What is the link between migration and extremism, and how do democratic societies deal with the numerous challenges arising from migration? On October 22nd, the Center for International Security and Governance (CISG) hosted a lecture with Prof. Thomas R. Mockaitis, PhD, to address this complex issue.
Germany is no stranger to migration, Prof. James D. Bindenagel, head of the CISG and Henry-Kissinger-Professor, stated in his introductory remarks. It played a significant role in economic reconstruction in the 1960s, significantly shaped how Germany’s population is composed today, and the expertise, fresh outlook and knowledge of international migrants play an integral part in Germany’s scientific and technological communities. But as history also shows, migration has also created conflicts that seriously challenge our democracies. Security concerns and fear control the current debate in Europe and the United States, pushing distrust and political tensions to the center of the political agenda. Thomas Mockaitis, Professor of History, Refugee and Forced Migration Studies and renowned expert on Insurgency, Counter-Insurgency and Terrorism at DePaul University in Chicago, visited the University of Bonn to shed some light on the underlying issues, particularly the link between migration and radicalization. While Germany as a country does take in a disproportional share of refugees in international comparison, Mockaitis began, this observation fails to acknowledge the fact that the vast majority of refugees is displaced to adjacent regions and countries. The international flow of migration is an issue that touches nearly all regions of the world. Forced migration, Mockaitis emphasized, is usually treated as a series of crises while in reality, it is a chronic, perennial and global problem. As such, it needs to be addressed taking into account its underlying causes and the global context in which it is situated.
Drawing from 18 years of research experience on the mechanisms of terror and radicalization, Prof. Mockaitis started off by saying that he wanted to “challenge the notion that there is an inherent link between migration and extremism”. Presenting his findings, he stated that migrants are no more prone to radicalization than other population groups. The majority of perpetrators tend to be 2nd or 1.5th generation migrants (the latter referring to individuals who arrive as young children and are for all intents and purposes socialized within the host country). His research shows that it appears to be the experience of migrants that makes them more vulnerable to radicalization. Especially young individuals suffer from what he called a “double settling alienation”: Individuals experience the separation from the family, community and culture of origin while simultaneously facing rejection from the host country and having difficulty in integrating into the new social context. People that are most vulnerable to radicalization typically share specific characteristics: They are marginalized, socially alienated and frequently suffer from poverty and boredom.
The process of radicalization typically follows a specific pattern: Starting from the general population, a disaffected minority is alienated due to a lack of opportunity, poverty, discrimination and a lack of belonging. This fragile state can then either unload in crime, the formation of gangs, and riots, or, if combined with a strong ideology, in terrorism, insurgence and cults. Focusing on the latter, Mockaitis identified two interlinking strategies that are used by radical ideological groups to recruit members. First, they create a so-called “grievance narrative” which builds on and heightens the resentments, anger and frustration experienced by marginalized groups. Key here is that this mechanism is not limited to personal grievances. Mockaitis’ research shows that it is enough to evoke the grievances of social, religious or ethnic groups that an individual identifies with. This first narrative is then combined with an “empowerment narrative” which provides individuals with a sense of purpose, direction and merit, demonstrating that marginalized individuals can take effective action within their adverse circumstances after all. Radical groups thus provide a sense of belonging, purpose, and empowerment – basic human needs that most other societal groups can fulfill using other, more peaceful sources. The resulting violence and radical incidents then lead to a vicious cycle of rejection from the host societies and further increased radicalization. Both prejudice and fear play a crucial role here. Mockaitis also referred to the concept of “anecdotal reason” that plays a big role in the escalation of anti-immigrant sentiments and indicates the process of using personal experiences as an indicator for assessments of a more universal nature. He also pointed out that regions with the strongest anti-migrant sentiments are also those with the lowest exposure to cultural diversity, particularly rural U.S. regions and Eastern European countries.
Taking a look at the apparently clear-cut scheme that radicalization typically follows, Mockaitis stated that countering radicalization appears to be easy at first sight: Identify and assist vulnerable individuals, diminish inequality and social justice. With view to his findings, Mockaitis argued that only a complex mix of political measures ranging from foreign policy to social, educational, cultural and economic measures can help solve the issue of radicalization and extremism. Meanwhile, he warned that the U.S.-American of reliance on military and police force alone to fight terrorism may prove ineffective or even counterproductive at times: Military intervention “may be a part of the solution, but will not eradicate the complex underlying issues,” particularly the original causes for forced international migration.
While recognizing the immense dangers of radicalization, Mockaitis topped off his presentation with the assessment that the dangers for democracies that result from right-wing vigilante groups may even be greater in the long term as they have the potential to corrode democratic substance. Finally, Mockaitis made it clear that the issue of migration and extremism is of an extremely complex nature and that not all responsibility for the radicalization of individuals can be sought with the host countries. Integration and assimilation, he said, are an exceedingly complex process that go in both directions. “There is a balance that needs to be struck between being pluralistic, open and tolerant to people fleeing war, persecution and hunger, and any migrant’s obligation to respect local law, customs, and culture”, he said. The main issue in dealing with migration, radicalization and assimilation, he summarized, lies in finding the fine line here. This, Mockaitis concluded, requires that the challenges arising from migration need to be addressed in an informed and differentiated debate in order to find answers to ethically and morally difficult dilemmas.