Stanford expert offers approach to thwarting radicalization of Muslim immigrants in the U.S.

Telling Muslims they are not welcome in the United States reinforces the narrative that the West is anti-Islam, a Stanford scholar says. Immigrants fare better when they receive opportunities to integrate their original cultural identities with their new ones.

A more inclusive approach toward Muslim immigrants and refugees could help reduce the growth of homegrown radicalism, new Stanford research shows.

A more inclusive approach toward Muslims could help reduce the growth of homegrown radicalism, new Stanford research shows.

A growing body of research suggests that election-year demands from politicians to stop admitting Syrian refugees and other Muslims would prove counterproductive and even dangerous, according to Sarah Lyons-Padilla, a Stanford social psychology expert.

She explains in a new article in the journal Behavioral Science and Policy that telling Muslims they are not welcome in the United States simply reinforces the narrative that the West is anti-Islam. In turn, this can actually fuel support for violent extremist groups like the Islamic State.

If U.S. policymakers truly seek to prevent radicalization in the Muslim community, Lyons-Padilla wrote, they should discourage such discrimination and promote policies that allow Muslim Americans to more effectively integrate their American and root culture identities.

Research findings

Lyons-Padilla is a research scientist for Stanford SPARQ: Social Psychological Answers to Real-World Questions. Her co-authors were Michele Gelfand, a psychology professor at the University of Maryland; Hedieh Mirahmadi and Mehreen Farooq, president and senior fellow, respectively, at the World Organization for Resource Development and Education; and Marieke van Egmond, a researcher with Jacobs University in Bremen, Germany.

Lyons-Padilla and her colleagues administered surveys to about 200 immigrant and American-born Muslims in the United States. They also conducted 20 in-depth interviews with the subjects.

Prior studies, the researchers wrote, show that violent extremist organizations like the Islamic State group prey on youth who lack clear purpose and direction by promising them they can belong to a group and receive recognition for doing so.

“This seems to work,” said Lyons-Padilla. “Some Muslim Americans who feel a lack of meaning in their lives report being more attracted to fundamentalist groups and radical ideologies.”

The new study found that:

  • The more Muslim Americans experience discrimination, the less purpose and meaning they feel. “This is especially the case for those who feel culturally homeless,” Lyons-Padilla said. “That is, belonging neither to one’s heritage culture nor to American culture.”
  • The vast majority of Muslims do not support violent extremism, and say they want to combine American customs and values with those of their heritage culture. “This challenges the widespread belief that American values and Islamic principles are incompatible with one another,” said Lyons-Padilla.

She noted that research suggests that immigrants and minorities do best when they can successfully integrate their American identities with their other cultural identities. “Wherever we come from, we can all embrace both our heritage cultures and American patriotism.”

Policy implications

For the most effective policy approach to Syrian refugees and other Muslim immigrants, the researchers suggest that it is important to “be anti-ISIS, not anti-Islam.”

Lyons-Padilla said, “When public figures speak out against Islam, Muslims can start to feel excluded and insecure about their place as a Muslim in American society.”

The Islamic State group knows this and exploits it, she noted, and if the United States does not do a better job of including Muslims, the militant organization will.

The good news is that people in Lyons-Padilla’s study who did feel well integrated were better protected against radicalization.

The authors caution against confusing integration with assimilation. Assimilation means pressuring immigrants to completely adopt their new culture at the expense of abandoning their own heritage culture. Integration, in contrast, means encouraging immigrants to call themselves American and to also take pride in their own cultural and religious heritage.

It is possible to encourage immigrants to learn the local language and adopt American cultural traditions while not forcing an immigrant to “give up their culture,” Lyons-Padilla said.

This research points to a strategy for preventing homegrown radicalization: encouraging immigrants to participate in both of their cultures plus curbing discrimination against Muslims.

For young people who already feel culturally excluded, she suggests policymakers can provide outlets for fostering a sense of purpose in socially adaptive ways.

“We can make it harder for terrorists to recruit by making the culturally homeless feel more at home,” Lyons-Padilla said.