"Western Muslims and Conflicts Abroad"

Marist College

A Q&A with Professor of Political Science Juris Pupcenoks on his new book

Recently, the Office of Media Relations spoke with Dr. Juris Pupcenoks, Assistant Professor of Political Science, about his recent book, Western Muslims and Conflicts Abroad: Conflict Spillovers to Diasporas (2016, Routledge), which looks at the way different Muslim immigrant communities respond to political upheaval and violence in their homelands and other Muslim lands. Below is an edited and condensed version of the interview.

How did you get interested in this subject?

I grew up in Latvia in the 1980s and 90s.  After the fall of the Soviet Union there were a lot of tensions between Russians and Latvians. In graduate school I was looking at growing Muslim immigration to Europe and I saw some parallels. There were tensions between immigrant Muslim and native populations all around Europe. I thought this might be very important for Europe in the future – how to integrate these growing Muslim populations. Europe’s natural growth rate has been declining, so it’s been clear for some time that Europe needs more immigrant workers and that they would come largely from the surrounding Muslim countries. This has certainly proven to be a very important issue.

Give us a brief summary of the book and the case that it makes.

The book looks at how different Muslim communities react to foreign policy events both in general, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, in particular. My cases are Detroit’s Arab Muslims and Pakistanis in London. They are very different communities in many different ways, but they have one commonality – they are very politically active. So, I wondered, can we better understand why there has been political violence in London’s politically active Pakistani community while Detroit’s politically active Arab-Muslim community has remained peaceful? 

One example: In 2006, Israel is bombing Hezbollah’s positions in Lebanon, prompting a lot of reaction in Detroit. There are reportedly 10,000 people marching in suburban Dearborn in protest of the bombings, many of them Lebanese or Lebanese-American. But when they are done marching and protesting, they go home, go to work, and pay taxes. There is no violence or terrorism. In London, we see terrorist acts by misguided individuals who claim they are doing this in retaliation for what the British and Americans have done in Iraq and Afghanistan. In Detroit, no instances of radicalization and violent terrorism that I know of. So why is that?

I found that –  when it comes to foreign policy issues – Western Muslim communities mobilize based primarily on their ethnic divisions, based on which sect of Islam they follow, based on national origin, based on ethnicity. Different Muslim communities mobilize differently, although they all seem to mobilize over the Arab/Israeli conflict. But, by-and-large, internal differences matter more than commonalities when Western Muslim communities respond to foreign policy events.

This makes sense.  When you think about Latin Americans in the United States, we don’t study them as a large undifferentiated group of Catholics, even though most of them are Catholic.  Instead, we study them as Colombians, Mexicans, etc.  We look at their ethnicity and note the differences.  Those differences influence their political activism. 


Now on domestic issues things are different.  Identity as Muslims, and not identification with a certain country or sect of Islam, is more important. They frequently mobilize in reaction to perceived Islamophobia or to laws which are perceived to be unfair or policing practices which are perceived as unfair to Muslims. So you have, on the one hand, Muslims mobilizing as Muslims for domestic issues and, on the other, Muslims mobilizing along sectarian, ethnic and other identity differences when it comes to foreign policy.

What are the main distinctions in how groups respond?

My research shows that there are four factors that create an environment where political violence is more likely to happen in reaction to foreign policy events: immigration policies allowing for the inflow of violent radicals; economic deprivation without extensive civil society ties; the existing presence of radicals in given Muslim communities; and connections between misguided individuals in Muslim communities and radical networks abroad.

You mention community contacts. What can other communities learn from a place like Detroit in terms of the relationships with police and civic institutions that help these communities express themselves politically in a peaceful and productive manner?

Detroit is a fascinating case. It has very politically active Arab and Muslim communities, and half of the Arabs are Christians. Arab, Muslim, South Asian Muslim, Arab Christian – all these populations - are very active.  There are organizations that are vocal about foreign policy events.  There is a very healthy relationship between various Detroit Arab and Muslim community leaders and the media and civil society groups. Christians, non-Christians, and law enforcement agencies – all meet regularly with other community leaders to discuss issues. These connections foster a lot of trust in American institutions.  Such relationships are largely absent in London. There’s more distrust. There is more ‘top down’ approach by the British government even as it seeks partners in Muslim communities. There’s less trust, fewer connections, and I think that’s one big reason why we see political violence in London in reaction to foreign policy.

When you look at the Syrian refugee crisis in Europe and the debate about accepting refugees here in the U.S., what does that mean in terms of what the implications for the communities that are taking them in, willingly or otherwise?

In the US there is this unfounded and exaggerated fear of Syrian refugees. There are very few Syrian refugees in the United States, and we have historically had a very good screening process for of immigrants, refugees that is working.  Europe has accepted a lot of Syrian refugees. Germany alone has probably accepted close to half a million in 2015 alone.  What happens in Europe depends on how successful Germany and others are at quickly integrating huge numbers of people. But the potential benefits are also huge. There’s a fascinating economic study that shows that if Germany can successfully integrate these half a million refugees in the next decade or so, there will be significant benefits.

Any closing thoughts on the subject?

It’s important not to overreact. In the U.S., there are about 3 million Muslims. A handful of them have been involved in violent acts. A handful of them have sympathized with violent extremists. The vast majority of Muslim Americans are proud citizens. So, it’s important not to stigmatize the entire community because of a handful of misguided individuals or criminals who have committed atrocious acts for which there is no justification. 


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