An illusion of security
by Yousef Munayyer (Chicago Tribune)
In seven days this month, at least eight places of worship associated with Middle Easterners or South Asians have been targeted in the United States. A Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wis., was the site of a massacre where six people were murdered. Later that evening a mosque in Joplin, Mo., was burned to the ground. In the following days, mosques were targeted in Rhode Island, Southern California, Oklahoma City and at two sites in Illinois. In Dearborn, Mich., an Arab-American church was targeted with vandalism.
All of this occurs in the wake of continued Islamophobia peddled by some elements of the American right. Sadly, the failure to condemn such hateful rhetoric by mainstream Democratic leaders has allowed it to perpetuate unchecked.
U.S. Rep. Joe Walsh, R-Ill., for example, delivered a xenophobic rant last week: “One thing I’m sure of,” he told a town hall meeting, “is that there are people in this country — there is a radical strain of Islam in this country — it’s not just over there — trying to kill Americans every week. It is a real threat, and it is a threat that is much more at home now than it was after 9/11.” He went on, “It’s here. It’s in Elk Grove. It’s in Addison. It’s in Elgin. It’s here.”
Two days later a mosque had pellet-gun rounds fired at its walls. A few days after that a bottle filled with acid was thrown at an Islamic school as students prayed inside. Both of these incidents happened within 15 miles of Walsh’s town hall meeting only days prior.
The events of the past two weeks are cause for alarm. A spike in Islamophobic incidents and an increase in gun violence suggest it is only a matter of time before this occurs again and possibly with significant casualties.
Make no mistake, this is terrorism. What else can we call this pattern of violence targeting and intimidating civilians, leaving them afraid of practicing their most basic right, their freedom to worship?
The University of Maryland’s National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Response to Terrorism maintains a database of terror incidents around the globe. Since 9/11 through the end of 2010 there have been 155 terror incidents in the U.S., and exactly two of them or 1.3 percent have been attributed to international Islamist terror groups. The majority of events are perpetrated by actors with domestic political motivations like anti-abortionists, right-wing extremists, extreme animal rights activists, and extreme environmentalists.
Anders Breivik, who killed scores in Norway last year, taught us a lesson about the folly involved in disproportionately targeting Muslims. The Norway killer apparently was inspired by U.S.-based Islamophobes like right-wing bloggers Robert Spencer and Pamela Geller. The latter’s most recent endeavor is an ad campaign aimed at explaining the Israeli/Palestinian question in terms of overly simplistic and racist dichotomy between the civilized and the savage. Breivik, a disciple of this type of hate, was well-aware that his ethnic background would help him “escape the scrutiny often reserved for young men of Arab descent.” I suppose Wade Michael Page, who massacred the Sikhs in Wisconsin, had a similar confidence.
Despite this empirical reality, a vastly disproportionate focus has been put on the Muslim community in response to terrorism; racial and ethnic profiling has been a feature of this response. From the Bush administration’s Operation Frontline in 2004, in which Muslim-Americans were 1,200 times more likely than others to be interrogated by law enforcement and immigration officials, to the persistent manufacturing of plots by the FBI through the infiltration of mosques by entrapping informants, to the spying on the Muslim community done by the New York Police Department to the Israeli-inspired Transportation Security Administration programs (which have recently led 30 whistleblowers to complain about the use of racial profiling), Muslim-Americans have been disproportionately targeted through counter-terrorism measures.
So why is that?
The answer is simple. Muslim-Americans, a fairly new immigrant group still small in number and not yet cohesively organized, are easy targets. For a government that needs to demonstrate its ability to secure the homeland, the targeting of Muslim-Americans is a low-risk, high-reward option. American’s don’t actually have to be safer, they just need to feel safer, and if the government can get them to feel that way by targeting the “big bad Muslim boogeyman” then so be it.
It is easy to curtail the civil liberties of a minority group but far more difficult to curtail the civil liberties of larger groups. That’s why it is commonplace to see Muslim witch hunts advocated in the wake of an extremely rare domestic terrorist act. Yet, after far more common mass shootings, which seem very common these days, there is no political appetite to further regulate the Second Amendment.
Have post-9/11 policies made us safer from the threat of terrorism? Many might see the disproportionate crackdown on Muslim-Americans and think so, to the government’s liking.
But for the Arab, Muslim and Sikh families whose lives will be irreversibly marked by the tragic events of the past weeks, the answer is a very clear and resounding no.
Yousef Munayyer is executive director of the Jerusalem Fund for Education and Community Development, and the Palestine Center, in Washington.
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