Some commentators argue that poverty, religious ideology or an education system skewed toward hatred are the root causes of terrorism. But Calvin Goldscheider — a professor emeritus of sociology and Judaic studies at Brown University — has focused his research on a completely different factor in the equation: demography.
As people migrate over time, argued the professor, it leads to population shifts, with large immigrant populations sprouting up in certain countries. Sometimes, the immigrants can become assimilated into a new culture and accepted into society. Other times, however, they have fewer opportunities to integrate and, therefore, do not feel welcome economically or socially.
"When confronted with high levels of unemployment, hopelessness and discrimination, some migrants turn inward toward family, kin and community for support," explained the professor during a recent talk at Gratz College. His presentation, titled "Demographics of Terror," drew about 100 people.
In his view, the danger comes when these isolated communities begin to conceive of religion in a literal sense.
"Ethnic cultures are more likely to become reactionary and radicalized in order to reinforce their ethnic and religious origin," he said.
To illustrate his argument, he pointed to Sweden, where many second- and third-generation Muslims from Turkey remain far more religious than their parents or grandparents, according to Goldscheider.
The role of their home countries is another important factor in the mix: "What happens in Gaza or Lebanon also affects the Turkish Muslims in Sweden — at least the ones who hear about it from the Saudi imam."
The scholar stressed that, in general, immigrants may assimilate to a new country's economic and educational systems, but may not integrate socially.
"If they don't interact with others, education is not always the liberalizing force," he said.
In fact, in many societies, immigrants are encouraged to continue practicing their religion however they see fit; however, questions arise when religious practices conflict with societal norms.
"What happens when these cultural traditions clash with the legal system?" posed Goldscheider. "What happens when honor killing, which is culturally appropriate in some societies, or female circumcision — genital mutilation — violate the laws of the new country. Do we continue to discuss multiculturalism?"
The demographer cautioned against oversimplifying such issues by blaming particular ethnic groups simply because the faces of terrorists have changed over time. In the middle of the 20th century, for example, Western Europeans — various radical groups in Germany and Italy — were the chief perpetrators. Now, the focus has been placed on radical Arab Muslims.
The problem is that often, today's terrorists become tomorrow's allies, he argued, and "yesterday's allies are often defined as today's enemy."
Goldscheider also noted that the idea of "profiling" is not confined to any one side. He pointed to the example of Jack Straw, leader of the House of Commons in England, who said that he felt uncomfortable addressing a woman in a veil because he felt it was a visible statement of separation.
"The reality is that views on both sides are becoming more extreme," he said.
"They're becoming more polarized with a very large silent middle, making it hard for the moderates on both sides to remain reasonable."