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OpinionColumnistsCathy Young

The delicate debate over radicalism

Students light candles as they gather for a

Students light candles as they gather for a vigil to commemorate victims of Friday's shooting, outside the Al Noor mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand on Monday. Credit: AP/Vincent Yu

The terror attack at two mosques in New Zealand, where 50 Muslim worshippers were shot dead and another 50 wounded allegedly by an Australian native who saw himself as a defender of the West against immigrant hordes, has not only shocked the world but also helped change the conversation about Islam and immigration.

The increased awareness that xenophobia and anti-Muslim bigotry are real problems with potentially horrific consequences is a salutary thing. But some also worry that the new sensitivity will stifle debate on immigration limits and on Islamist extremism. How do we find a reasonable balance that doesn’t blame the victims or shy away from valid questions?

The manifesto sent out by alleged shooter Brenton Tarrant, 28, featured an odd mix of beliefs (he professes to be a great admirer of China’s regime and a devout environmentalist) as well as a heavy dose of trolling. However, it is fairly clear that his main motivation was white nationalism and the belief that Western civilization is being destroyed by immigrant “invaders” from India and China as well as Muslim countries.

While only the perpetrator bears full responsibility for his heinous act, it is only natural to link it to the recent proliferation of anti-immigration and anti-Islam rhetoric across the West — with help from our current president, whom the manifesto praised as a “symbol of white identity.” Even if the shooter’s words were a provocation, there is no question that Donald Trump has frequently used inflammatory rhetoric to stoke paranoia about immigration (not just illegal) and especially about Muslims. Calling immigrants “invaders” is Trump-speak.

It’s not just Trump. For years, major portions of the American right have trafficked in anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim hysteria. Similar fearmongering has been on the rise in Europe and Australia.

But accusations of moral complicity also have been leveled at liberal — and even moderate Muslim — critics of radical Islam, from neuroscientist and author Sam Harris to Pakistani-British activist Maajid Nawaz. Most absurdly, author and former first daughter Chelsea Clinton was accosted at a New York vigil for Christchurch victims by activists who accused her of stoking “Islamophobia” because she had criticized Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), for arguably Jew-baiting comments about American supporters of Israel.

The truth is that the critics of Islamist radicalism and mass immigration are raising real issues. These issues include cultural tensions, lack of assimilation, and high levels of anti-Semitism, homophobia, and misogyny in some immigrant communities. Conflicts between religious orthodoxy and modern values of tolerance and equality are not unique to Islam, but at present it is simply a fact that Islamic orthodoxy takes particularly extreme forms. Support for executing gays or blasphemers is a fringe position in Christianity or Judaism but a mainstream view in many majority-Muslim countries. Even in the United States, where Muslims are far more assimilated, successful, and educated than in Europe, radicalization remains a problem.

However, there is often a thin line between debates about Islam or immigration and bashing Muslims or immigrants. Christchurch is a reminder that those who tackle these issues have a moral responsibility not to cross that line: not to demonize entire groups, not to repeat inflated claims and unverified rumors, and certainly not to suggest — as commentator Bruce Bawer did on the conservative City Journal website — that the terrorist had a “legitimate concern” about the “steady repopulation” of Europe by scary aliens.

Legitimate debate should not be suppressed. But legitimate debate should never dehumanize.

 Cathy Young is a contributing editor to Reason magazine.