It's very necessary for people to condemn the Islamophobia that spikes after terror attacks such as the ones in Brussels. But when non-Muslims claim that "tolerating" Muslim Americans protects everyone from Islamist terrorism, they feed into an insidious idea that all people who practice Islam are ticking time bombs.
Just when it seemed like Islamophobia couldn't surge any more than it did after the San Bernardino rampage and the Paris bombings, there's the response to Tuesday's (March 22) horrific attacks on Brussels' Zaventem airport and Maelbeek metro station. We know that when Islamist terrorism strikes a Western country, bigotry is inevitable and swift to surface. The Republican presidential front-runners, Ted Cruz and Donald Trump, didn't disappoint.
"We need to empower law enforcement to patrol and secure Muslim neighborhoods before they become radicalized," Cruz said in a Tuesday morning Facebook post. "For years, the West has tried to deny this enemy exists out of a combination of political correctness and fear. We can no longer afford either." The next day, he went on "The Today Show" and specified that he was talking about "proactive law enforcement," like the work of NYPD's now-defunct Demographics Unit which secretly spied on Muslim people's everyday lives and mapped "Locations of Concern" based on 28 "ancestries of interest" in New York, Connecticut, Pennsylvania and New Jersey. The spying program didn't generate a single terrorism lead in more than six years but ripped the fabric of entire communities.
For his part, Trump repeated a variation of his controversial plan to ban Muslims from entering the U.S.: "People by the way from certain parts of the world, like Syria, without documentation, should not be allowed in our country," he was quoted as saying by NPR. "We have no idea who they are, where they come from. They could be ISIS-related. We can't allow that to happen." When asked if people should watch their Muslim-American neighbors he reportedly said, "Everybody should watch out."
And of course, Twitter users joined the chorus, trending the hashtag #stopIslam.
Just as Islamophobic speech has become the norm, so have condemnations of it among politicians, activists and journalists. For example, of Brussels, Bernie Sanders said "we cannot allow the Trumps of the world to use these incidents to attack all of the Muslim people in the world."
But when that criticism of the steady drumbeat of hate speech toward Islam suggests that tolerance of Muslim Americans and the assimilation of Muslims to Western culture are counterterrorism tools, it unintentionally creates a negative parallel.
The rhetoric we're hearing about Brussels falls in line with what was advanced after the Paris and San Bernardino attacks: that we can fight the Islamic State's global recruitment plan by being civil to Muslims and Muslims, in turn, assimilating to Western norms.
Following Tuesday's Brussels attacks, M.G. Oprea wrote in The Federalist that the ostracizing of Islamic communities and their failure to assimilate to European culture influenced Muslim immigrants to pledge their allegiance to ISIS. Blaming the problem on Europe's hostility, she writes, "These problems have now come home to roost. Europe has on its hands millions of Muslims, many of whom, although certainly not all, identify first as Muslims and second as Europeans. They are loyal, at best, to the local Muslim community with whom they share a sense of solidarity, or in its worst manifestations, to ISIS and its global sense of destiny."
Unfortunately, her discourse reiterates the toxic narrative ISIS advocates: Islamic values are at war with Western ones. There are far too many Muslims in Europe to make that type of generalization, and it goes without saying that only a small fraction of those people are involved in terrorist activity.
The Daily Beast's Christopher Dickey expressed similar sentiments during "The Today Show's" continual coverage of the chaotic aftermath of Brussels. Reinforcing the aforementioned idea that terrorist recruitment can arise out of the lack of integration in European society, he stated, "I think all of that translates into a situation of more and more of a cultural divide. Harder and harder to integrate people. And then that, of course, will be used for more recruiting by the jihadists." Dickey went on to mention the disaffected Muslim trope (as did Oprea in her essay) to reiterate the harmful idea that a Muslim who hasn't completely assimilated will fall for terrorist propaganda.
This dialogue stems from a fear of the alternative. Suggesting that Muslim people's (apparently innate) desire to join ISIS can be weakened by civility toward them and their full assimilation translates into: "Be nice to Muslims, and help them fit in because otherwise, they'll be radicalized by ISIS."
President Obama took the stage in Cuba on Tuesday (March 22) stating, "This is yet another reminder that the world must unite, we must be together." Though brief, his statement was reflective of his remarks last month at the Islamic Center of Baltimore. In the first half of the hour-long speech, he thanked Muslim Americans for keeping "us" safe. "They're our police and our firefighters. They're in homeland security, in our intelligence community. They serve honorably in our armed forces–meaning they fight and bleed and die for our freedom."
But he later pivoted to the all-too-familiar line about fighting ISIS recruitment: "[The] best way for us to fight terrorism is to deny these organizations legitimacy and to show that here in the United States of America, we do not suppress Islam; we celebrate and lift up the success of Muslim Americans."
By suggesting that "we" lift up the success of Muslim Americans to prevent Islamist recruiting, Obama used an overplayed binary: the good moderate Muslim vs. the evil extremist Muslim.
Lawyer and criminologist Tara Lai Quinlan and writer Deborah Ramirez echoed this premise in the Huffington Post in their post-Paris attacks piece, "To Fight Terrorism, Treat Muslim-Americans With Respect." Basically, they suggested a good cop/bad cop strategy:
The choice to fight terrorism is simple: we can alienate, marginalize, and question the loyalty of seven million proud Muslim Americans, or we can ardently protect and defend the civil rights and civil liberties of our compatriots, honor their right to practice their religion, and recognize that they can be law enforcement’s key partners in preventing terrorism.
Statements like this are reductive. They neglect to acknowledge that Muslim Americans are autonomous beings. After all, if radicalization was the automatic response to alienation, we would have had a widespread recruitment problem after 9-11.
And if we are to use Quinlan's and Ramirez's logic that civilians should partner with law enforcement to identify the terrorists in their communities, then politicians and pundits should be advocating for these collaborations in mostly White Christian communities. Statistically, White supremacy is a bigger threat to this country than Muslims extremism.
What underscores the tolerance-or-else idea is a falsehood that most Muslim Americans are not freethinking agents but share a common thread with ISIS. This perpetual narrative of "not playing into the hands of ISIS " is downright offensive.
While denouncing the bigots who spew Islamophobic ideologies is certainly a step in the right direction, here's what we actually need to do regarding Muslim Americans: Shift the rhetoric from tolerance as a counterterrorism strategy, to tolerance because Muslim Americans are human beings. Be an advocate of civility to Muslim Americans because it's the moral thing to do, especially during these difficult times. Decry the notion that all Muslims are suspect. After all, believing that all Muslims are potential terrorists speaks volumes about your own preconceptions, and ultimately, those veils of prejudice are a lot more threatening than the hijab kind.
This article originally apperared in Colorlines