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Blaming terrorists versus blaming Islam

April 22, 2013, at 11:38 PM

If the goal is to reduce the effect, incidence and quality of terrorist attacks in America, I propose that blaming Islam in the way we usually do -- we paint with a broad stroke and essentialize --  gets us nowhere. 

We can harden targets more; there are things we can do to curb our civil liberties in exchange for more security, something we repeatedly did after 9/11, tilting very significantly in one direction. We rebuilt the electronic wall around the country, endowed the FBI with broad new powers, spent billions on homeland security, interoperability, information sharing mechanisms, gave tanks to police departments, broadly increased the mean level of citizen awareness of suspicious packages and more. There's not much else left to do; there aren't many areas of out life where we haven't already given up a lot in exchange for a sense of security that may or may not be illusory.

Perhaps we can ask the Islamic community in America to self-police better, but how? Would it also be appropriate to ask owners of gun stores to report to the police anyone who seems weird or angry? Should we criminalize someone's exploration of radical beliefs online? Should we give the FBI expanded powers to monitor Muslims?  After 9/11, the Islamic community did self-police; the FBI struggled to figure how to both to monitor and ally with prominent and influential Muslims simultaneously. 

I have yet to hear a compelling argument as to how more government scrutiny of Muslims in America would help Muslims assimilate better.

I have yet to hear a compelling argument as to how an even further expansion of police powers directed solely at Muslims would reduce the incidence of terrorism. (Note: terrorist incidents are rare and getting rarer anyway.)

I don't understand why those who call for increased surveillance of Muslims dismiss the idea that to isolate a community will increase their sense of isolation; to stereotype them will increase their sense of separateness; to be heavy-hand them would not provoke a backlash that would be hard to contain. 

What I do endorse is honesty from everyone.  

All religions aren't the same. Some fit better in individualistic societies than others. Some have less at stake in the negative consequences of American foreign policy. Some deal with better with gays and women. The reasons for these differences are historical and contingent, but they exist, and calls for complete unity are ridiculous. We aren't one; we are many, and that will be messy.  I worry that American Muslims will live for a long time in an uneasy, indefinable zone where they feel assimilated one day and isolated the next; I worry about this because they are Americans as much as I am. Perhaps their religion is, in its current incarnation, more difficult to square with the civic religion of America than others. Dealing with that is a collective problem because they are -- are -- American.  

Setting examples in terms of procedural justice is important, too. Being clear that certain expressions of non-violent religious beliefs are morally offensive to us is also important. (The idea that drawing a cartoon of the Prophet is a vile act? That's wrong. I value free expression more than I value your sensitivities. By a mile.)

But this isn't the same as doing things to a group of American citizens, a group defined by a set of beliefs, that make their lives harder and make them feel less American SO THAT we feel a collective sense that justice has been done. 

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