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The fear factor
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The fear factor

My weekend power walks take me through the campus of a local university, where I often see a small group of bearded men huddled on a blanket around a spread of what looks like Middle Eastern salads. Undoubtedly, they are grad students or faculty enjoying some time away from their families, but that hasn’t stopped me from making jokes about our neighborhood “jihadists.” 

It’s not a remark I’d normally share outside of my diary, but I do so to note how the culture of suspicion can infect even a good old liberal like me. The San Bernardino massacre, following so closely on the heels of the Paris attacks, has all of us on edge. Donald Trump, as he is wont to do, articulated those fears in the most offensive possible way, talking about banning Muslims from entering the United States. 

While Jewish organizations were quick to condemn him, I’ve heard enough Islamophobic remarks from Jewish friends and acquaintances to suggest that such paranoia is contagious. A Jewish leader I met at a conference in Washington said it would be irresponsible for America to accept Syrian refugees because “they hate Israel and the West.” Others echo Chris Christie, saying the slim risk of a terrorist sneaking in with the refugees outweighs compassion for the victims of Assad. “If you want to see the future, go to Bay Ridge,” warned someone from my synagogue. “The shop signs are in Arabic, and the women are wearing hijabs.”

At the same time, we can’t pretend that this has nothing to do with Islam, as if the moment religious fanatics do something in the name of their God they stop being members of that religion. That doesn’t mean every Muslim is responsible for every act of ISIS-inspired barbarism, any more than every Jew was responsible for Yigal Amir or for the Israeli teenagers convicted in the gruesome killing of the 16-year-old Palestinian boy in 2014. But it does put a certain onus on faith communities to keep an eye on their own, cooperate with authorities, and provide a counter to the crazies among their co-religionists.

Conservatives ripped into President Obama’s Sunday night address, scoring him for refusing to name the “war on radical Islam.” But they ignored, in his previous remarks in Turkey, the responsibility the president placed on the Muslim community. Obama said that Muslims around the world “have to ask very serious questions about how…these extremist ideologies take root, even if it’s only affecting a very small fraction of the population.” He continued in a way that upset more than a few Muslim leaders, saying, “I also think the Muslim community has to think about how we make sure that children are not being infected with this twisted notion that somehow they can kill innocent people and that that is justified by religion. And to some degree, that is something that has to come from within the Muslim community itself. And I think there have been times where there has not been enough pushback against extremism.”

Our own community, meanwhile, has to counter the kind of hysteria that is the regrettable if understandable result of atrocities like San Bernardino. We too often talk about Muslims as a monolithic and uniquely unassimilable “other” and ignore how, especially in America, we tend to have more in common with each other than not. We may not agree on Israel, but we often don’t agree with many of our Christian neighbors about guns and abortion. Somehow we make it work. Perhaps if I made an effort to get to know those guys at the college, I wouldn’t be tempted to make dumb “jihadist” jokes.

And if all that sounds too high-minded for you, consider your self-interest. As Jeffrey Goldberg put it on Twitter, Trump’s anti-Muslim positions are “providing jihadists ammunition for their campaign to demonize the U.S.” ISIS thrives on the alienation of disaffected Muslims.

We know that 100 years ago Christian Americans were warning one another about neighborhoods where the signs were in Hebrew and the men were walking around in long beards and black hats. And 70 years ago, legislators demanded that we turn back boats filled with potential communists and “saboteurs,” notwithstanding the reports of persecution and mass murder coming out of Nazi-occupied Europe.

There is a difference: There is in fact a radical Islamic movement that is seeking to recruit followers around the world, and more than enough indications that some Muslims, like the San Bernardino shooters, have been heeding their call. Even paranoids have enemies. 

The trick is to soberly assess the threat from ISIS and its fellow purveyors of mayhem, while resisting the temptation to slander our neighbors, pervert our values, and feed the feelings of alienation that turn confused or disappointed immigrants into ISIS recruits.

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