E.g., 06/20/2024
E.g., 06/20/2024
Strife Abroad, Responses at Home: Muslims in the West and Conflict Spillover

Strife Abroad, Responses at Home: Muslims in the West and Conflict Spillover

us embassy london mosque

A mosque in London (Photo: U.S. Embassy in London)

The July 2005 London bombings were among the worst acts of terrorism since September 11, 2001. The attacks, which consisted of coordinated bombings of the city’s public transport system, were carried out by four Muslim men: three born in England and of Pakistani descent, and a fourth born in Jamaica and raised in the United Kingdom from a young age.

The perpetrators described the attack as a protest against the British military presence in Iraq and as part of a broader conflict between Islam and the West. Extreme acts of terror—as with later ones in Paris, San Bernardino, Nice, Orlando, and elsewhere—have raised questions about why geopolitical events sometimes trigger strong, violent reactions in diaspora communities, and why these reactions occur in some places, but not in others. Across the Atlantic, segments of the American Muslim population publicly supported the U.S.-led war in Iraq. Indeed, on several occasions top Bush administration officials traveled to Detroit, home of one of the largest Arab communities in the country, to seek endorsement for the military campaign from local Muslim leaders.

And yet in the United Kingdom, military action in Iraq was used to justify terrorism by a handful of misguided individuals. How does one account for such divergent responses in Western Muslim communities to the same foreign conflict? This article looks at how Muslim communities in Western countries react to foreign policy events, with a focus on explaining where and why “reactive conflict spillovers” occur. To do so, it analyzes the political mobilization of Pakistani Britons in London and Arab-American Muslims in Detroit. Both are well-established diaspora communities and have been politically active in response to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Transnational political violence has occurred in London, however, but not in Detroit. By looking closely at the differences between these communities and their countries of residence, it is possible to tease out some of the factors that drive these instances of violence.

What Are Reactive Conflict Spillovers?

The term “reactive conflict spillover” developed by the author refers to violence generated within diaspora communities (in other words, those of immigrants and their native-born descendants) in response to politicized events and conflicts abroad.  Spillovers can consist of terrorist attacks, the imposition of bodily harm, violent protests, riots, or sustained campaigns to destroy property.

Source conflicts can be national or international in scope (see Figure 1), but must attract international attention and generate political activism in diaspora communities. The immediate triggers that often precipitate reactions abroad, whether peaceful or violent, are significant, galvanizing, and frequently symbolic events that may involve intense fighting, provocative statements, or rumored atrocities.

Figure 1. Conflicts, Triggers, and Reactions in Diaspora Communities

Source: Author’s rendering.

Trigger events can be either violent (for example, the beginning of the Second Intifada in Palestinian territories in 2000) or nonviolent (as occurred in 2005 with the publication of caricatures of Prophet Muhammad in Denmark). As Table 1 shows, these events can also be grouped based on whether the source conflict involves the diaspora’s country of origin or residence, a third-party nation, or one that spans borders. Spillovers can take the form of planned terrorist acts and other premeditated hostilities, but more commonly occur as spontaneous reactions following a vivid event, such as news reports of atrocities committed by an adversary. Thus, reactive conflict spillovers can involve radicalization and/or connections to national liberation or ideological movements—as long as the spillover responds to an event taking place in another country.

Table 1. Examples of Reactive Conflict Spillover

Source: Author’s rendering and compilation.

For the United States and Europe, the potential for spillover from the Syrian conflict—and other ongoing conflicts in the Middle East—is of particular concern. U.S. politicians and others have warned of security risks that might accompany the admission of refugees from countries experiencing internal strife; however, there is little evidence of such a threat in the United States. For example, the Cato Institute estimates that an American stands a 1 in 3.64 billion chance of being murdered in a terrorist attack carried out by a refugee. Refugees admitted through the resettlement program are the most vetted arrivals in the United States, going through an exhaustive, multilayered screening process by U.S. intelligence, law enforcement, and consular officials. As a result, radicalized individuals are extremely unlikely to make it to the United States through the refugee resettlement program.

Taking steps to understand the drivers of spillovers where they do occur would help identify why some members of diaspora communities escalate to violence and, at the same time, suggest policies to promote immigrant integration and constructive political participation on both sides of the Atlantic.

It is also worth noting that the spillover of conflict into diaspora communities is not inevitable, and in many cases is feared but does not comes to pass. For example, different diaspora communities often live peacefully within the same city despite significant, escalating conflict abroad. Generations of Pakistanis and Indians have coexisted in Queens, New York, even when relations between Pakistan and India deteriorated. This amicable relationship in the United States is particularly noteworthy because the same two South Asian diaspora groups have clashed violently in London, especially during the turbulent 1960s. Furthermore, ideologically divided Vietnamese and Chinese diaspora communities have managed to co-exist in a number of American cities, as have different Balkan communities during the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s. Despite often objecting to host-state policies, Russians lived peacefully in the Baltic States during the turbulent 1990s, Arabs in France amid French support for the Persian Gulf War of 1991, and Arabs in Dearborn, Michigan, during the post-9/11 period.

Underlying Causes and Policy Remedies

While trigger events may provide the spark that ignites individual instances of conflict spillover, these occur against a broader backdrop of political and socioeconomic dynamics. Contextual factors (immigration and security policy, level of integration, and economic opportunities, for example) and characteristics of individual diaspora communities (local violent groups, connections with extremists abroad, and acceptance of violent activism) can heighten or ease tensions within diaspora communities.

Diaspora community leaders can play an important role in framing understanding of global events, galvanizing communities to action in either nonviolent or violent ways. Immigration policies and integration programs also shape diaspora communities and make conflict spillover more or less likely. Where policies have allowed radicalized individuals to establish themselves and linkages to radical networks abroad to go undisrupted (as in the United Kingdom prior to 9/11), political tensions are more likely to lead to hostilities, including violent protests and terrorist plots (see Table 2). This points to the importance of careful screening of incoming migrants for connections with violent groups abroad. Finally, poor integration outcomes and the socioeconomic marginalization of diaspora communities or individuals within them can also increase the appeal of radical activism. However, even communities that live in poor economic conditions can have harmonious relations with other groups—if said diasporas have close ties with civil-society groups, political actors, and law enforcement authorities (as in Detroit).

Table 2. Two Types of Reactive Conflict Spillover

Source: Author’s rendering.

Distinguishing between and understanding the different causes that create the environment for reactive conflict spillover are essential for the development of effective policies that prevent violence. The risk of spillover associated with the inflow of radicalized individuals can be significantly reduced by restricting their entrance. By contrast, where tensions are present within existing diaspora communities, policies that promote relationship building and engagement between minority community leaders, local government, and law enforcement can prove effective. More broadly, policies that aim to remedy socioeconomic disparities and reduce discrimination are also likely to contribute to the creation of an environment in which radical politics will be unable to find fertile ground.

Case Study: Pakistanis in London

According to the 2011 UK Census, 1 million Muslims lived in London, constituting 12 percent of the city’s population of 8.2 million. The Pakistani diaspora in London grew from 143,000 in 2001 to 224,000 in 2011, according to the UK Office for National Statistics, with the majority living in Outer London. About one-third of Pakistanis in the United Kingdom are second- or third-generation Britons. As one of the oldest and most well-established Muslim communities in the city, members of the Pakistani diaspora have been engaged in British political activism for decades.

London is at the forefront of Muslim political activism in the United Kingdom. It has experienced peaceful and violent political reactions to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as varied responses to other conflicts abroad, including in the form of voting and lobbying, participation in protests, and—in a very small number of instances—involvement in terror plots. Extremism and political violence are not logical extensions of peaceful political mobilization, as some studies demonstrate. But while surveys and public opinion polls show just a tiny fraction of British Muslims have embraced extremist views, it is worth considering what causal factors have resulted in the decision of these individuals to engage in reactive violence.

Many of these root causes are structural in nature and reflect a lack of strong ties to mainstream society. Reactive spillover—in the form of attempted terrorist acts that the perpetrators claimed were motivated by conflicts in the broader Middle East—has occurred in London, in part because of policies that incidentally allowed violent radicals to immigrate and reside in the city. Until September 11, British authorities were generally willing to tolerate the immigration of individuals who had engaged with radical Islam abroad, as they were not perceived to be a domestic security threat. After 9/11, immigration policies were revised to prevent the entry of radicals and to remove those already present (yet, as the difficulties associated with the removal of extremist preacher Abu Qatada show, that has not always been easy).

In addition, transnational connections with radical networks abroad can provide both leadership and paramilitary training to those Britons willing to engage in political violence. For example, individuals who obtained paramilitary experience or training in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, or Syria have been at the center of most British terror cells. While the population of the United Kingdom is a fraction of that of the United States, it has generated far more foreign fighters heading to Iraq and Syria. Furthermore, there are few well-established, mainstream Muslim or Pakistani community leaders who command a following of significant segments of the British Muslim community. And although leaders commonly denounce the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the responses they condone or tolerate vary significantly; many advocate resistance by peaceful means, but a small number may legitimize violence. This fragmentation and presence of radical voices further encourage radical political activism.

A lack of economic opportunities, inadequate Muslim representation in British politics, and discrimination have also encouraged the radicalization of some Pakistani British Londoners. Relative to other faith groups, Muslims generally live in economically depressed areas, in overcrowded buildings, and have high unemployment rates and low incomes. For example, in 2016 Muslim unemployment was more than twice the national average: 13 percent, compared to 5 percent overall. While there have been prominent British Muslim politicians, including the current mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, Muslims are still underrepresented in politics. Just 1.2 percent of British Members of Parliament were Muslim, while Muslims made up 5 percent of the UK population, according to a 2014 study.

Case Study: Arab Muslims in Detroit

Researchers have commonly argued that American Muslims are better integrated into U.S. society than their European counterparts. Many significant differences do exist between these two populations. American Muslims tend to be better off financially, while European Muslims are often less highly educated and less upwardly mobile. At the same time, Detroit Muslims, in terms of economic conditions, are different from the typical American Muslim community. Similar to those in London, Muslims in Detroit are often poor and segregated, but unlike in London, they simultaneously display a confidence in American institutions.

Detroit was selected as a case study because its Muslim community is known to have high levels of political activism and no instances of violent radicalization. The city often features in discussions of Arab and Muslim America, both because of the size of its Arab population and its long-running involvement in politics. Between 200,000 and 350,000 Arab immigrants and their descendants live in the metropolitan Detroit area, slightly less than half of whom are Muslim. Dearborn, a suburb of Detroit, has the highest concentration of Arabs in the country, who represent 42 percent of the overall population of 96,000, according to 2011-15 data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey.

Arab Muslims in Detroit are well known for high levels of political activism in general, though there was muted activism in response to U.S. military intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq. Yet despite this political mobilization, the community has not experienced reactive conflict spillover—with one minor exception in 2006, when a handful of Shia mosques and businesses were vandalized following the execution of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein; no one was injured during these incidents. Arab Muslims in Detroit have also not been involved in terror plots elsewhere. Such muted activism in response to war in Afghanistan and Iraq can be attributed in large part to two factors: the benefits the conflicts have brought to the community (e.g., anecdotal evidence and interviews in the community show that a number of Dearborn Arabs worked for the United States and its allies in Iraq), and the divisions between different national and sectarian Muslim populations. For example, while some local Sunni Muslims opposed the Iraq war, many Shia and Iraqi-American communities strongly supported U.S. intervention. Research suggests it is easier to mobilize individuals when their community is united on an issue. The strong and deep cleavage on the Iraq issue led to a lack of strong consensus, as well as opposition to anti-American mobilization.

A number of other factors have played into the generally orderly political activism in Detroit. Strict national refugee and asylum-seeker screening policies have prevented the inflow of violent radicals, and the city generally lacks both extremist groups at home and connections with such networks abroad. And while Muslim communities in Detroit do face a level of economic deprivation, strong ties with other communities, law enforcement representatives, and the political representation of Muslim interests (often as a result of alliances between elected officials and Arab and Muslim community representatives), as well as the promotion of nonviolent political participation by leaders, have meant that radical politics are largely absent. For example, the Muslim Code of Honor agreement called for religious leaders of all Islamic sects in the area to promote mutual tolerance, and the BRIDGES initiative was launched to create a forum for regular meetings between local Arab and Middle Eastern community leaders and law enforcement authorities. More broadly, Arab and Muslim organizations, local schools, and political and law enforcement officials tend to monitor the pulse of the community and ensure that potential conflicts that could arise from within are prevented.

Lessons for Today’s World

Amid tensions between the Muslim world and the West, the rise of populist politics in Europe and the United States, and the push for restrictions on immigration, it is important to develop a more nuanced understanding of why members of diaspora communities either participate in or eschew violence in response to conflicts abroad. Such information will permit greater understanding of what effective measures could be taken to promote further integration of diaspora communities and to prevent political violence.

Since a number of Western Muslims have joined terrorist groups abroad such as ISIS, proper screening of incoming migrants and individuals returning from war-torn regions in the Middle East is necessary. To prevent the radicalization of would-be terrorists, whether homegrown or converts, government and community leaders should promote initiatives to build institutional ties and trust between the government, law enforcement, and minority communities. Some lessons for such arrangements can be learned from the Detroit example. Steps should also be taken to alleviate the institutional discrimination and economic deprivation present in many Western Muslim communities.

At the same time, in the United States there is an exaggerated fear of refugees, who wait on average 18 to 24 months outside the United States while they are extensively vetted and face significant other screening before being accepted for resettlement. The situation in Europe, which in 2015 coped with overwhelming spontaneous flows of asylum seekers and migrants, is a different one in both scope and procedure. Germany alone accepted 1 million asylum seekers and migrants in 2015, as compared to 70,000 refugees who were resettled in the United States that year.

What happens in Europe ultimately depends on how successful Germany and other significant destinations, such as Sweden, Greece, and Italy, are at quickly and meaningfully integrating significant numbers of people, getting them into jobs, classrooms, and the broader fabric of society. It remains to be seen whether leaders in top European destination countries are up to the task of crafting and implementing nuanced integration policies that bring diaspora communities more fully into the labor market and civic space in a way that earns the trust of both minority groups and the broader population, and as a result reduces the potential for extremism and ultimately violence.

This article is adapted from the book Western Muslims and Conflicts Abroad: Conflict Spillovers to Diasporas, written by Juris Pupcenoks and published by Routledge in 2016.


Cesari, Jocelyne, ed. 2010. Muslims in the West after 9/11: Religion, Politics and Law. London and New York: Routledge.

---. 2015. The Oxford Handbook on European Islam. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Chebel d’Appollonia, Ariane. 2012. Frontiers of Fear: Immigration and Insecurity in the United States and Europe. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Detroit Arab American Study Team. 2009. Citizenship and Crisis: Arab Detroit after 9/11. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

Nowrasteh, Alex. 2016. Terrorism and Immigration: A Risk Analysis. Washington, DC: Cato Institute. Available online.

Pupcenoks, Juris. 2012. Religion or Ethnicity? Middle Eastern Conflicts and American Arab-Muslim Protest Politics. Nationalism and Ethnic Politics 18 (2): 170–92.

---. 2016. Western Muslims and Conflicts Abroad: Conflict Spillovers to Diasporas. New York: Routledge.

---. 2017. Question and Answer Session by Professor of Political Science. News release, Marist College, January 12, 2017. Available online.

Sobolewska, Maria. 2010. Religious Extremism in Britain and British Muslims. In The New Extremism in 21st Century Britain, eds. Roger Eatwell and Matthew J. Goodwin. London and New York: Routledge.

UK Office for National Statistics. N.d. 2001 Census and Earlier. Accessed May 3, 2017. Available online.

---. N.d. 2011 Census. Accessed May 3, 2017. Available online.

U.S. Census Bureau. Various years. 2011-15 American Community Surveys. Available online.

U.S. Department of State. 2015. Cumulative Summary of Refugee Admissions. December 31, 2015. Available online.