Since conjugating French verbs doesn’t push people to join ISIS, what’s really happening?

My new column is up at Haaretz:

What possible connection could there be between a country speaking French and producing an unusually high number of people who go off to fight in Syria? That’s the question that a pair of American researchers faced after crunching a great deal of data and then staring, surprised, at the results.

The answer they suggest makes sense. That said, it will be more easily accepted in London than in Paris. It also emphasizes the sheer destructiveness of Donald Trump’s anti-Muslim incitement. It even sheds light on what creates Jewish religious extremism in Israel.

The scholars, both at the Brookings Institution in Washington, are Will McCants and Chris Meserole. On his blog, Religional, Meserole has just posted a long explanation of their research. (As a work of statistics-based sociology, it’s miraculously readable.) He begins with a necessary proviso: The number of Muslims who choose violence to realize their peculiar interpretations of Islam is “a miniscule fraction, far less than one percent of one percent.” But the ones who do are causing a great deal of bloodshed. So it would be valuable to have a better sense of what might, for instance, push a few young men to set off bombs in the Brussels airport and one of the city’s Metro stations.

Since it’s hard to place a number on how many Muslims become radicalized, McCants and Meserole used the number who go to fight in Syria as a proxy — something that can be counted and that serves as a close substitute. They took the number who’d done that from each of 50 countries during 2011-2014. They calculated what this figure was as proportion of the home country’s Muslims and as a proportion of all the foreign jihadists in Syria. They multiplied the two, and came up with what they called the “foreign fighter score” for each country. Then they looked at how each country’s score compared to the average.

The results aren’t evenly spread out. The top five are Jordan and Lebanon, which border Syria, and three more distant countries — Tunisia, Belgium and France. There’s a big gap between those five and the rest of the list. Despite the media impact of British-raised Mohammed Emwazi, also known as “Jihadi John,” the United Kingdom’s foreign fighter score is significantly lower. The United States is well below the average.

Finally the researchers came up with several dozen variables that, in interaction with each other, might correlate with the jihadist factor. The list included things as disparate as the youth unemployment rate and whether one of the country’s official languages was now, or had been English, French or Arabic.

And being Francophone came out on top as most predictive of the foreign fighter score.

Read the rest here.