The rise of Islamophobia and the fear that has been consuming much of the country is not just about Donald Trump. The Republican front-runner is embarrassing himself and our nation with his rhetoric. Things have gotten so bad that Trump is being publicly scolded about chauvinistic behavior by a leading member of the Saudi royal family. This is the family whose fundamentalist Wahhabi clerics spawned Islamist terrorism across the globe, who prohibit any worship in the Kingdom but Islam and regularly behead apostates, and whose oil wealth funded the rise of ISIS and of al Qaeda before it. But Prince Alwaleed bin Talal’s words, “You are a disgrace not only to the GOP but to all America,” are in truth less about Donald Trump’s conduct than about all of ours. We are a disgrace to America.
We have seen many mass shootings this year. In June, Dylann Roof killed nine people at a bible study group at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina. Roof, a South Carolina native, hoped his killings would spark a war between blacks and whites. In October, Chris Harper-Mercer killed ten people at Umpqua Community College in southern Oregon. Harper-Mercer, a British native raised in the U.S., had an arsenal of 13 guns and appears to have had interests in Nazi and white supremacist culture. In November, Robert Dear killed three people at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado. Dear, a native of Kentucky, brought with him a duffle bag of handguns and rifles and was long known to hold strong anti-abortion and anti-government views. Then, two weeks ago, Syed Rizwan Farook, an Illinois native, and his Pakistani wife Tashfeen Malik killed 14 people at a social service center in San Bernardino, California. The couple had four weapons.
Each of these mass killings were motivated by issues that have long histories of inspiring violence — racial animosity, anti-government resentments, white supremacism, anti-abortion convictions, and radical Islamism. And, as much as it has become a common meme to blame mass shootings on mental illness, in the minds of adherents, each of these are motivations that justify the turn to violence.
After initial spasms of blue vs. red invective, our collective responses to the mass shootings in South Carolina, Oregon and Colorado were tempered, and discussion of those events quickly faded. Then came the fierce response to the Farook-Malik murders. Unlike the responses to the Roof-Harper-Mercer-Dear murders of 22 people — which have been toned down to the level of stuff that happens — the Farook-Malik murder of 14 people is now being widely described as the worst terror attack on the homeland since 9/11. While that might technically be an accurate statement, suggesting that a husband and wife shooting of 14 people with two pistols and two rifles was in any respect comparable to the 9/11 attacks and the deaths of 2,977 people as attacks on the homeland is patently manipulative. Just to provide some perspective, the media spin on the Farook-Malik murders could have been that the killing of 14 people in San Bernardino will likely make December 2015 the month with the largest number of deaths by mass shooting since the prior month, November 2015, when 49 people were killed.
Roof, Harper-Mercer and Dear killed 22 people. Between the three of them they had dozens of handguns and assault weapons. Their motivations were racial and rooted in their Christian faith. This is not to say that they were radical Christian terrorists, but simply that their motivations — the white supremacist and radical anti-abortion convictions — were grounded in their religious beliefs. In contrast, Farook and Malik had four guns — a small cache compared with their mass murderer counterparts — yet the scale of their “arsenal” has been widely hyped as the ensuing war on terror rhetoric rose in intensity.
Of course, the Farook-Malik murders were terrible, and they were distinct from the other mass killings because they were part of a pattern of mass murder directed or inspired by ISIS. But the depth of the fear that the San Bernardino shooting spree has provoked across the country has been disproportionate.
This was made clear to me when a friend asked if he should be worried about going to a concert in the wake of what happened in Paris and San Bernardino. The framing of the Farook-Malik murders as the worst terror attack on the homeland since 9/11 gave rise to my friend’s question, and it has undercut the possibility of having reasoned discussions about how the country should respond to this next phase of Islamist inspired violence. The simple fact is that my friend has a far greater chance of any number of disasters befalling him — being hit by a drunk driver, getting trapped in a collapsed building toppled by an earthquake or choking to death on his popcorn — if he goes to a concert in downtown Oakland than the next Farook-Malik-style murder.
Osama bin Laden built al Qaeda’s war with the West based on a straightforward strategic calculation. He believed that through terrorist attacks on the United States, he could draw the United States into wars on Muslim lands. He anticipated that the presence of American soldiers killing Muslims would be an effective recruiting tool for al Qaeda, and he believed that the U.S. military could be defeated, “bleeding America to the point of bankruptcy,” through the asymmetric warfare tactics that he had seen defeat the Soviet Red Army in Afghanistan and the U.S. military itself decades earlier in Vietnam.
In addition to embracing bin Laden’s strategy, ISIS leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi is seeking to draw a sharp line between the world of Islam and the world of the unbelievers, and to convince Muslims that they can never be accepted as practicing Muslims living in the West. He defines the world where Muslims in the West live as a gray zone that must be eliminated. A “gray zone” refers to a society where individuals can live their lives in accordance with their faith, while at the same time being part of a larger secular society that respects those choices. Baghdadi’s strategy to eliminate the gray zones is built around directing and inspiring terrorist actions that will provoke a reflexive response by Western nations that will achieve his objectives and alienate their Muslim citizens. The Farook-Malik murders were that type of terrorist action. The objective was to provoke exactly the type of panic that has ensued, with a range of reverberating effects — such as Donald Trump’s rhetoric and an outpouring of anti-Muslim sentiment — that communicate to Muslims in the United States that they are objects of suspicionwho may never truly be at home here.
Like bin Laden before him, Baghdadi has a cunning geopolitical strategy that uses our own worst instincts against us. Over the past several weeks, we have seen how effective that strategy can be. We could have acted quite differently, and responded to the Farook-Malik mass shooting of 14 people in a manner comparable to the Roof-Harper-Mercer-Dear murders of 22 people. Instead, we responded in exactly the manner that Baghdadi hoped we would. Everything we have done, and each of the actions that have been suggested that we might do — develop a registry of Muslim citizens, increase the surveillance of Muslim places of worship, apply religious tests to those who would cross our borders — will feed the anxieties and alienation of Muslims living in the west.
These responses will not make us safer from the risk of these kinds of attacks, and at the same time they diminish the essence of who we are. We need to stop blindly doing what bin Laden and Baghdadi want us to do. America is at its essence a gray zone. Our nation’s a priori commitment to religious liberty and our long history of integrating immigrant communities and cultures into the mainstream of American life is the most effective countervailing weapon we have against the future that Baghdadi and ISIS imagine imposing on the world. Whatever actions we take with respect to the continuing war against ISIS in Syria and Iraq, here at home we are fighting a different war. We lose this war if we take the kinds of actions that Donald Trump and others have suggested. We win if we draw our Muslim communities closer to us and collectively confront the challenges that ISIS presents.