The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, or ISIS, is pursuing a strategy explicitly designed to provoke hostility toward innocent Muslims in Western society in order to radicalize these communities and recruit them to their cause. Listening to the American political debate in the wake of the tragic terrorist attacks in Paris, that strategy may be working. Islamophobic rants are both morally offensive and factually inaccurate and play right into the hands of our terrorist enemies.
ISIS is not hiding its objectives. In its publications, it talks of forcing the world into two camps by “destroy[ing] the grayzone” between itself and the forces aligned against it. For ISIS, the grayzone is inhabited by those who have yet to commit to one side in its clash of civilizations. In the February edition of its official magazine Dabiq, an ISIS writer outlined a plan to compel “the crusaders [the West] to actively destroy the grayzone themselves” by generating anti-Muslim hysteria in the wake of terrorism. Attacks such as those in Paris are designed to get Western governments to alienate their Muslim populations and push them toward ISIS.
Some conservatives appear happy to oblige. Two days after the tragic terrorist attacks in Paris, Rep. Peter King (R-NY) called for increased government surveillance of Muslim American communities. “The reality is that’s where the terrorism is coming from,” he told a radio reporter on Sunday. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) said that the United States should even reject Syrian refugees under 5 years old because they could be a threat to American security.
Hateful speech by public figures does nothing but demonize law-abiding Muslim Americans and make them more vulnerable to discrimination and violent attacks. Although many incidents go unreported, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, or CAIR, saw an uptick in bias incidents against Muslim Americans within hours of the Paris attacks and politicians’ hateful remarks. Furthermore, marginalizing the Muslim American community feeds into ISIS’s agenda of targeting and radicalizing scorned individuals. Hateful speech is no joke: It has repercussions that put all innocent lives in danger.
Here is the truth: Rather than being a threat to national security, Muslim American communities have helped prevent more than one-third of Al Qaeda terrorist plots in the United States since 9/11. The most famous case is that of the 2010 plot to bomb Times Square in which Alioune Niass identified the car bomb and alerted police. In 2003, tips from the local Muslim community led the FBI to arrest a group that was conducting military-style training in northern Virginia. Beyond that, a 2011 study found that community mosques actually deter radicalization and extremism through a range of efforts, such as publicly denouncing violence, confronting extremists, providing programs for youth, and cooperating with law enforcement. We should not view Muslim Americans’ contributions to their communities only through the lens of preventing terrorism and countering extremism. They also continue to contribute to society through public service and work in fields ranging from health care, education, and government to science and technology.
Apocalyptic rants from elected officials, media pundits, and others ignore the millions of hardworking, law-abiding Muslims in this country, as well as their history within our shores. Muslims have been part of America since before it was a nation; have fought in every war, including the American Revolution; and are an integral part of the vibrant mosaic that makes us who we are. Muslim Americans participate in virtually every sector of society and engage in interfaith efforts that bring together Christians, Muslims, and Jews to work for the common good. The fact that Muslim Americans strongly denounce terrorism, prove their patriotism, and serve their communities and nation every single day has been demonstrated in ways large and small.
As the nation heads into a heated presidential election cycle, we need to distinguish facts from biased, often politically motivated, attacks. ISIS has told the world what it is trying to do; unfortunately, too many politicians are so ignorant of these terrorists’ objectives that they are actually helping ISIS achieve them.
Diverse Muslim American communities in the United States that are comprised of different ethnicities and races, immigrants and native born, young and old, and converts and those born to the faith are the strongest bulwark against ISIS and its abhorrent ideology. America’s values of religious pluralism, interfaith cooperation, and civic engagement are among our most valuable global assets. Let us stand up and speak out for these values—and let us each do our part to make them visible and real to neighbors at home and abroad.
Sally Steenland is the Director of the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at the Center for American Progress. Ken Gude is a Senior Fellow with the National Security team at the Center.