In November, as hoodlums set ablaze the poorest suburbs of Paris and other French cities, government officials and commentators argued over the nature of the riots.
The fact that most of the rioters were Muslims led many to see the events as part of a jihad waged by European Islamists against their own continent, lumping them with the bombings in Madrid and London or the assassination of Theo van Gogh. Others observed that most of the rioters - looking like anything but Islamists - were merely voicing their complaints over unemployment and discrimination, and that therefore the events were caused by socioeconomic factors only, similar to more recent violent protests around French universities. So, was the wave of anti-establishment violence purely criminal or was it part of a religiously motivated confrontation?
The answer is neither and both. While segregation and economic deprivation did play a key role in inflaming the rioters, the fact that the cry of "Allahu akbar" accompanied the nightly throw of Molotov cocktails is symbolic. Europe today is witnessing the growth of a disturbing new subculture that mixes violent urban behaviors, nihilism and Islamic fundamentalism. Many young, often European-born, Muslims feel a disturbingly intense sense of detachment from, if not sheer hatred for, their host societies and embrace various antagonistic messages. While some turn to Salafism, others adopt an indefinite blend of countercultures, ranging from hip-hop to Islamic fundamentalism. As a French official recently told me, many youngsters from the Muslim-majority ghettoes of France "dress like rappers, smoke marijuana and drink alcohol, yet they watch jihadi videos and have pictures of [Osama] bin Laden on the display of their expensive cell phones." Any individual that attacks mainstream society becomes a hero, be it Abu Musab Zarqawi or the late American rapper Tupac Shakur.
While the phenomenon affects only a minority of European Muslims, its dimensions and repercussions are still more than noteworthy. The French witnessed another headline-making example of this violent hybrid subculture in February, when a gang of mostly Muslim youngsters kidnapped, tortured and killed a young Parisian Jew, Ilan Halimi. The perpetrators have been described by authorities as a ragtag gang of petty criminals with no involvement with Islamic fundamentalism. Yet, they enjoyed re-enacting on Mr. Halimi some of the barbarities they had seen in jihadi videos and recited Koranic verses in phone calls with Mr. Halimi's parents.
In London, city officials are worried about the growth of an extremely violent gang, commonly known as the Muslim Boys. Operating in the southern areas of the British capital, the gang is composed of several hundred members and is active in criminal activities ranging from robberies to drug trafficking. The members of the gang are mostly British-born black youngsters originally from the Caribbean or Africa who converted to Islam in British penitentiaries and use their newfound faith as a bonding element.
Their interpretation of Islam is completely perverted. The gang members do not respect the most basic tenets of Islam, and their appearance and slang more closely resemble that of American urban culture than that of practicing Muslims. Tellingly, a gang member admitted to a reporter from the Evening Standard: "I pray twice a day: before I do crime and after. I ask Allah for a blessing when I'm out on the streets. Afterwards, I apologize to Allah for what I done [sic]." The gang is also involved in "forced conversions," compelling young black youth at gunpoint to convert to Islam and join them. Two years ago they executed a 24-year-old, Adrian Marriott, for refusing to convert.
Mainstream British Muslim leaders have distanced themselves from the Muslim Boys, describing them as "criminals masquerading as Muslims." But "pure" Islamic fundamentalists would also challenge the motivations behind the religious character of the gang, as their conversion seems to be dictated more by the desire to work against mainstream society than the desire to express a sincere devotion to Islam.
Moreover, episodes of Muslim violence against native Europeans can be seen with an increasing frequency in most large cities throughout Europe. A recent Swedish study analyzed the reasons behind the surge in muggings of native Swedish teenagers perpetrated by their peers of immigrant descent in the cities of Malmo and Stockholm (another Swedish study revealed that nine out of 10 muggings are perpetrated by Muslims). Most of the interviewees admitted that their attacks were generally not motivated by money, but rather, by their desire to humiliate Swedes. One teenager tellingly said, "When we are in the city and robbing we are waging a war, waging a war against the Swedes."
Given this level of disaffection with mainstream society affecting large numbers of European Muslims, it should surprise no one that the strongly anti-Western message of radical Islam finds fertile ground with this group. Very few European Muslims embrace Islamist ideology completely and even fewer take the further step of becoming terrorists. Yet, a larger number express a discomforting sympathy for its message, creating a serious challenge to the social cohesion of the continent.
Lorenzo Vidino is a senior terrorism analyst at the Investigative Project and author of "Al Qaeda in Europe: The New Battleground of International Jihad."