As I watched representatives of the American Muslim community in San Bernardino, California, denounce the shooters who had just killed 14 people in their city on Wednesday, I recognized in their bearing and words their feelings of humiliation, horror and loyalty to the United States – alongside a great fear that a new round of Islamophobia will now follow.
As a naval officer I’ve taken an oath to defend the American Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic. I’ve trained members of the Navy SEAL teams, and my mentors include the former head of the National Rifle Association, the supreme allied commander of NATO and the commanding general of the war in Afghanistan.
I have been deeply troubled by the anti-Muslim vitriol in our country since Islamist fanatics wreaked havoc in Paris. Fearmongers have already called for registering Muslims and closing mosques. The FBI has warned Muslims about possible attacks from white supremacist militias.
If we don’t want to play into the hands of Islamic State propaganda that America is at war with Islam, we must stand up against Islamophobia. We should separate the few extremists from the vast majority of law-abiding patriotic American Muslims by working with the moderates, not against them.
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The Islamic State has little to no support in most Muslim-majority countries, according to a Pew Research Center poll after the Paris attacks. Instead, with more than 60 countries aligned against it, the Islamic State is banking on Western societies to alienate their Muslim populations to increase recruitment.
In the latest edition of the Islamic State magazine Dabiq, which glorifies the Paris attacks, a recruiter makes a telling pitch. He writes that a Muslim in the West is “a stranger amongst Christians and liberals … fornicators and sodomites … drunkards and druggies” and must come to the Islamic State to avoid sleeping “every night with a knife or pistol … fearing an overnight or early morning raid on his home.”
The Islamic State wants every American Muslim to feel alienated. Its false utopia rests on the warped dream that the estimated 3 million American Muslims will believe they can no longer live, thrive and worship in peace in America. We must not let that happen, even while we remain vigilant about the few American Muslims who wish us harm.
Certainly, the world faces a deadly cult of Islamist fanaticism, and a few American Muslims have attacked their countrymen: Colleen LaRose, Nidal Hasan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, for example. More than 250 American Muslims have joined the Islamic State, according to a report by the House Homeland Security Committee, and 68 have been indicted on charges of supporting it, according to the Center on National Security at Fordham Law School. According to New America Foundation data released before Wednesday’s attack in California, in 26 deadly attacks inside the United States since 9/11, Islamist extremists had killed 31 people. By comparison, right-wing groups had killed 48, the data said.
Indeed, a few American Muslim preachers stoke sectarian divisions, ignore human rights, fail to condemn female genital mutilation, look the other way when women are killed in the name of honor and demonize gays. Like me, most American Muslims condemn such perversions of our faith.
But critics argue that Islam is against democracy, nation-states, human rights and the separation of mosque and state. There are no good Muslims, according to die-hard demagogues. The message is clear: Be an American or be a Muslim.
This is nonsense. In 2012, a vast majority of American Muslims said they would vote. Muslims also uphold the rule of law and respect the separation of mosque and state, and they are in fact the greatest bulwark against Islamic extremism.
A Pew poll in 2011 found that 60 percent of American Muslims worried about extremism in the United States, and 72 percent believed that most Muslims wanted to assimilate or mix their cultural heritage with American customs, while only 33 percent of the rest of Americans believed their Muslim compatriots want to assimilate.
Against the few Muslims who join a group like the Islamic State stand millions who reject extremism. A telling example is a community outreach program run by the Department of Justice, the National Counterterrorism Center and the Department of Homeland Security.
Around 2006, many Americans feared the entry of refugees from Somalia who were fleeing a war against Islamist fanatics. Instead of isolating these refugees because of fears of terrorists in their midst, however, Minneapolis law enforcement agencies worked closely with the community to develop trust.
With the FBI’s community outreach program in force, Minneapolis has avoided attacks from the few Somali-Americans who have been inspired by the Shabab, a militant Islamist group. For this authorities credit the support of the local Muslim community, even during moments of controversy about intelligence gathering techniques.
Nationwide, from 2001 through 2014, more than 100 plots were disrupted, according to a University of North Carolina report.
The FBI’s work to stop Islamic State recruiters from exploiting at-risk Muslim youth continues today.
Now is not the time to shun our fellow citizens. America also needs its Muslim citizens to serve in the military. As with African-Americans in the Civil War and Asian- and German-Americans in World War II, we need their cultural, linguistic, religious and geopolitical expertise to help us defeat the Islamic State and its propaganda.
In America we don’t pick or reject a state religion. We guarantee freedom of religion for all. Our founding fathers fought for Protestants and deists, blue blood and blue collar, slave owners and philanthropists, soldiers and Quakers.
We can win the war against Islamist fanatics by remembering that, embracing our American Muslims and rejecting xenophobia.
As for myself, I hope my 13-month-old son grows up in an America that continues to honor diversity and loyalty to our Constitution, without any religious, racial or ethnic test.
The New York Times
Haider Ali Hussein Mullick, a United States Naval Reserve officer with the Fifth Fleet, teaches graduate seminars on combating terrorism at the Naval War College.