How much Islamophobia is just enough?
That’s probably the least sensitive way to pose a question that has been bothering me lately. The Boston Marathon bombings gave a new boost to the cottage industry of “anti-jihad” activists, like Pamela Geller and Daniel Pipes, who have thrived since 9/11. The anti-jihadis exploit an incontrovertible fact — that a radicalized form of Islam has spawned repeated terrorist attacks around the world — to concoct an indictment of Islam and all of its practitioners. Every good question they ask about, say, the priorities of our national security apparatus is undermined by alarmist posts about supposed conspiracies to impose “Shariah” law on unsuspecting Americans, or panicked warnings about sex-segregated swim sessions at community centers.
A lot of these writers and bloggers make it easy to dismiss them as bigots or alarmists, like the former CIA official who recently told a Jewish audience in New Jersey that “80 percent” of American mosques teach radicalism or distribute Islamist literature. That 80 percent figure has been bouncing around the web since 1999, and no one has ever come forward with the study or evidence to back it up.
But what if it is not 80 percent, but 60? Or 40? Or just 5 percent? It’s no use denying the links between Islam, in its radical form, and terror. Dozens and dozens of terrorist plots by radicalized Muslims — some “successful,” the vast majority foiled — have been planned since 2001. How many bad apples taint the barrel? The anti-jihadis would argue that it doesn’t matter: Public safety overrides niceties about civil liberties and religious freedom. Liberals, meanwhile, might argue that scrutinizing Muslims, like all forms of racial profiling, is a greater assault on America and its values than are the terrorists themselves.
David Plotz, the editor of Slate, recently noted how both of those responses are unsatisfactory. “At what point do we as a nation actually say something out loud collectively about the people associated with radical Islam [who] are a threat in a way that no other religion appears to be?” he asked on Slate’s “Political Gabfest” podcast. “What is the conversation that we can have about it that doesn’t make conservatives sound like they want to intern every Muslim in the country and doesn’t make the liberals pretend that there is nothing going on?”
Slate is a liberal news site, and Plotz knew he was asking very illiberal questions. They are also questions with strong resonance for Jews. When it comes to the conversation about radical Islam, Jews are highly visible on both sides. Jews tend to be among the strongest defenders of civil liberties and religious freedoms, for obvious reasons. But Jews are also overrepresented among the anti-jihadis, for similarly obvious reasons: For some of them, supporting Israel and fighting jihad are two fronts in the same battle.
So it’s in our interest to have this conversation, and to reconcile our instinct to protect civil liberties with our justifiable fears about religious radicalism.
Too often, anti-jihadis show exactly the wrong way to have this conversation. For example, Pipes suggests in an op-ed that the marathon attack had a silver lining: “It will prompt some Westerners to conclude that Islamism is a threat to their way of life.” In other words, nothing like a good bombing to wake people up.
And when Pipes writes that “Westerners are indeed waking up” to the threat of radical Islam, he speaks admiringly of far-right groups that have arisen in Europe — including the UK Independence Party, the National Front in France, and the People’s Party in Switzerland. The growth of these parties, he writes, demonstrates that “on the topics of immigration, Islam, Muslims, Islamism, and Shari’a,” Europe “is ahead of North America and Australia by about 20 years.” Never mind that groups like the World Jewish Congress and the Community Security Trust (a sort of British Anti-Defamation League) consider the platforms of these parties a toxic stew of nationalist chauvinism, conspiracy mongering, and anti-minority and anti-immigrant agitation.
On the flip side are civil libertarians and some Muslim-American activists who resist any and all scrutiny of the Muslim community when it comes to investigating or preventing attacks. I can appreciate the frustration of a Muslim neighbor who faces suspicion in the wake of a terrorist attack, but it is simply bad policy to pretend that radicals aren’t seeking recruits from among the ranks of believers. Police aren’t harassing imams when they ask questions about followers suspected in attacks or plots; they are trying to keep people safe.
If we can admit the ways we demonize Islam and Muslims, and acknowledge the necessity of focusing attention where attention is due, perhaps we can craft policies that are neither bigoted nor naive. Overreach, and you end up with bad intelligence, dragging perhaps millions into an investigation meant to find a radical few. Underreach, and you ignore obvious signs of homegrown radicalism.
The key, according to those who work in the community relations field, is to establish relationships — among police and houses of worship, among clergy members of all faiths, among neighbors. If we emulate Europe, we’ll end up like Europe: wary of strangers, and no safer. If we act honestly and prudently, we’ll end up — well, like Americans.