • The literature on political violence can teach us a lot about the Islamic State — despite media portrayals that it is a “mystery.” One quote: “… there is little evidence supporting the claim of the Islamic State’s strategic ineptitude.” The Islamic State’s attacks in Paris, for example, appear targeted at provoking a reprisal from a politically weakened French President François Hollande and thereby gaining new recruits.
  • Censoring the Islamic State’s online propaganda hasn’t gone very well.
  • What a big study of 71 counterinsurgencies can tell us about defeating the Islamic State. In short, it won’t be easy.
  • On the “Islamic” in ISIS: “… analyzing the Islamic State as a revolutionary actor that happens to be Islamist is a much more promising avenue of interpretation than seeing it as either simply an Islamist actor or a sectarian one.”
  • The Paris and Belgium attacks also speak to the role of foreign fighters. See Daniel Byman’s report on that subject.

For more, see this entire symposium on “Islamist Politics in the Shadow of the Islamic State.”

And because this debate is already happening and will only intensify now, here is Marc Lynch’s article “Would arming Syria’s rebels have stopped the Islamic state?” The short answer is: Probably not.

Had the plan to arm Syria’s rebels been adopted back in 2012, the most likely scenario is that the war would still be raging and look much as it does today, except that the United States would be far more intimately and deeply involved.

What should be the U.S. policy toward the Islamic State? Steven Biddle and Jacob Shapiro argued that the most feasible policy is containment. Meanwhile, European authorities may not be equipped to handle the threat.

The impact of terrorism on public opinion and elections

The terrorist attacks in Paris were tailor-made for extensive news coverage, and we may find that the Belgium attacks are too. For this reason, people may continue to overestimate the likelihood that they too could be affected by an attack — even though you are more likely to be crushed by furniture.

How terrorist attacks influence public opinion depends on the specific emotions they provoke. Research on the 9/11 attack found that Americans who felt anxiety were less supportive of military action in response, but Americans who felt angry backed more aggressive countermeasures.

Terrorist attacks also tend to produce suspicion and intolerance of groups like Muslims, refugees, and immigrants. They lead the public to rally around leaders, particularly leaders who are Republican and male. Hillary Clinton may be an exception, however, because of her experience in foreign policy. But although leaders may engage in fear-mongering about terrorism, this doesn’t always work. Moreover, we should not forget that foreign policy usually plays a small role in voters’ decision-making.

We’ll have more perspectives in the days to come.