The issue of terrorism and Islam returns to the spotlight with depressing regularity as terror strikes in new places: Paris, Brussels, San Bernardino — and now Orlando, where 49 people died in a mass shooting at a gay nightclub. Unfortunately, the debate remains stuck between simplistic clichés and knee-jerk proposals: “Nothing to do with Islam” or “Islam is terrorism”; “ban guns” or “ban Muslims.” Neither camp offers a way to move forward.
President Barack Obama’s response to the horrific massacre by Omar Mateen is almost a textbook example of the “political correctness” that supplies ample fuel to Republican enfant terrible Donald Trump. Obama called the shooting “an act of terror and an act of hate” and mentioned “violent extremism” — but did not say a word about the ideological content of this extremism, despite the fact that Mateen, 29, had proclaimed his allegiance to the Islamic State. Meanwhile, many liberals and leftists on social media seemed more concerned with the perils of “Islamophobia” than with the reality of 49 people killed by a deadly homophobia linked to fundamentalist Islamic beliefs. Some made fatuous declarations about Islamophobia and homophobia as part of the same system of oppression.
Meanwhile, Trump responded to the tragedy with predictable narcissistic bluster, taking to Twitter to crow about the congratulations he was receiving on being right about radical Islam. He renewed his call yesterday for a temporary ban on Muslim immigration — only reframing it as a ban on immigration from countries with a history of terrorism. (Some people are asking whether such a ban also would apply to Christian refugees fleeing ISIS.) More disturbingly, Trump’s comments suggest that he would treat naturalized Muslim immigrants and even second-generation immigrants such as Mateen as a suspect class. He noted that the massacre would not have happened if Mateen’s Afghan-born father had not been allowed into the United States more than 30 years ago.
Such collective blame is not only repugnant but deeply counterproductive. Right now, Muslims in the United States are notably moderate and integrated into larger culture, much more so than in many European countries. Treating them as the enemy can breed extremism. It is also worth noting that, as a Pew Research Center poll found in 2007, radicalism within the American Muslim community is more common among Muslim converts of nonimmigrant backgrounds — especially African-Americans — than among first- or second-generation immigrants. (Indeed, Mateen’s apparent spiritual guru, radical Imam Marcus Dwayne Robertson, was just such a convert.) If Islam is seen as a persecuted religion in America, it is likely to become a magnet for the disaffected.
Yet the fear of appearing anti-Muslim can lead to dangerous negligence as well. There are reports that Mateen’s extremist statements were largely ignored — and he was allowed to continue working in a job that gave him access to guns — because of concerns about anti-Muslim bigotry. If this is true, it should be a wake-up call.
The bigger issue is that radical jihadist strains of Islam have become a massive juggernaut with international influence. This is not the only kind of Islam, as anti-Islam polemicists often claim; but, with centers in Saudi Arabia and Iran, it has the power and money to promote radicalization worldwide. Fighting it requires a long-term strategy that includes both military operations against terror networks and cultivating Muslim reformers. It also requires naming the problem. Hillary Clinton’s decision to speak about “radical Islamism” is a good first step, but it should be followed by something more than rhetoric.
Otherwise, we bicker while the world burns.
Cathy Young is a regular contributor to Reason magazine and Real Clear Politics.