The recent attack on the Paris offices of Charlie Hebdo (cf. my Ethical Musings' post on the subject) is indicative of a growing problem in both European nations and the United States. Radical Islam is on the rise among Muslims citizens.
The most common explanations point either to the teachings of Islam or to the influence of radical Islamist groups such as al Qaeda. Both of those explanations have just enough substance to be half-truths that mislead and deflect attention from the real problem.
Islam is a religion of peace that teaches tolerance. His contemporaries repeatedly subjected the prophet Mohammed to ridicule and abuse. Yet he never condemned those critics nor did he attempt to punish them. Indeed, the Koran (unlike the Jewish and Christian scriptures!) does not include any punishment for blasphemy. Hadiths (the compilation of sayings, actions, and traditions that are associated with Mohammed) do condemn blasphemy and provide the basis for laws in many Islamic nations (e.g., Saudi Arabia and Pakistan) against ridiculing the prophet and blasphemy. Illustratively, Saudi Arabia this week sentenced a liberal blogger to 1000 lashes and 10 years in prison for criticizing that state's version of Islam.
In sum, an extreme interpretation of the Hadiths has contributed to engendering an extreme intolerance among radical Islamists. In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attack, the leader of at least one Islamist group, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah of Lebanon's Hezbollah has declared that the attackers have insulted Islam and the Mohammed more than did the satirical cartoons.
The problem with half-truths is that they contain some truth. One can interpret the Koran, as can be done with any religious scripture, in many ways; some of those interpretations will strongly support violent acts, even though the preponderance of adherents strongly decries both the interpretation and the violence. If that were the whole story, then religiously motivated violence by Muslims would remain as sporadic as it is among Christians, Jews, Buddhists, and others.
Similarly, al Qaeda and other radical Islamist groups do exert some influence in their local areas of operation and among Western Muslims. If that were the whole story, then those groups would exert no more influence than does a radical group such as the Christian anti-abortion terror group, Operation Rescue. France has a population of 66 million. Approximately 1000 of them – about 0.0015%, or 1 in 66,000 people – has gone to Syria to fight with one of the Islamists groups there. Analyses of historical patterns of fighters returning home from Afghanistan and elsewhere suggest that fewer than 10% of the 1000 are likely to return to France to continue jihad there (for details analysis, cf. the conclusion of my book, Just Counterterrorism). In other words, the much-hyped threat that the influence of foreign groups poses an existential threat is another half-truth, i.e., has just enough substance to be credible but actually misconstrues the real problem.
The larger cause of Westerners becoming Islamic extremists is Western intolerance toward, and lack of respect for, immigrants who happen to be Muslims. Secular France is notorious for its haughty unacceptance of strangers, an attitude heightened when the immigrants are people of color who are neither secular nor Christian. Similar dynamics are operative, though perhaps more subtly, in the United States and other European nations.
Most immigrants leave their country of origin hoping to make a new life for themselves in their adopted country, finding there a security and prosperity impossible in their country of origin. The full integration of immigrants into the receiving country's population can often require several generations and rarely is easy. However, when integration occurs at a glacial pace, and when the host nation and its people not only fail to respect immigrants but view them as either a source of low cost labor or parasites, then resentment develops among the immigrants' grandchildren and great-grandchildren (and occasionally the children).
In Islam, unlike some other religious traditions, economic and political discontent has a long history of finding its most effective expression in religious language. That is, people frame their protests in terms of how the state (or other forces of oppression) is violating Islam's teachings. From this perspective, the attack on Charlie Hebdo for blasphemy is really a protest – albeit an unethical one because of the violence and killing – against France's lack of respect for immigrants who happen to be Muslim. Violent attacks of this type will increase and further polarize populations until we address its root cause – the widespread lack of respect and equal opportunity that many European and US immigrants routinely experience.