OPED: Examining domestic terrorism and Muslims
Muslims have been increasingly implicated in terrorist attacks recently. We haven’t forgotten the Boston bombings, the San Bernardino or the Orlando shootings. Let’s explore why these incidents happen.
Any extremist attack is condemnable. I denounce them not primarily to maintain Islam’s purity, but more so for the lives lost. The Quran states in 5:32, “Whoever kills a soul - it is as if he had slain mankind entirely. And whoever saves one — it is as if he had saved mankind entirely”. The loss of innocence and normalization of violence are depressing and ultimate spiritual defeats for us. At the same time, I have no hopelessness in believing that creating a peaceful society, sans these incidents, is possible.
Let’s present some terms and statistics. A mass shooting is that which involves firearms, injuring/killing 4 or more people. If the intention was to intimidate civilians or the Government, it is a terrorist attack. USA Today reports that mass killings occur once every 2 weeks. Other estimates report higher numbers. In 2015, the number of US mass shootings exceeded 200 of which about 3 were done by Muslims. The FBI report states that from 1980-2005, 94 percent of terrorist attacks on US soil were done by non-Muslims. The likelihood of facing a religiously-inspired killing seeking to advance someone’s cause in a foreign land, here is negligible compared to other acts that stem from our everyday problems.
Why do some Muslims engage in terrorism? For the very same reasons that anyone else does. The San Bernardino shooter could have had resentments with his co-workers and took it to the extreme. The Canadian Parliament shooter of 2014 had a history of erratic behaviors, drug, legal and psychological concerns. There is much difference between the individual who has experienced the trauma of war in Iraq or Afghanistan and seeks to retaliate to find relief from foreign oppressions through misguided ideologies and someone who is raised with problems not directly related to these causes and then claims to do acts in the name of these groups. Extremist actions often feed on an emotional high to express personal anger. For Dylan Roof, the shooter at the Black Church, his emotional high was racial supremacy, while he had family and drug problems. For Glenn Miller who shot people at a Jewish community center in 2014, his emotional high came from anti-Semitism. Personal problems push people to do these acts while they cling on to some twisted higher ideal to gain energy.
Generally, at least 3 components go into Muslim-perpetrated terrorism. One is the absence of belonging. Muslims raised in immigrant families often experience dominating parenting styles where independent thinking is punished and adherence to home culture is unconsciously enforced. Independence is valued (or forced) in the mainstream culture thus leading to internal conflicts for many. Institutional discrimination, bullying and isolation are some other challenges. For the convert, there could be anger accrued from one’s upbringing towards the system for any number of reasons. Secondly, our mainstream culture that promotes dominance through our foreign policy, policing styles and social interactions influence all Americans. The third component is personal trauma, family or drug problems combined with personality characteristics. When these components interact and in intense measures, a handful of these individuals may resort to violence. They may use Islam’s name, but the seeking is to find meaning to one’s own problems.
Why is the ‘Muslim’ religious identity stressed in these acts? Firstly, presenting the ‘Muslim’ as the problem keeps the focus away from the gun issue and the gun industry benefits from fear-mongering. Secondly, the stereotyping of Muslims somehow justifies the blind wars in Muslim countries that we sustain, whether they be for resources or for testing our defense material. Thirdly, the differences between Islam and mainstream culture in terms of lifestyle and a religious newness to a vastly Christian landscape are today’s unfamiliarities compared to yesterday’s racial newness. Fourthly, Muslims do engage in such acts and blatantly use the religion’s name.
There are things that do not result in and act as a barrier to terrorism. A survey conducted in early 2016 by the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding states that “frequent Mosque attendance has no correlation with attitudes toward violence against civilians, but it is linked with higher levels of civic engagement”. Hopelessness disappears when Muslims work collectively for community causes and address personal, spiritual issues. Diverse Muslims working together keep one another in check, help take a moderate path and eliminate the ‘us-vs-they’ thinking that underlies extremist thought. When this is the case, how helpful is it to look at the community as a danger, to surveil it instead of working with it in a spirit of mutual trust?
Finally, the role of federal agencies in promoting terrorist plots cannot be ignored. The Columbia Law School published a document titled, “Illusion of Justice: Human Rights Abuses in US Terrorism Prosecutions”. Agencies like the FBI hire vulnerable Muslims as agents to prey on other weak Muslims. The agent would try to hook someone with weak immigration status or personal problems in by talking about ‘Jihad’ and sees who responds, later providing ammunition and support to his ‘catch’ to set up a plot. The idea is similar to ‘Perverted Justice’ that intends to catch teen predators before they victimize teenagers. Not only does this create a terrorist who would have otherwise been influenced by the community’s spirituality, but it serves as fodder for the news machinery to continue their stereotyping of Muslims.
What should we do now? We should think about what terrorism is and what its real causes are. We need to realize that a common problem does not get resolved by alienating Muslims or by misinterpreting Islam. It is through the work of harmony between communities and supportive, respectful efforts from law enforcement that we create a secure society. Also, we need to recognize the larger problem of gun violence and explore solutions to it. This is a separate discussion that we could discuss in future articles.