Herman Cain’s outlandish statements about the right to ban mosques understandably provoked backlash from the Muslim community and from anyone who believes in religious tolerance.
It is troubling that someone running for public office, let alone the presidency, would engage in fear mongering that thrives upon ignorance and groundless hate. But beyond issues of tolerance, the fear that Cain exploits is misplaced and masks the true nature of the threat. Radicalism thrives not among the vast, diverse, and largely moderate Muslim communities, but instead among troubled young men on the fringes of society.
Fear is an understandable emotion when it comes to threats to our national security. No one would deny that jihadist-inspired terrorism in the U.S. is a legitimate concern. In fact, Al-Qaeda’s stated “diversification” strategy encourages small-scale attacks by homegrown terrorists, a trend that will certainly continue in light of Al-Qaeda’s diminishing central authority in Afghanistan. Although it may be convenient to direct this fear toward the Muslim community, it fails to get at the root of the problem. Not only is it counterproductive, but it also undermines counterterrorism efforts.
First, the importance of separating “Muslim” and “terrorist” goes far beyond political correctness. Failing to make this distinction actually makes us less safe. A study by the NYPD showed that a perceived schism between Islam and the West is one of the most important beliefs that underlie Al-Qaeda-inspired ideology. Anything that appears to acknowledge this dichotomy, including displays of Islamophobia, plays into the hands of subversive groups. Discrimination also risks alienating moderate Muslims, who have the potential to play a crucial role in countering terrorism.
Beyond the national security implications of the discourse itself, assuming that radicalization is a specifically Muslim phenomenon is problematic. Potential threats develop among disaffected individuals from all backgrounds and ethnicities, and their ideas often do not originate from the mosque. For instance, Jose Padilla, who was arrested for plotting a dirty bomb attack in Chicago in 2002, adopted a radical understanding of Islam while serving time in a Florida prison. Kevin James formed his own brand of Islam while in a California prison, and formulated plots against U.S. military recruitment that were eventually thwarted.
Neither of these men had ties to the mainstream Muslim community — in fact, many radical Islamists are converts. Studies have shown that terrorists do not tend to come from particularly religious backgrounds. As Arnett Gaston points out, “there is a threat, but it is not indigenous or specific to Muslims.” What unites these men is not Islam, but rather the desire to seek out comradeship and the sense of being part of something greater.
That being said, there is still the troubling reality that many radicalized individuals choose to express their worldviews in the name of Islam. But this perversion of the faith is far from the only ideological basis for radicalism. The Aryan Brotherhood, the Latin Kings, and the Black Liberation Army are among other radical groups that have found a base in the U.S. in the past. A better explanation for the fact that so many gravitate to extremism inspired by Islam lies in the rapid dissemination of Al-Qaeda materials throughout an increasingly decentralized network, thereby reflecting trends and popular ideas in the modern world more than legitimize ideas from a centuries-old religion.
Clearly, targeting the Muslim community is not an effective way to deal with the problem. In the long run, the problem is best addressed by engaging in soft tactics. Interfaith and community-based dialogue is a good start to prevent Muslim alienation. Additionally, more attention should be given to the social and psychological factors that leave people susceptible to extremist ideology.
There will always be people drawn to radicalism. But empowering the mainstream Muslim community, and not targeting it as a source of extremism, will do much more to reduce the appeal of radical Islamism as a worldview for troubled young men lurking on the edges of society.
The threat from radicalization is real, and it needs to be addressed. But at the end of the day, this is a social and criminal problem more than a religious one. No matter how much ignorant comments improve Herman Cain’s poll numbers among the misinformed, this does nothing to address the real threat. We have to address it the right way to effectively enhance our security, and not abandon the values of tolerance and equality by resorting to petty witch-hunts in the wrong places.
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