Americans Don’t Understand Terrorism. And It’s Creating More Terrorists

Let me start off by saying something that might surprise you: I think Trump’s travel ban is 100% legal. The 1952 Immigration and Nationality Act gives the president broad powers over immigration, especially when it comes to issues of national security. And by targeting Muslim countries instead of Muslim people, the ban cleverly avoids any direct challenges based on religious discrimination.

But just because something’s legal doesn’t mean it’s smart.

The ban is yet another in a long line of ill-conceived counterterrorism strategies, but beneath it lies a much bigger, more dangerous issue: the way that Americans, especially those on the political right, conceptualize terrorism.

The [False] Narrative

We tend to think of terrorists as people who were born, raised and radicalized in some dark Middle Eastern country before sneaking into America for the sole purpose of killing us. It’s a powerful narrative — but the stats, however, tell a different story.

Since 9/11, a total of twelve Muslim extremists have carried out deadly attacks on American soil. All twelve were either American citizens or legal residents, and none of them came from — or had parents who came from — the seven countries included in the travel ban.

From CNN,

“Of the almost 400 individuals accused of jihadist terrorism crimes since 9/11 in the United States… almost half are native-born American citizens, and more than 80 percent are US citizens or legal permanent residents.”

So why do we spend so much time, money and energy thinking about — and reacting to — the threat of foreign terrorists?

terrorism-headlines2

Image Credit: Sherwin McGehee via Getty Images

The reason is simple: fear — especially fear of the faceless “other” — is, and has always been, the single most effective political motivator out there. Why waste time thinking about education, environment and economy when you’re worried about getting blown up by some rabid jihadist, right??

Again, it’s a powerful narrative, and I don’t fault people for focusing on it so much — especially when you consider how much it dominates the news headlines (politicians aren’t the only ones who know the power of the narrative).

But it’s also crucial to remember that this is precisely the narrative that terrorist groups like ISIS want you to believe.

The Grayzone

The leaders of ISIS know that they wouldn’t stand a chance in a real war against the United States, so instead, they’re trying ignite a war within the United States — specifically, a war against Islam.

If you remember nothing else from this article, remember this: nothing pisses ISIS off more than seeing Muslims living peacefully with non-Muslims in America.

ISIS’s core doctrine is based on the belief that Islam and Western culture are fundamentally incompatible, so to see Muslims and non-Muslims living together, working together and sharing in each other’s joys is a direct affront to their very existence.

In short, ISIS wants a global war between Islam and the West, but they can’t have it unless they force Muslims living in the West to pick a side. They call this concept “the grayzone”, and they’ve written about it extensively in their official publications.

May 29, 2015: A demonstrator holds a “Stop Islam” sign while another rips pages out of a Quran during a “Freedom of Speech Rally” outside an Islamic community center in Phoenix, Arizona (Photo Credit: Nancy Wiechec / Reuters)

May 29, 2015: A demonstrator holds a “Stop Islam” sign while another rips pages out of a Quran during a “Freedom of Speech Rally” outside an Islamic community center in Phoenix, Arizona (Photo Credit: Nancy Wiechec / Reuters)

The way ISIS sees it, the vast majority of American Muslims currently reside in a “grayzone” where they are able to live peacefully amongst other Americans despite their Muslim faith (what a crazy idea). ISIS figures that the more they can shrink this grayzone, the better chance they’ll have of radicalizing American Muslims and convincing them to carry out “lone wolf” attacks on their own.

This is why our hyper-focus on foreign terrorism — despite the fact that it’s really quite a tiny problem — is so dangerous: not only does it bolster the idea that the West is at war with Islam, but it also provokes us into doing things that shrink the grayzone in precisely the way ISIS wants us to.

Our Focus on Terrorism Creates More Terrorists

The more we talk about terrorism, the more we tend do things that ostracize and isolate American Muslims. A recent report from the FBI found that anti-Muslim attacks surged in 2015 — a trend which just so happened to coincide with Donald Trump’s meteoric rise in American politics.

This should come as a surprise to no one, but it’s still worth saying: when a major party candidate uses ideas like a Muslim registry and a total Muslim ban to rise to power, it sends a not-so-subtle signal to the masses that it’s kinda okay to bully and harass Muslims.

President Donald Trump has taken a lot of heat for his executive order banning immigration from seven majority-Muslim countries (Photo: AP/Steven Senne)

President Donald Trump has taken a lot of heat for his executive order banning immigration from seven majority-Muslim countries (Photo: AP/Steven Senne)

Couple this harassment with legislation that explicitly targets people of Muslim descent (ie. the travel ban), and then throw in one or two fictional attacks for good measure, and you’ve got yourself a perfect recipe for shrinking the grayzone.

The Muslim college student who was assaulted and choked by her own hijab the day after Trump’s election; the Iranian PhD candidate who is now cut off from his family back home because of the travel ban; the dozens of Muslims who saw their mosque burned to the ground just hours after the ban was signed. THESE are the things that push people towards extremism.

So, to conclude: our focus on a virtually non-existent problem (foreign terrorism) and our disproportionate response to said problem (travel bans and Islamophobia) is actually what creates the conditions for terrorism by pushing American Muslims towards the fringes of society.

Congratulations America, you played yourself.

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