Portrait of the Jihadist as a Young Cosmopolitan.

With regards to the Christmas pants bomber (not to be confused with this guy), Josh Marshall writes:

The Times has run-down of what is known so far about Umar Farouk Abdulmtallab. Most you likely already know. Son of a wealthy, Nigerian banker who’d studied engineering in London. His turn toward intense involvement with Islam, if not yet toward militant extremism, apparently began in High School Yet one close friend from those years says they used to listen to music together, watch videos and play basketball. Classmate Charles Anaman said Abdulmutallab was very into studying history and particularly into hip-hop music.

It’s always a little surreal hearing how would-be suicide terrorists, seemingly so alien to our world, were in many ways very much a part of it. But it actually seems of a piece with many others in this group — the commonality is just how cosmopolitan most of them seem to be. Often wealthy, sometimes extremely so, educated in the West and even imbued with iconically American popular culture.

This fact — that extremists often come from fairly cosmopolitian backgrounds — is one of those things that hasn’t quite quite penetrated the mainstream consciousness, if only because it is completely at odds with what we expect a jihadist to be.  When most people think “Islamic terrorist,” their minds wander to the traditional portrait of “jihadist as impoverished, bitter Third-World denizen.”  It’s why “ending global poverty” is always on those lists of “thing we can do to stop terrorism.” Telling someone that terrorists are more likely to come from wealthy, well-connected families is like telling someone that drug users are more likely to be white and not-impoverished than they are to be black and poor.  It simply goes counter to everything we’ve been told.  That said, it makes a lot of sense.

If you think of fundamentalist Islam as an explicit reaction against pluralism, it shouldn’t come as much of a shock to learn that the most fervent believers are also the ones that come from the most diverse backgrounds.  Cosmopolitan environments are hotbeds of pluralism (religious pluralism in particular), and with monotheistic traditions with strong truth claims like Islam and Christianity  this can pose a bit of a problem.  When you’re faced with many people practicing an infinite number of variations on what is supposed to be a straightforward and “pure” faith, your only real choices are to reject the faith altogether or to buckle down on what you believe to be the purist version of that faith. Combine that with the normal restlessness of youth, a sense of rootlessness and readily available targets, and you have the beginnings of an extremist.


Jamelle Bouie is a writer for Slate. He has also written for The Daily Beast, The American Prospect and The Nation. His work centers on politics, race, and the intersection of the two.

You can find him on Twitter, Flickr, and Instagram as jbouie.
  • Madison

    I think it’s simpler than pluralism, really.

    Western culture is often racist and hypocritical. Most people who have never been “out the desert” or “out of the jungle” believe the positive spin and propaganda about the West. And most will never have a chance to see the fallacy of it.

    But those who have grown up being fed that spin and then who actually have a chance to be plunked down into the middle of it and see, face to face, that it’s not at all what they were told, are going to be some of the angriest more cynical folks out there.

    The fact is that America (and the West) have indeed committed unspeakable atrocities against people on every continent. That’s a fact. We in American and many Europeans still have an air of superiority – even among the liberal set. Racism and classism and xenophobia and imperialistic and paternalistic attitudes are the rule of the day. Sometimes it’s explicit and often it’s not. But one need not be a rocket scientist to see it. Ask any black man or woman in America. Ask any Mexican who thought America was the “land of milk and honey” until he got here. Ask many african immigrants to arrive in America what the difference is between what they though America was going to be and what they discovered when they got here. The incongruence is astounding.

    These well-to-do jihadists have seen it firsthand, unlike many of their impoverished brethren who have to concern themselves with the mundane, and they are financially and socially able enough to become extremists.