27 Aug 2014

Why there are fewer jihadis from the US than Britain

When it comes to finger pointing across national borders it always surprises me how much even the fiercest critics at home can circle the wagons.


Above: A Muslim in New York performs Eid al-Fitr prayer at Eyup Sultan Mosque

When I confronted an American friend recently about the appalling examples of policing and racism in the Missouri town of Ferguson he went from mea culpa to et tu. “It’s bad”, he acknowledged, “but at least we’re not beheading journalists or allowing hundreds of our citizens to slip out and fight for IS”. Point taken despite the non sequitur.

Even though we have no idea about the precise numbers it appears that America – home to an estimated Muslim minority of six to eight million – is seeing far smaller numbers become tourists from hell in Northern Iraq or Syria than Britain.

Read more: is US more resistant to radicalisation than UK?

The authorities on both sides think that America has spawned several dozen as opposed to Britain’s several hundred, even though America has still not relinquished its status as Great Satan. Assuming for a moment that this imbalance of numbers is correct what are the reasons for it?

Some are mundane but important – distance and cost are two. To fly from the US to Turkey and then overland into Northern Syria -the jihadi Ho Chi Minh trail – is a lot more expensive than making the same journey from the UK or anywhere else in Europe. US immigration and emigration controls always tend to involve travel through an airport and are thus more stringent. Even crossing the border into Canada is not as relaxed as it used to be. Then there is the level of domestic surveillance, which has uncovered half a dozen home grown terror cells in recent years.

Melting pot

But I think the bigger point is that America has a totally different relationship to its ethnic minorities than the UK. This country is instinctively more multicultural than the US. It is a far more genuine melting pot than the US. We are all crammed together on this small islands, forced to share the facilities. America has the luxury of endless space. It is less a melting pot than an archipelago of immigrant communities from gated suburbs to ghettoes.


Americans can live apart from each other which is both a blessing and a curse. But there is one difference. When immigrants come to the US and get “naturalised” as newly minted American citizens they make a pledge of allegiance not with a president or a monarch or a congress or a culture or even a democratic system but with a piece of paper that guarantees their freedoms and differences.

Read more: British IS fighters express glee over journalist’s murder

It is a purely legal contract to uphold the constitution. It says nothing about their culture of origin. It is thus possible for a Russian, Ukrainian, Syrian or Iraqi American to be both fiercely patriotic for Uncle Sam and for his or her own culture of origin.

The notion of a Norman Tebbit test of national loyalties is absurd in the US. In other words Pakistani Americans may find it much easier to be embraced by their new home than to be merely caressed by it. Becoming an immigrant to the USA is complicated, expensive and lengthy, especially if it is done legally.

You have to really want to be there in order to get and stay there. This ethos of the promised land has been handed down from one generation to the next. And here comes the real problem. The contract with Uncle Sam only works if those who sign up to it believe that they have as a good a shot as their neighbour at pursuing the American dream, that their new home is a land of equal opportunity.


This is where the deal breaks down more and more. Inequality rather than race is America’s more poisonous divide because although they coincide inequality crosses ethnic boundaries. Inequality is fundamentally UN American. It has existed for much longer than most Americans care to admit. Since the recession it has been caught out.

For instance in 1978 the CEO of the average Wall Street firm earned 24 times as much as his secretary. Now it’s 400 times as much. The curse of inequality has been leavened by the collapse in faith towards America’s Federal institutions.


Above: Douglas McAuthur McCain is believed to be the first American killed while fighting for IS

According to a Gallup poll this summer only 30 per cent Americans trust the supreme court, 29 per cent the presidency and 7 per cent congress. Meanwhile an astonishing 76 per cent believe that the next generation of Americans will be worse off than the current one.

The ideological fibre that supposedly binds America together is more frayed than ever. The nation of believers is becoming a country of cynics racked by self-doubt and lacking a clear direction. Barack Obama’s election in 2008 was the last attempt to reverse that course. It hasn’t worked and it is hard to see who or what can give it another shot. In this vacuum it is entirely possible that an increasing number of Americans will join their British, Belgian or Swedish counterparts to seek extreme solutions in the shifting sands of Syria or Iraq.

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